Did Japan Have to Go to War for Economic Reasons?

One of the explanations for Japanese aggression frequently put forward by friends of Japan has been its economic condition before the outbreak of war with China. Japan has been pictured as a nation of energetic and ambitious people overcrowded in their narrow islands, smaller in area than California. Much has been made of the barriers raised against Japanese immigration in various countries, and of the tariffs, preferences, and quotas which kept them from selling their manufactured goods in all markets. The Japanese declared that they, like the Germans, were a “have not” people, poorer than the great Western powers in petroleum, coal, iron, copper, bauxite, and manganese. These facts were offered as legitimate reasons for their hunger to get control of natural resources in the part of the world where Japan was the most highly industrialized and progressive nation.

While no one will deny that economic pressure was partly responsible for Japanese aggression, the picture of Japan as a poor and overpopulated nation held down by unfriendly powers has certain obvious flaws. Leading authorities on the Far East point out that Japan’s population problem was no more baffling than that of many other countries.

One of the chief methods used by the Japanese to justify what Japan is doing now is to point at what the European imperial powers did in the last century. Like the Kaiser before 1914 and Hitler since, they claim to have come on the scene late. They say that they are only imitating the early arrivals, England and France, who thought that imperialism was quite all right when it worked to English or French benefit. They ignore the fact that before the war Japan was gaining in competitive peaceful expansion of its trade the advantages the war lords seek to monopolize by force of arms.

Lebensraum and “co-prosperity”

Japanese who claimed that they were cramped for “living space” would have done well to look at a map of their empire. Japan’s territorial holdings had increased fivefold between 1894 and 1932, while the population of the home islands had only about doubled. But when all this new land was opened to emigrants they failed to take much advantage of it. The Japanese are a home-loving people. They are also partial to a warm, even climate-the homeland, or Hawaii, or California suited them better than the steppes and forests of Manchuria.

It has also been claimed that the Japanese needed more land because they were underfed. No one will deny that the Japanese diet is poorer than that of most Europeans and Americans. But prewar Japanese government statistics show a daily food supply of three pounds per person. In normal times large quantities of preserved foods, such as canned fish, have been sold abroad.

Japan’s flourishing foreign commerce was a tribute to the ambition and energy of its people. It is unlikely that any country in the sad state pictured by Japan’s sympathizers could have created such trade and increased it year by year.

Japan undoubtedly needs raw materials that China can furnish and needs Chinese markets for Japanese manufactured goods. But Japan wouldn’t compete by peaceable means and on equal terms with other countries. It wanted a monopoly of the benefits of Chinese trade, and was willing to risk war, again and again, to win new concessions and more territory for economic and military exploitation. This is what is really meant by the “Co-prosperity Sphere in Greater East Asia.”