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From: Irish Foreign Affairs: Articles
Date: January, 2009
By: Philip O'Connor

Japan and WW2: Asia for the Asians!

Asia for the Asians!
Japan advanced through South East Asia expounding a programme as they went of Asia for the Asians, which, as Brendan Clifford writes, was very different from the message carried to Eastern Europe and Russia by Nazi Germany (Afterword, p. 192). As ex-General Toshio writes:

"If you leave people alone, someday someone will create the conveniences of civilisation, such as cars, washing machines, and computers. But in the history of mankind, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is only determined by war...
After the Greater East Asian War [known in the West as World War Two POC], many countries in Asia and Africa were released from the control of white nations. A world of racial equality arrived and problems between nations were to be resolved through discussion. That was a result of Japans strength in fighting the Russo-Japanese War and the Greater East Asian War. If Japan had not fought the Greater East Asian War at that time, it may have taken another one hundred or two hundred years before we could have experienced the world of racial equality that we have today." (Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?)


Has Toshio a point here? Japans Co-Prosperity Zone in Asia was originally not unpopular, though its rough occupation policies made it so after a time. Resistance movements seldom existed, apart from exceptional cases (the Philippines again!). By contrast, a sizeable Indian National Army (INA) of about 40,000 volunteers was organised by Subhas Chandra Bose. It procclaimed a Provisional Government of Free India and fought with the Japanese against the British in Burma. After the war, attempts to place INA men on trial in India became a galvanising point of the Indian Independence movement and today Bose is revered in independent India (including through the naming of the aiport in Calcutta in his honour). Similarly, in Burma, the leader of the independence movement, Aung San - father of the current pro-democracy figure of western media acclaim, Aung san Suu Kyi - graduated from a Japanese military academy and in the war organised a military force to fight with the Japanese. He negotiated with them the establishment of an Independent Burmese state in 1943.

As the fortunes of war changed, so the Burmese independence movement, under the influence of a United Front with communist forces, switched sides in 1945 with a promise from the Allies of an independent state after the war. In the event, after negotiating a transition regime with the Atlee Government in 1946, Aung and most of his Cabinet were assassinated by British agents.

There were similar arrangements under the Japanese elsewhere, also based on an anti-colonial rationale. In Thailand the Phibun government negotiated a Pact with the Japanese in 1941, though stopped short of declaring war on the U.S. Japans arrangements with Thailand were popular and were based on the dismantling of western colonial (especially French) structures. The Phibun government remained in power until June 1944. As elsewhere, the extreme pressure on Japan particularly shortages of food and raw materials led to unpopular requisitioning, and the turning of the tide in the U.S. favour from 1943 led to a change of mood in these countries in favour of accommodation with the new strong boys on the block, the Americans.

Japans Co-Prosperity Zone never developed further, and its position in Asia rapidly became untenable as the Allied blockade and military effort started to strangle it. The Japanese-American war changed the character of Japanese expansion in Asia and the conflict with the U.S. became the main (unequal) conflict.

Was the Asian War Anti-Fascist?
Japan was not a democracy in World War Two in the now accepted American sense, but then neither was China, the Soviet Union, France, Portugal or some of the other protagonists in the Asian conflict. Britain and indeed the Netherlands - existed in Asia on a different basis to that on which they existed at home: as an unreconstructed colonial stratum wielding absolute power over native subjects. The economic and political squeeze on Japan in the 1920s had rendered Japans political system a type of democratising imperial one dysfunctional, and had led to widespread social unrest and political paralysis. The ruling elites particularly the army - took power with the partial collusion of the imperial monarchy. But, apart from the Communists - a fairly substantial force in Japan at that time, pursuing the politics of class-based civil war - this was not an issue for the circles that mattered in world politics. Japan, like any country aping the western path of development, also produced a fascist type movement, but it had a marginal existence. Japan retained an imperial dynasty and was ruled during the years of its existential crisis by an emergency government of civil administrators and the army.

America fought the war against Japan on the clear basis of Manifest Destiny and without any pretence of fighting an "anti-fascist war". U.S. soldiers who fought in the Pacific never heard the term "anti-fascist" as a description of what they were doing. They heard a lot about the "yellow races", and a book appeared 20 years ago which produced a lot of evidence which showed that the U.S. waged a fundamentally racial war against what it regarded as its racial inferiors, involving much slaughter of prisoners etc. Grenades and flame-throwers proved a favourite method (see John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, 1986). These revelations struck me at the time as very similar to new histories appearing in Germany about the nature of the German Armys campaign in Russia as a war of racial destruction ("Vernichtungskrieg"). From late 1944, when the unequal war was nearly over, America launched an unmerciful onslaught of fire bombing against Tokyo and other cities (which were largely constructed of timber), culminating in the nuclear incineration of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This genocidal onslaught killed off well over half a million people.

What of Britain throughout all of this? In Asia, Britain also never pretended to be fighting an "anti-fascist" war, but rather a war on the basis of old fashioned colonial and imperial interest and survival against an imperial competitor. In India it attempted a re-run of the Home Rule propaganda it had employed in Ireland in the Great War. The Indian Congress movement split three ways, but its substantial leadership, including Gandhi, didnt fall for it and was interned. The predominantly Muslin wing responded more positively to British promises and a further substantial section sided with Japan. The doctrine of divide et impera employed since the days of the Indian Mutiny (Indias First War of Independence) came home to roost. The British colonial armies in South East Asia were roundly thrashed by the technically much more modestly equipped armies of Japan in 1941. The ignominious capitulation of the massive British garrison in Hong Kong which on the insistence of Churchill included large numbers of Australians and Canadians was followed by the last stand at Singapore, where General Percival, a man who had achieved some notoriety as the principal practitioner of a terrorist counter insurgency with the Essex Regiment in Co. Cork during the Irish War of Independence, surrendered to the under-equipped Japanese forces. After these ignominious defeats, Britains war in Asia was a minor sideshow compared to the U.S. war effort. It involved trying to prevent a Japanese advance on India through Burma, and some gallant commando style activity in Burma and elsewhere, led by men such as Colonel Wingate who had long histories fighting natives in India, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere. It doesnt bear too much scrutiny.

The effect of the Second World War in Asia was to smash Europes Asian empires, which had formed the most parasitic and exploitative elements of those empires. As the Japanese retreated in 1944-5, imperial control was re-established by military means against national liberation movements by the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and others. Japanese PoWs were re-armed as a militia for use against the Vietnamese and we all know what happened there subsequently. In an exotic twist of history, former Waffen-SS troops led by former resistance officers formed the backbone of the forces sent by France and the Netherlands in trying to re-secure their former possessions (the French Foreign Legion in Indo-China employed many French and German SS, often as an alternative to facing a firing squad, while the Dutch had enough SS of their own 50,000 Dutchmen had fought in the Waffen-SS). Horrendous wars ensued against national movements in the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, British Malayia, etc., some lasting into the 1960s and beyond, and at the cost of millions of Asian lives. But the Japanese had broken the spell and these protracted western imperial rearguard actions failed to restore imperial control in the long run.

Starving the prisoners?
The Japanese gamble of a limited war against the U.S. Pacific garrison did not pay off, and the U.S., as planned, used the war scenario to establish total control across the Pacific once Japan was locked into a long conflict. The Japanese economy did not have the resources or industrial base for this and it was very soon stretched to breaking point. The Americans had the Japanese codes and were able pretty well to follow every movement of troops and supplies from the end of 1942. Food supplies dwindled. After the war Japanese generals testified that as early as 1942, at the Battle of Guadalcanal, only 20% of supplies dispatched from Japan ever got through:

As a result the troops lacked heavy equipment, adequate ammunition and even food Approximately 10,000 men starved to death (quoted in Ellis, Brute Force, p. 465).


So what of Britains last Asian war myth the couple of thousand British prisoners who died in Japanese detention camps? With Japanese troops actually starving to death in large numbers, and Japans armies deprived by the blockade of food and modern medicines, there was not much of these commodities left to spare for enemy prisoners.

A recent memoir by John Lanchester is one of a spate of books appearing lately in Britain in which people are "coming to terms" with their families' implication in imperialism and imperialist crimes (an embarrassed Graham Norton was recently confronted on British television with the murderous exploits of his own ancestors in the suppression by the Yeomanry of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland). Lanchesters is one of the better of these memoirs to have appeared to date. He had a part-Irish, part-English colonial background. I presume his sense of guilt derives from the former, which included some hard-headed women sceptical of the civilisation in whose service they found themselves (his grandmother was an ex-nun from Mayo). His grand-parents, colonials in China, were "caught up" in the Japanese advance through the British colonies and ended up in an internment camp in Hong Kong. Lanchester makes the following revelation:

"So the days passed. When the Canadians were released for repatriation, on 23 September 1943, there were rumours that the same might happen to the British: that they would be exchanged for Japanese citizens held in Australia. These rumours gave rise to the most dangerous varieties of hope. But they didn't come true, for a reason that camp inmates sometimes darkly speculated about: because the British government wanted a British POW presence in Hong Kong at the end of the war, to facilitate reclaiming the colony for the British Empire. This was something my grandmother [the Irish ex-nun - PO'C] spoke about as a black rumour, and, like not a few black rumours, it is now a matter of historical record, thanks in part to Philip Snow's book The Fall of Hong Kong. The Japanese would have been willing to negotiate a deal over repatriating the internees, who after all were of no use to them. It was the British who wanted them there. The suffering of the prisoners and internees was all so that the flag would be promptly raised once more over the colony at the end of the war.. When the end of the war came, the British reclaimed the colony with a brisk lack of fuss.." (Family Romance - Every family has secrets. Some families have lies, 2008 Penguin edition, pp. 195-6)


No war for democracy
The British fought its war in Asia unequivocally as a war to re-establish its colonial empire. The Atlantic Charter was signed by the U.S. and Britain in August 1941 (months before the U.S. officially entered the wars in Europe and Asia) as a means of bringing the U.S. into the war and creating the basis of a world wide coalition. It declared U.S.-U.K. solidarity with democracy and the freedom of nations and is often presented as the statement of (western) Allied war aims in WW2. These included "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live", and "a permanent system of general security." It was imemdiately welcomed by resistance movements and exile governments across the world, including by Ho Chi Minh in Indo-China. No signed copies of it are known to exist, however, and H. V. Morton, who was with Churchill's party, states that no signed version ever existed. As has recently come to light, the very evening of the announcement of the Charter, Churchill secured the agreement of Roosevelt that its provisions would not to apply to the British Empire, and that the Empire was to be restored intact after hostilities ended (See Jonathan Fenby, Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another, London, 2008).

Not surprisingly, the newfound British liberation effort in Asia found little support locally. The Japanese Co-Prosperity Zone and claim to lead the smashing of western imperialism in Asia had been widely supported by independence movements across Asia. The successful blockading of Japan and the strangling of its raw materials and food and medical supplies turned Japanese occupation policy to one of desperate requisitioning of material and food supplies. The unequal war with America meant the outcome could not long be in doubt, and in this context Asian independence movements began to change sides towards the Americans. In Vietnam, the communist resistance leader, Ho Chi Minh, who cooperated closely with U.S. intelligence forces (the O.S.S.) modelled his planned Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on the original American document.

At the end of the war, as British and other European Allied powers sought to re-impose their colonial rule over Asia, the independence movements resisted fiercely, with the explicit support of the Communists and the sometimes tacit support of the Americans. The Cold War drew the Americans back in behind the colonials. But the sentimental colonial world portrayed in J.C. Ballards well written propaganda novel Empire of the Rising Sun was no more. Nowhere the British returned were they welcomed, and long and vicious counter-insurgency wars were to follow. In British Malaya alone over a million people were to die. The arrival of the Cold War was the saving of Japan from the fate of a white mans colony but a sentence of death for millions of independence activists throughout Asia. The exception of course was China. There the Communist forces defeated the Kuomintang, driving them back to Taiwan by 1949, and re-established a sovereign China for the first time in 150 years, at enormous cost. The Japanese were gone, and these were now rapidly followed by the remnants of the American and other western imperial colonies.

As regards to interpretations of what the Second World War in Asia had been all about, it would seem surely that General Toshio has grounds for a case of Unfair Dismissal!