University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The long-term impact of Japanese Imperialism in China, 1931-1945

Third-year UoP student Brandon Lawson used his dissertation study to discover more about Asian history in the twentieth century, a topic he felt deserved more attention in historical studies.  His dissertation was entitled Shadows of war: “Justice” and geopolitical tension caused by Japanese Imperialism on China, 1931-1945.  Brandon’s supervisor was Dr Rudolph Ng.

The conquest of Chinese territory by the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930s led to a horrific and deadly campaign across the land, decimating the lives of their victims and cities in their path across vast swathes of Asia.  However the impact that the territorial expansion had on China society spanned many decades up to the modern era.

Bloody Saturday, Shanghai, 1937. This terrified baby was one of the only human beings left alive in Shanghai's South Station after its bombing by the Japanese. Photograph by Chinese photojournalist H. S. Wong.

Bloody Saturday, Shanghai, 1937. This baby was one of the only human beings left alive in Shanghai’s South Station after its bombing by the Japanese. Photograph by Chinese photojournalist H. S. Wong.

The premise of the atrocities severely impacting Japan and China after the war was the fundamental basis of the dissertation. Political figures within China, such as Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping have been recorded as highly critical of the actions undertaken by the Japanese and follow the established stance amongst the majority of historians that the invasion was unjust and the Empire committed a myriad of atrocities and human rights violations. This is in contrast to a growing revisionist approach amongst many notable people in Japan who have attempted to change the accepted stance on the war to a larger reverence of the ancestors who were involved in it and a denial of the war crimes that were committed. This is in clear contrast to the Kono statement, which solidified the perspective of Japan at the time, as one of acknowledgement and opposition to the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army.[1]

A photograph of a Chinese girl from one of the Japanese army's 'comfort battalions', photo taken 8 August 1945, No. 9 British Army Film & Photographic Unit

A Chinese girl from one of the Japanese army’s ‘comfort battalions’, photo taken 8 August 1945, No. 9 British Army Film & Photographic Unit


Nevertheless, both stances show a clear bias in favour of their country historically. The truth seems to align more closely with that position taken by the government of the People’s Republic of China who subscribe to the orthodox notion of the Japanese actions as a war of aggression and heinous acts committed by their soldiers against Chinese civilians.

Unit 731, Human experimentation facility in Harbin, China, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/unit-731-museum

Unit 731, Human experimentation facility in Harbin, China, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/unit-731-museum

From the very moment I began my dissertation in December, I noticed that information surrounding the atrocities was scarce: at Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese army that engaged in lethal human experimentation,  many of the documents that would have detailed the events were destroyed. This made analysing the impact more difficult. Due to the fact, that understanding what occurred became increasingly challenging. However, this minor inconvenience was easy to overcome with the implementation of primary source material documenting the ordeal that the victims would have gone through, as well as the Khabarovsk trials, where twelve researchers from the facility were tried and found guilty. Although their sentences were light it was confirmation of the events that occurred.

During my research into the topic, it became clear that the stance taken by politicians and historians from Japan and China on the topic were heavily influenced by the views that dominated each society. Using the arguments put forth by historians from each country also creates the problem that there is the potential for their work to be hindered by their unconscious bias. This is important when analysing their perspectives, as it allows for deeper analysis of the validity of different arguments. Throughout the analysis of my dissertation, my supervisor, Rudolph Ng was fundamental in aiding my analysis of the atrocities, especially in establishing the effects that the atrocities had after the war.

I decided upon this particular dissertation topic due to my undergraduate studies being heavily focused on the twentieth century, with Asian history in the twentieth century missing from the topics learnt. It is important when deciding on a dissertation topic to implement previous topics in order to understand the context of your dissertation. However, the most important part of choosing a dissertation topic is to choose one that you have a deep interest in and can study for a prolonged period of time.

When approaching a dissertation, the most important factor to understand is, the usually underestimated, amount of time and effort that is needed to write a 10,000-word dissertation. Not only is the word limit high and takes a lot of time to write and edit, but the time needed to analyse and included primary and secondary sources is by far the most time-consuming and detail-heavy part of the project. Therefore, when approaching the project, it is important to leave plenty of time to address all aspects of the dissertation in full. Furthermore, when writing the dissertation, it is important to re-write the entire dissertation at least twice in order to corroborate and solidify arguments while also putting time and detail into the implementation and accuracy of references.

Writing the dissertation is the most enjoyable part of undergraduate study, as you will have complete control over the topic that you write about and the independence in research allows you to explore the topic in any way that you want. However, with a high amount of independence comes an understanding that needs to be developed at the very start of what your strongest way to work is and an awareness of trying to hone your topic down to create one point that encompasses your entire argument. At some points, it may feel overwhelming with no end in sight, but the more engrossed you get into the development of your argument the easier it becomes. Furthermore, the skills that you develop through completing the dissertation are invaluable and you will look back on it fondly. Overall, all you can do is try your hardest and as long as you do that then the grade that you will get will reflect your ability and allow you to look back on your study with no regret.

Good luck!

[1] The Kono Statement refers to a statement released by the Japanese Government on 4 August 1993 confirming the conclusion of a government study that found that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced women, known as comfort women, to work in military-run brothels during World War II.

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