On anniversaries of the defeat of Japan in the late 1980s, it was commonly quipped that the war was over and Germany and Japan had won. A mere 40 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, the Japanese and German economies were thriving while those of their wartime combatants were mired in stagnation. Japan’s spectacular rise was often attributed to an attachment upon American coattails, to having received a free ride.
An alternative explanation is that the assorted impediments which had held Japan back in the prewar years had all but ceased to exist.
Prior to the outbreak of the Asia-Pacific War, Japan had five principle vexations:
- the instability of China,
- market access for its exports,
- immigration controls,
- the threat that was posed by the imperial ambitions of Russia, the U.S. and the nations of Western Europe, and
- stability in its supply of raw materials.
All five of these concerns were sourced to a single historical creed: a culture of naked imperialism imposed upon non-Caucasians in the wake of the so-called Age of Discovery (early fifteenth to late eighteenth centuries).
Seeking a Stable China
The world which Japan found itself compelled to join in 1853 by U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, was rapidly regressing into one in which there were two types of nations: imperial subjects and imperial powers. None seemed exempt from reach. As Japan was finding its feet in this predatory world, China, the most powerful nation within Asia, was being divided into spheres of U.S. and European influence that would eventually lead to the failure of its central government in 1911, and a dismemberment into warlord-ruled enclaves.
The struggle to reunify China evolved into a two-way battle between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. Japan’s attempts to influence the course of events in favor of a non-Communist regime proved both ruinous and unsuccessful in that the Communists ultimately prevailed. But the overwhelming consideration from Japan’s point of view was that China become stable—and Mao delivered on that.
Suppression of Japan
The initial prognosis concerning market access was not particularly sound. When questioned in the immediate postwar years on the type of products the formerly advanced industrial nation of Japan should consider for export to the United States of America, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles replied, “shirts, pajamas and cocktail napkins”.
This desire for a weak Japan, however, was quickly set aside when Japan-based production became vital for U.S. involvement in the Korean War, and fear of a communist Japan forced the U.S. market open for Japanese goods once and for all.
Western Mindset Behind the Asian Battlegrounds
The immigration controls imposed upon prewar Japan had their origin in the gold rushes that swept through the West in the nineteenth century. Large influxes of Chinese prospectors led to a succession of ever restrictive exclusion acts within America and other immigrant-minded nations.
In Australia, for example, a 1901 legislative initiative named “white Australia policy” comprehensively bolted the door. “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman” stated Australian Prime Minister Barton, in support of this law.
The U.S. exclusion Act of 1924 was a particular irritant for what was then a considerably Westernized Japan. The 1924 Act nullified a gentleman’s agreement between the Japanese and U.S. governments which had been effectively curtailing immigration, and formally added Japan to the list of barred nations. It came a mere five years after Japan had prevailed as one of the “big five” victors of the First World War, and in the shadows of its unsuccessful attempt to have a racial equality clause inserted into the Treaty of Versailles.
“Japan felt as if her best friend had, of a sudden and without provocation, slapped her on the cheek” stated Dr Nitobe Inazo, one of Japan’s most internationally-minded scholars. More ominously, the Showa Emperor believed that the 1924 Act prefaced Japan’s decision to go down the road towards war. Japan would never be accepted into the top league of nations, the Act was interpreted to have inferred.
Much would change in the wake of the Second World War. The holocaust of the Jews put to rest U.S. pet theories of eugenics and white superiority. Participation of blacks in the war effort broke down taboos about what people of color could and should do.
The claim to be fighting for the freedom of Asians made exclusionist legislation untenable. The wholesale incarceration of Japanese-Americans provided a stark example of how ingrained racism had become. An argument can reasonably be made, in fact, that America was changed by the war no less dramatically than Japan.
The changes that occurred within Australia were equally great. While clinging to significant vestiges of White Australia Policy for a full generation after victory, the war brought home the necessity for a less doctrinaire brand of immigration.
The postwar mantra of the Australian nation became “populate or perish”—a stunning recognition that the Australian landmass did not have enough people to ensure its defense. Impoverished Italians and Greeks paved the way for the Asians and Africans who would follow, while the catalyst that broke the taboo on Asians becoming Australians was, ironically, the war brides which Australian servicemen brought home with them after serving in the Japanese occupation.
End of Imperialism in Asia
In respect to the imperial presence of Western Europe within Asia, Japan’s wishes were largely met. The Second World War was a devastating blow to the British, Dutch and French. Japan’s initial military successes put paid to the “might is right” precepts that had underscored their colonial rule, and Hitler destroyed their economies. The timetable for imperial disbursement was brought forward a great many years.
While America continued to deny Japan access to China for more than two decades, the withdrawal of the West freed up many Asian nations as suppliers of raw materials and markets for Japanese goods.
What Came Out of Japan’s Defeat?
The one European nation that came out of the war with enhanced geopolitical prospects within Asia was Russia, a nation against whom Japan had been sparring for more than fifty years. Invited by America to assist in the “liberation” of the Asian continent, the Russians duly complied, with the implications being felt to this day in the ongoing division of the Korean Peninsula.
Awaiting his fate in the postwar years, Japanese wartime prime minister, Tojo Hideki, surmised that destroying Japan as a bulwark against communism was an act that the U.S. was destined to regret. He was right. Following the idealistic inclusion of Article 9, the war renouncing article of the Japanese constitution, the U.S. found itself singularly compelled to deal with the Russian threat, while Japan, fortuitously, could concentrate on rebuilding its economy.
It could additionally be argued that a further key to the postwar success of Japan was the sudden loss of its colonies. Colonialism is a key component of perceptions of Japan, but one has to wonder to what degree the Japanese truly embraced their status as a colonial power.
Prior to Japan’s opening it had abstained from imperial aggression for over two hundred and fifty years, and its introverted nature, both pre-Perry and post-MacArthur, suggests the Japanese are far more comfortable in a non-imperial world. In any event, a slow bleed of colony relinquishment, such as that endured by the British and French, was a trauma better avoided.
Setting up the Cold War
On September 2nd 1945, on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General McArthur, declared that with the surrender of Japan, “peace may be restored”.
His words proved untrue. The Asian continent would be a hotbed of war and insurrection for decades to come. There would be wars of independence, civil wars, and proxy wars waged under the canopy of the forty-year Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. War would most surely continue, but a different kind of war. The era of naked imperialism was done.
Author: Paul de Vries
Paul de Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan. His book Remembering Santayana: the lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan is available from Amazon. His essays have also appeared in the Japan Times and Asia Times.