The Road to Conflict

What underlying threads of global politics as well as domestic constraints precipitated Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia in World War II and conflict with world powers that dominated the region? To answer this, it is important to understand the following:

  • Southeast Asia’s strategic importance to Japan (its tactical location and wealth of resources).
  • Western colonialism and imperialism (the expansion of industrialization and capitalism that fueled the need for resources, manpower, and markets, and their justification through racist ideologies and policies).
  • Political climate and social as well as cultural relationships that defined the peoples living in Southeast Asia.
  • The role of nationalism, ethnic and religious identity, politics and ideology in clashes.

Japan’s expansionist ambitions were spurred as well as constrained by its finite island homeland and limited natural resources. Rapid industrialization at the end of the 19th century prompted Japan to encroach westward into Korea, a vassal state of Qing dynasty China. War erupted with China in 1894, and, then with Russia in 1904 as Japan pressed further into Manchuria. Japan emerged decisively as the victor in both conflicts, and claimed both Korea and Taiwan, beginning occupations that would last until the end of World War II.

Stoked with growing nationalism, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and then launched a long campaign to conquer China. As an intricate dance of diplomacy between the United States and Japan faltered over the next decade, Japan made a bold run for Southeast Asia, a prime objective. The region’s strategic location and its abundant resources could supply a trans-Pacific war effort. Japan justified its invasion by calling for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, promising to release Asian countries and peoples from the yoke of European and American control.

The resources below provide an in-depth look at above issues, events, and developments.

Fast Facts

Timelines

Maps

Learning Modules

Readings