Friday, July 24, 2015

Justifying the Japanese War

Whenever a nation goes through a traumatic event, such as a world war, there is always an attempt to justify it in some way. Sometimes, this is easy, particularly for those who fought defensive wars; you fought because you were attacked and had to defend yourself. However, for those that fought offensive wars, some loftier, less tangible justification has to be put forward. For example, U.S. President Wilson attempted to justify American entry into World War I on the grounds that America had to “make the world safe for democracy”. In World War II, the British government, in the European theater at least, justified the declaration of war on Germany in the name of eradicating “fascism” from the globe (defending Polish independence would have hardly sufficed given what happened to Poland when it was over). In the United States, and this is partly why the war is viewed without the ambiguity of other conflicts, there was no need for any great justification. The U.S. fought Japan because Japan had attacked the United States and it fought Germany and Italy because those countries had declared war on America in solidarity with their Japanese ally. As far as the war in the Asia-Pacific theater was concerned, Britain could say the same. Britain fought because Japan attacked virtually every British possession or affiliated country in the region. Additionally, Britain also greatly needed U.S. support in fighting Germany so the British were very quick to stand alongside America against the Empire of Japan.

The Japanese, however, had a more difficult position to defend. Given the consequences of the war, unprecedented in their history, with their forces utterly defeated, their empire destroyed, their homeland in ruins, the atomic bombings and their occupation when it was over, people were desperate to find some way to justify it all. Many claimed it was a war of self-defense and yet, while they did have facts they could point to, this was unconvincing. Japan had struck the first blow and the war was mostly fought on the lands and territory of other peoples. It was the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor, invaded The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Burma and later attacked India. The bulk of the Japanese army was fighting in China, a neighboring country, rather than on Japanese territory. As such, claims that Japan was simply defending itself was not going to pass muster with most people. This made justifying the war more difficult and yet, at the same time, even more imperative for some people since to do otherwise would be to admit that the whole thing had been a colossal mistake, which some, then as now, find too horrible to contemplate. Yet, in the ruin of immediate post-war Japan, there was a great deal of that. Many people who embraced the new direction Japan took after the war did so, not because they thought they themselves had done anything wrong, but because they hated the militarist regime which had pushed them into a disastrous war that was impossible to win and saw everything brought to ruin simply because they refused to admit to the mistake.

It would, thus, be impossible to admit that the war should not have happened without condemning those who had taken Japan into the conflict and many have never been prepared to do that. The Empire of Japan, after all, had not just lost a war the way that other countries have lost wars. Japan lost badly. Many people fail to realize how badly. Allow the fact to sink in that, after the initial Japanese offensive throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the end of 1941 and early 1942, Japan was never victorious in any major operation again. This would be like the Germans never winning a battle after the fall of France. When the Allied counter-attack came, after the pivotal Battle of Midway in the summer of 1942, the story of the war for Japan was one defeat after another. None of the island outposts in the Pacific ever repelled a single American attack and, in southeast Asia, after the defeat of the invasion of India, Japanese forces were rapidly pushed back by the Allies, their defenses effectively collapsed and few reinforcements could be spared due to the need to maintain so many troops in China. Much depended on the imperial naval and air forces and these were crippled at Midway in 1942 and practically annihilated as an effective fighting force at the Philippine Sea in 1944. And, keep in mind, this was all while the bulk of U.S. military strength was being focused on the other side of the world in north Africa and Europe. Even under the best of circumstances, the Japanese knew that they could never hope for an outright victory over the United States, so vast was the American superiority in resources, manpower and industrial output. Their only hope was that the Americans would simply give up at some point and quit the war after suffering heavy losses, yet, in all but one engagement, Japanese losses throughout the war were invariably far greater than American losses. It was, all in all, a disaster and one that could have been foreseen.

Japan had actually been prepared, after years of fighting in China, to abandon the conflict and withdraw their forces to focus on the defense of Manchuria and consolidating the hold on northeast Asia that Japan already possessed. Had they done so, the Empire of Japan might still be around today. However, the succession of stunning victories by the Axis forces in Europe caused Japan to think that the war in Europe would soon be won by their Axis partners and thus the European colonies in Asia would be ripe for the picking. As the saying at the time was, they didn’t want to “miss the bus”. They took a risk, betting everything on a crushing victory by Nazi Germany in Europe and decided to advance south. They first occupied Indochina and that then set off the chain of events that led to war. The U.S. placed an embargo on Japan, easily persuaded the British and Dutch to do the same and by that action Japan was backed into a corner. They would have to back down or fight and, as we all know, they chose to fight. They rolled the dice and ultimately lost everything. Had the Japanese high command stuck to their original plan, seeing no path to a decisive victory in China (the whole conflict being one that Japan had been drawn into with no clear goal in mind on their part) and withdrawn to consolidate in the northeast, Japan today might still hold control over Korea, Manchuria, Formosa, the South Pacific mandate and the assorted northern islands later lost to Russia; no small patch of real-estate that. For some, given all of that, justifying the war became a matter of dire necessity rather than admit to such a monumental waste and needless disaster.

The most popular attempt at justification finally came with the help of the Allies themselves with the period of de-colonization and a wave of liberal guilt that swept the western world. A justification for the war was found and quickly seized upon: Japan had been fighting the war for purely altruistic reasons; to liberate their Asian brethren from the colonial domination of racist White people. This has taken on such dimensions that some today claim that the Empire of Japan had never been a colonial power at all on the grounds that Korea and Formosa were incorporated into Japan itself which would be rather like Britain claiming that Ireland was not a colony because it was made part of the United Kingdom or France claiming that Algeria was not a colony because it was incorporated into metropolitan France or for the U.S. to claim that there was nothing “colonial” about the acquisition of Hawaii because it later became a state in the union. However, Japan has been aided in this tactic simply because of the self-shaming adopted by the western colonial powers in regards to their own former empires. It is easy to attack a system that very few will bother to defend.

Likewise, the areas occupied by Japan, as part of their own nationalist narratives, also make themselves complicit by binding up so much of their national identity in the fight for independence from colonial rule. For example, the pro-Axis Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose is widely respected by many people in India today. In Burma, Dr. Ba Maw is not without his admirers and in The Philippines, the leader of the pro-Japanese government that cooperated with the occupation forces, Jose Laurel, was recognized after the war as a legitimate former president by the Filipino government and who was allowed to carry on his political career. Consider, by contrast, how men such as Vidkun Quisling, Anton Mussert or even Marshal Philippe Petain are regarded today in Europe and one can, perhaps, see how different the situation is in Asia and how conducive it is to the idea that Japan was the lone noble hero of the conflict, fighting to liberate rather than conquer. Due to the post-war period of de-colonization, some in Japan have even gone so far as to say that they didn’t really lose the war after all because what they claim as their primary goal, the end of European colonialism in Asia, was finally achieved. Personally, even as someone very partial to Japan, this is rather horrifying when taken to its logical conclusion as it would mean that Japan is responsible for all the horrific, tyrannical regimes that sprang up in southeast Asia after colonial rule ended. There is also the rather pertinent point that the idea that Japan was fighting an anti-colonial crusade is completely untrue and that fact can be relatively easily proven.

In the first place, setting aside the notion that ruling over the long-established, preexisting country of Korea should “not count” as colonialism, it is obvious that Japan had no animosity toward the idea of colonialism itself because it clearly had no objection to the institution beyond East Asia. For example, even before Japan was a member of the Tripartite Pact, Japan had no problem with the openly colonial ambitions of other countries Tokyo was in sympathy with. When the Kingdom of Italy (already a colonial power) launched the invasion of Ethiopia, never making any secret of the fact that Mussolini intended to retain control of the area, the Ethiopian government called on Japan to join in condemning the Italians. Mind you, the Ethiopians were not asking for any sort of support or material assistance of any kind, they knew that would be expecting too much of a country so far removed from Africa, but simply that the Japanese express their displeasure at Mussolini’s invasion. Japan refused to issue such a condemnation or to reproach Italy in any way. If Italy had not objected to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, how could Japan object to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia? Obviously, there was no problem from Japan with the principle of colonialism itself.

During the war, Japan did try to cast itself as the liberator of Asian peoples, the great power that would be the helpful, guardian, ‘big brother’ of the region. This was part of the whole program of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. And, there were examples Japan could point to of countries which had been given at least nominal independence and their own national governments thanks to Japanese intervention. The big meeting of Co-Prosperity Sphere leaders during the war consisted of representatives of the Empire of Manchuria, the “Reorganized National Government” of the Republic of China, the State of Burma, the Second Philippine Republic and the Kingdom of Thailand though, of course, Thailand had always been independent. Bose also attended but only as an observer as India was still waiting to be “liberated” by the Japanese. One will notice that quite a few countries which were occupied by Japan are not represented among this group but even among these there are some problems. The pro-Japanese government from China never came close to holding power over the entire country nor was China under the outright rule of any power before the war. The Philippines, while a commonwealth of the United States at the start of the conflict, was already on its way out of the American colonial empire with the process and even date for independence already having been agreed to by the government in Washington before the war started. But what about the areas not represented? This points to the most conclusive evidence that Japan was not fighting an anti-colonialism campaign in World War II.

The fact is that Japanese support for independence movements did exist but was clearly secondary to the national interests of Japan and the Japanese war effort. For example, French Indochina was occupied by Japanese forces prior to the outbreak of hostilities and yet Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia remained under French colonial rule for all but the final few months of the conflict. Japan left the colonial regime untouched and for most of the war the French population in Indochina was the only group of “White” people in the whole of the area occupied by Japanese forces that were not immediately put in concentration camps. This made sense for Japan as it meant that they could focus on the war effort while the French continued to handle administration, internal security and all of that. This cozy relationship only changed when the Vichy regime fell, France was occupied entirely by Germany and so it was 1945, when there could be no doubt about the eventual outcome of the war, that Japan acted to support the declarations of independence by the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia and the Empire of Vietnam. For almost the entirety of the conflict, Japan made no effort to “liberate” the peoples of Indochina from the colonial rule of France at all. However, after the war was over, there was enough support to carry on fighting against any “White” presence in Asia for about 600 Japanese troops in Indochina to join the communist-led VietMinh but that should hardly be seen as something to boast about given the horrid excesses of that regime, even perpetrated against the very government Japan had, for a few months in 1945, supported.

In Malaysia, the Japanese certainly ended the colonial rule of the British, with whom they were at war, but not very much changed for the local Malaysian monarchs. The whole area remained under Japanese military rule for the duration of the conflict. In fact, Malaysia lost some territory as about four northern border provinces were handed over to the Kingdom of Thailand as part of the agreement for Thailand supporting Japan and becoming one of the lesser members of the Axis powers. In Singapore, likewise, British colonial rule was ended but, as with Hong Kong, there was no hint that this meant anything more than being ruled in the name of a Japanese monarch rather than a British one. When the Japanese forces captured Singapore (in one of the most brilliant and stunning victories of the war) the city was given a new Japanese name, “Shonanto” or ‘Light of the South’ and the local children in Singapore were required to attend new schools established by the new authorities to learn to speak Japanese. They bowed toward the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, sang the Japanese national anthem and for leisure could go to the local cinema where only Japanese films were shown. Any dispassionate observer would have to conclude that when you take control of an area, rename it and start teaching everyone to speak your language, it probably means you intend to be staying and holding on to that area indefinitely.

Finally, there is also the case of the Dutch East Indies where the colonial rule of The Netherlands was ended (along with brutal treatment for the local Dutch or partly Dutch population) but no immediate granting of independence such as was nominally the case in The Philippines and Burma. Sukarno was released from prison and he was happy to collaborate with the Japanese and urge his countrymen to learn the Japanese language and assist in the Japanese war effort but Japan was not about to relinquish control of the vast resources of the archipelago which Japan desperately needed. Prime Minister Tojo himself admitted as much, saying of the Indonesians that they were not prepared to handle the vast mineral wealth their country possessed. As it was, Japan did finally support an Indonesian declaration of independence but only after they had already lost the war. In fact, the atomic bombing of Japan had already happened when Sukarno was brought to Japan to be wined and dined and told that the time had finally come for Indonesia to be given independence. Japan concealed the true state of affairs from Sukarno during this time and he only learned of the atomic bombing after returning to Indonesia and hearing an Allied broadcast from a secret radio.

The bottom line is that the facts simply do not support justifying the Japanese war as an anti-colonial struggle. The Japanese abolished colonial rule in some areas, maintained it in others and simply replaced European colonial rule with their own in still others depending on what best served Japanese national interests. And, to my mind at least, acting in your own interests should not be considered a terrible thing. No one else is going to do it and trusting others to look out for your interests has been proven to be na├»ve and short-sighted. Some Japanese were genuinely motivated by their desire for a racial struggle to drive the “Whites” out of Asia but others were more pragmatic. The problem is not that the Japanese government acted in their own interest but rather that this post-war effort at justification endeavors to set Japan apart and claim a ‘holier-than-thou’ status; when Europeans ruled over foreign peoples that was evil colonialism but when the Japanese ruled over foreign peoples that was not colonialism. It could even be seen as the same as western hypocrisy regarding Japanese expansion into Manchuria or Italian expansion into Abyssinia. However, in each of those cases no one took military action because it did not effect anyone else directly. When Japan turned militarily on fellow colonial powers that naturally prompted retaliation. The post-war attitude has also made it very difficult to foster mutual support between traditional monarchists in Japan and the west. Each had colonial empires and each had their positive as well as negative aspects which are usually ignored. Even among monarchists, some westerners still enjoy bickering over whose empire was better or worse than the rest but most (again, that is ‘most’ of a small minority group) still prefer the world of colonial empires to the bi-polar world of the Cold War era or the current world of globalism and internationalism. It is different with Japan though and will remain so as long as the Japanese conservatives who defend their own empire attack those of others and claim that colonial empires were bad while denying that their colonial empire was *really* a colonial empire.

For the Empire of Japan, justifying World War II is like trying to justify an earthquake. Japan was not motivated by a selfless concern for others anymore than any other of the combatants were. Japan entered the war due to a combination of pride, a wish to expand as well as economic pressure from other powers and provocations from the United States that wanted to get into the war but needed one of the Axis powers to shoot first. Roosevelt wasn’t able to get Hitler or Mussolini to shoot first but he was ultimately successful in goading Japan into doing so. The result was disastrous and for Japan in particular. Had the Japanese endured the provocations of other powers and simply sat out the war, the Empire of Japan would have survived, there would have been a better chance of the British Empire surviving but more importantly for Japan, given the post-war expansion of the Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War, the same Anglo-American forces that had been more antagonistic toward Japan would have been forced by the international situation to not only drop their unfriendly attitude but support Japan as a regional bulwark against communist expansion. Things might have been much better for everyone if Japan had missed that bus.

In the end, there is a degree to which Japan has no need to justify World War II. The occupation of Manchuria, whether it was done for the right or wrong reasons, was a case of Japan doing the right thing; restoring a land that had been unjustly seized and placing its legitimate ruler back on the throne. In the China incident, it was the Chinese who, evidence indicates, started it. The escalation of tensions that led to Pearl Harbor was partly due to ambition and overreaching by the Japanese military which alarmed the rest of the world by occupying Indochina but the American response was totally unjustified and needlessly antagonistic. The Roosevelt administration made a conscious choice to intervene in matters that were not their concern and they willfully backed Japan into a corner from which the only two means of escape were war or suffering the humiliation of submitting to the demands of a foreign power. Japan was not without some legitimate justifications for going to war in 1941. Beyond that, however, some actions were taken for which there can never be any justification and, in any event, just because one can be justified in going to war does not automatically make it necessary or wise to do so.

Japan had been treated unfairly and could rightly ask why countries in Europe or America took exception to their actions when they never meddled in European or American affairs. They could rightly ask why there was a Monroe Doctrine for the Americas but an Open Door Policy in East Asia. The leadership in Tokyo was not, despite what Allied propaganda later claimed, out to conquer the world. They were motivated by a fear, irrational in retrospect, that their empire, despite being at the height of its power, teetered on the brink of success or failure and they undoubtedly wished to be the dominant regional power in East Asia. Achieving that did not necessitate the war that followed and that war was certainly not a selfless effort to eradicate colonialism. To a degree, it was a totally justifiable reaction to pressure and antagonism from foreign powers. Beyond that, it was an ultimately disastrous mistake. The move south, which came so close to never happening at all, was a gamble taken at a time when an Axis victory in Europe seemed certain. In that regard, Japan gambled and lost. The extent of that loss cannot be justified.


  1. Hello, MadMonarchist

    I am a long-time reader and first-time commenter. I have a question: Where do you find your pictures of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Imperial Japan, and China? As a writer, I am always on the lookout for additional sources of pictures and I wanted ask about yours.

    Thank you

    1. I've had them so long I don't remember exactly where they all came from. Several of those used above, as I recall, came from an on-line archive of color or colorized WW2-era photos but I'm not sure exactly what the name was.

  2. Hi, MadMonarchist

    We came across your video "The Politically Incorrect Truth About Japan Korea and Comfort Women" and you are spot on!

    We host a blog called "English Translation of Comfort Women Articles by Scholars."
    If you could take a look at it, we'd appreciate it.


    1. Good to see. This issue has largely been one-sided in the English language press (and sometimes not helped by some of those chosen to be spokesmen for the Japanese side of the story -as detailed in an earlier post on the subject). A great many people in the English-speaking world accept many falsehoods about the comfort women because it is all they have heard. Keep up the good work. The facts are on Japan's side on the issue.

  3. hey mad monarchist can you do a post on jean bedel bokassa? im sorry if i posted this twice but the first one didnt show up


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...