The 50th anniversary of VJ-Day, the victory over Japan in the Pacific, raises questions unresolved since 1945 that may well determine the next decade of Asian history. Since the United States is allied to several countries in the region, that history is likely to be ours, too. Ironically, although most of the ties that brought this country into World War II were far weaker than current ones, Japan remains a focus of any conflict.
Unlike Germany, Japan never really had to acknowledge war guilt, either in the sense of having initiated the war for aggressive ends, or in the sense of having committed horrific war crimes. The difference was in the way the Cold War played out. In Europe, the Germans had to join an alliance—NATO—along with several of the countries they had overrun. They could be accepted into a united Western Europe only by coming to terms with their history. Despite some problems, it seems fair to say that most Germans are uncomfortably aware of just what their country did to the rest of the world.
Also, although the wartime Western alliance with the Soviet Union collapsed postwar, there was enough wartime awareness of German war crimes that even the Cold War could not submerge them. Indeed, the Russians often tried to use charges of unpunished war crimes as a wedge between the Germans and their Cold War allies.
East Asia was a very different proposition. The worst Japanese war crimes were committed in China, which Japan invaded in 1931. Although American resistance to Japanese expansion in China was a major cause of the wider war that Japan began in 1941, by and large during World War II Americans were unaware of the scale of crimes committed there. They naturally focused on the island war in the Pacific. The Japanese surrender seems to have erased the very strong emotions felt during the War, possibly partly due to American knowledge of the extent to which Japan had been destroyed by U.S. bombing.
As a consequence, pressure to punish Japanese war criminals was limited at best and war crimes trials in Tokyo attracted relatively little attention; the crimes involved were generally committed against Allied combatants, not the sort of mass murders committed by the Germans against civilians. Within a few years, the U.S. and Western governments were falling back under intense Japanese domestic pressure because they were far more interested in keeping Japan within the new Western alliance structure than in revisiting the horrors of the war. The last war crimes prisoner was released in 1957. Many Japanese apparently believed that executions, particularly of senior commanders, amounted to judicial murder of the losers.
There was no pressure to build a NATO-style alliance system in East Asia, mainly because China, the largest state bordering the Soviet Union, became communist in 1949 as NATO was formed. The remaining non-communist states on China’s periphery—Nationalist China (Taiwan), South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines—all were relatively weak, and also relatively far apart. The United States concluded bilateral defense treaties with these nations, but exerted little or no pressure for them to cooperate with each other. Similarly, defense arrangements with Japan, ultimately the region’s first economic superpower, were bilateral. Japan had to come to terms with the United States, but not with other Asian countries.
More important, the bilateral arrangements were intended to defend mainly against Chinese expansion. Given Cold War strategy, it was far more important to keep Japan from falling into communist hands than to resolve the issue of war guilt.
Moreover, the U.S. government had resolved in 1945 to allow the emperor to remain on the throne—a decision that made governing Japan easier, but left unsettled the issue of war guilt. The emperor had, after all, been present at the key meetings, and he had approved the key initiatives, both in China and in the wider Pacific War. True, he also had decided to surrender in 1945, but then again so had Hitler’s successor, Admiral Doenitz, who did not thereby escape responsibility for his earlier actions. Moreover, Japanese officers maintained that they operated in the emperor’s name. For his part, Hirohito could have argued that, as a constitutional monarch, he had no choice but to approve the actions of his legitimate government. He was, however, never forced to make such an argument.
The Korean War effectively ended any U.S. attempt to reform Japan. Pressures in the Far East were much too urgent; better to rebuild Japan than to chance collapse and a communist victory from within. One might speculate that, had war begun in Central Europe in, say, 1950, the Western allies would have had to accept similar measures in Germany, accepting wartime criminals as legitimate leaders merely in order to stave off defeat. In that case, Germany, too, might well have reached 1995 without really facing the reality of events half a century earlier. It happened in East Germany, where the Soviets blame the Nazis—who, of course, had all gone West—for the crimes committed under Hitler; it followed that all the remaining East Germans were uncontaminated and had no history to face.
History matters because the events of World War II remain for many a festering sore. The Japanese official attitude of the last few decades has not helped. The war in mainland Asia is still described as the “China incident,” and officially sanctioned textbooks still do not even hint at its dimensions, or at the scale on which Chinese and other Asians were massacred. The Great Pacific War is still apparently treated as a separate story, in which the United States irrationally decided to bum down Japanese cities, culminating in the terrible crimes of the atomic bombs.
Until this year, for example, the Peace Museum at Hiroshima made no attempt whatever to explain that the atomic bombs were the culmination of a war begun with Japanese attacks on China. This historical myopia makes it relatively easy for many Japanese, not only those in government, to see current U.S. pressure on trade as a continuation of an earlier era of aggression.
One might gain some further insight from the political crisis in Japan over whether the government ought to apologize to the victim governments of World War II. Initially, after much agonizing, the Japanese government issued a statement that could be translated as an expression of deep reflection over the horrors of the war, with no reference whatever to who had caused the problem in the first place. Later, the Prime Minister managed, in a personal statement, to issue an unambiguous apology. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Akihito said that he was personally saddened by the human losses of the war, but it was by no means clear that those losses extended beyond Japan.
Apparently, about half the Japanese are more or less aware that there is a problem. Unfortunately, it often seems that the other half runs Japan, retaining a sense of victimization that is eerily reminiscent of Germany after World War I. Another characteristic of modern Japanese society is the widely accepted view that Japan is a racially unified (hence very special) society, a sort of family in which the Emperor acts as father.
Every so often it appears that many Japanese citizens, as well as leading politicians, believe that by denying their history they can somehow avoid its implications. After the Prime Minister’s public apology, a 55-year old businessman said that he saw no point in apologizing, since there was no evidence that events such as the rape of Nanking had occurred.
All this is history, albeit rather popular history on the 50th anniversary of VJ-Day. As in Central Europe, Pacific politics and history were, in effect, frozen by the Cold War. Now they are reemerging. In the Far East they have potentially explosive consequences, not least for the United States.
Japan attacked two quite distinct sorts of places. China and Korea had been independent countries; Korea came under Japanese control after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. In these cases, the local view of the war was unambiguous; it was a war against brutal Japanese domination. There was no balancing virtue. A senior South Korean cabinet minister remarked recently that his country could come to terms with Japan only if it first defeated Japan in war and then brutally occupied it for four decades, just as Japan defeated and occupied Korea.
South Korea celebrated VJ-Day by demolishing its national museum, which happened to be an old Japanese-built administration building. It was more important to destroy a symbol of Japanese power than to have something as vital to national identity as a national museum. Thailand was a different case, in that it did retain nominal independence, albeit as a Japanese satellite; many Thais remember the Japanese most unpleasantly.
Japanese apologists have described the assault on the foreign colonies, including the Philippines, as an attempt to give back Asia to the Asians. Reactions are mixed. In Burma—now Myanmar—the Japanese-sponsored Burmese government took the country to independence in 1948. The Japanese clearly exploited Burma, but then again its present rulers owe Japan a great deal. Similarly, the Dutch rulers were apparently quite unpopular in the then-Netherlands East Indies. Thus Japan probably retains considerable popularity in what is now Indonesia. The Philippines is probably a more mixed proposition, notwithstanding Japanese atrocities, partly because independence was scheduled for 1946 in any case and partly because some senior politicians found it quite expedient to collaborate with the Japanese invaders. On the other hand, the Japanese were not considered liberators in Malaysia and Singapore; indeed, the main lesson Singapore retained from the war was that in future it had to be able to defend itself.
In Vietnam, the Japanese ruled mainly through the existing French colonial government, so that those resisting the Japanese were also resisting the French. During World War II. the United States supported Ho Chi Minh. Nowhere in the wartime Japanese Empire was Japanese rule likely to be considered benevolent, and as time passes, exploitation becomes clearer. None of this anger meant much as long as Japan was the dominant economic power of the region, and as long as the United States protected everyone else against frightening Soviet and Chinese power. Now, however, the fears have receded just as non-Japanese Asian economies have grown enormously.
The 50th anniversary of VJ-Day came at a time of relative economic crisis for Japan, and U.S. pressure makes it possible for many Japanese to blame the United States, rather than internal forces or the rise of competitors, for the problem.
For nearly 50 years, U.S. interest in Asia was clear-cut; we had to deny the Soviets and their allies access to the industrial might of Japan and to resources throughout the region. U.S. involvement in Korea and Vietnam and the U.S.-Japan security treaty came out of this strategic concern. What now?
Japan is avowedly anti-military, yet it also has the largest defense budget in Asia, and the most sophisticated defense technology. Japan is utterly opposed to nuclear weapons, but arranged with France to process spent reactor fuel to provide it with a stockpile of plutonium, which can fuel reactors—and also be fabricated into nuclear bombs. China already has bombs, and the missiles to carry them; North Korea clearly wants both, although its program may not have progressed very far.
From a Cold War perspective, North Korea is a threat to both South Korea and Japan. One way to mitigate that threat is to emplace a theater ballistic missile defense system, parts of which would have to be on Japanese islands between Korea and the major Japanese islands.
From a VJ-Day perspective, such ideas are ludicrous. It is far likelier that North Korean weapons are aimed at Japan than that they are aimed at South Korea. Anyone in Korea or China must wonder when Japan will convert its large civilian space effort into ballistic missile capability. Anyone imagining a cooperative Korean-Japanese ballistic missile defense capability is surely missing the point of years of unpleasant history.
What, then, is the U.S. interest? Throughout East Asia, from Japan south to the Spratly Islands, the U.S. interest may often be not to take sides but rather to make conflict less likely, or to damp it down when it arises.
The new emphasis on sea-based theater ballistic missile defense would be quite important in this case. It is at present usually presented as a means of protecting allies from rogue states, such as Libya. East Asian history suggests a very different role: to neutralize offensive capabilities directed by friends against each other. The advantage of sea-based forces is that they can be deployed despite the offensive desires on both sides.