The imperialist constellation in the far East had undergone profound changes with the end of World War I.
Already after the Russian-Japanese 1905 war Japan continued to remain the dominant force in the far East, but after World War I Japan was no longer going to clash mainly with European rivals. Instead the main rivalry was going to unfold with the USA who was the big winner of World War I. Following the period after World War I the USA and Japan became the main imperialist sharks in the far East for several decades.
Japan was the main beneficiary of World War I without ever being directly involved on a large scale in the fighting. Unlike the other winner states in Europe (Britain, France), who had to pay a high price for their victory, Japan was not ruined through the war. Instead Japan managed to improve its position substantially – first it speeded up its industrialisation; secondly it improved its trade position at the expense of the European rivals and become a big arms supplier. Imports and exports tripled during World War I, steel and concrete production doubled, big progress in chemical and electro-technical equipment was achieved and Japan managed to write off its foreign debts during the war – which it had “contracted” because of its war against Russia in 1905. It became a donor nation. It also expanded its commercial navy and became a big ship building nation, increasing its ship building capacity by a factor of 8.
However, as soon as the war was over in 1918, the war boom collapsed and Japan found itself in a big economic crisis.
On the imperialist level, Japan strengthened its position mainly in relation to China above all at the expense not only of the loser country – Germany – but also at the expense of other European imperialist rivals, which were absorbed by the war carnage in Europe. After having occupied Korea in 1909 Japan hoped to become the uncontested ruling imperialist power in China as well.
Already in the first weeks after the outbreak of the war in 1914, Japan snatched the German settlement of Tsingtao in China and occupied German possessions in the Pacific (Marshall and Caroline Islands) which Japan saw as a counterweight to the US presence in Hawaii, the Philippines and Guam.
As Russia disappeared from the imperialist scene, Japan tried to claim the dominant position in China. As soon as the imperialist countries launched a counter-revolutionary offensive against the proletarian bastion in Russia in 1918, Japan was the first country to participate in the invasion and the last country to leave Siberian territory in 1922. Instead of sending 7,000 troops as demanded by the USA, Japan sent 72,000 soldiers, declaring openly its imperialist appetites towards Russia.
After Japan emerged as the big beneficiary of the war, the USA tried to contain Japanese military might.
And while the European countries disarmed partially after World War I, Japan did not really reduce its military expenditure significantly. Between 1888 and 1938 total military expenditure corresponded to 40-50% of the national budget through this period.1
Yet while Japan was a ‘winner’ of World War I it had not been able to make any major territorial gains through the war. Although not a “have-not” (as it had Korea under its control since 1909) it was under the strongest pressure to challenge the status quo in the region and try to expand towards the Asian continent.
Whereas imperialist tensions in Europe receded after World War I to a large extent because of the wave of revolutionary struggles of the working class, imperialist tensions in the far East evolved differently.
Once again, Japan was going to clash with Russia as soon as Russia reappeared as an imperialist power on stage (see further down). In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria and proclaimed the foundation of a new state – Manchukuo. The creation of this new state, which was nothing but a vassal of the biggest imperialist shark in the region, meant that Japan had above all a springboard for the ensuing further expansion of Japan towards Southern China at its hand.
1 Lockwood, Economic Development of Japan, p. 292