The price of progress
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 kills 100,000 Japanese and helps send the country spiraling into economic depression. By the late 1920s, millions of people are unemployed and thousands are dying of disease or malnutrition. Military conquests in Manchuria, China, and the Pacific during the 1930s give Japan access to new resources and new markets; but most of the rice harvest gets shipped to the front lines, leaving civilians to subsist on meager rations.
Onward and upward
Though the nation doesn't begin industrializing until the 1870s, decades behind the West, it enters the aviation age in 1903 along with everyone else. Japan launches history's first seaplane raids (against China in 1914) and builds the first ship specifically designed as an aircraft carrier, the Hosho (1922). Air power helps Japan overrun Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937, and its planes keep improving. Dead ahead lies Pearl Harbor.
Samurai of the sky
Japanese pilots wield their planes like swords of the samurai, the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the strategist behind Pearl Harbor and the son of a samurai, steeps his pilots in the warrior values of aggression and daring. Japanese engineers build the same spirit into the planes.
Back to the Stone Age
The aluminum comes from Indonesia; the rubber, from the Philippines; the fuel, from Burma. Japan's home islands lack the raw materials necessary for state-of-the-art aircraft, so the whole empire's resources go into each plane. When Japan begins losing territory in mid-1942, its manufacturing standards nosedive. Manufacturers run short of metal and start building planes from scrap—streetlamps, park benches, bridge iron, even the sculptures from Shinto shrines. Japan's once-dominant fleet can now inflict damage only via desperate suicide dives—the Kamikaze.
Rise and fall of Empire
Emperor Hirohito holds the moral authority (if not the constitutional power) to limit his government's aggression during the 1930s; instead he stands silent. Nor does he voice objection to Japan's 1940 alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy. Only when defeat is certain does the emperor work for peace: Informing his subjects they must "endure the unendurable," he offers Japan's unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945.