The Showa War: Japan’s Poor Grasp of Global Trends

The Daily Yomiuri, Japan’s largest newspaper (and a far cry from the Daily Worker), has been running a series of historical retrospectives leading up to the August 15 shusen kinenbi ‘end-war memorial-day’. Notice that they call the war that lasted from 1931 until 1945 the Showa War, named for the third emperor of modern Japan, known outside Japan as Hirohito. Here’s the 18th instalment, about Japan’s poor grasp of global trends as several regional wars mutated into a global conflagration.

What should we learn from Showa War?

Many people who experienced the Showa War have died in the 61 years since the curtain came down on the fighting. To younger generations, the war is a distant event.

The Yomiuri Shimbun’s War Responsibility Verification Committee attempted to determine the truth behind the hostilities, examined the facts and found many lessons that can be learned. To close the committee’s yearlong verification process, we summarize the mistakes made by the political and military leaders:

A nation’s future will teeter on a knife-edge if it cannot accurately read the balance of power among nations and global trends. After World War I, Japan found itself in such a situation.

Japan’s first mistake was the Manchurian Incident.

At the Washington Naval Conference held in Washington from late 1921 to 1922, the Nine-Power Treaty, whose signatories agreed to respect China’s sovereignty, and the Five-Power Treaty that limited tonnage of aircraft carriers and capital ships by the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Italy, were concluded. The invasion by the Kwantung Army into Manchuria challenged these treaties, which formed the backbone of the international order at the time.

The expansion of the Imperial Japanese Army into Manchuria provoked a fierce response from the United States, the country that advocated compliance with international agreements, nonintervention in domestic politics of other countries, market liberalization and equal opportunities. The reaction led to the Stimson Doctrine of January 1932, named after U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. The doctrine said the United States would not recognize any territorial or administrative changes imposed on China by Japan through the use of military force.

Japan’s growing isolation from the international community was highlighted by its withdrawal from the League of Nations in March 1933. Less than seven months later, Adolf Hitler’s Germany also left the league.

Japan’s plan to seek closer ties with Germany exacerbated this isolationism. The plan to conclude the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy was once dropped due to circumstances in Europe described as “complicated and mysterious” by Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma. However, dazzled by Germany’s string of victories in Europe, Japan finally concluded the Tripartite Treaty in September 1940.

Conclusion of the pact meant Japan was allied with the nation bombing London. This was a fatal choice.

The Japanese military, whose leaders mostly were pro-Germany at that time, were unaware of the repercussions the treaty would have on the Sino-Japanese War. Britain had further clarified its stance of assisting Chiang Kai-shek, and the United States also promised substantial assistance. Japan had, accidentally, internationalized the Sino-Japanese War.

Japanese military and government leaders at that time failed to accurately grasp the international situation. They did not understand the rise of nationalism in China that set the foundations for the country’s unification after the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

At the heart of the problem was the common perception in Japan in those days that “Shina [China] isn’t a country.” Japan justified its invasion into China by claiming that China was a “society of marauding bandits.” The prevailing view in Japan at that time was that Chinese people lacked the ability to establish a modern state.

Of course, a few politicians, such as Tsuyoshi Inukai, clearly understood the nationalism in China. However, such politicians were shunted from the political stage early on during the Showa War by acts of terrorism by the military, making it impossible for them to influence Japan’s policy toward China.

Furthermore, army officials who should have played important roles in policy toward China instead became “an advanced group” to lay the groundwork for invading China. Dubbed “army China specialists,” they included Kenji Dohihara, chief of the Mukden Special Service Agency, and Takashi Sakai, chief of staff of the China Expeditionary Force. As military advisers to warlords possessing territories in China, they used conspiracies and various tactics as if they were real-life characters from the “Three Kingdom Saga.”

They ignored moves by Chiang Kai-shek and other leaders of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the rapidly rising Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. They also failed to consider the united national front of the Kuomintang and Communists that would later determine China’s destiny.

The leaders lost a balanced perspective of the international situation because Japan analyzed only one-sided data collected from Germany in Europe and warlords in China.

In the Imperial rescript on the declaration of war against the United States, as well as Britain, Emperor Showa said the war was for “self-existence and self-defense.” However, Japan changed the purpose of the war to create the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere after the war started. This was based on the concept of dividing the world geopolitically into four spheres–East Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Soviet Union–in which Tokyo planned to create a self-sufficient bloc of Asian nations led by Japan and free of Western powers.

However, this concept ignored the existence of China and focused too much on ideology. Consequently, it opened the door to an almost limitless expansion of the battle, although Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, who played an important role in wartime diplomacy, took steps such as holding the Greater East Asia Conference in November 1943.

As Japan sought to bring an end to the war, it asked the Soviet Union, which had remained a virtual enemy of Japan, to serve as a mediator in peace negotiations. Japan’s leaders were unaware that the Soviet Union had pledged in a secret agreement at the Yalta Conference to enter the war against Japan within 90 days of Germany’s defeat, the U.S. success in developing atomic weapons and the U.S.-Soviet tug-of-war for the postwar global political leadership. In the end, Japan suffered two atomic bombings and was attacked by Soviet forces in the final days of the conflict, which led to the incarceration of many Japanese in Siberian internment camps after the war.

via Foreign Dispatches, who comments:

The day that Korea’s largest newspapers are capable of such candor about the less than glorious aspects of their country’s past is the day that I’ll know there are more than two true liberal democracies in East Asia (Taiwan being the other apart from Japan). As for China – well, I won’t expect any such thing in my lifetime …

UPDATE: Taiwan urges Japan to ‘face history

UPDATE 2: As commenter Peter North observes, this piece is far from hard-hitting. Instead, it reads like a wishy-washy committee report. The other instalments I’ve read are similar in that regard.

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