The concept of lebensraum was most infamously enunciated in the 1920s by the Nazi party, but the practice of expansionism by force in the interwar period was by no means unique to Germany. Manifest Destiny has been referred to as “America’s lebensraum.” Fascist Italy used the notion of spazio vitale to justify expanding beyond its acknowledged borders. Concerned about the rapid pace of Western colonialism, isolated from the community of nations, staggered by economic calamity, desperate for resources and land, and caught in the swells of a rising corporatist, militarist, and nationalistic tide, the Empire of Japan engaged in its own kind of empire-building during the early 20th Century.
In 1853, American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived on the shores of Japan with vessels and armaments the likes of which had never been seen in that corner of the world. After ordering some of the buildings in the harbor city of Uraga shelled as a demonstration of might, Perry presented the Japanese with a white flag and a list of demands. The ruling oligarchs of Japan were fearful of the colonialist impulses of the West and embarked upon an ambituous plan to modernize. Within a decade, the Meiji Restoration brought about sweeping changes to how Japan was structured governmentally, economically, socially, and militarily as a direct response to this encounter. The elite warrior class of the samurai was systematically dismantled in favor of a Western-style army.
Within a generation, Japan had become an economic force and the dominant power in the Pacific. Megacorporations called zaibatsu evolved and diversified their way to economic dominance, developing ties with the government and the military through their procurement activities. Meanwhile, disaffected former samurai attempted open rebellion and were summarily beaten back by Japan’s new conscripted army. Forced to find other employment, an estimated 1.9 million former samurai moved into jobs in politics, the bureaucracy, the military that had supplanted them, and local police forces. Some also joined clandestine paramilitary organizations. The seeds of militarism were now being sown into the political, military, and social consciousness of Japan.
While many aspects of traditional life persisted, The Meiji Restoration transformed the Empire of Japan into an industrialized world power that pursued military conflict to expand its sphere of influence and acquire resources. After victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan gained control of Taiwan and Korea. Mainland Japan's population grew from 35 million in 1873 to 70 million in 1935, and the country adopted many Western political, judicial, and military institutions. After years of rapid modernization, the bubble of the bustling Japanese economy burst in the 1920s. The zaibatsu consolidated their power after the failure of many businesses and banks, and, now in command of Japanese finance, became even...