The path to war

The Showa era (1926-1989) began with the inauguration of Emperor Hirohito, who had acted as regent since 1921. By this time Japan's economy was in decline; the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (which levelled Yokohama and half of Tokyo, at a cost of 140,000 lives) and the worldwide depression of 1929 only served to intensify the crisis.

Radical nationalism and expansion at the expense of weaker neighbours seemed to offer a way forward. In 1931, taking advantage of economic and political turmoil at home, the Japanese military seized resource-rich Manchuria and installed Pu Yi, last emperor of China's Manchu dynasty, as its head of state. Western condemnation of its actions was met by Japanese withdrawal from the League of Nations.

Following the assassination of the prime minister in 1932, the Japanese military intensified its grip on the government. In the years which followed, many political enemies were assassinated and communists persecuted. Indoctrination and censorship in education and the media were further intensified. Army and navy officers soon occupied most of the important offices of state.

In 1936 Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy, and in the following year the Japanese military launched a full-scale invasion of China, committing atrocities in Nanjing which remain a point of contention and controversy in Sino-Japanese relations today.

In 1940 all domestic political parties were dissolved, and an Imperial Rule Assistance Association was established to provide a veneer of popular legitimacy for the military regime.

In the same year, proclaiming the establishment of a 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere', Japan occupied French Indochina, threatening Malaya and the East Indies and further intensifying its conflict with the United States and Britain. Then on 7 December 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, precipitating the Pacific War.

Within six months Japan expanded its control over a large area stretching from the borders of India in the west to New Guinea in the south. The Japanese military ruthlessly exploited the native populations of the conquered territories, as well as conscripting Allied prisoners of war, many of whom died as a result of forced labour on constructed projects, including the notorious Burma Railway.

The turning point in the Pacific War was the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Thereafter, the Allied forces slowly won back the territories occupied by Japan, and in 1944 the United States began intensive air raids on Japanese cities. In Spring 1945 US forces invaded Okinawa, precipitating one of the war's bloodiest battles. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagosaki in August 1945 eventually forced Japan to surrender.