Here the assignment was to write a paper responding to a journal article about how imperial Japan got a bad rap.
In “Postwar View of the Greater East Asia War,” Michiko Hasegawa essentially argues that Japan’s invasions of East-Asian nations, culminating in the Pacific front of World War II were benevolent in nature, or at least initially intended to be. Japan sought to free its cultural companions from the self-interested Western Colonial Powers and was in fact successful in doing so. In her title, she evokes the Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere and essentially argues that this was a project started in good faith, though it was eventually corrupted, though this was due to The U.S. and European powers placing Japan in a desperate situation. She laments that Japan seems to have forgotten this and blames the war on nationalism and militarism gone amuck and warns that this blindness could mean Japan will fail to protect itself from outside threats in the future. This argument is at least at first glance, tightly built and sites a lot of specific evidence to support her point of view. However, in large part it does not hold up to scrutiny.
Part of the reason Hasegawa is able to make such a superficially convincing argument is she starts with one of her strongest points. Addressing World War II only in vague terms in public and in school curricula may be polite and avoid awkwardness, but treating it as a time when “for inexplicable reasons the entire country had gone mad,” is not history as it essentially treats events as incomprehensible rather than trying to elucidate them. Pretending this non-explanation is a thorough account of the causes of the Pacific War does little to actually address the issues resulting from the war and gives no basis to relate it to current events.
I do see how failure to think realistically about previous wars could lead to national security problems in the future, though I would point out there’s a gap between public sentiment and policy even in a democracy like Japan. The public doesn’t need to worry about a potential Soviet invasion if government officials are realistically assessing it. In fact, said officials could do a much better job than a sporadically informed public so long as they are given sufficient leeway to do their jobs. An anti-war public would serve as a useful restraint to their powers. Tellingly, she does not cite specific examples here. It would be fair to say Japan regarded national security mainly in economic rather than military terms, but this was not necessarily unreasonable. After all, Japan had plenty of trading partners who wouldn’t have just allowed it to be conquered by the Soviets. Still, this is a reasonable, if debatable claim.
There rest of the paper is far shakier. For instance she attributes the 1930s boycotts of Japanese goods to racism. While this is not entirely false, it’s terribly misleading as a summary of the events. Note the complete lack of context in which she presents it. Why the 1930s? Were whites less racist in the 1920s? (Of course, characterizing whites as having a “deep intolerance of other races,” is itself a broad racist stereotype.) These boycotts weren’t spontaneous events; they were a reaction to Japan’s invasion of China. She fails to mention that many Chinese, hardly white supremacists, were also boycotting Japanese goods at this time for the same reason and had been periodically doing so for two decades in response to similar incidents. Also, if Japan was a champion against white racism, why did it sign the Tripartite pact and ally with Nazi Germany?
Most of the fallacies in Hasegawa’s idea rest on her assumption that the whole concept of a cultural sphere is valid. (Which of course further assume that whole nationalist construct is valid and that Japan, China, the U.S. etc can even be said to have interests, but I’ll grant her this because it’s at least largely true.) Japan couldn’t ally with the U.S. or Russia because of their conflicting interests as she points out, but even if Japan had the best of intentions, its interests clearly conflicted with Korea’s, China’s, Indonesia’s and so on at times, even if this was due the Western powers putting it in a desperate situation. With this in mind, why Japan be any better a defender of, for instance, the Philippines’ interests than the U.S. or Spain? She makes a point of American mistreatment of Filipinos following the Spanish American War, but does not contrast this with Japan’s own actions.
In fact, the U.S. used similar justifications in its own war on the Philippines. According to this line of thought, the Pacific was the U.S’s. natural sphere of influence and it was protecting the Philippines from European domination. There’s no doubt that a lot of people actually believed this. It doesn’t make it valid. In both cases, the sphere was really economic and protecting it meant protecting the aggressor’s interests, not the target’s independence.
In addition, here and elsewhere she uses some rather weasely attribution. “According to some,” the U.S. killed one-sixth of the population of the Philippines. “It has even been claimed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had foreknowledge and anticipated the Japanese navy’s supposedly secret attack.” According to whom? Who claims? Are these people credible? This is essentially a method of throwing out claims and using them to support points while disclaiming any responsibility for their veracity. She is trying to make an accusation without opening herself up for criticism. She can’t have it both ways.
Hasegawa then uses the dubious cultural sphere concept to excuse Japanese actions while condemning the same actions by Western nations. She would have us believe the U.S. conquered the Philippines to project American hegemony, but Japan conquered them to secure their place in a cultural sphere which was led by Japan. These sound the same to me. Similarly, she tells us the open door policy in China was self-interested expansionism, but in the same paragraph, the Hull note demanding Japan’s withdrawal from China in 1941 was an apparently unjustified blow against Japan. The Triple Intervention showed Europe’s “expansionist interests” when Germany, Russia and France forced Japan to give up the Liaodong Peninsula, which they had captured in the First Sino-Japan War, but the fact that Japan had taken this very land by force not even a year earlier is not addressed. The U.S.’s support of KMT was clearly not humanitarian, yet Japan’s various local collaborators are a demonstration of their good intentions. Essentially, we are asked to give Japan carte blanche to interfere in its own cultural sphere and criticize Europe and the U.S. for meddling outside their respective spheres, but since Japan essentially got to define what its sphere was, this is assuming the consequent.
She does, in fact address this issue in the section “Was ‘Liberation of Asia’ Mere Demagoguery?” Here, she gives three basic piece of evidence to support her conclusion that Japan’s super-nationalism was in fact, sincere. She uses the example of the U.S. Civil War to demonstrate that selfish motives do not preclude noble ones, points to various local allies of the Japanese to show that other Asian believed Japan to be acting in good faith and points out that all the former European colonies in East Asia were, in fact freed. However, these do not hold up to scrutiny. The Western powers also had local collaborators, which is why she is led to regret that “Japan was forced into the fight with much of Asia still on the other side.” The truth is any powerful entity, no matter how odious can get assistance from some of the subjugated population. This doesn’t legitimize the occupation any more than the fact the South in the American Civil War was able to find a few slaves who were willing to fight for them legitimizes slavery. That particular analogy breaks down when she uses it, though. Her point about the complexity of motives is well said, but the difference is that the North did in fact free the slaves. While all the territory Japan captured did eventually end up independent, the collapse of the colonial system was a global phenomenon, not limited to East Asia. The destruction of World War II did challenge the legitimacy of colonialism, which was in large part responsible for its downfall, but Japan did not actually free any countries and she draws no direct causal connections between any specific independence and anything Japan did. The fact that both events happened around the same time does not mean they are related.
This whole essay is essentially unfair. When she attributes Japan’s admittedly colonialist management of Manchuria to the “gap between ideal and reality,” she really means the gap between rhetoric and reality. She is comparing things Japan said with things other countries did. Rarely does anyone say they are invading a neighbor just to get a strategic location for a military base, low-cost natural resources or a captive market for their products. They always have a reason that sounds good if not considered critically. The Western powers also had noble-sounding ideals, even if they were, in practice, generally looking out for their own bottom line at the expense of the natives, but she details Europeans abuses and only euphemistically talks about Japan’s “bitter regrets” that it couldn’t live up to its principles.
Without these distortions of the evidence, the article is a tu quoque. This would be a legitimate point, yet she insists that Japan is different. She is correct that Japan’s drives to “expel the barbarians” and attain “civilization and enlightenment” were part of the same cultural push and Japan should rightly be proud of making its own path to modernization but it does not follow that since Japan was not engaging in “thoughtless imitation of the West” that it was more benevolent. As she says, cold self-interest is hardly new or unique to European powers. While it would be inappropriate to apologize for ones actions with addressing the history that led to them, she has not really addressed the history, either. She has built a body of excuses that, while not entirely illegitimate, depends heavily on cherry-picked data and special pleading. Refusing to acknowledge the dangers of nationalism and exceptionalism seems to me to be at least as perilous as failing to recognize external threats.