There will be loads of retrospectives this year. But rather than write yet another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ piece, 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 forces the empire itself had sought 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 what 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.) 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 we fought the war really foolishly; our general staff actually thought we could simultaneously fight China, the British Empire, and the US and win…”
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 so great, 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 in the Brits and Americans, wouldn’t have been necessary. I am happy to say that Mao did the least he could in all this, 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.””