Tim Harper: Japan's gamble to become a colonial power

Roundup: Talking About History

[Tim Harper is reader in south-east Asian and imperial history at the University of Cambridge. This article draws on his recent books, with Christopher Bayly, Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire and the War With Japan (Penguin, 2004) and Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain's Asian Empire (Penguin, 2007)]

The far east has too often been seen as a distant and relatively minor theatre of the war in Europe. This perspective needs to be reversed. The great Asian war had a seismic momentum of its own. Fighting began in 1931 and there was barely a hiatus when Japan surrendered to the allies in August 1945. Between 1941 and 1945 alone, war claimed around 24 million lives in Japanese-occupied Asia, perhaps 3 million Japanese, and 3.5 million more in India through war-related famine. Of these victims, the European, American and Australasian casualties numbered perhaps 1% of the total. But such tallies do not convey the full scale of the tragedy.

Roads to war

The roots of war lay in western imperial competition in Asia and the quest of newly modernising states such as China and Japan for wealth, power and equality. Japan's rapid industrialisation, like that of the west, required privileged access to raw materials overseas. To Japan, to be a modern power was to be a colonial power. By the 1914-1918 war, she controlled the assets of Korea and Taiwan, and demanded greater access to those of China. Resistance to Japanese imperialism was a defining moment of national awakening in China. Japan's insistence on its"special interests" in China flew in the face of the so-called"open door" policy that was backed by the United States, Britain and the League of Nations. Many Japanese soldiers and politicians now saw the international system as a form of racial exclusion, designed by the western powers to protect their own imperial interests, and to deny newcomers theirs. In 1918, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, a later prime minister, wrote that it condemned Japan"to remain forever subordinate to the advanced nations". When after 1928, a stronger central government arose in China under Chiang Kai-shek, and was recognised by the west, Japan was increasingly isolated. As the great depression squeezed resources, many argued that the only way for Japan to progress was to go it alone.

In 1931, Japanese armies annexed the mineral-rich Chinese province of Manchuria [Manchukuo], and created a puppet regime under Pu Yi, China's last emperor. The initiative came from commanders in the field who wanted to commit civilian politicians at home to a bolder imperial policy. In July 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops near Beijing was escalated by the Japanese into a war of conquest of the north-east and maritime provinces → ← of China. When the capital Nanjing fell in December 1937, a huge number of civilians, probably more than 300,000, were massacred. This brutal campaign overshadows Sino-Japanese relations to this day.

The Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the inland city of Chongqing. It was weakened and corrupt, but committed to modernising China and restoring its sovereignty. A patriotic"united front" was patched up between Chiang and his main rivals, Mao Zedong's communists, who gathered strength in their northern redoubt of Yan'an. It was a fragile truce, not a working alliance."The Japanese are a disease of the skin," Chiang said in 1941,"the communists are a disease of the heart." But Chiang had gained time and allies. President Franklin D Roosevelt's family fortune came from the China trade; he believed that a democratic China was destined to lead modern Asia. But he was not prepared to go to war for it. Nor were the British. Instead they supplied Chongqing by air and road over the"Hump" from British Burma. By late 1941, a US soldier, the acerbic"Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, was in effective command of Chiang's troops. He considered Chiang a"stubborn bugger", reluctant to commit Chinese armies to battle, but Stilwell under-estimated Chiang's wiliness in drawing the Japanese into a long, costly war they could not win.

Japan now felt even more tightly encircled by the ABCD powers: America, Britain, China and the Dutch. The Netherlands East Indies was the best available source of oil for the war effort in China: Borneo and South Sumatra produced more than eight million tonnes a year. But blocking Japan's path to it was the British"fortress" of Singapore.

On 27 September 1940, Japan entered into a fateful tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. For Japan, Wilhelmine Germany had been a model for a modernising, martial monarchy. As Japanese politics lurched to the right, fascism too seemed a"kindred spirit". Both Germany and Japan spoke of shattering and remoulding the international order. But Japanese leaders were motivated by a deeper conviction that Emperor Hirohito was to be the nucleus of a new regional cosmology: a"greater east Asian co-prosperity sphere". After the fall of Paris, Japan occupied French Indochina to cut off a supply route to Chongqing and as a springboard to the south.

But the European war presented new obstacles to Japan's destiny in Asia. It caused the United States to expand its navy and to look more sympathetically upon the British empire in Asia, to help Britain fight on in Europe. Crucially, the occupation of Indochina was met by crippling economic sanctions from the United States and the west, effectively cutting off Japan's imports of oil.

In late 1940 and 1941, as positions hardened and diplomacy failed, the argument was voiced in Tokyo that only by war could these obstacles be overcome. As Japan's militant new prime minster Hideki Tojo told an imperial conference on 5 November 1941:"I fear that we would become a third-class nation after two or three years if we just sat tight."

Japan's 70 days

On 8 December 1941, Yamashita Tomoyuki's 25th Army landed on the north-east coast of Malaya and began a driving charge down the peninsula to Singapore. The British had long expected this, but failed to launch their planned pre-emptive strike into neutral Thailand, so-called Operation Matador. What was not foreseen was the simultaneous strike by air and sea at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This achieved the short-term goal of removing the immediate threat of the US Pacific fleet. But, given the fury of America's reaction, it made Japan's rather vaguer long-term goal – a negotiated and advantageous peace – much harder to attain.

The British in Malaya viewed the Japanese with racist contempt."I suppose you'll push the little men off," was the reported reaction of the governor of Singapore. But British, Australian and Indian troops were confronted by hardened veterans of the China war, advancing 20km a day by bicycle. Allied forces fell back into Singapore with a speed that did not allow them to regroup and counter-attack effectively.

But"fortress Singapore" was a myth. There were no fixed land defences to speak of, few modern warplanes, and the naval base had no capital ships. When the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the South China Sea, they were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers. Reinforcements poured into Singapore, only to witness in disgust the scorched earth destruction of the naval base they had been sent to defend.

The brutal reality was that for Churchill and the chiefs of staff in London, the first call on war materials was the Mediterranean theatre. Churchill ordered the garrison to fight and die to the last man. But at the hour of the final assault on Singapore town, fearing a wholesale slaughter of civilians, local commanders were given leave to surrender on 15 February 1942. The campaign had lasted only 70 days...

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