Some Regional Honesty on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War? Not a Chance


There will be loads of retrospectives this year. But rather than write yet another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ piece, I thought I would write about how current Asian politics is still framed so much by the war. Particularly, I thought it would be useful to point out in all honesty how some of region’s elites actually came to power on the back of the war – even though they’d never, ever admit that. Specifically, Chiang Kai-Shek would have crushed Mao if he hadn’t had to fight the Japanese instead, and the (North) Korean Worker’s Party would never have come to power without the Red Army ‘liberation’ that was legitimized by Japanese occupation. Being honest about this stuff is helpful, if uncomfortable.

This piece was originally written for the Lowy Institute. It starts after the jump:

“Seventy years ago this summer, the long project of Japanese imperialism in the Pacific came to an end. In the West this will all be rolled together with the war against German and Italian fascism. For Americans particularly, it is all World War II, and the struggle against Hitler has always taken preeminence in our remembrance of the conflict. But in Asia, the final death struggle between Imperial Japan and its many enemies, most importantly the United States, is better understood as the crushing of a near-century long Japanese imperial project to remake Asia.

Although it is popular now to read WWII as a global war, I think the Asian term, ‘the Pacific War,’ for the regional war against Japan, is more accurate. The conflict that culminated with Hiroshima has its direct roots in Japan’s post-Meiji turn toward imperialism with the first Sino-Japanese war (in the 1890s). German and Italian fascism, by contrast, more were clearly products of the interwar period and the rise of Stalin. Japan’s commitment to the Axis was always mixed at best; C.L. Sulzberger and Steven Ambrose spoke of the ‘Axis Gang’ rather than an alliance. The same imperial Japan which opportunistically declared war on Germany in 1914 opportunistically aligned with it in 1940 (first to pick up its Pacific territories, then to hedge the US and USSR). The Axis powers so distrusted one another that the Nazis did not inform the Japanese of the planned invasion of the USSR, nor did the Japanese consult the Germans on Pearl Harbor.

The ‘Pacific War’ puts the regional focus where it belongs – Japan. It was modernized Japan that permanently broke the long-standing Sino-Confucian order of the region (a momentous rupture that needs more research). It was Japan that dragged, often quite violently and unwillingly, much of the region into economic modernization. It was Japan that first absorbed and then spread western ideologies like sovereignty, nationalism, fascism, genetic racism, and capitalism (corporatism is perhaps more accurate) around the region. And it was the defeat of this long-term imperial project that opened the door for Marxism in the region, compelling the US to stay permanently – and, ironically, fight wars such as Korea or Vietnam mostly to protect Japan against the very forces the empire itself was intended to counter. A rather strange twist of history that…

So rather than trot out another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ essay (here is the best one I’ve read so far), I thought instead to capture what local leaders might say in all honestly about the war that became a region-wide, anti-Japanese war:

Japan: “We started the war, and it was a blatant imperial effort to dominate the region. There, I said it! Yes, I know you and the whole world know that already, but my right-wing coalition back home doesn’t. (Actually, they do. They just don’t want to admit it.) I would roll-out our old-time excuses that we were just doing what the Brits and French were doing in Africa, or that we were liberating Asians from the whites, or that the Americans forced the war on us, but our extraordinary, Nazi-like brutality in China and cultural eliminationism in Korea are still inexplicable by any of those excuses. Maybe the best I can come up with is that we were blocking the spread of Marxism in the region, but then we also did more than Stalin or Ho or anyone else to help Asian communism by crippling Chiang Kai-Shek against Mao. *Sigh* Ok. I really got nothing left. It’s our fault, and we really should alter our history instruction and at least put up a few museums on the carnage we left behind. But at least I can say that we fought the war really badly; our general staff actually thought we could simultaneously fight China, the British Empire, and the US and win…Idiots.”

China: “Thank god for the Japanese invasion, or the Great Helmsman never would have survived the 1930s. Ok, since we’re being honest, Mao really wasn’t such a great ‘helmsman’ once he got into power. But the point is that our party probably would have lost the civil war to the Nationalists if Chiang hadn’t had to spend most of his resources turning eastern China into a quagmire for the Imperial army. And Chiang did a pretty great job of that too, a point I will be sure to never, ever admit to Chinese history students. If the Japanese army hadn’t bogged down so badly in eastern China, then the Japanese strike into southeast Asia, which chain-ganged the Brits and Americans into the war, wouldn’t have been necessary. I am happy to say that Mao did the least he could in all this too, back-biting and infighting with Chiang while using him as a shield against the Japanese. Nor will I ever admit that Mao is responsible for far more Chinese deaths than the Japanese ever were. I’ll just be sure to bang the Diaoyu drum whenever this sorta stuff come up.”

South Korea: “The war is a huge embarrassment. While the Chinese, Americans, and even the Filipinos got to fight, we were torn between ineffectual partisans and collaborationism. So many collaborators in fact, that our country is still turned upside down by this issue a hundred years later. We’ve had book publishing wars explicitly naming names of whom worked with whom. The dictator president who put us on the map was a collaborator too, and we even ripped off our economic model from the Japanese. All this is pretty hard to stomach, so we’ve therapeutically fashioned our political identity in part as the anti-Japan.”

North Korea: “We’re far more indebted than we’ll ever admit. Without the Japanese annexation and the subsequent Soviet ‘liberation,’ Kim Il Sung might have wound up a Presbyterian preacher. There wasn’t anything close to majority support for a communist takeover in Korea, and most of what we say about Kim Il-Sung’s anti-Japanese ‘heroics’ at Mt. Paektu is completely made-up. Japanese colonialism also happily provided us with a legitimating ideology, even though our own despotism has lasted twice as long and is far more brutal. We even pulled our racist, semi-fascist, barracks-state, god-king political structure, which is neither Marxist nor Korean in precedent, from imperial Japan. But we admit nothing.””

9 thoughts on “Some Regional Honesty on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War? Not a Chance

  1. WOW hilarious🙂 Though being a South Korean, I have to admit that this is the most accurate account of WW2 seen from the aforementioned countries.

  2. And yet, those countries’ leaders (well, except NK) always talk about the need of greater cooperation in NE Asia and refer to the importance of the European integration experience as a possible template for the future. They seem to conveniently rule out the need for mutual trust as a fundamental element for a closer relationship.

  3. Russia/USSR:

    Well, after having pretty successfully established a series of buffer states guarding our vulnerable west, and established a presence in Iran, the time had now come to fix the eastern situation! Lets fix any anxieties of being attacked by Japan in an inopportune moment once and for all! Besides, they have been anxious to get us to negotiate with the USA on their behalf, which means that they are really weak by now.
    First, it is nice practice, second, we get back the stuff the Japanese stole from us recently and third, we set up a bunch of (ineptly led) buffer states on Japans expense that will depend on us!
    Oh, we are also pissed that those Americans got so much of the Nazi Empire when we were doing most of the dying and killing, lets see if we can return the favor regarding Japan!
    Perhaps Tokyo is even dumb/naive/optimistic enough to surrender to us in order to avoid American retribution for behaving like they did!

    A bit later:
    “Holy crap what, Mao actually won?”

  4. Thank you for stating the obvious fact that no Japanese right-winger or Chicom would like to admit. Without aggression from Imperial Japan, it is doubtful whether Asian Communism would have gained the strength that it did in the post-war years. The communist leadership in Beijing should send thanks to the fallen resting at Yasukuni rather than condemning them.

  5. What I find interesting is that 4 of the USSRs most reknown generals served in the far East at different time points.

    Wasily Ivanovich Chuikov (defender of Stalingrad) was, for a while, head of Operation Zet and was informally advising Chian Kai Shek. When Chiang tried to deliver Chuikov to the Japanese (in order to provoke a Japanese Soviet War), Chuikov got away. Operation Zet continued, since Stalin had a vested interest in Nationalist China staying in the fight.
    Konstantin Konstantinovitch Rokosovsky (the guy who thought up Operation Bagration, he was also incredibly instrumental for the Soviet victory at Kursk) was a signal officer in the far east at some point, and may have learned Japanese. In typcial NKVD fashion, this was used to prove he was a Polish and/or Japanese spy by the NKVD during the purges, Rokosovsky interestingly enough survived the Gulag without either confessing or denouncing someone else, a rare feat.
    Georgi Konstantinovitch Zhukov won his spurs defeating the Japanese at Kalkin Gol in 1939. This was perhaps WW2s most important battle you never heard about.
    Rodion Malinovsky was, in some ways, Chrustchevs second in command, and during the struggle between Chrustchev and Berija, as well as between Chrustchev and Zhukov later, was of a huge importance to make Chrustchev win (Chrustchev was his political comissar in WW2, and apperantly they got along pretty well). Malinovsky was partly in charge of the Soviet operation August storm, and may have, later, plotted with Lin Biao to overthrow Mao Tse Tung.

  6. I take slight umbrage at the characterization of the Japanese regime as racist. I’ve studied Japanese colonial thoiught to a pretty broad extent, and it quickly becomes clear that racist ideology was the one thing the Japanese were least comfortable with appropriating from the Western imperial agenda, in part because such ideology implicitly stated that the Japanese were inherently racially inferior. Prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War Japanese leaders frequently attempted to envelop Asia in a larger Pan-Asian ideological trend.

    Obviously this didn’t work out and in retrospect what the Japanese did was horrible and wrong. But they were at least trying to elevate the region as a whole- they considered all Asian under their dominion to be essentially Japanese, and as such these citizens received opportunities (namely education) that would have been unheard of in colonial Africa, While conflict in the region can all be tied back to Japan by the same token the economic progress of the region too owes at least something to their influence.

    None of this is a defense of Imperial Japan. That much I need to make clear.And for the most part the article is on point. But they were hardly cackling Republic serial villains. At the very least their intellectual dialogues were more honest compared to, say, modern regime change arguments in American political discourse. They at least had a plan aside for helping indigenous peoples in addition to making themselves rich, which isn’t something any European colonial power can say with a straight face.

  7. Pingback: Abe, the US, and ‘Korea Fatigue’: How Interested is the US in the Korean ‘History Issue’? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  8. Pingback: How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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