Japan was a rising power in the early twentieth century, having defeated China and Russia in two wars and acquired colonies and spheres of influence in Asia. However, Japan faced many challenges, such as a growing population, limited natural resources, economic depression, and western hostility. To overcome these difficulties, Japan adopted a policy of expansionism and militarism, seeking to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that would provide Japan with lebensraum, or living space, for its people and resources for its industry.
The Concept of Lebensraum
Lebensraum is a German term that means “living space”. It was originally used by geographers to describe the natural habitat of a species, but it was later adopted by political thinkers and nationalists to justify territorial expansion and colonization. The most famous advocate of lebensraum was Adolf Hitler, who claimed that Germany needed more land in Eastern Europe and Russia to accommodate its growing population and secure its economic interests. Hitler also believed that lebensraum was a racial right of the superior German people, who had to subjugate or eliminate the inferior Slavic peoples.
Japan shared some of the same ideas as Hitler, although it did not use the term lebensraum explicitly. Japan viewed itself as a superior race that had a divine mission to liberate Asia from western domination and create a new order based on Asian values and culture. Japan also felt that it needed more land and resources to sustain its population and economy, especially after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Japan saw China and Russia as potential sources of lebensraum, as they were vast, rich, and weak countries that could be easily exploited.
Japanese Aggression in China
Japan’s aggression in China began in 1931, when it staged a false-flag incident known as the Mukden Incident to justify its invasion of Manchuria, a northeastern province of China that was rich in coal, iron, and other resources. Japan set up a puppet state called Manchukuo in Manchuria and began to build military bases, railways, mines, factories, and farms there. Japan also tried to detach other regions of China from the central government by supporting local warlords and separatist movements.
In 1937, Japan launched a full-scale war against China after another incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. Japan’s army quickly occupied major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Wuhan, committing atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre along the way. Japan also bombed civilian targets such as Chongqing and Guangzhou, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Japan’s navy blockaded China’s coast and seized islands such as Taiwan and Hainan. Japan’s air force attacked British and French colonies such as Hong Kong and Indochina.
Japan’s war in China was brutal, costly, and protracted. China resisted Japan’s invasion with the help of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalist Party of China (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek. The CPC and the KMT formed a united front against Japan in 1937, but they also fought each other for control of China. The CPC waged a guerrilla war against Japan from its base in Yan’an, while the KMT relied on foreign aid from the United States and Britain. China also received support from volunteers such as the Flying Tigers, an American air squadron that fought against Japan.
Despite its superior military power, Japan failed to conquer China or force it to surrender. Japan faced increasing resistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians who fought with determination and courage. Japan also faced growing pressure from the international community, especially after it allied with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in 1940. The United States imposed economic sanctions on Japan, cutting off its oil supply and freezing its assets. The Soviet Union also aided China by providing weapons and advisers.
Japanese Aggression in Russia
Japan’s aggression in Russia was less extensive than its aggression in China, but it was still significant. Japan had a long history of rivalry with Russia over influence in Northeast Asia. Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, gaining control of Korea and southern Manchuria. Japan also clashed with Russia over Mongolia and Siberia during the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War.
In the 1930s, Japan saw Russia as a threat to its interests in Manchuria and Mongolia. Japan feared that Russia would support China’s resistance against Japan or invade Manchuria itself. Japan also coveted Russia’s natural resources such as oil, coal, timber, gold, and fish.
Japan’s aggression in Russia took place mainly along the border between Manchuria and Mongolia. In 1938-1939, Japan fought a series of battles with the Soviet Union and Mongolia, known as the Nomonhan Incident or the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. Japan’s army was defeated by the Soviet-Mongolian forces, led by General Georgy Zhukov, who used superior tactics, tanks, and planes. Japan suffered heavy casualties and lost territory to the Soviet Union.
Japan’s defeat at Nomonhan was a turning point in its relations with Russia. Japan realized that it could not defeat Russia in a conventional war and decided to avoid further conflict with it. Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union in 1941, agreeing to respect each other’s territorial integrity and interests in Asia. Japan also shifted its focus from north to south, seeking to expand its empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Japanese aggression toward China and Russia in the 1930s was most closely related to the concept of lebensraum, or living space. Japan wanted to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that would provide it with land, resources, and markets for its population and economy. Japan also wanted to assert its racial and cultural superiority over its Asian neighbors and challenge the western powers that dominated the world order.
Japan’s aggression was met with resistance and opposition from China, Russia, and the international community. Japan’s war in China was a bloody and prolonged struggle that drained Japan’s resources and morale. Japan’s war in Russia was a humiliating defeat that exposed Japan’s military weakness and strategic miscalculation. Japan’s war in Asia eventually led to its involvement in World War II, which ended with Japan’s surrender and occupation by the United States.
According to ThoughtCo, Japan’s aggression in World War II was motivated by three major interrelated factors: fear of outside aggression, growing Japanese nationalism, and need for natural resources. According to Cambridge University Press, China’s international position changed dramatically from being a lone victim of aggression to being a member of a victorious global coalition, only to be undermined by a civil war. According to Weegy, lebensraum is the term that best describes Japanese aggression toward China and Russia in the 1930s.