Overcoming and Overcome by Modernity
Japan at War
Cartoon of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
Japanese Ultranationalism (map of the empire stained in blood)
The first great wave of modern globalization ... had begun in the late nineteenth century. In East Asia, it culminated in the 1910s-1920s with China’s May Fourth Movement and Japan’s Taisho democracy. ... The high tide of globalization receded rapidly after the disastrous collapse of the U.S. stock market in 1929, however. By the 1930s, the world was descending into what some historians have aptly dubbed a “dark valley.” As a result of the Great Depression, in the United States, real gross domestic produce had declined 35 percent by 1933, a quarter of American workers were out of work, and there were calls for the newly inaugurated president Franklin D. Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers. In Germany, the Weimar Republic gave way to Adolph Hitler. In China, the Nationalist Republic became an authoritarian single-party state with an increasingly nationalized economy. In Japan, Taisho democracy was thrust aside by the rise of ultranationalistic militarism.
Map showing the Japanese empire in 1941
Surprisingly, the industrial sector of Japan’s economy recovered fairly quickly from the depths of the Great Depression, thanks to a sharp devaluation of the yen (which made the price of Japanese exports globally more competitive), low interest rates, and increased government spending on public works and armaments. The volume of Japanese exports actually doubled between 1930 and 1936. But, as much of the world responded to the Great Depression by adopting protectionist measures — such as high taxes or outright quotas on imports, which threatened Japan’s ability to continue exporting — the argument began to resonate that what Japan really needed was to create an economically self-sufficient yen-bloc that would be independent, and under Japan’s own control. Manchuria, in particular, came [to] be viewed as a potential economic “lifeline” for Japan. (HEA, 288-9)
The modern national public school system in Japan promoted ideals of patriotic loyalty to the emperor and military valor. Organized state Shinto religion, although as an institution it was largely a modern creation of the Meiji era, nonetheless emphasized the ancient mythology of imperial descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, from before the dawn of history. This supposedly divine imperial line was proclaimed to be the core of Japan’s unique national polity (kokutai), which invested modern Japanese imperialism with a special sense of sacred mission. Exaltation of the imperial majesty reached a crescendo in the late 1930s, when over two million copies of the Ministry of Education’s Cardinal Principles of the National Polity were published (beginning in 1937), and it became required reading in Japanese schools.
Print  of the Imperial Rescript on Education Being Read at School

The Imperial Rescript on Education
Promulgated on October 30, 1890

Know ye, Our subjects,

Our imperial ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and therein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall be not only ye Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.

The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain to the same virtue. (Shinto and the State, 1868-1988, 121-2)
Globe with the Greater E.A. Coprosperity Sphere highlighted
Coposperity Sphere Poster with a Chinese, Japanese and Manchurian ("When Japanese, Chinese and Manchurians Cooperate, the World is at Peace")
In Manchuria, the Japanese sought to portray themselves as saving the common people from brutal warlords, as upholders of an ideal Confucian “Kingly Way,” and as promoters of a new order of ethnic harmony among the Chinese, Manchu, Mongol, Korean, and Japanese populations of the region. The Japanese Empire differed from most other colonial empires of that era in acknowledging a degree of racial and cultural commonality with its East Asian subjects. “Co-prosperity” became an important slogan in the 1930s, and many individual Japanese people were undoubtedly sincerely inspired by a genuine sense of idealism. The Concordia Association that was established in Manchukuo, for example, was intended to transcend not only the old-style imperialist exploitation of the colonized but also the enforced mass uniformity of modern nationalism by creating a harmonious multicultural new nation composed of many ethnicities. Such ideals were fatally undermined, however, by pervasive (and highly contradictory) Japanese assumptions of their own racial superiority. In practice, the Concordia Association merely became another tool of Kwantung Army rule. (HEA, 294-5)
Matsuoka Yosuke at the League of Nations
Japan Defended
Matsuoka Yosuke ~ Chamber of Commerce, 1934
League of Nations Logo
It seems strange to Japanese that though the United States and the League of Nations took no notice of Soviet Russia’s annexation of Outer Mongolia and made no protest against her bloody attempt to Sovietize all of China only seven years ago, they vigorously protested against Japan’s action in Manchuria, ignoring the bandit character of the government there and the vital interests of Japan, both economically and strategically. ...
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Bottle of Tsingtao Beer
The methods of Western countries in dealing with Japan for some years have been partisan. Without protest, Germany could take territory in China, establish a naval base at Tsingtao and create a “sphere of influence” in Shantung (as she did in 1898); but when Japan drove the Germans out of that province, during the World War, the American Government objected to Japan’s assumption of the German rights.
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Map of French Indochina with Colonial Ship and Globe Highlighting Indochina
France could seize the extensive territory of Indo-China and extend her “sphere of influence” up into the Province of Yunnan, in China proper, and no criticism comes for Europe of America. But when Japan objects to French extension of possession to two small sparsely populated islands off the Indo-China Coast, from which our people have long obtained guano [bird dung], American and European newspapers charge that we plan to create an airplane base on these islands and state that this is further evidence of our aggressive intentions.
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Map showing British Sphere of Influence + Hong Kong (Colony)
Britain may hold Hongkong and lay claim to a “sphere of influence” throughout the Yangtse Valley, but when Japan seeks railway and other concessions of less importance we are charged with dangerous designs. ...
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Cartoon of Uncle Sam teaching "colonial" kids from Philippines, Hawaii, Peurto Rico and Cuba with map of Philippines
America may acquire the Philippine Islands, an Asiatic territory 6,000 miles away from her shores, but when Japan takes control of Korea, a country smaller in territory than the Philippines and only 100 miles away from her island borders, the action is denounced.
Icon of Imperial Japan
To the Western mind it would seem what Europe or America does in Asia is in the nature of duty and in the line of human progress, while what we do is in the nature of selfish interest. But, in fact, we, being Asiatics, are far more capable of dealing with other Asiatics in their best interests than are Americans or Europeans.
Balangiga Massacre cartoon with the caption "Kill Every One Over Ten"
For example, in bringing order out of chaos in Korea we killed far fewer people than the Americans killed in suppressing the independence movement in the Phillippines [sic]. Yet independence was the key-word in the making of America.
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Manchurian Emperor Kang Teh (formerly Puyi, the Last Emperor of China)
In Manchuria now there is better government than exists in any part of China proper. None of the score or more military dictatorships in China is as considerate of the people as the government of Manchukuo under that country’s legitimate ruler, the Emperor Kang Teh [formerly Puyi, the Last Emperor of China]. No comparison can be made between the orderly condition prevailing in Manchukuo and the terror that holds sway in even the provinces of China controlled by the so-called National Government.
Mukden, Manchukuo in the 1930s
The capital of Manchukuo, Hsinking, is an orderly, thriving city, while Nanking, the Chinese capital, is a wreck in which no Chinese banker or merchant of importance, unless affiliated with the government and personally protected by it, dares invest his money. The independent Chinese bankers, merchants and newspapers have crowded for existence into the foreign protected and French and International Settlements in Shanghai, where American, French, British and Japanese naval vessels lie constantly at anchor.
Icon of Imperial Japan
As a result of civil wars in China since the republic was proclaimed in 1911, the great majority of the people are in desperate condition. Tens of millions of men have the alternatives only of actual starvation or service under one of the military leaders. A rising of the people against these leaders is impossible. Unarmed men with empty stomachs cannot fight today against troops, as they did in the French Revolution; the machine gun protects the dictator, who is safe as long as his army is loyal.
Propaganda Poster showing Chinese, Japanese and Manchurian Cooperation with a caption reading "With the cooperation of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace."
That explains why today, as before the independence of Manchuria, the Chinese peasants are flocking to that country, often selling their daughters into slavery or prostitution to get the money to enable them to take their sons up into the cold northern territory beyond the Great Wall, where the presence of Japanese troops makes life and property safe and enables the Manchukuo Government to function. (DC, 1st Edition, 284-286)
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "Naughty"
The Naughty Japanese
A Satirical Poem

I am bad
All others good;
O wherefore should this be?
Strong nations have their lovers
— Except the Japanese.
Look upon the cheery Indo-Chin,
For brunet Senegal spare but a glance;
Syria too considers with a grin
How deep her debt to kindly rule of France.
For I am bad
All others good;
O wherefore should this be?
There’s place for you in heaven
— But not the Japanese.
Children of the jewel Irish Isle
Johnny Bull [i.e. England] their tender homage give;
Ghandi’s natives likewise fondly smile,
Grateful they have still a right to live.
Yes I am bad
All others good;
O wherefore should this be?
Make way for all the righteous
— This bars the Japanese.
Mongol Herder murmurs “Vive La Russe”!
Master’s voice is heard at every campfire.
Who would care to make the smallest fuss,
In Soviet Union’s gentle empire?
I am bad
All others good;
O wherefore should this be?
Hell is closed to everyone
— Except the Japanese.
Benevolent the pious hand of Sam:
Europe for his loans is full of praise;
Hawaii, Haiti, blacks in Alabam
Bless his rule that brings delirious days.
Ugh! I am bad
All others are good;
O wherefore should this be!
Faultless are the empires
— Except the Japanese.
Destiny has marked us on the stage,
Villain part as foil against the rest;
How else could sanctified and sage
Except by contrast rate themselves the best!
So I am bad
All others are good;
O wherefore should this be?
All mankind’s in union
— But the naughty Japanese.
(DC, 281-2)
Animated image of a manga girl laughing
Map of China from 1928-1937 (showing Japanese encroachments)
Japanese troops entering Nanking in December, 1937
As the Japanese bombarded the city with leaflets promising decent treatment of all civilians remaining there, skeptical Chinese troops — fugitives from the Shanghai fighting — killed and robbed the people of Nanjing to obtain civilian clothing and make good their escape. On December 12 Tang [Shengzhi, commander of the Chinese troops] himself abandoned the city; since he had vowed publicly to defend Nanjing to the last breath, he made no plans for the orderly evacuation of the garrison troops there, and his departure worsened the military confusion.
Japanese soldier
There followed in Nanjing a period of terror and destruction that must rank among the worst in the history of modern warfare. For almost seven weeks the Japanese troops, who first entered the city on December 13, unleashed on the defeated Chinese troops and on the helpless Chinese civilian population a nearly unparalleled storm of violence and cruelty that has become known as the “Rape of Nanjing.” The number of women who were raped, many of whom died after repeated assaults, was estimated by foreign observers living in Nanjing at 20,000; the fugitive soldiers killed were estimated at 30,000; murdered civilians at 12,000. Other contemporary estimates made by Chinese observers were as much as ten times higher, and it is difficult to establish exact figures. Certainly robbery, wanton destruction, and arson left much of the city in ruins, and piles of dead bodies were observable in countless locations. (The Search for Modern China, 401-2)
Katana (Japanese sword)
Nanking Memorial claiming that 300,000 people were killed
Although it took somewhat longer than originally anticipated, the Japanese did swiftly capture most of the major Chinese coastal cities and the principal agricultural plains of eastern China. But the Nationalist Chinese capital merely retreated farther up the line of the Yangzi River, finally settling in the city of Chongqing (in English, Chungking), in Sichuan Province — a vast natural fortress protected by steep encircling mountains. Despite prolonged Japanese aerial bombing of Chongqing, the Chinese Nationalists continued to resist and stubbornly refused to surrender.
Map of Japanese agression in 1937
Although they won repeated battlefield victories, the Japanese found themselves unable to inflict a decisive defeat on Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China. To the end of World War II, the Japanese found it necessary to continue to station about half of all their total available forces in China, yet even that was not enough to achieve conclusive success. After the Japanese offensive stalled, however, Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to launch a counteroffensive was also seriously limited. ... Nationalist China’s loss of the developed modern sector of its economy, which had been almost exclusively confined to the large coastal cities, especially Shanghai, and which had been the government’s principal source of tax revenue before the war, led the Nationalist government to issue mountains of poorly backed paper money. This resulted in catastrophic hyperinflation. Between 1937 and 1945, average prices in Nationalist China increased by more than two-thousand-fold. In the end, it has been suggested that “inflation did more than any other single issue to undermine public confidence” in the Nationalist government and cause it to eventually lose control of mainland China. (HEA, 300-3)
Map of the Japanese empire in 1941
The huge costs of waging war on a continental scale in China, especially when combined with Japan’s strategic ambition to simultaneously gear up quickly for military self-sufficiency, drove Japan from a surprisingly robust export-led recovery from the Great Depression in the early 1930s to what would turn out to be a fatal dependency on heavy industrial imports by the end of the decade. Increased military spending after 1936 led to inflation, which raised the cost of Japanese products and made them less competitive as exports. Government controls over imported raw materials favored those with military applications rather than materials, such as cotton, that could be used to manufacture textiles for reexport. Government control also funneled new investments into war industries rather than consumer or export-oriented business. As a direct result of her quest for self-sufficiency, ironically, Japan only became more critically dependent on such imported things as machine tools, iron, and oil. (HEA, 304)
Bombing of Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor
Going to war against Japan’s own largest supplier of vital war materials (the United States) hardly seemed sensible, especially since the United States was also much more populous and more extensively industrialized than Japan as of 1941. But Japan’s options were limited. By late 1941, Japan’s stockpiles of oil were dwindling alarmingly, while the United States was already beginning a massive military buildup. If Japan was to have any chance of victory in a war with the United States, it would have to begin soon. Some leaders in the Japanese army were, moreover, confident that Japanese fighting spirit would overcome the material disadvantages. At an imperial conference on November 5, 1941, a decision was made to go to war if no settlement had been reached by December. The imperial navy drew up plans to temporarily paralyze U.S. forces by striking at the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawai’i. A Japanese carrier task force sailed for the purpose on November 26 and struck at Pearl Harbor on December 7. (HEA, 305)
We hereby declare war on the United States of America and the British Empire. ... It has been truly unavoidable. ... More than four years have passed since China, failing to understand the true intentions of Our Empire, disturbed the peace of Asia. ... The regime which has survived at Chungking, relying on American and British protection, still continues its fratricidal opposition. ... Both America and Britain have aggravated the disturbances of East Asia [and] have increased military preparations on all sides of Our Empire to challenge us. They have obstructed by every means our peaceful commerce and finally have resorted to a direct severance of economic relations, thereby gravely menacing the existence of Our Empire. ... Our Empire has no other recourse but to appeal to arms and to crush every obstacle in its path. (East Asia: A New History, 395)
Uncle Sam: I Want You for U.S. Army
All the American aircraft carriers had miraculously escaped the slaughter at Pearl Harbor simply by being out of port at the time of the attack. ... In June 1942, Japanese forces staged successful amphibious landings on actual U.S. soil in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. This was only intended as a diversion, however, as part of an elaborate plan to lure out and sink the remainder of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Thanks to some good luck, and the fact that the Americans had broken the Japanese code and were able to decipher Japanese messages, the U.S. fleet surprised the Japanese instead. In the ensuing naval air battle of Midway Island, beginning June 4, 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk to the American loss of only one. This battle of Midway became the crucial turning point of the war in the Pacific.
Map depicting various events of the Pacific War
Instead of serving as an impenetrable defensive shield, Japan’s island empire in the Pacific proved to be full of holes. U.S. submarines, sailing deep into Japanese waters with relative impunity, almost immediately began to wage an aggressive campaign to cut off the flow of essential raw materials from Java, and elsewhere, to the factories on the Japanese home islands. As a result, Japan’s industrial economy ground to a standstill, and Japan was increasingly unable to replace the ships and planes it lost in battle. Japanese-held islands in the Pacific that were especially strongly fortified could furthermore simply be bypassed, or skipped over, in the Allied counteroffensive, in a process called “island hopping.” (HEA, 307)

Ending the War
In November 1944, air raids on the Japanese home islands began with long-range B-29 bombers based in the Marianas. Altogether, some sixty-six Japanese cities were reduced to charred rubble. Incendiary bombs ignited raging conflagrations among the mostly wooden Japanese houses. Of Japan’s major cities, only the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto was spared. Before long, Allied aircraft enjoyed almost complete command of the air above Japan. Yet the unconditional surrender demand that had been adopted by the Allies at the Casablanca conference in 1943 remained unacceptable to Japanese authorities. ...
Carpet bombing of Tokyo
Hiroshima atomic bomb
Hiroshima after the atomic bomb
On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 8, the Soviet Union unleashed a massive assault on Japanese forces in Manchuria. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was detonated at Nagasaki. Even then, on August 10, the Japanese government still broadcast a message indicating that Japan would be willing to accept Allied surrender terms only if the preservation of the emperor could be guaranteed. The U.S. response, approved by both Britain and the Soviet Union, was to agree, but with the crucial modification that “the authority of the Emperor ... shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.” (HEA, 308)
General Macarthur and Emperor Hirohito
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The Bombing of Hiroshima

DVD: Barefoot Gen
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Woodblock print of Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

Photo inside the Yasukuni Shrine Museum