Daily Archives: 15 May 2004

Buruma on Japan’s Occupier-in-Chief

Ian Buruma’s chapter on the U.S. Occupation period in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003), begins thus:

General Douglas MacArthur arrived at Atsugi naval airdrome, near Yokohama, on August 30, 1945. Having emerged from his aircraft, the supreme commander for the Allied powers (SCAP) paused at the top of the steps, stuck one hand in his hip pocket, tightened his jaws around his corncob pipe, and surveyed the conquered land through his aviator sunglasses. This trademark pose, casually imperious, had been well rehearsed. It was repeated several times from different angles, so all the press photographers could get a decent shot.

We cannot know exactly what went through SCAP’s mind at that moment, but reports of his monologues on the long flight from Australia suggest that he felt like a man with a mission. MacArthur was no expert on Japan; in fact, he knew very little about the place. But guided, in his own account, by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ, he would deliver this benighted Oriental nation from slavery and feudalism and transform its people into pacific democrats. It was to be the most radical overhaul since the Meiji Restoration, another new dawn to the West. But this time America, and not Germany, would be the model, the only model. Officially, the occupation of Japan was to be shared by the other Allied powers, including the Soviet Union. In fact, it was an American show from the start.

SCAP’s mission began almost one hundred years after Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships. Then, too, “the universal Yankee nation” had come (in Perry’s mind, at any rate) to bring light to Japanese darkness. The guns on the deck of his flagship, Powhatan, made sure the Japanese got the message. This earlier mission was not forgotten at the hour of Japan’s official surrender. Perry’s flag, carefully preserved at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was flown to Japan for the ceremony on the battleship Missouri. After the old flag was hoisted and MacArthur spoke grandiloquently, like the ham actor he was, of freedom, tolerance, and justice, fifteen hundred U.S. Navy fighter planes and four hundred B-29 bombers roared overhead in tight formation.

The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were disbanded. Leftover stockpiles and materiel were either destroyed or disappeared into the black markets, thus setting up the careers of well-connected Japanese gangsters, political fixers, and right-wing politicians. Destroying Japan’s military was only the beginning, however. Political institutions had to be reformed and the zaibatsu tackled. The Japanese bureaucracy, on the other hand, was left largely in place to carry out SCAP’s reforms for him. Unlike Germany, Japan was to be administered by the Japanese themselves, with SCAP and his staff as puppet masters, frequently moving in the dark. There was a general election in 1946, and occupied Japan continued to be run officially by Japanese governments under the autocratic gaze of SCAP. Thus, an important link between prewar, wartime, and postwar Japan was preserved. The effect was not all to the good.

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Buruma on the Kamikaze Spirit

Here’s a selection from Ian Buruma’s chapter on Japan’s “War Against the West” in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003).

Suicide was the sacrifice demanded of all Japanese soldiers who were captured by the enemy. But it was demanded of civilians, too. By 1944, Japanese leaders knew that the war could not be won by conventional means, but diehards maintained that even if all Japanese had to die, the kokutai [‘national polity’] would survive forever. There could be no surrender. Thus an ancient privilege of the samurai caste became a national duty. When the Americans landed on Saipan, women and children were made to jump off the cliffs. Up to 170,000 civilians died in Okinawa. Thousands were driven into American machine-gun fire as cover for Japanese troops. Others were forced to make room in hiding places for soldiers by killing themselves and their families with razors, knives, or, if necessary, their bare hands. Hundreds of thousands more perished in the man-made firestorms of Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka, and still Japan’s Götterdämmerung was being blamed by the ruling elite on the insufficient spirit and loyalty of ordinary citizens.

Schoolchildren were ordered to write letters to Japanese soldiers at the front, telling them to “die gloriously.” In 1945, military suicide tactics actually became national policy. The Divine Wind Special Attack Units were the brainchild of Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who committed suicide himself after Japan’s defeat. Young men, often from the best universities, were pressured into volunteering for this last show of Japanese spirit. Submarines and fighter planes were constructed especially for the suicide missions. In fact, even though only one in three suicide fighters actually hit an American target, the tactic was damaging to U.S. ships and cost many lives. But even Admiral Onishi cannot have seriously thought it would win the war. He may have hoped that such tactics would, in the words of one elder statesman, develop a more “advantageous war situation,” forcing the enemy to come to terms. The desired effect was certainly deadly, but it was also theatrical: A peculiar idea of Japaneseness, whose seeds were sown in the late Edo period but which became a national pathology in the late 1930s, had turned from outward aggression to pure self-destruction.

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Buruma on Japan’s Northern Front

Ian Buruma slaps the title “Ah, Our Manchuria” on his chapter about Japan during the 1930s in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003). Here’s how the chapter ends.

Even as the emperor’s troops got bogged down in China, skirmishes on the borders of Manchukuo and the Soviet Union were threatening to get out of control. Officers of the Kwantung army, such as Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, a maniacal soldier responsible for all manner of outrages before the war was over, were itching to attack the Soviet army. Tsuji was a proponent of the Strike North faction, as were most members of the Imperial Way [faction; or Kodoha]. They wanted to contain the Soviet Union by taking control of eastern Siberia. General Araki Sadao, who was, rather absurdly, Prince Konoe’s education minister, once said that if the Soviets did not cease to annoy japan, he would “have to purge Siberia as one cleans a room of flies.”

The Strike North faction was largely army based and attracted many junior officers. Those who wished to avoid a war with the Soviet Union and head south instead, where control of the rich natural resources of Southeast Asia would allow the navy to build up strength for an eventual war in the Pacific, were mostly admirals, generals, and high-ranking officers of the Control faction [Toseiha]. The emperor had no desire to go to war with the Soviets and was on the whole more sympathetic to the navy. There was, however, no consensus at all about what to do next: cut a deal with Chiang Kai-shek and retreat from China proper; patch things up with the West; prepare for an all-out war with the West; prop up a Chinese puppet regime in Nanking; get even closer to Nazi Germany; strengthen the army, strengthen the navy; strike north, strike south. But as so often happened, Tokyo’s dog was wagged by its military tail, once more in Manchuria.

Fighting broke out in the summer of 1938 on the wet and misty borderlands of Korea, Manchukuo, and the Soviet Union. Soviet troops were building a fortification on the Manchukuo side of the Tumen River, and the Japanese decided to test them. The Soviets had bombers and tanks. The Japanese had none, but they set great store on their superior “spirit.” After battling for a fortnight, there were many dead on both sides, more on the Japanese than the Russian, but nothing much was gained or lost. The emperor told his general staff to stop the war. Colonel Tsuji ordered his men to go on regardless. Spirit would see them through. Less than a year later, at Nomonhan [Khalkhin-Gol], on the border with Outer Mongolia, the Japanese, armed with Molotov cocktails, sabers, field guns, and some light tanks, attacked General Zhukov’s Soviet tank brigades. The fighting on ghastly, mosquito-infested terrain went on for months and ended in a slaughter. The flatlands were filled with Japanese corpses, feasted on by black desert vultures. More than twenty thousand Japanese died of hunger, thirst, and disease, as well as from Russian bombardments. Colonel Tsuji was duly promoted. But the plan to strike north was abandoned. From then on all the action would be to the south.

UPDATE: In the comments, Danny Yee questions whether a determined Japanese effort against the Soviets might have achieved victory and possibly even allowed the Nazis to best the Soviets in the West. It’s an interesting question of alternative history. But, judging from the book In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army, by Edward J. Drea (U. Nebraska Press, 1998), reviewed here and here, the IJA’s serious deficiencies in logistics and heavy weaponry would have made a decisive northern victory very unlikely. Plus, they were fighting against Marshal Zhukov (although the IJA might have kept him away from Stalingrad, and even Zhukov wasn’t invincible). I think the IJA would have suffered the fate of Napoleon’s army in Russia.

Drea’s lead-off chapter, “Tradition and Circumstances: The Imperial Japanese Army’s Tactical Response to Khalkhin-Gol [Jp. Nomonhan], 1939,” concludes thus:

It seems commonplace that military defeat can be salutary in nature, because it forces out incompetents and promotes innovative reforms. The popular historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Whereas defeat in war galvanizes military development, nothing contributes to military desuetude like total victory.” Like most generalizations it overstates the case. The way an army interprets defeat in relation to its military tradition, and not the defeat itself, will determine, in large measure, the impact an unsuccessful military campaign will have on that armed institution.

More specifically, Drea finds that the IJA blamed the defeat more on lack of training and insufficient “fighting spirit” on the part of the newly activated Twenty-third Division, which bore the brunt of the defeat. When a blunt Lt. Col. Konuma suggested that “the IJA hereafter would need equal or superior weaponry to fight foreign armies,” Maj. Gen. Endo called him an imbecile and accused him of insulting the Imperial Army.

NOTE: Gads. The new Blogger interface is at its most buggy when you try to update and republish a post already published. The first thing it does is unpublish the earlier version. Then it gets worse.

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Korean Cosmetic "Imperialism" in Mongolia

Here‘s an interesting, if disjointed, blogpost with comments on “Korean imperialism in Mongolia” that I found while trying to figure out why someone came to my site by googling “korean+hairdos”?! (This site currently turns up at the bottom of the first page of search results by virtue of my two recent posts on the 1932 Aso Coal Strike and Japan’s era of Ero Guro Nansensu in the 1920s, thereby putting “Korean[-Japanese]” and “[bobbed] hairdos” in fairly close sequence. Now I suppose I’ve raised my google rank for “korean+hairdos”!)

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