Japan seeks new identity in Asian resurgence
September 2 marks the day on which Imperial Japan formally surrendered to the Western Allies 65 years ago. The ceremony was held aboard the United States Battleship Missouri at which Japanese government representatives signed the instrument of surrender officially ending World War II.
It marked the end of an era and the dawn of a new age where Japan would have no independent clout in global politics, although she would rise from the ashes of war to become an economic giant.
In our young days Western Allied propaganda claimed that Japan’s defeat - like the capitulation of Nazi Germany on May 5, 1945 - was the triumph of good over evil, of freedom’s victory over tyranny. But was not the truth far more complicated than that? No doubt tyranny there was. Japan’s wartime role in China and Korea – more than in any other Japanese occupied territory - remains a very emotional and explosive issue to this day.
What really pushed Japan into war?
Since Japan’s process of modernization to face the Western colonialist challenge, began in the mid 19th Century - pushing her out of isolation - her attitude towards Asia had been ambivalent. She wanted give leadership to Asians and yet simultaneously desired to become member of the European ‘club’ engaged in exploiting and colonizing Asia. Japan modeled herself on the European colonial empires (It was Britain that helped to build the Japanese Navy). Evidently the Japanese assumed that this was the best way of self-preservation and boosting her status in a Western-dominated world. The Meiji reformists copied European institutions and international practices to protect Japan from the fate of China which the white Imperialists had carved up.
Japan’s military victory over Russia in.1904-05 strengthened this perception. Some Western colonialists however saw in this an emergence of a ‘yellow peril.’ But an Asian nation inflicting a humiliating defeat on a European power for the first time in history greatly inspired South Asia’s nationalists in their struggle against Western imperialism. Pre-war Japan also proved to the world that her non-secular constitution centered on Emperor Worship was no obstacle to compete with the West.
In 1913 Sri Lanka’s Anagarika Dharmapala wrote an article on Japan's Duty to the World in which he stated, "It is a political trick of the Europeans to keep harping about the yellow peril… It is the white peril that Asiatic races have to guard against."
He was echoing the sentiments later expressed by Japanese politician Nagai Ryutaro (1905-1944) who identified Japan's national mission as a crusade against "white imperialism" because he found the British and the Americans did not honor in practice the ideals they preached to others - a Western double standard seen to this day in Asia. Nagai saw ‘White Imperialism’ stifling the emergence of a world in which independent and self-governing nationalities could pursue their needs and aspirations.
Rightwing Japanese political theoreticians like Dr. Shumei Okawa saw the world dominated by ‘Anglo Saxons’ and predicted that an East-West war was inevitable. A Pali and Sanskrit scholar he was the author of History of Anglo-American Aggression in East Asia (1941) among other publications.
Japan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s Kazuo Chiba in an interview with the now-defunct newspaper Weekend (dated November 7, 1982) recalled a childhood experience of a visit in 1931 to what was then the British colony of Ceylon. He was one of a little group of six-year-olds on board a luxury liner that had docked at the Colombo Harbor to fill the fresh water tanks on board.
All the children were Europeans except Kazuo. But his nationality did not make any difference. He like the rest of the boys was equally mischievous. Thus it was the same gusto that little Kazuo hurled abuse at the Sri Lankan stevedores who were unloading the ship. Every time they passed through the steel gates the little boys would shut them out and inconvenience them. It was just innocent fun. And then little Kazuo looked into the face of the perspiring stevedore and stopped short in his game.
In that silent moment when his eyes met the unperturbed ones of the stevedore he identified himself with the tired man. It was a strange revelation for a young child – but Kazuo felt oneness with the man. A feeling he had never experienced before.
“This man and I are one. We are both Asian.” The thought flashed through his mind. Immediately he abandoned his game of abuse and even called his friends off it. The white boys were dumbfounded and directed their abuse at him. They would not understand his change of attitude.
But for Kazuo Chiba the incident was the dawning of a whole new awareness, a quality that helped him through World War II to his career in the diplomatic service which brought him back to Sri Lanka. Strangely it was his first ambassadorship in an Asian country.
“The feeling of being Asian rather than just Japanese, influenced my feelings and feelings of a lot of others during the war,” he told the Weekend.
But the blunder Japan made was that her ideal of liberating Asia from Western colonialism went in two diametrically opposite directions according to Matsumoto Sannosuke (The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. XXXI, Number 1, November 1971) In one direction was support for the struggle of the oppressed ‘coloured’ people against a predatory ‘white imperialism.’ In the other was Japan’s imperialistic move to annex her Asia neighbors (Korea) and militarily intervene in countries like China in order to maintain and expand her own sphere of influence (the so-called Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere) – causing untold misery in the process, The idea of Japanese cultural superiority over other Asian races further complicated the situation.
Whatever the true aims of this contradictory policy may have been it had a profound impact on the anti-colonial colonial struggles of South and South-East Asia. Japan’s success in humbling the United States, Britain and the Netherlands in the early days of war in the Pacific dealt a mortal blow to Western prestige and its colonial control of Asia. According to Major General Mohan Singh of the Japanese-backed Indian National Army, “The British had not given even an empty promise to grant us complete freedom after the war.” (The Readers Digest Illustrated History of World War II)
Regardless of Japan’s motives it was undoubtedly her entry into the war that pushed Britain and Netherlands to grant independence to their Asian colonies, sooner than they ever dreamt of. Nowhere did Imperial Japan play a more significant role in freedom struggles than in Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). A permanent display at Museum Proklamasi in Central Jakarta, the historical site of Indonesia's proclamation of independence from Dutch colonial rule, details the role Japanese troops played in the events leading up the events of August 17, 1945 heralding the diplomatic and armed resistance of the Indonesian National Revolution leading to the country’s independence in 1949.
These notwithstanding many Asians in Japanese occupied territories undoubtedly suffered much during the war. The resulting mutual suspicion and hatred will take a long time to disappear, especially in China and Korea. It has left no alternative for post-war Japanese governments but to tender apologies and make emends. But the million dollar question is what moral right has the West to pressure Japan on such matters?
Starting with the so-called Age of Discovery, European adventurism saw the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch turn Asian lands once the centre of civilization, turn into colonies. These countries were plundered, the natives massacred and their cultures destroyed or distorted. How many of these former colonial masters have really compensated their victims or at least apologized to them?
Over a decade ago there were strong protests against Japan trying to rewrite history books in an attempt to gloss over atrocities her troops committed in China and Korea. But have any of the former European colonial powers included in their school text books the crimes they committed in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
Concerning World War II it did not exactly prove that the Western Allies were on very high moral ground than their Axis opponents. At the Allied War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, which tried wartime Japanese military and civilian leaders, one of the judges, Justice Radhabinod Pal of British India, argued that the exclusion from the list of crimes of Western colonialism, U.S. the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and judges from the vanquished nations on the bench, signified the "failure of the Tribunal to provide anything other than the opportunity for the victors to retaliate."
In the post-war years the West has not behaved any better in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan although their favourite pastime is pontificating on human rights in their former colonies, semi-colonies and countries that pose a political and economic challenge to them.
Says controversial Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara:
“Many Westerners act as if human rights are their moral ace in the hole, until their abysmal record in Asia is cited, and their position collapses like a house of cards. Pointing out their hypocrisy does not deter the Americans, however. They blunder on, badgering Asian governments…” (Voice of Asia Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century quoted in Asiaweek, September 8, 1995).
Japan’s de-politicization under American control and her almost exclusive focus on economics and commerce in the post-World War II years have stirred many debates. In the mid 1990s leading members of the Japanese literati including novelist Kenzaburo Oe told an international literary conference held San Francisco that Japan’s post -war mistake was to sell its soul to the West along with her cars and computers.
In his book Blueprint for a New Japan, former Japanese Opposition Leader Ichiro Ozawa warns that Japan going the way of ancient Carthage and relying on its wealth alone will not save her from catastrophe.
To quote Ishihara again:
“Fifty years of subservience to the interest of the United States have deprived the Japanese of a national purpose and engendered a paralyzing identity crisis.”
Conservative Japanese Author Kobayashi Yoshinori sees modern Japan corrupted by selfish individuals and rampant consumerism - a Japan no longer is worth dying for. In contrast to today’s apathetic relativists and nihilists, war-time Japanese - according to him - felt and accepted a strong connection with their birth-place, family, history and community. He says today’s Japanese ignore and even reject such connections, floating around without any solid sense of belonging.
Not entirely unrelated to this issue was the controversial week-long conference of Japanese and European Far Right nationalist parties held in Tokyo last month (August) – the first meeting of its kind. The conference was organized by the Japanese group, Issukai, which sees post-war Japanese governments as U.S. puppets – a view ironically shared by the Left.
Issukai's President Mitsuro Kimura told the UK Guardian, August 11:
"We are holding this meeting in Japan to get to know each other, to talk about how we can protect the national identity in our respective countries and cooperate to win the battle against globalisation."
Whether we agree with Japanese rightwing politics or not this view on globalization is shared by all Asians who cherish their cultural values – because to the advocates of globalization nothing matters except technology, consumerism and the market.
It bodes well for Asia that Japanese Governments no longer regard their Asian neighbors as adversaries – perhaps with the exception of North Korea. The more Japan identifies herself with Asian sentiments without racial overtones the better for the world. If economic overtures between Japan, China, South-East Asia and SAARC countries lay the groundwork for closer cooperation so much the better for a new Asian power bloc - a true Asian Co-prosperity Sphere – in the 21st Century which is widely accepted as the Asian Century.
- Asian Tribune -