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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2017

7 - Japan betwixt Maritime and Continental World Orders


[Japan] prospers when she allies with such naval powers as the Anglo-Saxon Britain and the United States, but must trudge a road of hardship when she allies with continental powers.

Hirama Yōichi, historian, Anglo-Japanese Alliance: Alliance Choice and the Fate of a Nation, 2000

Imperial Japan fought two pairs of wars. In the first pair, Japan co-operated with maritime powers to work in concert with their preferred maritime global order based on the maritime commons, international law, and international commerce – all common, not exclusive, places, rules, and activities. In the second set of wars, Japan allied with the continental powers, bent on imposing a continental order based on exclusive spheres of influence, each operating under different rules. Imperial Japan flourished under the former and perished under the latter.

The maritime world order is positive-sum. For all its many flaws, it is the only world order that benefits all who join because its laws and institutions are designed to promote economic growth in order to create wealth. The common rules protect the weak from the strong and thus incentivize the weak to join. The aggregate power of the many then dwarfs the strength of even the greatest continental power. Continental world orders – the world of traditional empires that flourished prior to the Industrial Revolution – are zero-sum at best and more typically negative-sum, given all the fighting over the spheres of influence. The motivating goals are the confiscation of territory and wealth, but the wars entail damage to both, producing a negative sum. The continental paradigm characterized the preindustrial world when land was indeed the source of wealth because agriculture was the primary economic sector. After the Industrial Revolution, trade, industry, and service became the primary economic sectors, so land was no longer the ultimate source of power, money was. Money bought armies. And money came mainly from industry, commerce, and service.

Japan was not geographically situated to become a great land power. Seas separated it from military theaters so under all circumstances, except an invasion of the home islands, it operated on extended lines. It lacked the natural resource endowment necessary to conduct war: iron and energy.