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Japan’s Imperial Expansion Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 15th, 2021


Japan is now one of the leading nations that play an important role in the international arena. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the country was regarded as a local power that was often looked down on by Western countries.1 It is noteworthy that Japan was seen as the most potent state in the region, which was accepted by the Asian and Western countries. The Japanese ruling elites tried to maintain their supremacy in Asia, and they were ready to employ various instruments including military ones.2 The Russo-Japanese War was one of the important turning points in the history of Japan as it made the rest of the world acknowledge its potential.

One of the primary outcomes of the war was the fact that it was the first victory of an Asian state over a western state in the modern times. This military supremacy of an Asian country made other states in the region feel more empowered and some Western states more concerned about their interests.3 For instance, the USA had to consider the potential of Japan and its rising influence in the Pacific region, which was one of the American spheres of interest.

Russia and the United Kingdom also had to develop new plans aimed at limiting Japanese control over other Asian countries. It is also a common belief that the Russo-Japanese war laid the foundation for the beginning of the two World Wars that outbroke soon after.4 Therefore, this military conflict is still in the researchers’ lenses as the war was a turning point in the history of several countries. This paper includes an analysis of the major causes of the was with the focus on the international and state levels.

Different Levels of War Causes Analysis

It is widely accepted that wars are an indispensable part of the development of human society. Scholars have different views on the factors affecting the outbreak of wars as some believe that personal traits of leaders are central to this process while others stress that the functioning of states and their political agenda are primary causes of war. Some theorists emphasize that the conflict related to the scarcity of resources is the key factor leading to the start of a war. In his book, Waltz identified three levels of factors that lead to war: international, interstate, and personal.5

The personal level mainly implies the focus on psychological and cognitive traits of countries’ leaders who often have their own interests or ideologies. The interstate level is associated with the way countries develop with the focus on the political, economic, social, and cultural domains. The international level of war causes is primarily linked to the ways states interact. It is noteworthy that the relations between states, as well as processes taking place within countries, are characterized by considerable complexity. Therefore, several factors tend to lead to the commencement of wars. This paper provides a brief examination of all the three levels of war causes.

Personal Level

As mentioned above, the personal level is associated with the characters of and decisions made by countries’ leaders. Nevertheless, it is possible to focus on certain features of the countries’ elites or even larger population. The cognitive perspective can be employed to analyze the causes of the Russo-Japanese war. It is important to consider the way two nations saw control over the territories in two states.

The Russian elites viewed further expansion to the east as a good and quite logical decision.6 They understood the importance of dominance in Asia, but this area was not vital to the Russians. Moreover, the population of the empire was quite tired of constant military campaigns that were associated with considerable costs paid by the nation. People’s discontent with wars was growing in Russia, which later resulted in revolts and even revolutions.

In contrast to these perspectives, Japanese military elites, as well as a large part of the country’ population, regarded their political influence on China and Korea as critical to the wellbeing of the nation. It is also necessary to note that Russian generals and diplomats tended to overestimate the power of their country and its military potential the area. These sentiments proved to be influential in the course of the war, its start and outcomes.

Interstate Level

Imperialism of the Two States

One of the premises for the Russo-Japanese war was the fact that both states were Empires that never stopped their conquest. Researchers and theorists identify several elements of countries’ imperialism including economic, ideological, political, and social.7 Both countries were characterized by the ideologies based on the idea of constant expansion that could take different forms. In the 19th century, it could be the inclusion of new territories within the boundaries of these countries.

In the 20th century, the major type of expansion was the spread of their influence over new areas. This type of imperialism laid the grounds of the First World War as Germany had certain interests in North Africa, but France took control over those territories.8 Japan and Russia can be regarded as another illustration of this kind of imperialism since both states wanted to dominate in Asia. The two states saw each other’s expansive campaigns and wanted to gain dominance in the region.

Thompson and Aron note that resources are often the primary focus of empires, but they are not defining.9 Empires also try to ensure the safety of their borders, which is possible to achieve with the help of establishing certain regimes in neighboring countries. Japan and Russia saw China and Korea as such buffer zones and expressed their concerns if some of the territories were under the influence of the rival.

Countries’ Militarism

One of the common causes of wars is the militarism of one or more states. Militarism can be referred to as the belief in the military force as the most effective way to achieve prosperity and order.10 It is often associated with the rule of a military elite that forms such a doctrine. Such societies place a significant value on the military elite that has considerable power during the decision-making process.

Japanese imperialism played an essential role in the evolution of the country in the 20th century, and it was one of the causes of the Russo-Japanese War.11 The rise of the military class, so-to-speak, is deeply rooted in the history of Japan where the culture of samurais and warriors was highly valued. The military elite had considerable influence on the country’s government. Therefore, diplomacy often failed as Japanese diplomats and major decision makers believed in military solutions. For instance, after their defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan started funding heavily the modernization and development of its fleet.12

The Russian Empire had a similar doctrine, and the rulers of this country tended to rely on the military force as the foundation of their influence and the power of the state. Tsars gained control with the help of soldiers and military elites. As a result, the position of military people was privileged, and they advised the use of force in many cases. The country’s victories in the region and the occupation of new territories made Russian ruling elites confident in the potential of their army. The war under analysis can be regarded as a conventional illustration of the military conflict of two empires characterized by militarism. Both states believed in their ability to defeat their rival based on the availability of resources and their previous victories.

Bargaining Model of War

It is also possible to utilize the bargaining model of war to consider the causes of the Russo-Japanese War. This model is based on the assumption that war is a result of the bargaining interaction of states.13 In simple terms, countries often have to resolve various conflicts based on the distribution of resources as well as cultural or social issues. Since wars are associated with substantial losses (financial, political, social, and others), states try to avoid military conflicts.

They try to negotiate and achieve a compromise or, at least, a solution that could satisfy the parties for a limited period of time. When these efforts fail, a war begins, and, ironically, it ends in a new bargain as military conflicts rarely finish in a complete victory of one of the stakeholders. The Russo-Japanese War is a bright example of the situation when negotiations fail, wars outbreak, and a new bargain comes into existence.

Streich and Levy claim that the major causes of the war in question were commitment and informational problems.14 The researchers note that informational issues are common reasons for the beginning of various wars. As far as the Russo-Japanese War is concerned, Russia’s inability to properly evaluate the threat was central to its defeat.15 First, the Russian elites underestimated Japan and believed that it was a regional power that could hardly compete with other Asian countries.

Russian previous military victories served as the ground for their confidence. Russian generals and the rest of the society believed that the army that defeated Napoleon was invincible. This commitment problem was deeply rooted in the Russian leaders’ cultural bias as they believed that Asian countries were semi-civilized and had limited resources compared to Western countries. They also overestimated their own resources especially when it comes to the availability of manpower, weapons, and provisions in the region.

Informational problems were another factor that led to Russia’s complete defeat. Russian intelligence was ineffective especially when it came to people.16 The estimates of Japanese soldiers and resources were made on the data given by a diplomat who had visited Japan before the war. The Navy intelligence was accurate and Russian decision-makers received detailed information on the number and technical characteristics of Japanese ships.

However, Russian elites’ excessive self-confidence made them blind as to the potential threat. Due to the inadequate estimates, Russian diplomats did not try to negotiate and achieve a compromise. They believed that the cost of the war will be tolerable, so there was no need in making effort when interacting with an Asian country. These miscalculations resulted in unprecedented costs for Russia that had considerable influence on the development of the country.

International Level

As mentioned above, the international level of war causes is associated with the way states interact on the international arena. When considering the causes of the Russo-Japanese War, it is necessary to concentrate on the balance of power concept. This principle implies countries’ attempts to ensure their security by improving their military capacity as well as through forming alliances and coalitions. The position of some Western countries had a significant impact on the way the negotiations between Japan and Russia were taking place.17

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance made Japan confident that they could receive certain support if needed. Japanese leaders were also confident that Russia would not have the support of the United Kingdom. The position of the United States contributed to Russian elites’ miscalculations as it was not made absolutely clear whether the USA would support one of the conflicting parties.18

In their turn, the UK and the United States wanted to weaken the influence of Russia in the region as well as the entire international arena. They did not try to serve as mediators in the conflict between the two countries. A war could be one of the instruments to reach this goal. Regarding Russia’s actions, the country’s ruling group was rather confident in their potential victory. Therefore, they did not consider any alliances or coalitions that could ensure support from other western countries. Finally, there were no international institutions that could be the mediators or safeguards of peace.


In conclusion, it is necessary to note that several factors on the personal, interstate, and international levels led to the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. Such theoretical frameworks as the cognitive perspective, the balance of power, the bargaining model of war, and concepts of militarism and imperialism guided this analysis. In a nutshell, Russians’ cultural bias, inadequate calculations of potential costs of the war, Japanese leaders’ interest in dominance, both countries’ focus on military solutions, and their expansionist doctrines, as well as the influence of other countries, resulted in the war.

The effects of this war were considerable since they had an impact on many countries or even the entire world. As mentioned above, it was the first war where an Asian country defeated a developed Western state. The war led to the development of Japan and its rise to a player in the international arena. The war also had adverse effects for Russia that was at the dawn of dramatic changes. The defeat in this war and substantial costs Russian people had to pay made the nation more committed to standing up to the tsarist regime. As a result of this war, the Revolution of 1905 began, and tsar’s control was limited to a certain extent.

The empowerment of Japan transformed the balance of power in the Pacific. The USA acknowledge the appearance of a strong rival while Japan understood their potential to gain victory in any war, so these sentiments could contribute to the outburst of World War II. The weakening of Russia was also apparent, which had an influence on its participation in World War I. Finally, the war affected the way China and Korea developed in the first part of the 20th century.


Jacob, Frank. The Russo-Japanese War and Its Shaping of the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Paine, S. C. M. The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Stille, Mark. The Imperial Japanese Navy of the Russo-Japanese War. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Streich, Philip, and Jack S. Levy. “Information, Commitment, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905.” Foreign Policy Analysis 12, no. 4 (2016): 489-511.

Thompson, Paul, and Raymond Aron. Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Waltz, Kenneth N. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

White, John Albert. Diplomacy of the Russo-Japanese War. York: Princeton University Press, 2015.


  1. John Albert White, Diplomacy of the Russo-Japanese War (York: Princeton University Press, 2015), 3.
  2. S. C. M. Paine, The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 49.
  3. Frank Jacob, The Russo-Japanese War and its Shaping of the Twentieth Century (New York: Routledge, 2017), 6.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 15.
  6. Paine, The Japanese Empire, 52.
  7. Paul Thompson and Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 267.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 24.
  11. Paine, The Japanese Empire, 52.
  12. Mark Stille, The Imperial Japanese Navy of the Russo-Japanese War (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 6.
  13. Philip Streich and Jack S. Levy, “Information, Commitment, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905,” Foreign Policy Analysis 12, no. 4 (2016): 491.
  14. Ibid., 489.
  15. Ibid., 503.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 507.
  18. Ibid.
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