We need warships like floating iron castles
Our floating castles,
Shall defend all points of Imperial Japan.
Our warships of pure iron shall destroy
Those nations that make an enemy of,
The Land of the Rising Sun.
The Army and Navy of Imperial Japan.
To cut a long story short, the government was much more powerful than it was before. Its new powers were ostensibly based upon the "restored" power of the Emperor — restored to what it was in Legend, that is. Hence, "restoration" and not "revolution". The oligarchy of southern middle-class ex-samurai hid behind the Emperor, using him as a rallying point for State Shinto and Japanese Nationalism. Unexpectedly for the oligarchs, Mutsuhito himself proved to be a charismatic and effective ruler, and became the Meiji Emperor in truth, dominating those who had intended to use him as a figurehead.
History is a fickle thing, for if Perry had not returned to America due to the American Civil War, Feudal Japan may not have had the chance to develop into Imperial Japan. Noting how the current Chinese Empire, The Qing, (various Chinese and Mongol Empires had dominated East Asia for more than two millennia) wasn't doing so well these days, and how it seemed to have a lot to do with the European Empires, Japan decided that China was no longer the centre of learning and culture they had acknowledged it as for the last thousand years and figured that it was time for another radical change. Where before the Japanese had adopted Chinese religions, cultures, medicine and natural science with a view to incorporating them into their own understanding of the world, now it was time to take on European science and medicine, and to industrialize and become an Imperial Power... hopefully without losing sight of what it meant to be Japanese in all other respects. Broadly they succeeded. A postal service from Britain, a School system from France, a Prussian Constitution — thus the trappings of democracy like voting and elections and parties without actually granting the resultant MPs any real powers — and so on.
In a fanatic stance-change to hold Europe in awe and/or amusement, some went as far as advocating for intermarriage with Europeans to bring "superior racial stock" into Japan. In short, Europe was the new China, and this called for a revision in all their administrations. There was very quickly a backlash against this sort of attitude, and there was a certain crisis of identity caused by the rapid changes in Japanese society. There was a renewed emphasis on retaining an essential Japanese-ness, which after flirting with Social Darwinism manifested itself in the form of a burgeoning belief in Japanese supremacy, not inferiority. Because, they reasoned, who else could come so far in so short a time? This was clearly a demonstration of the Japanese people's innate superiority, above and beyond that of the European powers. Japan could do all they could — Imperialism and everything — and do it better.
By the turn of the century, it had a fledgling modern army and navy, trained by German and British consultants respectively - all Japan's 1904-battleships having been bought wholesale from French and British shipyards. The army and navy proved themselves during the Sino-Japanese War, in which the Japanese (unexpectedly, as Japan's forces were much smaller) emerged clearly victorious, and the Russo-Japanese War in which the Japanese managed to inflict a series of surprising defeats upon the Russian Army (surprising in that no one at the time expected them to be able to defeat Russia at all), along with outright destruction of Russia's Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. Tsar Nicholas II decided to negotiate an end to the war despite the imminent collapse of the Japanese war effort because his government didn't know Japan was teetering on the edge of socio-economic collapse, the bill for continuing the war was very large when his own empire was also teetering on the edge of socio-economic collapse, and the the total destruction of both of Russia's Fleets by the Japanese made a counter-invasion of Japan impossible, at least in the near term.
The war was a pyrrhic victory for Japan militarily and economically, and the peace-deal — mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt vis-a-vis the Treaty of Portsmouth — forced them to give back what little they had gained. Nevertheless, it was a massive boost for its international standing. Japan's victory created major ripples in the world — a tiny Asian power beating Russia? — leaving many considering Japan's potential. The Japanese Army had impressed most observers with their ability to withstand severe privation while showing great initiative, pluck and dash in the face of enormous casualties. The Japanese Navy had used superior strategy and tactics to defeat a numerically superior enemy in detail. Japan believed they had learned two important lessons: respect was gained and maintained via the use of a plenitude of modern military hardware, and gains made on the battlefield today can easily become losses on the negotiating table tomorrow. The Social Darwinists rejoiced: what clearer sign could there be that the Japanese were a people ascendant, not just a "fitter" race, but the fittest?
As the 20th Century progressed, the government of Japan came more and more under the sway of militarism. Under the Meiji constitution, both the Army and Navy ministers had to be serving officers. This effectively gave the military an absolute veto over the civilian government because the cabinet would fall whenever the army or navy withdrew their support. While this did not prove a problem during the reign of the forceful and charismatic Mutsuhito (Meiji), it allowed the military to effectively dominate the government under his weak and sickly son Yoshihito (Taisho), and essentially dictate the education and upbringing of his grandson, Crown Prince Hirohito (Showa). Meanwhile, the younger cadres of army officers were coming more and more under the increasingly violent sway of various expansive ultra-nationalist movements. Thus, as the government came more under the sway of the military, the military came more under the sway of the militarists, thus laying the groundwork for the great paroxysms to come. The Navy, by contrast, was more cosmopolitan, and locked in a constant struggle with the army over limited resources. So in The Roaring '20s through The '30s the political battles which really mattered in Japan were between the army and navy instead of political parties.
Japan joined World War I late on the side of the Allies, and received a nominal share of the rewards, including most of Germany's imperial possessions in the Pacific. However, their Japanese-European Racial Equality Proposalnote was rejected by the other major powers (Italy, France, the British Empire, and the United States)note . They also developed an imperialist attitude towards China to match the European powers, forcing numerous concessions from the Chinese. Ultra-nationalist sentiment abounded, and the military, having cast itself as the creator and guarantor of Japan's new place in the world, seized virtually all power, often by killing people who got in their way, eventually reaching the point where the Imperial Army numbered in the millions while the Imperial navy absorbed nearly one quarter of the entire gross national product (soldiers being cheaper than battleships).
The army led Japan into an invasion of Guomindang China, which - after overcoming Guomindang resistance at the 1937 Battle of Shanghai - appeared successful, but ultimately proved an open-ended manpower sump: China was simply too large to conquer outright. Japan could not find enough manpower to do more than take and hold the major cities of coastal China and the mid-lower Yangzi, and the railroads that linked them. However, the invasion in turn committed Japan to a dangerous clash of interests and sentiments with America and Britain (although there had already been tension between the three since the 1921 breakdown of Anglo-Japanese alliance in favour of US-Commonwealth co-operationnote , this being the result of a climate of heightened suspicion and conflicting interests in China and the Pacific). The U.S. in particular was annoyed at Japan's war with China and felt that its interests there and in The Philippines were threatened. Consequently, the USA embargoed strategic goods such as oil in response to Japan's continued refusal to negotiate with the Guomindang. And since the U.S. was virtually Japan's sole supplier of steel and petroleum at the time this embargo threatened dire consequences for the Japanese economy.
Japan's leadership, unwilling to negotiate with the Guomindang, terrified at the vulnerability that came with their critically low fuel reserves (they were down to just a few months' supply), and above all unwilling to lose face by negotiating with the United States decided to take advantage of the ongoing World War to take the raw-resources they needed. Despite their poor performance in the border-clash at Nomonhan/Khalkin Gol, the Japanese were confident that a collapsing Soviet state would still be unable to offer them real resistance if they launched an offensive to take Soviet Siberia. The Wehrmacht's performance in the Baltic States and Belorussia in the first two weeks of Unternehmen Barbarossa seemed to confirm the imminent defeat of the USSR and sparked a wave of enthusiasm for such an operation... however, the Wehrmacht's lacklustre performance at Smolensk made it clear that Japan's pre-invasion assessment of the USSR capabilities had been correct after all: Germany was too weak to defeat the USSR in a decisive campaign and was also unlikely to prevail in a lengthy war (as she had just half the industry and 1/3 the number of men fit for military service). As turned out, Soviet intelligence quickly learned of these conclusions, allowing the Soviet Union to take advantage of the diminished Japanese threat to draw forces from their Eastern shore to their Western front.
But there was another way Japan could take advantage of Germany's weltkrieg to avoid looking bad. The Navy could be used to seize the materials they needed by capturing the Dutch East Indies for their oil fields and British Malaya for its rubber, both also yielding much-needed supplies of tin and copper. Believing that the USA would declare war on them if they tried to do so, if only to protect the Philippines, they also decided to conquer the Philippines and raid various U.S. military bases.
Pre-supposing U.S. involvement proved to be Japan's undoing; even if he had wanted to, it would have been politically impossible for Roosevelt to persuade Congress to declare war on Japan and send American servicemen off to die, all to protect European colonial possessions. Holland may have already fallen to Germany and (with only 4/5 of Germany's industry and just twice that of Japan) Britain really would have been unable to fight a war against Japan as well, but the United States was not yet engaged in the war and the USA's industrial and commercial strength was more than ten times that of Japan in all categories, from automobile production to the banking sector and actually exceeded all of the other combatants, Axis and Allied, put together. As virtual ruler of two continents the United States had its own independent supplies of virtually every strategic resource imaginable... and with the world's largest and best-funded network of major research universities, jump-started by immediate and effective cooperation with the British, the USA had a useful technical edge which translated into gear and weaponry that wasn't just common/more numerous but also just plain better (unit-for-unit) than anything Japan could produce.note So while the junta had been right to assume that the Alliesnote probably didn't want victory over Japan as much as Japan wanted victory over The Allies, the simple fact was that with the USA onboard the Allies didn't need to want it as badly; reality was on their side.
The Navy's decision to include the United States in their offensive meant that Attack Plan South was hopeless and their defeat was inevitable. Despite their astonishing initial successes in seizing nearly all of south-east Asia save Burma and New Guinea, their increasingly out-dated and out-numbered forces were contained in little over a year and pushed back across the Pacific over the course of the next three years. A British-American Army overwhelmingly composed of ethnic Indians and Chinese, respectively, managed to halt the Japanese advance in the mountainous jungle of northern Burma - but had been unable to defend the 'Burma Road', the Guomindang's sole over-land link to the outside worldnote . The U.S. Navy destroyed their sea and air forces in crushing defeats such as the Battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea respectively, while the Guomindang absorbed the bulk of the Japanese Army in China. Australia and New Zealand teamed up with the U.S. to recapture New Guinea then went West to liberate Eastern and North Eastern parts of Indonesia when the U.S. turned North to recapture the Philipines. Japan's merchant fleet was devastated by the depredations of the U.S. Navy's submarines and Japan's numerous island garrisons were either cut off and left to "rot on the vine" or taken by overwhelming assault by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Two all-out, and rather pointless, Imperial Army offensives in China and Burma - meant to destroy the Guomindang once and for all and capture British India - failed and led to disastrous reversals.
Finally, Japan's towns and cities were bombed, burned, and flattened by huge armadas of American strategic bombers under the rather grisly General Curtis LeMay while an ever-tightening naval and aerial blockade around the whole (food-importing) island chain was supplemented by a intense tactical aerial campaign that destroyed Japan's internal transportation infrastructure. By May 1945, Japan remained as the lone Axis holdout against almost literally the entire world. With the Japanese military still unwilling to surrender, and hoping to avoid a planned invasion that was projected to result in millions of Allied and Japanese casualties, the United States elected to try to intimidate the Japanese into surrendering using a new weapon of unprecedented power: the atomic bomb.
The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th. Shocked, the Imperial government's intensified its ongoing pursuit of their last hope, a negotiated settlement brokered by the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union already had denounced the Russo-Japanese nonaggression pact that had spared them the necessity of guarding their back while they were fighting Germany back in April, the Japanese Government still hoped to entice the Soviets with enough territorial and material concessions to intercede for them before the rest of the Allies.note The Soviets, though, decided to honor their Allied obligations instead, and invaded Manchuria on August 9th, exactly three months after the end of the war in Europe, as was decided in Yalta and Potsdam Conferences.
While Stalin could have declared that the Soviet Union would not preside over peace talks, thereby forcing Japan to the negotiating table with the Allies and thus to surrender, Stalin was not interested in merely forcing Japanese surrender. Rather, he seems to have wished to reclaim Imperial-Russian territories 'lost' to the Russian Republic of the USSR in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 (southern Sakhalin island and the Kuriles) and increase the Soviet Union's influence in East Asia.
Upon losing their last hope for a negotiated peace through a third party the Imperial government continued to publicly refuse to surrender unconditionally, while privately resigning themselves to surrendering in the near future. The atomic bombing of Nagasaki on the 9th of August was intended to 'hurry them up' and make it 'clear' that it was the USA, and not the Soviets, which was forcing Japanese surrender. Unfortunately, the next atomic bomb would not be ready to be shipped out to the airfields until the 19th of August and it would take a few more days after that for it to be used. This meant that if Japan didn't surrender within the next month, there was a real danger that the Soviets would steal the spotlight again with victories on the East Asian mainland. Even worse for the USA, they might be in a position to demand revisions to the spheres of interest the two had negotiated in East Asia. Fortunately for the USA, the Japanese made overtures about formal surrender just one week later rather than the weeks or even months one would have expected of an Imperial Japanese government.
Fearing the prospects of dozens of such bombings, The Showa Emperor, who claimed to have been deeply disturbed when he'd toured the devastated areas of firebombed Tokyo, later claimed to US citizens that the bombings (alone) had convinced that surrender was the only way to preserve the Japanese people - and perhaps, though he didn't say this bit, his reign. After last-minute offer to surrender on the condition that they be allowed to keep the emperor was rebuffed, and despite a last minute coup attempt by militaristic junior officers, Japan's leadership finally declared the country's unconditional surrender on 15 August, 1945. The announcement came as a great relief to everybody, who really didn't see the point in another (few) million dead - and to the United States, who wouldn't have any more for several months and faced the real danger of having the Soviets 'steal their thunder' with continued victories over Japanese forces in China and Korea.
The military complex of Imperial Japan was forcibly dismantled, governmental power was effectively handed over to the U.S. military (with General MacArthur having the final say on anything the Diet did, earning him the nickname of 'Gaijin Shogun'note ), and land and economic reforms were made to break the power of the Zaibatsu - some seven corporations who had, under the patronage of the Army and Navy, accounted for more than 90% of Japanese GDP in 1938. These reforms didn't actually work in the long run, as the Zaibatsu rebuilt themselves (as the more loosely-affiliated "Keiretsu") in the decades that followed , but they did drive the understanding between the government and big business underground, as well as giving the Diet's politicians time to consolidate their power bases and deal with these corporations on a more equal footing when they returned starting in the 1960s.
While the democratic reforms — making the Prime Minister and Cabinet the country's actual leadership, abolishing the military, and removing the Emperor from the Cabinet — had their intended effect, many of the economic ones (including those designed to protect labor unions, which were increasingly seen as hotbeds of Communist sympathy) were rolled back in the face of the Korean War; it was the ramping-up of industrial production to help out the U.S. in this conflict that, together with huge amounts of foreign investment, helped kickstart Japan's post-war economic recovery in earnest. Control of the country was handed back to the Japanese in 1952 and at the same time, a National Safety Force (later renamed the Self-Defense Force) was formed. This was born out of the rise of hostile Communist governments in East Asia (i.e. Mao's People's Republic of China, which had in 1949 been declared after Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War) and the realization that Japan would effectively be defenseless without U.S. troops to occupy it (said troops also being rather expensive). Its creation was bitterly contested well into even the 1980s, despite assurances of civilian control and non-belligerence, and its naming (with its tortured Insistent Terminology to avoid blatantly military terms) reflects this; even so, politicians continue to battle over just what the Japanese military's role should be in modern world affairs.
Depictions of the Japanese Military in works include the following tropes:
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!:
- The Japanese Navy never called the type 93 torpedo the "Long Lance". That term was coined by American historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, in History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, after the war. It was so evocative that it stuck.
- The famed "Kamikazes" ("Divine Wind") were never officially called such; sometimes informally in the press, but not in official military circles. Their official name was "Special Attack Unit".
- Recycled IN SPACE!:
- The anime Space Battleship Yamato literally recycles the Yamato's wreck by turning it into a spaceship. Some commenters have described the series as "Imperial Japan Saves The World".
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 brings the Empire of the Rising Sun as its third faction (in which World War Two happened between the Allies and the Soviets after Hitler was removed early, but nukes have yet to be invented because Einstein is also gone), giving it a Setting Update in the modern day, resulting in things like infantrymen having laser swords to perform banzai charges, kamikaze attacks by Zero-shaped drones, its elite still dressing in kimonos and armor despite having invented nanomachines, and ginormous robots everywhere.
- Seppuku: Oftentimes romanticized as a continuation of samurai code, and as such honorable suicides as atonements make their way into works.
- Suicide Attack: Most portrayals show the the Imperial Navy being quite kamikaze-prone. It's rare to see a work with a Zero that doesn't take a nosedive onto a ship.
- Worthy Opponent: In Debt of Honor, Tom Clancy referred to Raizo Tanaka as the greatest destroyer commander who ever lived.