Monthly Archives: February 2022

Japan’s Home Front, 1941

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 253-256:

What kind of nation was Japan in 1941? Who were the 73 million people that would soon find themselves in the most devastating war in their island nation’s long history? Foreign affairs writer Henry C. Wolfe visited Tokyo in the fall of 1941 and was shocked by the gloom and dreariness of life in the once vibrant city of 6.5 million inhabitants. Four years of war and accompanying austerity had turned it into a “capital of shadows” with long lines of customers waiting in front of stores selling low-quality products made from ersatz material. Shoes of real leather could not be found. Clothes were made from a little cotton mixed with bark and wood pulp and ripped easily. Wolfe described what happened when an American diner at a restaurant asked for a second helping of pudding, the only part of his meal that was somewhat palatable. The head waiter replied, “Do you want me to go to jail!”

Wartime regulations had started out in a small way. Local governments had introduced rationing of sugar and matches in 1939, and it had become a national policy in 1940. Since then official controls had exploded, and by the fall of 1941 more than 100,000 goods and services were being regulated. Energy shortages were particularly conspicuous. Many vehicles were converted to run on charcoal, although that fuel was also in short supply. Police were soon forced to stop all public vehicles from running between midnight and 5 am. Adding to the woes, trams and trains were overloaded with people, since cars that had broken down could not be repaired due to a lack of spare parts.

The American trade curbs worsened an already steep decline in the standard of living, but they did not cause it. The tougher conditions faced by the average Japanese were equally due to the priorities of the Japanese rulers, which allocated ever larger resources to military purposes, leaving the civilians to pay. The war in China had taken its toll. In 1931, military expenditures had taken up 31.2 percent of the government budget, but a decade later it had increased to a staggering 75.6 percent. Average wages dropped by more than 20 percent from the mid-1930s until 1941. Meanwhile, there was less and less to be had for the shrinking incomes. The light industrial sector, where consumer products were manufactured, saw its share of overall production drop precipitously over the same period.

The finer things in life were, of course, virtually non-existent. Dance halls had been prohibited, despite their immense popularity, along with most jazz performances. Foreign movies were strictly limited, and Japanese cinemagoers, who were once among the most ardent foreign fans of Hollywood and even copied manners and slang from major American releases, were now limited to grim German propaganda fare with titles such as Victory in the West. The lights were out, also, in a quite literal sense. In Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, the famous glittering neon signs had been turned off to save electricity. Five-star hotels, too, were wrapped in gloom after they were urged to keep lighting at a minimum.

Miyamoto Takenosuke, vice director of Planning Board, argued that “the people should be satisfied with the lowest standard of living.” He went on: “The craving for a life of luxury must be abandoned. At this time, when the nation is risking its fate, there is no individual any more. What remains is the nation and the nation alone. The storm of economic warfare will become more furious. Come rain! Blow wind! We are firmly determined to fight against the storm.” Japan’s largest candy maker Meijing [sic] Confectionary Company chimed in with an ad campaign featuring the slogan “Luxury is the Enemy!” The National Defense Women’s Association also did its part in imposing wartime rigor, posting members on street corners to stop women who were dressed too extravagantly, passing them handbills with stern admonitions about the need for thrift in light of the national emergency.

At the same time, a thriving black market for regulated goods had emerged almost immediately, and a special economic police set up to rein in the activities made more than two million arrests within just 15 months. The vigorous law enforcement did not curb the illegal transactions, but simply encouraged them to be carried out in more ingenious ways. A modern historian gives an example of how it remained possible to trade coal at the black-market price of 1300 yen, well above the official 1000 yen price tag: “To secure the additional 300-yen profit without running afoul of the law, a vendor, for example, might arrange for a customer to ‘accidentally’ drop 3000 yen next to the vendor’s stall. He would then take the money to the nearest official who would instruct the buyer to pay ten percent in thank-you money (300 yen) to the vendor.”

Despite the hardship, the Japanese government pretended it was in a position not only to care for its own population but for the peoples of all Asia.

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Fall of Saigon, 1941

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 244-246:

The city of Saigon was peeking into an uncertain future at the end of July 1941. The population knew that the Japanese military would arrive within just days, completing the takeover of French Indochina that had begun less than a year earlier in the north. As the Municipal Band was practicing for the welcoming ceremony in the city’s main square, Japanese advance parties quietly moved into the best hotels, preparing for the arrival of much larger numbers of soldiers. The French officials had promised a peaceful occupation and pointed out that Saigon was lucky to escape the fate of Syria, another French possession, which had just recently been invaded by British and Australian troops.

Despite the reassuring words from the officials, apprehension loomed everywhere. French and Japanese planes roared across the sky over Saigon, as if to symbolize rivalry between the two nations for mastery over the city. The government-controlled newspapers ominously warned people not to stage any protests against the city’s soon-to-be masters, confirming that anti-Japanese feelings were running high, especially among ethnic Chinese and sympathizers of the Free French under General Charles de Gaulle. There were even runs on the British Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, the Chartered Bank of India, and several Chinese banks, and they had all been forced to introduce temporary limits on the amount of money that could be withdrawn at a time.

The Japanese came on July 30. At 6:30 am a Japanese transport painted in dark gray touched the pier of Saigon harbor. The deck was loaded with barges and motorboats, and the masses of infantrymen in khaki ascended from the hull to get a first glimpse of the tropical city through the morning mist. Fifteen minutes later, the next transport arrived, and by the end of the day a total of 14 vessels had carried 13,000 Japanese troops to Saigon. Thousands of others were onboard 30 vessels anchoring at Cap St. Jacques at the mouth of the Saigon River. Soldiers also poured out onto the pier at the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay.

Over the next few days the soldiers worked around the clock to unload weapons and supplies onto the docks. Trucks were leaving incessantly for new barracks being set up on the outskirts of Saigon. Japanese officers with long traditional swords tied to their belts moved into private homes that had been requisitioned and ordered vacated, relegating the original inhabitants to passenger ships anchored in the river. Several office buildings belonging to French and British firms were also taken over for military purposes. “The Japanese have landed, and the British threat to Indochina is ended,” a local paper wrote, suggesting that Britain might have repeated its invasion of Syria here, although this was sheer fabrication.

Rather than a defensive move forestalling a British invasion, it was an offensive step with deep strategic implications. As the New York Times explained, “it will put a total of 40,000 Japanese troops in Southern Indo-China, will station Japanese planes within easy bombing range of British Malaya and Burma, within an hour’s flight of Bangkok, Thailand, and will enable Japanese air patrols to cover the ship routes of the China Sea and complete Japanese air domination of all Indo-China. The five-year-old base of Cam Ranh Bay itself is virtually equidistant from the powerful American base of Cavite, guarding the approach of Manila Bay, and from the British bases of Hong Kong and Singapore. It is about 600 miles from the coast of the Netherlands Indies.”

In the French city of Vichy, half a world away, reports of the Japanese influx reached the weak German-tolerated government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain. The Vichy regime had acquiesced in the Japanese takeover, but only because it saw no other option. Resistance similar to that offered in Syria, where French troops had fought vigorously against the British and Australians, was out of the question. The clashes with Thai troops in recent months had demonstrated the desperate weakness of France in Asia. Still, the Vichy officials were furious and frustrated, and prone to blaming the United States for the unbridled Japanese advance in Asia.

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Thailand Attacks Indochina, 1941

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 217-219:

In early January, forces of the Kingdom of Thailand crossed the border into French Indochina in four different sectors from northern Laos to Cambodia. The attackers made swift progress in most places. Pockets of resistance were wiped out by over-whelming firepower. At the southern edge of the Thai advance, scattered fighting took place along the Route Coloniale 1, the main road connecting Bangkok to Phnom Penh and the other major cities of French Indochina. The French defenses, made up to a large extent of Indochinese recruits, considered the terrain near the road unsuitable for defense and pulled back, allowing the Thai forces to occupy large tracts of land virtually unopposed.

The Thai offensive came as no major surprise to the French. Thailand, one of few Asian nations to escape Western colonialism, had been tempted by the speedy defeat of France in the summer of 1940 to request the return of territory in Laos and Cambodia that had been ceded to the French colonial power in the preceding decades. Part of the Thai motivation was also a desire to act fast and seek a strengthened position in this particular part of Asia before Japan moved in and made it impossible. Following the political fashion of the 1940s, Thailand carried out the drive for more land in the name of bringing “all Thai people” under one government, even though not all the areas claimed by Bangkok were inhabited by people that could justifiably be described as Thai.

In addition, there were domestic reasons for Thailand’s sudden aggressive demeanor. Militarism was growing in the country, and the civilian leadership was increasingly dominated, or rather threatened, by the Army’s jingoistic top brass. Early in the crisis with France, while the United States was seeking to mediate, Washington’s ambassador to Bangkok was visiting Thai Prime Minister Pibul Songgram at his private residence. The American envoy noticed that Army officers were sitting in an adjoining room, listening in on the conversation through an open door. “They might kill me if I do not follow their desires,” the Thai prime minister told his American visitor.

The mediation made little difference, and by late 1940 tensions between France and Thailand had built up. In December, all Thai nationals had left French Indochina, and in the end the diplomatic staff at the Thai consulate in Saigon had been ordered to pack up and sail for Bangkok. In the same month, Thai airplanes dropped bombs over the French colonial city of Vientiane. French pilots who were scrambled to intercept the bombers were surprised to be faced with aircraft that were “extremely well flown.” It seemed, they said, that the Thai pilots had “plenty of war experience.”

Once the land invasion in early January 1941 was a reality, the French military commanders in Indochina set in motion contingency plans prepared a few months earlier. It called for the concentration of the few forces available in a two-pronged counterattack in the forested area around Route Coloniale 1 on January 16.

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Chiang Kai-shek’s Soviet Bombers, 1938

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 116-118:

In January 1938, Russian pilot F. P. Polynin was still only a recent arrival in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the de facto capital after Chiang Kai-shek had left Nanjing, and the Japanese invaders had still not got used to the idea that now they also had to fight the mighty Soviet Air Force. The 31-year-old officer’s squadron of high-speed, twin-engine Tupolev SB bombers was part of the Soviet aid that was beginning to trickle into China. On a cold morning shortly after New Year, his unit was put to the test with a difficult and dangerous mission into the heart of enemy country.

Polynin’s plane took off from the airfield before dawn, followed by 25 other bombers. Only they and a few other military personnel knew where they were heading: a Japanese air base near Nanjing, where a large number of aircraft had been assembled for a planned offensive. Secrecy among the Russians and Chinese had been tight, due to an all-pervasive fear of spies. The briefing of the crews had taken place behind closed doors protected by armed guards, to make sure no one was listening in.

The bombers crossed the Yangtze River under the dim light of the moon and reached their target just as dawn was breaking. The attack came as a total surprise to the Japanese. “Apparently they were still sleeping, because nothing was moving on the airfield,” Polynin wrote in his memoirs. “The Japanese aircraft were lined up as if for a review. Soon the bombs started falling. Fires broke out, and people were running back and forth among the flames.”

The operation went completely according to plan. Intelligence later showed that 48 Japanese airplanes had been destroyed in the raid. It was just one of many successes scored by the Soviet pilots assisting China in its desperate war against Japan. The aviators, part of the military aid to China promised in the wake of the bilateral Sino-Soviet agreement of the year before, had started making an appearance on the battlefield during the autumn 1937, and by 1938 their presence was of such a scale that it made up for some of Japan’s crushing superiority in the air.

A few weeks later, Polynin and his fellow airmen took part in an even more daring raid. This time the target was Formosa, a Japanese colony that the Chinese referred to by the old name of Taiwan. A total of 28 Tupolev SB bombers took off from Wuhan and crossed the narrow Taiwan Straits heading for the ocean north of the island. Once the aircraft had reached that area, they abruptly changed course due south, in the direction of Taiwan’s main city, Taihoku [= Taipei], and its military airport. Once again, Polynin was struck by the lack of preparation by the Japanese. “We could clearly see two lines of airplanes next to the hangars,” he wrote. “The enemy had done nothing to conceal the area. Obviously, he felt completely safe.” Polynin was in the lead plane, and releasing his bombs, he saw to his satisfaction one explosion after the other unfold like flowers in the middle of the airfield. The other planes followed suit, dropping a total of 280 bombs. Japanese anti-aircraft batteries opened up, but too late. All Soviet aircraft returned safely.

As time went by, Soviet pilots came to play a pivotal role in Chiang Kai-shek’s war effort. “We depended on the Russians,” a Chinese general said later. “Our pilots had been too brave at Shanghai. Our air force had been dealt too severe a blow.” The Russians were known for their courage and their devotion, spending most of their days in their cockpits, ready for take-off at seconds’ notice. Wherever they showed themselves in the big cities, they were treated as celebrities. In the countryside, they could not count on the same level of recognition. On the back of their jackets, Chinese characters stated: “I am a Russian. I am here to help you fight Japan.” It was a safeguard, perhaps even a life insurance, if they were shot down and parachuted down among suspicious Chinese peasants.

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Global Conflict in East Asia, 1930s

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 6-7:

In late summer 1939, a 22-year-old man in the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer was on his way to Germany’s border with Poland. His mission was to attach himself to a German division as an observer during the invasion that was only days away. The young man must have attracted considerable attention since his features were anything but Aryan. His name was Chiang Wei-kuo, and he was the adopted son of China’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek. For the past two years he had undergone advanced military training at the War Academy in the south German city of Munich. In that capacity, he had even taken part in Germany’s peaceful occupation of Austria in March 1938.

Chiang Wei-kuo’s story was a reflection of how close Sino-German ties had grown in the 1930s, as Germany’s resurgent armament industry was exporting vast quantities of military equipment to the Nationalist Chinese regime, whose efforts at building up a large modern army were also assisted by a corps of experienced German advisors. The assistance had proved particularly useful since 1937, after full-scale war broke out between China and Japan. By 1939, however, Germany was growing friendlier with Japan and was busy distancing itself from Chiang’s regime. As a result, Chiang Wei-kuo’s presence was beginning to appear out of place, and when he passed through Berlin en route to the Polish border and paid a visit to the Chinese embassy, he received new orders: he was to travel to the United States for military training there.

Consequently, by the time German panzers rolled into Poland in the early hours of September 1, Chiang was already on a ship bound for America, which was emerging as an important new ally for China. He would soon commence studies at the Armored Force Center, Fort Knox, before returning home three years later, his brain filled with the latest military knowledge. He was not the only one in his family to travel widely. His stepbrother Chiang Ching-kuo had spent 12 years in the Soviet Union. He had a Belarusian wife and even a Russian name, Nikolai Vladimirovich Elizarov.

The two stepbrothers formed just a corner of a corner in the immensely complex web of relations and interactions that characterized Chinese and Asian politics and society during the 1930s, the decade that saw the Sino-Japanese War flare up and, little by little, set in motion events which would eventually lead to Japan’s conflict with an array of Western powers. What the Chiangs do exemplify, however, is the extent to which the war in the Asia Pacific was, right from its earliest origins, a global affair, involving both indigenous actors and actors from thousands of miles away.

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Japanese Reactions to the Republic of China, 1912

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 697-698:

On December 28, 1911, the Manchu government issued a statement appealing for an end to hostilities and calling for a fair election to determine whether the people desired a constitutional monarchy or a republic. The following day, without reference to this appeal, an election was held in Nanking for the president of the provisional republican government. Sun Yat-sen was elected and took office on January 1, 1912.

Faced with this opposition at home and abroad, the cabinet abandoned hope for a constitutional monarchy. Opinion among the nobles was divided, and the situation was chaotic. Yüan concluded by asking Ijūin to offer his advice. Ijūin replied that Japan had no easy solution to offer, but he conveyed the Japanese hope for a constitutional monarchy, even if this reduced the emperor to being a mere figurehead. He added that the Japanese government was unlikely to recognize any government unless it demonstrated it was capable of suppressing disturbances. Until such time, Japan would have no choice but to treat China as a country without a government. This response upset Yüan greatly.

The end of the Manchu dynasty, after 300 years of rule, came a few weeks later. On February 12, 1912, the six-year-old Emperor Hsüan T’ung announced his abdication. Yüan Shih-k’ai formed a provisional republican government and was granted full powers to negotiate with the people’s army on unification. On the thirteenth Sun Yat-sen, recognizing Yüan’s military capability, offered his resignation as president to the Assembly in Nanking and proposed that Yüan Shih-k’ai be the new president. The Assembly agreed, and on March 10, in a ceremony held in Peking, Yüan took the oath of office as the first president of China.

Emperor Meiji’s reactions to the abdication of the Chinese emperor are not recorded, but he was undoubtedly more affected than, say, when he heard that the king of Portugal had been driven from his throne. Not only was China far closer than any European country, but his respect for China lingered despite the decisive defeat Japan had administered in the Sino-Japanese War. China may have lost its preeminence among the nations of East Asia, but when letters were exchanged between the emperor of China and the emperor of Japan, they both wrote in Chinese, and Meiji’s rescripts were dotted with Chinese words and phrases borrowed from Confucian texts.

Nationalists did not hesitate to say that the Japanese, rather than contemporary Chinese, were the true heirs to the ancient glories of Chinese civilization. The fall of the Chinese monarchy, breaking traditions of more than 2,000 years since the first emperor, could not be dismissed as most Japanese had dismissed the fall of the Ryūkyūan or the Korean monarchy as the unavoidable fate of a weak country in the modern world. During the next forty years or so, China was subjected by the Japanese military to humiliation and the ravages of war, but it continued to exercise a powerful attraction on Japanese intellectuals who felt that the Chinese past was in large part their own.

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Rectification of Korean Titles, 1910

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 673-677:

The memorandum that [Resident-General of Korea] Terauchi showed to Yi Wan-yong contained a somewhat earlier version of the treaty articles. It proposed, for example, that the Korean emperor be known henceforth as taikō denka [太公殿下] (His Highness, the archduke) and the crown prince as kōdenka [公殿下] (His Highness, the prince). These titles would be hereditary. The memorandum recognized that some people might object that this represented a demotion from their present status, but these titles would be Japanese, not merely Korean.

Cho (who spoke fluent Japanese) called that night on Terauchi and told him that he and Yi agreed that unless the name Han-guk [韓国] and the title of king were retained, no compromise could be reached. They were apparently under the impression that annexation would be a union of two countries, each retaining sovereign status, rather in the manner of Austria-Hungary or Sweden-Norway. Terauchi was surprised by this lack of understanding of Japanese aims, but he finally agreed to allow the country to be known by the old name of Chōsen [朝鮮]. In response to the request that the title of king be retained, Terauchi compromised to the extent of allowing the emperor to be known as riō denka [李王殿下] (His Highness the Yi king). The title ō was not the same as kokuō [国王] (king); in Japan, ō meant no more than a prince, but this concession seemed to satisfy the Koreans’ wounded pride. Retired Emperor Kojong would be known as taiō denka [太王殿下] (His Highness, the great king), and Crown Prince Yi Eun, as ōseishi denka [王世子殿下] (His Highness, the heir to the king). Cho agreed to these changes and informed Yi, who told Terauchi that he was confident he would be able to persuade the cabinet at the meeting on the next day to accept Terauchi’s compromise.

On the same day, August 29, a series of imperial ordinances were issued, proclaiming that Han-guk was henceforth to be called Chōsen, that the government general of Chōsen had been established, that an amnesty was to be put into effect in Chōsen, and that there would be an extraordinary imperial bounty in Chōsen. Other ordinances dealt with duties on Korean merchandise imported into Japan, patents, designs, copyrights, and similar commercial matters. After long years of laxness under their own rulers, the Koreans were getting an early taste of Japanese efficiency.

Korean news media got some small revenge when they reported the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. They demoted him to 日王 (ilwang), King of Japan.

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Japanese Pessimism after 1905

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 646:

The naturalist movement in literature, a literature of disillusion, developed immediately after the Russo-Japanese War. A typical example of naturalist fiction, Tayama Katai’s story “Ippeisotsu” (One Soldier), based in part on his experiences as a war correspondent in China, was considered to be so antimilitaristic that for years it could be printed only with passages excised. The generation that grew to maturity during the years after the Russo-Japanese War seemed to be alienated. This alienation often began with shock at the wartime casualties and disappointment over the results of the war but later took such forms as socialism in politics. This in turn caused the older generation to express gloom over the loss by the young of their traditions. Yamazaki Masakazu characterized the times as “the morose era.”

Oka Yoshitake wrote of the same period, “Some youths were swallowed up by scepticism and despair in the course of their search for meaning in life. In fact, that tendency had showed signs of emerging even before the Russo-Japanese war, but it became much more apparent following the cessation of hostilities.”

One might suppose that victory in the war and the admiration voiced abroad would have made the Japanese self-confident, if not proud, but critics of the time worried about the “anxious pessimism” that had become fashionable among young men and women. This pessimism, ironically, may have contributed to the extraordinary flourishing of literature during the ten years after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War.

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