Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: The Growth of U.S.–Japanese Hostility, 1915–1932

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Japanese forces enter Mukden, China, September 18, 1931, as part of Japan's  Manchurian campaign against China.

Japanese forces enter Mukden, China, September 18, 1931, as part of Japan's Manchurian campaign against China.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Go to the related interactive

America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941

comprehensive student interactive giving the user a full scope of America's political and diplomatic responses to world events between the two world wars.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had its origins in a growing antagonism between the United States and Japan that first developed during World War I. Japan claimed a special "sphere of influence" in China, in which it would have economic, and even to some extent political dominance. Americans, however, stood for the principle of the "Open Door"—that all countries should have an equal opportunity to market their products to the Chinese. By the late 1920s Japan was in the midst of an economic crisis, and in 1931 seized the rich Chinese province of Manchuria. The foundations were fully laid for a full-scale showdown with the United States.

Using contemporary documents, students in this lesson will explore the rise of animosity between the United States and Japan. It will begin with Japan's "Twenty-One Demands" on China during World War I, and will continue through the Manchurian Incident of 1931.

Guiding Questions

What accounts for the growing hostility that had developed between the United States and Japan by the early 1930s?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how Japan's ambitions in China conflicted with the American concept of the "Open Door."
  • Discuss the means by which the United States and Japan sought peaceful means of resolving their differences.
  • Articulate why U.S. trade and immigration policies angered the Japanese.
  • Explain the importance of the Manchurian Incident of 1931, and the American response to it, for the deterioration in U.S.–Japanese relations.


While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, came as a shock to Americans, there had long been talk of the possibility that a war might occur between the United States and Japan. Here was a case of two emerging world powers, both of whom with interests in China, increasingly coming into contact during a period when the powers that had traditionally dominated the region-the European colonial powers—were falling into decline. The United States was engaged in a lucrative trade with China, trade which was protected from bases in the Philippines, which had been a U.S. possession since 1898. Japan, on the other hand, had emerged victorious in two wars (the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05) that left the country in possession of an empire that included Taiwan and Korea, as well as substantial interests in the Chinese province of Manchuria.

U.S. policy in China was based on the principle of the "open door"—that is, all countries were to have equal opportunities for trade and investment opportunities in China. However, this principle faced a severe challenge during World War I. Japan, having entered the war on the side of the Allies, captured the Chinese province of Shantung, which had been a German colony. Tokyo in 1915 then issued a set of "Twenty-One Demands" on China, which included not only Chinese recognition of Japanese ownership of Shantung, but acceptance of a Japanese sphere of influence over much of northern China. After much protest from the United States (as well as, needless to say, from China), Tokyo moderated its demands somewhat, and in the Lansing–Ishii Agreement of 1917 the United States and Japan pledged to oppose "the acquisition by any government of any special rights or privileges that would affect the independence or territorial integrity of China or that would deny to the subjects or citizens of any country the full enjoyment of equal opportunity in the commerce and industry of China."

Soon after the end of World War I the United States sponsored the Washington Conference of 1921–1922, to which the Japanese sent a delegation. A number of agreements were signed at Washington, but two bear mentioning here. The first was the Five-Power Pact in which the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed to reduce the size of their navies. Britain and the United States were to have the world's largest fleets, while that of Japan would be limited to three-fifths that of the British and the Americans. At Washington the Japanese delegation also signed the Nine-Power Pact, in which the signatories agreed to respect China's sovereignty and independence, and renounced any desire to seek "special rights or privileges" in China.

While these treaties may have appeared to settle differences between Japan and the United States, neither one really addressed the issue of Japanese ambitions. Japan in the 1920s faced overpopulation and economic crisis. Moreover, America's trade and immigration policies—which by the 1920s had raised tariffs to unprecedented levels, and had cut off all possibility of Japanese immigration to the United States—were viewed as direct threats to Tokyo's interests. All of this strengthened the hand of elements in the Japanese Army and Navy, who claimed that the nation's problems could only be remedied by the conquest of Manchuria, both as a source of raw materials for Japan's factories and as area to be settled by Japanese colonists. Japanese naval officers also objected to the Five-Power Pact, claiming that national honor demanded a navy equal in size to that of the United States or Great Britain.

Through the rest of the 1920s the government in Tokyo continued to seek good relations with the West. However, the army and navy were growing increasingly restless as Japan's economy steadily declined through the decade. Finally, concluding that the government would not act, officers of the Japanese Army stationed in southern Manchuria decided to force the issue. In September 1931, outside the town of Mukden, a small group of officers secretly blew up a length of track belonging to a Japanese-owned railway. Then, after blaming the sabotage on Chinese "bandits," the Japanese Army moved to occupy all of Manchuria. Japan's civilian government had not authorized this operation, but after an unsuccessful attempt to restrain the army in Manchuria the leaders in Tokyo decided to go along with it.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria was a clear violation of both the Nine-Power Pact and the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact , also signed by Japan, in which the signatories agreed to renounce war "as an instrument of national policy." The international response, therefore, was one of alarm. Nevertheless, given that most of the industrialized world was in the grip of the Great Depression, no concrete steps were taken to block this act of aggression. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson responded with a policy of "non-recognition"—that is, he announced that the United States would not recognize "any situation, treaty, or agreement" that impaired "the sovereignty, the independence, or the territorial and administrative integrity of the Republic of China." In late 1932 a commission formed by the League of Nations officially branded the occupation of Manchuria an act of aggression, but took no further action.

All of this, of course, meant that Japan believed that it could proceed with its plans for China without foreign interference. In March 1932 Tokyo announced the creation of an "independent" state of Manchukuo, to be ruled by the former Chinese Emperor (who had been deposed twenty years earlier, at the age of five). That December the Japanese Army invaded the neighboring Chinese province of Jehol, which was promptly declared part of Manchukuo. The following year Japan withdrew its delegation from the League of Nations. The situation in Asia was rapidly growing dangerous, although few in the United States recognized this fact. One of the few who did was Joseph Grew, U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. As he put it in an August 13, 1932 letter to Secretary of State Stimson, the Japanese military "has been built for war, feels prepared for war and would welcome war. It has never yet been beaten and possesses unlimited self confidence. I am not an alarmist but I believe that we should have our eyes open to all possible future contingencies. The facts of history would render it criminal to close them."

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941" that accompanies this lesson. This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major events in Asia in the 1930s (although for this particular lesson students will only be looking at the events of 1931–1932), and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the United States responded to it.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Actvity 1. The United States, Japan, and the "Open Door" in China

In this activity students will look at four documents pertaining to U.S. and Japanese policies in China. By examining these, and answering questions about them, they should gain an understanding of why tensions developed between the two countries.

Hand out the following documents to students, which are found on pages 2-6 of the Text Document, and in their complete form at the EDSITEment-reviewed World War I Document Archive, First World War.com, and the Avalon Project at Yale University.

To help guide their reading (which might be usefully assigned as homework), students should answer the following questions, which are also found on pages 1-2 of the Text Document. They should cite specific references to the documents in their answers.

  • What does Secretary of State Hay mean by an "open door" in China?
  • How might "spheres of interest" by other powers in China conflict with the principle of the "open door"?
  • Generally speaking, what did Japan want from China in 1915?
  • How might the "Twenty-one Demands" come into conflict with the "open door" principle?
  • How did the Lansing-Ishii Agreement try to resolve differences between the United States and Japan?
  • Could the Lansing-Ishii Agreement be interpreted in more than one way? How might a Japanese diplomat interpret it differently from an American?
  • In what sense might the Nine-Power Treaty be considered an improvement over the Lansing-Ishii Agreement?

After students have read the documents and answered the questions, break the students into groups of four to discuss their answers. To conclude, hold a brief class discussion in which students are asked how these documents show illustrate potential friction in U.S.-Japan relations.

Activity 2. Japan's Grievances

For the second activity, students will read excerpts from two articles by Japanese journalists, the first from the American journal The Nation and the second an editorial from a Japanese newspaper. By reading these, and drawing political cartoons based on them, they will gain an understanding of why the Japanese grew determined to build an empire in Asia.

To begin, hand out the following documents, located on pages 7–9 of the Text Document and in their complete form at the EDSITEment-reviewed resources Teaching American History and History Matters.

Read both of these documents orally in class. Then, instruct students to create a set of cartoons that graphically portray Japan's grievances against the United States and other western powers. Each cartoon should showcase a different grievance. These could be started in class and completed for homework. To conclude, ask volunteers during the next class session to present their cartoons to the class. As a class, make a list of Japan's grievances. How might these grievances translate into a demand for Asian colonies?

Activity 3. The United States and the Manchurian Crisis, 1931–32

In 1931 Japanese troops overran the Chinese province of Manchuria, in clear violation of both the Nine-Power pact and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. However, with most of the world in the grip of the Great Depression, the United States and League of Nations responded with little more than mild diplomatic protests. In this exercise students will read several documents pertaining to the policy of Secretary of State Henry Stimson—that of "nonrecognition"—and assess whether this was an adequate response to the crisis.

Go to the related interactive

Have the students open the interactive "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941" and read the September 1931 event "Japan invades Manchuria." Ask students to consider the various options available to the United States-listed along the left-hand side-and select what they think the actual response was. If they choose the wrong response, they should continue to make selections until they have found find the right one (in this case, "No formal action"). In addition, they should mark on a blank map of East Asia (a good one is available here) the locations of China, Japan, and Manchuria.

Next hand out the following documents, which are available in their excerpted form on pages 10–12 of the Text Document, and in their entirety at "World War II Resources", which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History.

These documents can either be read orally in class or for homework. Once students are done with their readings, ask the students to imagine that it is 1932, and they are advisers to Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Tell them that the Secretary has asked for their candid assessment of his policy of "non-recognition." Based on the documents they have read for this activity, as well as what they have learned from the previous two activities, ask them whether they believe that this is an adequate response to Japan's aggression in Manchuria. Ask them to consider other options, such as economic sanctions or military action. However, in addition to addressing whether such alternative measures might be more effective, they should also consider their feasibility. For example, how likely is it that the American public, in the midst of the Depression, would be willing to go to war against Japan? It is probably a good idea to remind students that, since the discussion is assumed to be taking place in 1932, they should not use arguments based on subsequent events (for example, "we should go to war with them before they attack us at Pearl Harbor"). Students should also be reminded to cite specific evidence from the documents.


The questions from Activity 1 and the cartoons from Activity 2 may both be used as formal means of assessment.

In addition, students should be able to use the documents they read for this lesson to write a five-paragraph essay in response to the following question:

  • Why did Japan invade Manchuria in 1931, and why did the United States consider this a matter of concern?

In addition, students should be able to locate the following on a blank map of East Asia:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Manchuria (Manchukuo)

Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • "open door"
  • "Twenty-One Demands"
  • Lansing–Ishii Agreement
  • Nine-Power Pact
  • "non-recognition"

Extending The Lesson

In addition to violating the Nine-Power Treaty, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria also violated the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which Japan and some fifty other nations agreed to renounce war "as an instrument of national policy." Teachers may wish to have their students read the text of this treaty, which may be found at the Avalon Project. Arguments for and against the "outlawry of war" (August 16, 1924) and September 13, 1924 may be found at Teaching American History Students might be asked to read these documents, and then to ask whether Japan's invasion of Manchuria justified the critics' claims that the Pact was practically worthless.

Teachers may also wish to delve more deeply into Japanese history to seek explanations and precedents for Tokyo's expansionist policies. The EDSITEment-reviewed site "Visualizing Cultures" includes a number of units dealing with Japanese history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular relevance to this lesson are the collections of postcards pertaining to the 1853 "opening" of Japan, and the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. After studying some of these students might ask what they suggest about Japanese views of the world and their country's place within it.

There were some Americans who predicted trouble between the United States and Japan even before the First World War. Among these was President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1909 wrote a letter to soon-to-be Secretary of State Philander Knox. In that letter the president warned Knox that the U.S. ban on immigration from Japan was deeply offensive to the Japanese, and recommended that the U.S. Navy remain powerful enough to deter any possible threat from that direction. This letter is available at Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy, 1898–1914, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Teachers might have students read the letter as part of Activity #1, then ask them as they complete Activity #2 whether they thought Americans had heeded Roosevelt's advice.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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