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Neorealism in Japan and the Rise of Imperial Japanese Military

Updated on December 30, 2012
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Extend of the Japanese Empire during WWII
Extend of the Japanese Empire during WWII | Source

Neorealism in Japan

The neorealist theory developed by Kenneth Waltz says states want to survive in an anarchical world by balancing the power of other nations. The premise is the world is multipolar. The result is anarchy because these few powerful states increase their power try to outdo each other by dominating weaker states. This domination by a few states was especially true in the 19th and 20th centuries. Anarchy was abounding as nothing prevented powerful states from destroying another states’ sovereignty. During the latter 19th and beginning 20th centuries, the world was a multipolar stage with European powers trying to outsmart each other by gaining more colonies. While nations fell to European and American gunboat diplomacy and economic trickery, Japan remained an exception. They were only sizable East Asian nation to escape large scale colonization. Why? The answer is Japan’s adoption of a neorealist tendency, which enabled them to keep the west away. Their intention was to survive by balancing the western powers with a “rich country, strong military”. But how could they do that? For Japan the act of balancing meant producing an army that is capable of preventing European domination on the Japanese islands and capturing other states to equal the west in power. The Japanese quickly saw that Europeans dominated in the end because of their strong military. A strong military empowered the Europeans to secure their interests. The Japanese built an exceptionally strong military to assert itself against western powers, thereby successfully surviving western imperialism and dominating whenever possible. The Japanese imperial army with its aggressive vigor is the product of the survival mentality the national leaders, philosophers and even the commoners echoed starting from the 1870s. Japan had achieved its ambition: it became the strongest power in East Asia and was officially recognized as a member of the great five after emerging victorious in the Russo Japanese war of 1904-1905. Japan successfully survived the imperialist gale because of the strong army given birth to by strong neorealist tendencies. In this paper I will examine the rise of the Japanese military—the principal product of the neorealist nature embedded within the Japanese mind to maintain independence. One should use the neorealist lens to understand the rise of the Japanese imperial military, an entity needed to survive in an anarchical multipolar imperialist world.

National Behavior

Japan had become a leap frog. Long gone were the days of isolationist Tokugawa regime. After the commencement of the Meiji era it seemed that Japan nationally took a 180 degree turn in many aspects. Far from the old attitudes of disdaining western things, Japan fervently and diligently adopted many elements of western culture, even ballroom dancing. But how did this happen? Why did a country steeped in centuries of feudalism and isolationism suddenly emerge with a strong desire change radically? The answer for the attitude change is simple. The Japanese either had to open up, transform their national standing and expand in to the world, or they accept their fates at hand of devouring western nations. The Japanese were quick to see the trend of the 19th and 20th century of either surviving by militarizing and colonizing or being colonized. Understanding the Japanese dilemma, Keith Schoppa states the Japanese wanted “to imitate the West’s aggressive action in establishing a Japanese empire, thereby keeping out Western powers; and to carry out what some began to see a mission of Japan, itself linked to the gods, to become a leader on the Asian continent” (Schoppa 168). For the Japanese, surviving meant stepping up to the western plate by having a strong military capable of acquiring a dominion comparable to the west. They understood that either they ought to have a “rich country, strong army” and carve other nations, or be carved themselves. They had no interest in ending up like China. James McClain notes, “The United States and the advanced nations of Europe, he [Fukuzawa Yukichi] warned were far stronger that such countries as China and Korea, and the encroachment of the west threatened Asia with the same sort of humiliation and material destruction being visited upon Africa and the Middle East. That course of events Fukuzawa cautioned endangered Japan directly . . . How, he shook his head, could Japan avoid being crushed by the Western Juggernaut?” (McClain 293). McClain further notes “Fukuzawa proposed two answers to his own questions. First, he declared, Japan must build up its military strength, and it must stand ready to use it” (McClain 293). Under a new government in a chaotic international system, the Japanese swerved their attitude from isolationism to nationalism, which led to expansionism. As McClain says, “Seizing upon the rhetoric of expansionism that filled the air, they helped forge an emerging consensus that Japan must be assertive, must even victimize others, if it wished to avoid being victimized itself” (McClain 295). An assertive Japan meant Japan with a strong military. Faithful to Fukuzawa Yukichi’s words, the Japanese had morphed in to people hell bent acquiring a military to survive western imperialism by dominating smaller nations than them.

Japan Declares War
Japan Declares War | Source

Military emulation from West

The Japanese were exceptional copy cats. Even under the Tokugawas they had a history of sending their students on foreign exchange programs to western nations to study government, society, education and culture to better their own society. As Warren Cohen notes, “Japan’s new leaders learned much about international relations from the West and were determined to join the ranks of the great powers. Toward this end they recognized the need for a strong central government and a strong military. Once they were able to defend themselves against the Americans and the Europeans, they would rid themselves of the unequal treaties imposed on them by the West and establish themselves as the dominant power in East Asia” (Goldman and Gordon 3). In his work Neorealism, states, and the modern mass army, Joao Resende-Santos states “emulation is a form of balancing behavior” (Santos 5). The Japanese were emulating western military practices to ultimately prevent western hostility toward them. Santos explains the Japanese military emulation when he says “military emulation is a security enhancing strategy in response to external threats. In the face of major threats, military emulation is the quickest and most dependable way to increase power and bolster security” (Santos 5). The best Japan did to bolster security against western hostility and establish a dominant presence was to raise a powerful army based on western standards to fight western armies. Santos notes “The causes of military emulation are to be found . . . in the external security environment” (Santos 2). The external security environment of the international system was chaotic. As McClain notes, “The world was a dangerous place, Western imperialism and racist attitudes posed grave threats to Japanese independence and their county was justified in contemplating action outside its national borders in order to preserve its national integrity” (McClain 295). A multipolar world, as described by McClain meant war was on the horizon. It was no wonder that Japan aspired for a powerful military to survive the threat of war. Their adaptive strategy proved to be a boon for them because they were going to copy western military models. Japanese leaders realized that if Japan wanted to have a strong military, it had to copy the superior western army models and command structure. Schoppa notes “Yamagata Aritomo set out to structure and strengthen the military as a reliable support for the government. As an administrator, he had taken the lead in 1870 in establishing a conscript army. In 1878 he adopted the German general staff system, in which the chiefs of staff of the army and navy were directly under the emperor’s command, mediated by the civil government or the army and navy ministers” (Schoppa 161). Marius Jansen notes “In the post restoration days many men continued to look to French officers and tactics for guidance,” “Land forces turned to German models in the 1880s,” and “For the navy the model had from the first been British, and it continued to be so. Promising naval officers were sent to England, and the bulk of the early navy was ordered from the great English shipyards” (Jansen 397). Thus the Japanese imperial military rose from the best standards because Japan took everything from everywhere to survive.

The Imperial Government’s perspective

The Japan army and navy, after a massive military makeover by western standards were the marks of the new age. Jansen notes, “the military’s newness was one of its strongest features; European militaries were sometimes charged with being backward or conservative, but Japan’s new army considered itself to be the embodiment of the new age” (Jansen 396). The Japanese military was born out a national need to survive and the government as well the common citizens looked at with respect. They were glad they had what strong western nations had. Not only that, it was the mystical emperor who commanded it. Jansen notes, “In barrack and officer academy the theme constantly invoked was that of loyalty to the emperor. The imperial army and navy were the emperor’s. He himself moved in to military uniform in the 1880s” (Jansen 398). With the emperor leading the new armed forces coupled with their significant mission, the respect for the army as the savior of the country gave it a plum position on the government agenda. According to David L. Howell, “the government control over all of Japan’s tax revenues as well as the ability to implement reforms directly and uniformly throughout the country” promoted industrialization in favor of the military (Goldman and Gordon 92).The government favored the military with funds for modernization and rapid industrialization. Schoppa notes, “Major government involvement in industry came in communications and transportation (telegraph and railroads), mining, shipyards, armaments, large-machine building (steam engines and boilers), and construction (girders, cement, glass, and brick)” (Schoppa 165). The Japanese had the survival instinct ingrained in their heads, and they were showing no signs of slowing down their military ventures.

Japanese Kamikaze Attacks

Result of Survival instincts

The dawn of the 20th century spelled new agendas for Japanese leaders. Now that they acquired a strong military, gained respect in the eyes of western nations by rapidly and modernizing, it seemed something was missing. When were they going to get the opportunity to prove themselves? One must remember the Japanese goal: keep away western imperialists. In their mindset, they were hell bent on making the western powers realize they were a force to be reckoned with a military comparable in power and size. They got their chance in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Their victory stunned the world. For the first time, an Asian power had beaten a European power. According to Jansen they became “the strongest power in Asia. In the next two decades it increased its stature and emerged as one of the five of the great power, with a permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations” (Jansen 511). The Japanese sent the signal to the western nations that they were could not be bullied anymore. But how did this happen? Warren Cohen notes “Its [Japan’s] navy dominated the shores of northeast Asia. Conqueror of Russia, ally of Great Britain, it had increased it stature in the world enormously: Japan had become a great power” (Goldman and Gordon 8). Japan had undergone a transformation; Schoppa notes “the nation entered a new period, becoming more active in international affairs. This change probably resulted in part from feeling of greater self-confidence” (Schoppa 237). Japan’s success jumped on a new level when Great Britain, arguably the most powerful nation at the time, asked Japan to be its ally. Japan was approved in the international system because they survived to gain the respect of western nations; they gained respect because their military, which was brought about by neorealist behavior, made other powers aware of their presence.


The rise of the Japanese imperial military can be accurately understood through the neorealist lens. Facing the imminent threat of the unequal treaties and unbridled western ambitions, Japan was in danger. Their national attitude echoed the neorealist principle; they wanted their independence to survive by not being colonized like African or Asian nations. The result of this perspective was an accurate diagnosis that they needed a strong military to defend themselves. The Japanese leaders realized that only a strong military could be an effective rudder to steer clear of the imperialist tides raging against them. The neorealist element of survival is very effective to describe Japan exceptional case; they were the only sizable Asian nation that escaped colonization.

Neorealism, States, and the Modern Mass Army
Neorealism, States, and the Modern Mass Army

Read this book for a deeper analysis of Japanese Military and Neorealism



Cohen, Warren I. “The Foreign Impact on East Asia.” Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. 1-41.

Howell, David L. “Visions of the Future in Meiji Japan.”Historical Perspectives on contemporary East Asia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. 85-118.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002

Santos, Joao Resende. Neorealism, States, and the Modern Mass Army. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Schoppa, R. Keith. East Asia: Identities and Change in the modern World. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc, 2008.


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