Category Archives: war

Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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Why Japan Invaded Taiwan in 1874

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 551-554:

Kaishū’s rather uneventful career at the center of the Meiji government ended just ten months after his dual appointments as navy minister and cabinet member. His resignation, it seems, had to do with problems with China, which were directly related to Japan’s invasion of Taiwan in April 1874. Ostensibly, the purpose of the invasion was to punish aborigines in southeastern Taiwan who had murdered shipwrecked Ryūkyūan sailors around the end of Meiji 4 (1871). The Ryūkyū Islands were formerly the suzerainty of Satsuma; and after the Meiji Restoration, Japan, which considered the Ryūkyūs part of its empire, claimed the right to protect Ryūkyūans and to punish the Taiwan aborigines because China, which also claimed Taiwan, had refused to accept that responsibility by punishing the savages or compensating the victims’ families. But Japan’s real objective in the invasion was to affirm its sovereignty over the Ryūkyūs, which had been under the nominal suzerainty of China since 1372.

Japan had yet other motives for invading Taiwan, which overlapped those for the proposed invasion of Korea. We have seen that Shimazu Nariakira, probably no less revered by Ōkubo Toshimichi and other Satsuma men in the central government than by Saigō Takamori himself, had called for the conquest of Taiwan and Fuzhou to defend against foreign encroachment. We also know that since the closing years of the Tokugawa period samurai of Mito and Chōshū had advocated Japanese expansion to demonstrate their country’s strength, with the aim of fending off Western encroachment in East Asia. And, according to certain historians, through Taiwan, Japan perceived an opportunity to dispel the widely held belief in the West that it was still the weakened nation it had been during the final years of the Bakufu. A Taiwan expedition also promised to provide dispossessed former samurai with a livelihood—and, Parkes observed in a letter dated April 14, 1874, it would “quiet the hot bloods [who still called for a Korea invasion, and], who think Japan should enter on a career of conquest.”

The cabinet in Tōkyō approved a punitive expedition to Taiwan on February 6, 1874, ten days before the outbreak of the Saga Rebellion. Kaishū attended that meeting; but it is unknown whether he opposed or supported the expedition. His words and actions over the coming months suggest that he opposed it, as does his prior vision of a Triple Alliance between Japan, China, and Korea. The only clear dissenter in the cabinet was Kido Takayoshi, who did not attend the February 6 meeting. Kido, as we know, had supported Kaishū’s scheme for a Triple Alliance; and he had opposed a Korea invasion. His opposition to foreign intervention had not changed. Some two months later, on April 2, Kido was the only cabinet member not to affix his seal to the resolution on the Taiwan expedition. Kaishū, who attended the April 2 meeting, signed the resolution (although this seems to contradict his true intent).

Saigō Tsugumichi’s forces easily achieved their purported objective of chastising the aborigines on Taiwan. But the real trouble began soon after that, when the Chinese government demanded the immediate withdrawal of Japanese troops from Taiwan, while Japan challenged China’s jurisdiction over the southern part of the island because it had failed to accept responsibility for the actions of the aborigines. Neither side showed any sign of backing down, and war seemed imminent. The government in Tōkyō, meanwhile, was divided over the issue of withdrawal. One side argued that since the primary objective of punishing the aborigines had been accomplished, it was time to bring the troops home. Theirs was a practical viewpoint. We have already noted Parkes’ assessment of the meager state of Japan’s navy. A war with China, they feared, would be too dangerous. Supporting their argument was the minister of war himself. On August 4, Yamagata Aritomo reported on the feeble state of the Japanese military, and warned that the instability at home redoubled the danger of a foreign war.

The other side, represented by Home Minister Ōkubo, Finance Minister Ōkuma, and Justice Minister Ōki, insisted that before withdrawing the troops, Japan must obtain an indemnity from China as a matter of honor. To that end they needed a diplomatic settlement. If a settlement could not be reached, they insisted, there must be war. The hard-liners, led by the powerful home minister, prevailed—but even so Ōkubo, advised by Yamagata, was mindful of the grave danger of a war with China. Ōkubo was dispatched to China to negotiate a settlement, with the powers to decide on war or peace. On August 6, Kaishū was among a party who saw Ōkubo off on his journey at Shimbashi Station in Tōkyō, where the latter boarded a train for Yokohama. Kaishū wished Ōkubo a quick return to Japan upon accomplishing his mission “without difficulties”—implying, it seems, his hope for a peaceful settlement with China. Ōkubo arrived in Peking on September 10. In the midst of his negotiations with the Chinese, during which neither side showed any sign of backing down, Ōkubo determined that Japan would not start a war.

The British, of course, had a vested interest in seeing a peaceful settlement—i.e., safeguarding their considerable China trade, which amounted to some US$250 million at the time. On June 23, Parkes had written that the Chinese “have no pluck” for not demanding the immediate evacuation of the Japanese troops from Taiwan. On September 15, he wrote that he could not imagine the Chinese “sinking so low as to give in.” But the Chinese did give in, and on October 31 the two sides signed an accord, through the mediation of the British minister, Sir Thomas Wade. China agreed to indemnify the families of the murdered Ryūkyūans and to compensate the Japanese government for expenses incurred in the construction of roads and buildings for the expedition, which the Chinese would be allowed to retain after the withdrawal of the Japanese troops. China’s acceptance of Japan’s legitimacy in undertaking the Taiwan expedition implied that it recognized Japan’s sovereignty over the Ryūkyūs, which had been Tōkyō’s main objective from the start. The Meiji government’s first foreign adventure was a success, though it might have ended in disaster.

This is my last excerpt from this book, which I was motivated to read because I have been watching the NHK Taiga Drama Segodon, about Saigo Takamori.

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How Choshu Beat the Bakufu, 1866

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 374-377:

By the beginning of the Sixth Month, the Bakufu and its allies surrounded Chōshū on four fronts—Hiroshima to the east, Iwami to the northeast, Kyūshū (at Kokura across the Shimonoseki Strait) to the southwest, and on the Kaminoseki front (coming from Shikoku) in southeastern Chōshū. The so-called War on Four Fronts broke out on the Kaminoseki front on 6/7, when Bakufu naval forces took the island of Ōshima, which belonged to Chōshū.

Takasugi Shinsaku, in command of the Chōshū navy, lived up to his reputation for impetuousness. But first he took a short reprieve. On the way to Ōshima from Shimonoseki on the Heiin Maru—one of five ships in the Chōshū fleet—he stopped at Mitajiri and went directly to the home of a wealthy merchant named Sadanaga. He barged in on Sadanaga and informed him that he would “borrow a second-story room for just a short while.” He went up the ladder staircase—then suddenly all was quiet. After a while the merchant, wondering what had happened, went upstairs to find Takasugi asleep on the floor, his head cradled in his hands, his feet propped up against a wooden post. Sadanaga quietly descended the staircase to go about his business. Presently, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Takasugi appeared. He thanked the merchant, and said, “I’ll be back,” before hurrying back to his ship.

From Mitajiri Takasugi sailed directly to Ōshima, where he confronted four enemy ships—the bark Asahi, and three steamers: the Shōkaku [later the name of an aircraft carrier], the Yagumo [later the name of a cruiser], and the formidable 1,000-ton Fujisan—all much larger than the Heiin. Under the cover of night he maneuvered the 94-ton Heiin between the enemy ships to launch a surprise attack, in what one biographer calls “the first modern sea battle” in Japanese history. After two nights and one day of fighting, Chōshū retook the island on 6/16, forcing the enemy to retreat.

Meanwhile, fighting broke on the Hiroshima and Iwami fronts. The Chōshū forces at Hiroshima were commanded by Inoué Monta and Kawasé Yasushirō, the latter having commanded the Yūgekitai to fight alongside Takasugi in the rebellion at Shimonoseki. They easily defeated troops of Hikoné and Takada, which had been joined by troops under the Bakufu’s commissioner of the army, Takénaka Shigékata. The Chōshū forces penetrated into the Hiroshima domain, where they were confronted by troops of the Bakufu and Kii. Both sides were armed with modern rifles and artillery, the Bakufu having been equipped by the French. The fighting continued into the Eighth Month, when troops of Hiroshima, inclined toward Chōshū, cut their way between the two sides to force a stalemate. On the Iwami front, Chōshū fighters commanded by Murata Zōroku easily pushed into Hamada. Consequently, on 7/18, Matsudaira Ukonshōgen, daimyo of Hamada, a Tokugawa-related house, burned his castle and fled northeast to Matsué, also ruled by the Matsudaira.

The fiercest fighting took place on the vital southwestern front. Takasugi took command with the objective of capturing Kokura Castle. But his troops were too few—just one thousand Chōshū fighters faced twenty thousand Bakufu troops, including troops of Kokura, Kumamoto, and Kurumé, led by Ogasawara Nagamichi, who intended to cross the strait to invade Chōshū. Takasugi Shinsaku launched the first attack across the strait at dawn on 6/17. Ryōma reported to his family that Takasugi fired up the martial spirit of his fighters with “numerous casks of saké.” Takasugi attacked again on 7/3 and 7/27.

On 6/16, the day before the fighting broke out, Ryōma, with men from his Kaméyama Company, arrived at Shimonoseki on the warship Sakurajima Maru (aka the Union). “I led a Chōshū warship in battle,” he wrote to his family on 12/4. “I had no worries at all about fighting. It was truly amusing.” His amusement notwithstanding, Ryōma was not completely truthful in his devil-may-care attitude. “I was afraid that the Tokugawa navy would cut us off,” he confided in a letter to Miyoshi Shinzō on 8/16. Perhaps his greatest fear during the fighting was that Katsu Kaishū, recalled to his former post, might lead the Tokugawa fleet against Chōshū. “I could never fight against him,” he told Tosa’s minister of justice, Sasaki Sanshirō, in the following year.

Had Kaishū taken part in the fighting, the outcome may well have been different. Deploring the war, he submitted a letter to the Bakufu on 7/19 explaining how he could end the fighting in a matter of days “through leniency and harshness.” He would need to take command of “two or three warships … to attack [Chōshū’s] strategic points.” Then he would lead “two or three companies and hit them hard. Once we are victorious in one battle, I will … calmly solicit the advice of the feudal lords….” But Kaishū did not fight against Chōshū.

Chōshū was clearly winning the war. Senior Councilor Honjō Munéhidé, vice commander of the Bakufu forces on the Hiroshima front, wrote to the senior councilors in Ōsaka that the feudal lords had neglected orders to deploy sufficient numbers of troops, and that the majority of those deployed were peasants. There were shortages of rice and gold. And while the Chōshū troops, including the peasants, were armed with modern rifles, most of the Bakufu side depended on old-fashioned muskets.

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What Surprised Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 144-145:

Traditionally, Japanese have lived in a society that highly prizes the reciprocal giving and receiving of favors, including those exchanged between superior and inferior. Once drawn into a “human” (that is, emotional) conversational relationship with their interrogators, the prisoners realized that they had already received many favors from their captors. They had generally been treated decently. Of particular importance to the Japanese, they had not generally been insulted or humiliated. These Americans did not generally look down on them with contempt.[…]

In addition to all the material benefits they had received, some prisoners mused, the Americans had given them their life, if only by not killing them. For the Japanese, this huge imbalance of “favors” granted and received represented a serious problem. Many solved it by giving the Americans the only thing they had to give—answers to seemingly innocuous questions.

While Japanese prisoners were impressed by the material things the Americans shared with them, they were deeply affected by the more personal touches. They could not easily cast these aside saying the “rich Americans” could afford such things. It was not only that the Americans readily took out a cigarette from their own pack; more significant for them was that they were prepared to do so within plain sight of others. A few former Japanese POWs noted in their memoirs that they might have had the chance during the course of their military service to slip an American POW a cigarette. Now that the roles were reversed they were ashamed that they had lacked the courage to overcome the Japanese convention of the time, that all POWs of any nationality properly deserved total contempt. Prisoners so badly wounded that they could not even light or hold a cigarette were overcome with inexpressible gratitude when an order lit the cigarette and passed it from his lips to theirs.

Of all the many unfamiliar things the Japanese encountered in the prison camps, probably the most astounding was their medical treatment. They could hardly believe that prisoners received treatment identical to that accorded their captors. They would find themselves in hospital beds adjacent to beds occupied by their “enemy.” Even more astounding, American medical orderlies deigned to lift them up with their own hands and even clean them when they soiled their bed. That Americans gave officer status to nurses often amazed the Japanese. That these nurses would not only treat lowly enemy enlisted men but also at times give them a smile astounded them even more.

Discovering that they received the same food and in the same quantities as their captors surprised them as well. For a status-conscious Japanese prisoner who viewed himself as beneath contempt, such recognition of common humanity left an abiding impression. In this sense, the whole atmosphere of the prison camp became conducive to maintaining a civil, personal relationship with the Americans. While not designed for the purpose, in some instances this could only further American efforts to gain intelligence.

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Korean-Japanese POW in India

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), p. 191:

The last Japanese POW challenge to Allied prison authorities took place in the spring of 1945 at the British-run facility at Bikaner, located on the edge of the Indian desert some two hundred forty miles west of Delhi. In this camp, originally constructed to house German prisoners of the First World War, the first prisoner was Senior Sergeant Aoki Akira, whose plane was shot down over Rangoon and crash-landed. He eventually became one of the POW section leaders. Although a Japanese citizen, as were all Koreans at the time, Aoki was a member of the royal house of Korea. Mizui Hajime, a Japanese fellow prisoner deeply imbued with the justice of Japan’s cause, paid Aoki the ultimate tribute of noting that he possessed “a high degree of military spirit as well as strong leadership qualities,” even though he spoke Japanese with a heavy accent.

In a curious historical footnote, Aoki, reverting to his family name Rhee, achieved a measure of renown in 1949 when he became the first commandant of the Republic of Korea’s nascent air force academy. In the following year, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, it was Colonel Rhee who took possession of a shipment of ten American P-51 Mustang fighters at Itazuke Airfield on Kyushu. After only three days of training on the new planes, Colonel Rhee, still full of the old fighting spirit, led a formation of three P-51s in a low-altitude raid on a North Korean concentration of T-34 tanks south of Seoul. Hit in the exchange of fire, Rhee crashed his plane into the enemy formation on a suicidal dive and was posthumously promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

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Japanese Civilian POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), p. 199:

Camp McCoy was unusual in that it initially held not only all ranks of the military up to field grade officers but also a sizable contingent of Japanese civilians. Except for the relatively minor incident recounted in the previous chapter, Camp McCoy tended to enjoy trouble-free relations with its POWs. According to a former civilian employee of the Japanese navy’s transportation division on Saipan, the civilian POWs constituted a solid bloc that was understandably opposed to the hotheads, whose suicidal intentions struck fear into the hearts of merchant seamen, businessmen, and journalists, among others. The civilians told the extremists that they would still have plenty of opportunities to kill themselves without involving the civilian element. When the hard-liners ultimately backed away from more confrontational tactics with the American guards and vented their frustration by beating up on the civilians, a larger group of civilians returned the favor a few days later.

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Koreans, Taiwanese, and Okinawans Among Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 196-199:

Allied forces also captured roughly ten thousand ethnic Koreans and Taiwanese working for the Japanese. Although some Koreans were integral members of the Japanese armed forces, most had either volunteered for or been drafted into labor battalions ordered into combat only when the tactical situation became desperate. Then they became little more than cannon fodder, along with the Japanese soldiers. The Koreans and Taiwanese in the labor battalions, however, did not share the Japanese preference for death over capture and surrendered to Allied forces in droves whenever it became feasible to do so. It was Allied policy to separate out captured Koreans and Taiwanese, assigning each group to its own enclosure. Cowra, in Australia, was the exception, in that it kept Japanese and the few ethnic Korean officers in the same enclosure. Koreans and Taiwanese were not imprisoned any further east than Hawaii, and many remained in the general area of their capture. Once the war ended, they were among the earliest to be repatriated.

There was never much love lost between the Japanese and Koreans, and imprisonment did nothing to change that fact. Japanese POWs felt genuinely appalled, almost betrayed, to discover that the Koreans thought of themselves as victors once the war ended and looked down on the Japanese. Some Japanese POWs, including Takahashi Shigeru, realized that Japan had discriminated against Koreans and Taiwanese and that the Koreans’ gleeful attitude when Japan lost therefore “could not be helped.” In the few instances when Japanese were erroneously placed into an enclosure with Koreans, they were beaten up in revenge for earlier treatment at the hands of their colonial masters.

Most ethnic Koreans who had served as integral members of the Japanese military chose to maintain their Japanese identity in the prison camps. They may well have feared the wrath of fellow Koreans who had been pressed into the labor battalions and believed they would be more secure in the Japanese section. One of the reports from Cowra noted that Koreans caused no trouble for the Australians, except for a small minority who were “very pro-Japanese.” This element compelled the rest to face east and bow reverentially after every roll call. When fellow Koreans disregarded this courtesy to the emperor, they were manhandled.

Taiwanese hostility toward the Japanese POWs was substantially less than that of the Koreans. American comments about Taiwanese prisoners, who never created problems, were entirely positive. When interrogated about possible American landing sites on Taiwan, they were uniformly eager to provide all the information they had.

On Okinawa the American army split up Japanese POWs in yet another way, separating not only Japanese and Koreans but Okinawans as well. Initially somewhat resistant to the idea of being distinguished from Japanese, Yamada Yuko soon became rather pleased to be called Okinawan rather than the pejorative “Jap” that was in common usages by Americans during the war. Given the Okinawans’ widespread disillusionment with the Japanese military, especially its ruthless treatment of tens of thousands of civilians needlessly exposed to the hazards of war, it is hardly surprising that Okinawans relished this separate treatment, a difference manifested in a number of ways. Noting that Americans were eager to obtain Japanese swords as souvenirs, Okinawan POWs volunteered to help them find some. On several occasions they were even allowed to leave the prison camp without guards to search for souvenirs. Such complete trust was so greatly appreciated that the Okinawans could not think of betraying it. Nevertheless, when news of Japan’s defeat filtered into the Yaka stockade, Yamada felt humiliation, and when the Koreans held their victory celebration, he thought that his own feelings were no different from the feelings of those who came from other Japanese prefectures.

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