Japan History Lab

1937 - 1941: Doubling Down

Between 1937 and 1941, Japan began to fully mobilize for war and in the process crossed a “point of no return.” Japan had already been involved in a conflict with China since 1931, and by the end of the decade, had begun to move into South East Asia in search of resources necessary for war. In 1938 the National Mobilization Law was passed acknowledging the country’s need to mobilize the population and economy for war. The article “Quality of Life under the National Mobilization Law” discusses how the bureaucracy of Japan was given total control of the economy, and was able to direct industry and conscript workers without the approval of the diet.

During this time there was an atmosphere of xenophobia, or fear of outsiders, in Japan. For example, many Japanese officials were paranoid that there may be foreign spies in their country. The article “Sorge – The Spy in Their Midst” demonstrates the fear of espionage within wartime Japan, as well as the impact espionage could have on all countries involved. Facing a tremendous amount of pressure from within, and the knowledge that many Chinese Nationalist troops had abandoned their uniforms and were in disguise as citizens within Nanjing, Japanese troops committed atrocities without precedence. For six weeks from December 1937 to January 1938, Japanese soldiers ravaged the city of Nanjing killing between 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers. The articles “A Japanese Soldiers Experience During the Massacre of Nanking” and The Nanjing Massacre: an Unforgivable Past” (Unpublished) discuss what is commonly known as “The Rape of Nanking.” This incident crossed the line between strategic warfare and war crimes, and Japan knew that China would not forgive this act.

After this, it was clear that war was inevitable and Japan needed to seek resources, especially oil, for its war effort. America’s decision to embargo oil against the Japanese led to Emperor Hirohito’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbour. This reflected Japan’s need for oil and the attack was intended to weaken the American navy in the Pacific in order to buy time. The article “Hirohito’s Decision on Pearl Harbour” examines the decision making process which led to the Pearl Harbour incident. Hirohito’s decision was made in part because he understood that Japan was at the point of no return and war could no longer be avoided. This decision left Japan with the only one choice: to win the war.