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Explanations of Japanís
Imperialistic Expansion, 1894-1910

Bill Gordon

December 2003

Japan emerged in 1853 from two and a half centuries of self-imposed peaceful isolation, but within a few decades the countryís leaders embarked on a policy of aggressive territorial expansion.  During the last half of the nineteenth century, the Western imperialist powers of England, France, and Germany established the model for acquisition of colonies in Asia and for the partition of China into spheres of influence.  Near the end of the century, about the same time Japan began to capture colonial territory, the United States and Russia also initiated their imperialistic expansion in Asia.

This paper will examine four of the most influential theories of imperialism to determine whether they can provide explanations for Japanís imperialism from 1894 to 1910, when Japan formally annexed Korea.  The four theories to be reviewed will be Hobson's theory of domestic market underconsumption that leads to capitalists seeking profits overseas, Lenin's theory of the monopoly stage of capitalism, Schumpeter's theory of inherited warlike tendencies from prior generations, and nationalism's focus on politics as the critical factor.  Although other theories of imperialism exist, these four theories cover a broad range of economic, political, and sociological factors that could explain Japanís imperialistic expansion.  This essay's review of Japan's history of imperialism from 1894 to 1910 will show that the theory of nationalism provides the best explanations of the causes of Japan's militaristic actions and colonial acquisitions, although Schumpeter's sociological-based theory seems to provide some explanation for the actions of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) leaders.

Section 1 of this essay reviews the key points of the four theories of imperialism.  The following section examines some highlights of Japan's history of imperialism between 1894 and 1910.  Section 3 evaluates each theory as to whether or not it explains Japan's imperialistic actions during this time period.  The final section provides conclusions.

1. Theories of Imperialism

Imperialism can be defined as direct or indirect domination of an industrialized country over a colonial territory or another country.  Although the theories of Hobson, Lenin, and Schumpeter generally focus on imperialism of European powers, especially Great Britain, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this paper will examine these theories to assess their relevance in explaining the causes of Japanís imperialist push into other countries of Asia.  These three theories and the theory of nationalism have been subjected to various criticisms, but proponents still exist for each one.  For example, Nowell (2000) argues for the historical validity and contemporary relevance of Hobson's theory.  Schumpeter's "idea still has a large following" (Howard and King 2000, 19), and there have always been numerous supporters for Lenin's theory and the nationalist theory. 

J.A. Hobson ([1905] 1938, 80-81) identified the taproot of imperialism to be surplus capital in the home country in search of profitable investments in foreign markets.  The profits earned by the small number of rich capitalists in the home market resulted in chronic oversaving, since they had a lower marginal propensity to consume than poor workers with wages based upon the cost of living rather than the efficiency of their labor (83-84).  Although imperialism does not make sense as a business policy for a nation as a whole due to its enormous military and administrative expense, "strong organized industrial and financial interests" that stand to gain from imperialism find ways to put this expense on the general public (46, 106).  Hobson argued that if purchasing power were reapportioned from the rich to the poor, then the home market would provide full employment of capital and labor with no overproduction, and there would be no need for the imperialistic fight for foreign markets (86-87).

Lenin ([1917] 1939, 14, 88) expressed the Marxist view of imperialism as the "monopoly stage of capitalism," the highest and final stage of capitalism prior to the proletarian social revolution.  Essential features of imperialism include the concentration of production and capital into monopolies (large-scale firms), the merging of bank and industrial capital, the export of capital, the apportionment of the world among the large-scale firms, and the division of territories of the world among the great capitalist powers (89).  Lenin also emphasized that the need for raw materials drove capitalists to acquire colonies (82-84).  Like Hobson, Lenin argues that surplus capital will be exported abroad for the purpose of increasing profits (63).  However, in contrast to Hobson's view that the problem of surplus capital could be resolved by redistribution of purchasing power within the home country, Lenin believed that the wretched condition of the masses was inevitable and that imperialistic expansion by capitalist countries could not be avoided.

Joseph Schumpeter ([1919] 1951, 6) considered imperialism to be "the objectless disposition on the part of the state to unlimited forcible expansion."  Although Schumpeter does not specifically address Japanese imperialism, he provides a wide range of historical examples to show that nations and classes seek expansion only for the sake of expanding and dominion only for the sake of ruling.  The bellicosity of an autocratic state derives from "the necessities of its social structure, from the inherited dispositions of its ruling class, rather than from the immediate advantages to be derived from the conquest" (59).  As a country becomes more capitalistic, the energy for war decreases as the "competitive system absorbs the full energies of most of the people at all economic levels" (69).  Schumpeter viewed imperialism as an atavism in the social structure of capitalist states, an element from prior history that affects emotional reactions (65).

Nationalism as a theory of imperialism goes under several other names, such as "power politics" (Cohen 1973, 231; Mommsen 1980, 74) and "mercantilism" (Brown 1974, 26; Gilpin 1975, 27).  The theory of nationalism emphasizes the essential role of the state in imperialistic behavior as a nation seeks to maximize its power, prestige, and wealth relative to other countries.  Nationalists consider economic relations between nations to be conflictual, a zero-sum game where the gain of one nation is the loss of another nation.  This theory views capitalists as willing to invest wherever profits are expected to be greatest, either in the home country, overseas colonies, or other countries, so sometimes the interests of state leaders and business capitalists may coincide in plans for imperialist expansion.  However, according to nationalism, ultimately politics determines economic relations and organization.  Nationalists stress national security and national sentiment in international political and economic dynamics (Gilpin 1975, 31).

2. Japan Joins the Imperialist Club

Japan forcefully acquired three major foreign territories between 1894 and 1910: Taiwan in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5; Korea as a protectorate in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, then as a colony when unilaterally annexed by Japan in 1910; and the Kwantung Leased Territories in 1905 in southern Manchuria when Japan succeeded to Russia's leases after the Russo-Japanese War.  This section of the essay summarizes briefly the imperialistic expansion of Japan during the period and the actions of the world's imperialist powers that influenced the course of Japan's actions.

Korea occupied a strategically important geographic position just to the west of the southern part of Japan.  For the two decades prior to the start of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, China and Japan quarreled over Korea's internal politics and Chinese influence in the country's government.  Japan went to war with China over proposed administrative and financial reforms in Korea.  As a result of the treaty after the Japanese victory, China recognized Korea's independence.  Japan also received a large indemnity; acquired Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula in southern Manchuria; and obtained several other concessions from China.

Soon after Japan and China signed the treaty to conclude the Sino-Japanese War, the Western imperialist powers made the first of several moves that would influence significantly Japan's ideas about future imperialistic expansion.  Japan observed the Western powers' intense rivalries and imperialistic acquisitions.  Only six days after signing the treaty, Germany, Russia, and France forced Japan to surrender its claims on the Liaodong Peninsula, which became a bitter diplomatic defeat for Japan.  In 1898, only three years later, Russia pushed into Manchuria and obtained a leasehold from China for the same peninsula Japan had been forced to relinquish.  During the same year, the United States, which embarked on its overseas imperialistic expansion about the same time as Japan, annexed Hawaii and the Philippines.  From 1895 to 1900, the imperialist powers of France, Germany, Russia, and England divided up China into spheres of influence, which included special railway and mining concessions, leased territory, and promises from China that comparable privileges would not be granted to other countries in a specified area. 

Between 1900 and 1905, Japan became a full-fledged member in the club of imperialist powers.  In 1900, Japan showed its military prowess when 8,000 of its troops joined 9,000 soldiers from the Western powers to fight side by side to defeat the Boxer Rebellion in China.  In 1902, Japan and Great Britain signed a mutual defense alliance, a document that in effect recognized Japan as one of the world's great powers.  In 1904 and 1905, Japan and Russia went to war over their territorial and political disputes in Korea and southern Manchuria.  After the destruction of the Russian fleet, Japan emerged from the Russo-Japanese War as one of the world's great military and political powers.  The Portsmouth Treaty to end the war gave Japan control of Korea and the Kwantung Leased Territories.  Japan stood as one of the world's powers with a colonial empire of its own.

 3. Explanations of Japanís Early Imperialism

This section assesses the four theories of imperialism to determine whether they help to explain Japanese imperialistic expansion between 1894 and 1910. 

A. Hobsonís Theory

The core of Hobsonís theory is the existence of excess capital seeking profits overseas.  However, during this period Japan had no excess capital and had to borrow large amounts from Britain and the United States to finance its rapid industrial expansion and its wars with China and Russia.  Japan's outstanding foreign loan indebtedness grew steadily, starting from near zero in 1896, to 421 million yen in 1904, and then to 1,970 million yen in 1913 (Lockwood 1954, 254-255).  Foreign holdings of government bonds comprised over 60% of Japan's national debt of 2,600 million yen in 1913 (256).

Hobson's theory does not hold up as an explanation for Japan's early imperialism because of the relative unimportance of the financial transactions between the home country and its colonies.  Although imports from the colonies as a share of total trade with other countries increased from 1.7% in 1894-1903 to 6.9% in 1904-1914 and exports to the colonies increased from 2.7% of total trade in 1894-1903 to 7.8% in 1904-1913 (Cohen 1973, 62), the levels remained very low.  Foreign trade made up about one quarter of Japan's economic activity from 1904 to 1913 (Crawcour 1997, 78), so trade with the colonies accounted for less than 2% of Japan's total economic activity during this period.

B. Leninís Theory

Lenin advocated a theory of monopoly capital where capitalists wanted to employ surplus capital abroad to achieve higher profits than the domestic market.  As explained in the previous section, Japan had loans from foreign countries and a relatively low level of economic activity with the colonies during the period of Japan's first imperialistic acquisitions.  Most of the funds from foreign debt went for military expenditures, and only 3% of the funds went to development of Japan's colonies (Lockwood 1954, 35).

Lenin considered the existence of large-scale firms with great economic power (monopolists) and the merging of bank and industrial capital to be key characteristics of imperialism.  In Japan between 1894 and 1910, a handful of huge privately-owned conglomerates called zaibatsu increased their economic power.  Although some of the zaibatsu such as Mitsui and Sumitomo had histories of more than 200 years, they strengthened their economic position as the government, starting in the early 1880s, sold to them several industrial plants and mines that become very profitable.  Each zaibatsu also owned a bank, but the five largest banks' share of loans was only 17% of the total market by 1910 (Nakamura [1971] 1983, 207), so this low figure provides little support for Lenin's assertion of finance capital monopolies being an essential feature of imperialism.  Likewise, the economic power of the zaibatsu companies from 1894 to 1910 did not approach anywhere near their domination just prior to and during World War II.  Although Japan had made rapid progress in industrialization and modernization up to 1910, it could still be considered a developing country.  Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries accounted for 33% of economic output and 67% of employment in 1910.  Manufacturing and construction contributed only 23% to economic output, and over half of manufacturing production came from cottage industries employing less than five people.  Manufacturing consisted mainly of food products and textiles at 34% each, whereas heavy industry made up only 21% (21-23, 80).

In addition to surplus capital in search of higher profits overseas, Lenin stressed the acquisition of raw materials as a major reason for capitalists to acquire colonies.  Very little evidence exists to support that Japan acquired its colonies between 1894 and 1910 for raw materials.  Korea and Taiwan had no significant known mineral resources except for a small amount of iron ore in Korea, so the only substantial natural resources were agricultural products, mainly rice but also sugarcane in Taiwan.  Although Korea and Taiwan provided rice to Japan, especially in poor harvest years, only 18% of Japan's annual rice imports came from these two colonies from 1905 to 1910 (Duus 1984, 171).  After acquiring Taiwan as a colony in 1895, Japan encouraged the planting of sugarcane to supply domestic needs.  However, Taiwanese land devoted to sugarcane production from 1901 to 1910 was only 7% of the amount of land devoted to rice (Beasley 1987, 150), and Japan imposed a high tariff on sugar imports from countries other than Taiwan, so Japanese consumers suffered from higher prices.  The Kwantung Leased Territories had few natural resources, but they did help serve as a foothold to facilitate the development and extraction of Manchuria's natural resources (Ho 1984, 350).

Lenin's theory does not help explain Japan's imperialism from 1894 to 1910 due to the nonexistence of capital surpluses, the low level of economic activity with the colonies, the lack of dominance of the zaibatsu, and the low levels of the colonies' raw materials.

C. Schumpeterís Theory

Schumpeter believed that imperialism represented the survival of older social structures, such as a warrior class, within a capitalist economy.  This theory seems to partially explain the attitudes of Japan's leaders toward imperialistic expansion.  Japan had a feudalistic social structure with a warrior class (samurai) until the downfall of the Shogunate in 1868 and the implementation of numerous reforms over the next five years under the new Meiji government.  Members of the former military aristocracy took leadership positions in the new government, and the military bent of some of these leaders became quickly evident, as they strongly pressed for military action in the early 1870s to conquer Korea.  A majority of the country's leaders decided to postpone this military action to concentrate on modernization and industrialization, but even the leaders who recommended not to go to war did not necessarily oppose the action in theory, only that the timing should wait until Japan became stronger industrially and militarily.

Although some authors contend that Japan's imperialistic spirit dated back to before the beginning of the start of the Tokugawa Period in 1600, they provide little evidence as to why such a militaristic attitude would remain entrenched in a people living in a country where peace reigned for about two and half centuries under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).  Boulding and Gleason (1972, 241-242) argue that Japan's imperialistic expansion was a continuation from several centuries before: "Even before 1600, . . . colonies were established in areas of Southeast Asia, and in 1592 Korea was invaded in an extraordinary, but abortive, attempt to conquer China. . . . But the Meiji government, once isolationism had been abandoned, resumed the imperialistic practices of the earlier era."  Lockwood (1954, 7) argues that the coming of Westerners in the last half of the nineteenth century "revived and intensified memories of European ambitions and predatory rivalries dating back to the sixteenth century."  Although some leaders in the Meiji Era tried to revive memories of historical events for their own propaganda purposes, little evidence exists that such militaristic attitudes and memories of Western aggression continued in the Japanese people during a period of peace lasting over 200 years.

Schumpeter argued that capitalists have no economic incentives for imperialism, and Hobson also considered that imperialism is not profitable for a nation due its huge military and administrative costs.  The evidence in Japan's case supports Schumpeter and Hobson since the colonies did not provide profits for the country as a whole.  Lockwood (1954, 52) summarizes the effects of Japan's early imperialism:

But it is certain that colonial enterprise occupied a subordinate place in Japanese economic development during the first three decades of the twentieth century.  And it is likely that whatever contributions were made to Japan's national income and industrial development by political control over these areas were more than offset, even at the time, by the costs of the military outlays, developmental subsidies, and tariff preferences through which she acquired and developed her empire.

Duus (1984, 147) points out that business leaders during the period of Japan's early imperialistic expansion had much more interest in China, with a "vast population, size, and well-developed commercial economy" that "made its market larger, more penetrable, and more easily exploited than those of Taiwan or Korea."

Schumpeter's theory provides some insights into the reasons for Japan's imperialism from 1894 to 1910, but it fails to explain how Japan suddenly became an aggressive conqueror of foreign territories after over two centuries of self-imposed peaceful isolation.

D. Nationalism

The theory of nationalism provides the best explanations for Japan's imperialistic actions between 1894 and 1905.  The following points support nationalism as the best theory to understand Japan's wars and colonial acquisitions: (1) Japan's deep concerns for national security, (2) its emulation of the imperialistic behaviors of Western powers, and (3) Japanese national ideals and personal characteristics.

The United States forcibly opened Japan to the outside world in 1853.  Soon thereafter, Japan was pressured by the imperialist powers to sign "unequal treaties," which granted foreigners in Japan extraterritoriality in legal cases and which imposed on Japan low tariff rates for which the imperialist countries did not grant corresponding concessions in their rates.  The leaders of the Meiji government, formed in 1868 after the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, considered national security and defense to be the top priority in order to prevent subjugation by the Western powers.  The nationalistic policy of fukoku kyōhei (rich country, strong military) emphasized Japan's goals to develop the country economically to catch up with the Western powers and to increase its military strength to ensure its existence as an independent country.  Japan fought the later wars against China and Russia in 1894-5 and 1904-5, respectively, to ensure that Korea would not be used by another imperialist power to threaten Japan's security.

Japan emulated the imperialistic behaviors of the Western powers.  From the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, Japan's leaders sought to make the country an industrial and military power on par with the Western imperialist powers.  When Japan emerged from its isolation and took steps to industrialize and modernize, the international environment was one of intense competition between powers that tried to maximize their political and economic positions relative to other powers and less developed countries.  Overseas colonies provided the imperialist powers with prestige and status, so Japan's leaders naturally celebrated when its empire expanded to include Taiwan, Korea, and the Kwantung Leased Territories.

The Western concept of Social Darwinism, with the ultimate domination of the world by the strongest nations, fit well with belief of many Japanese that they were the chosen people of Asia and a divinely favored race.  Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of Japan's educational leaders and founder of one of Japan's most influential newspapers, expressed Japan's early imperialistic desires in 1882, "We shall someday raise the national power of Japan so that not only shall we control the natives of China and India as the English do today, but we shall also possess in our hands the power to rebuke the English and to rule Asia ourselves" (Nester 1996, 63).  The Japanese people also had certain personal characteristics that supported the country's rapid economic growth and imperialistic expansion.  Allen (1981, 15) explains, "Throughout their history they have shown a gift for rapidly assimilating new ideas and practices, a boldness in executing large projects and, above all, a trained and frequently exercised capacity for organization."

4. Conclusion

The theories of Hobson and Lenin provide little insight into the reasons for Japan's imperialist expansion between 1894 and 1910 since the economic conditions they considered to be the causes for imperialism did not exist in Japan at the time.  Schumpeter's theory of imperialism has some relevance to Japan's case, since the leaders who promoted Japan's wars in the Meiji Period came from the former samurai class.  However, this theory does not fully explain Japan's imperialistic actions since the samurai did not fight for over two centuries during the self-imposed peaceful isolation of the Tokugawa Period.

Japan's concerns for national security, its emulation of Western powers in their imperialistic expansion, and Japanese national ideals supporting overseas expansion lead to the conclusion that nationalism provides the best explanation of Japan's imperialistic expansion in comparison to the other three theories of imperialism.  Although the theory of nationalism sheds the most light on Japan's imperialism from 1894 to 1905, this does not mean that Japan's aggression and colonial expansion represented the best course of action.  Kōtoku Shūsui, a Socialist leader in Japan, vividly described in 1901 imperialism's serious drawbacks (Iriye 1972, 75):

Imperialists in Japan and elsewhere are like drunken men, intoxicated by patriotism and militarism, which are nothing but expressions of their animal instincts.  They bleed people white with taxes, expand armaments, divert productive capital for unproductive ends, cause prices to rise, and invite excessive imports.  These are all for the sake of the state.  Government, education, commerce, and industry are sacrificed to patriotism, which is the root of militarism and imperialism.

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