Friday, July 24, 2015
Justifying the Japanese War
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.