Japan during World War II

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After WWII, Japan had to accept occupation. The Constitution was written by the US. It totally gave up on its independence, fully surrendering its foreign policy, which gradually became indistinct from that of the United States... Traditionally, Japanese people used to live mainly in order to serve the nation, which was perhaps not such a bad concept. It used to work, at least for the majority. However, now, they are expected to sacrifice their lives solely for the profits of corporations. ~ Andre Vltchek
Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism, promote international coordination as a responsible member of the international community and, thereby, advance the principles of peace and democracy. ~ Tomiichi Murayama

The Empire of Japan entered World War II on 22 September 1940 when it invaded French Indochina, and made its entrance into the war official five days later with the signing of the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on 27 September 1940, though it wasn't until the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 that the United States and the British Empire declared war on Japan. Over the course of seven hours there were coordinated Japanese attacks on the U.S.-held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island, the Dutch Empire in the Dutch East Indies, Thailand and on the British colonies in Borneo, Malaya and Hong Kong.

The strategic goals of the offensive were to cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet, capture oil fields in the Dutch East Indies, and maintain their sphere of influence of China, East Asia, and also Korea. It was also to expand the outer reaches of the Japanese Empire to create a formidable defensive perimeter around newly acquired territory.

The war turned in favor of the Allied powers after the United States Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of Midway. Afterwards U.S. forces advanced across the Pacific Ocean in a series of large naval battles, eventually conducting costly air raids on Japan. Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would surrender in 1945, after the defeat of its ally Nazi Germany in Europe, the Soviet Union's declaration of war and military offensives against Japan, and finally the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


  • For Japan, World War II is not resolved history. It is, incredibly, a recurring controversy. Several times in recent decades, Japan's leaders have expressed remorse and apologized for the nation's rampage through Asia in the 1930s and '40s. But to the governments and the surviving civilian victims in South Korea and elsewhere, the words and actions have always come up short. Japan has issued mea culpas, yes. But also from Japan: Revisionist textbooks in schools, a Tokyo shrine that memorializes convicted war criminals, an opaque stance by prime ministers on atonement for the war that shifts between "heartfelt apology" and "eternal, sincere condolences." The unshakable impression is of a nation struggling to accept full responsibility for the past cruelty of its military... Through the years, though Japan has expressed official regret for its wartime behavior, powerful right-wing forces at home have clung to the idea that Japan was not the villain. Japan has never matched the depth of contrition for WWII expressed by Germany. It's hard to avoid comparing Abe's private phone call with the symbolism of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970, who unexpectedly fell to his knees in genuflection while visiting the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto. Japan, a valued friend and ally of America, has made a significant act of contrition toward South Korea. The countries want to move ahead. If they can, they will see an economic and security benefit. The defense of Asia against North Korea, and the rise of China, will require far more cooperation from these partners. Ultimately it's up to South Korea to decide that the past is now the past. But Japan should continue to reflect publicly on the atrocities it committed, including the sex enslavement of women. It is a dark history.
  • But it is not only in Europe that these oppressions prevail. China is being torn to pieces by a military clique in Japan; the poor, tormented Chinese people there are making a brave and stubborn defence. The ancient empire of Ethiopia has been overrun. The Ethiopians were taught to look to the sanctity of public law, to the tribunal of many nations gathered in majestic union. But all failed; they were deceived, and now they are winning back their right to live by beginning again from the bottom a struggle on primordial lines. Even in South America, the Nazi regime begins to undermine the fabric of Brazilian society.
  • Less familiar, but no less chilling - and in many respects strikingly similar - are the blueprints for a new order drawn up by some Japanese writers in the early 1940s. Japan, it is true, had no Hitler, no single ideologue adumbrating a Utopia which all others could 'work towards'. But it had many little Hitlers. In 'An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus', a report completed in July 1943, officials in the Population and Race Section of the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry's Research Bureau took as their premise that the Japanese were the 'leading race' of Asia, whose mission was to 'liberate the billion people of Asia' by planting as much Japanese 'blood' as possible in Asian soil. This would be possible, however, only if the right demographic resources existed at home. 'We should actively improve our physical capacity eugenically by promoting such methods as mental and physical training as well as selective marriages,' the report urged.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 470
  • Japan's population needed to rise 'as rapidly as possible' from around 70 million in 1938 to 100 million by 1960, with each Japanese couple being encouraged to have around five children. This would provide the surplus of Japanese necessary to colonize and run what had been known since 1940 as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. There were no necessary limits to the extent of that sphere. In 1942 Komaki Tsunekichi, a professor of geography at Tokyo Imperial University, had proposed that both Europe and Africa should henceforth be regarded as part of the Asian continent, while America should be known as 'Eastern Asia' and Australia as 'Southern Asia'. All the world's oceans, since they were interconnected, should simply be renamed the 'Great Sea of Japan'. The authors of the 'Investigation of Global Policy' were no more modest in their ambitions. Stages One and Two of their planned 'Enlargement of the Sphere of the East Asia Co-Operative Body' envisaged the incorporation of the whole of China, as well as nearly all French, British and Dutch possessions in Asia. Stage Three would have added the Philippines, India and all Soviet territory east of Lake Baikal. Finally, in Stage Four, the Co-Prosperity Sphere would have been extended to 'Assyria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries, West Asia [and] Southwest Asia'.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 470-471
  • Japan humbly accepts that for a period in the not too distant past, it caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations, through its colonial rule and aggression, and expresses its deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this.
  • These and many other attempts to replace history by myth and invention are not merely bad intellectual jokes. After all, they can determine what goes into schoolbooks, as the Japanese authorities knew, when they insisted on a sanitized version of the Japanese war in China for use in Japanese classrooms. Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity by which groups of people today, defining themselves by ethnicity, religion or the past or present borders of states, try to find some certainty in an uncertain and shaking world by saying, 'We are different from and better than the Others.'
  • The Second World War started in Asia with another convenient episode but it too had deeper roots. The Japanese militarists and nationalists were looking to build an empire in Asia to provide raw materials, markets, cheap labour and land for settlement. Japan had already taken the rich Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 after a series of bombs had conveniently exploded on a Japanese-owned railway line. In 1937 Japanese soldiers were out on regular patrol in Beijing, a right established after a multinational force had defeated the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion at the end of the nineteenth century. As the patrol neared an ancient bridge in Beijing, said to be the one the Venetian explorer Marco Polo had crossed on his way into the city centuries before, shots apparently rang out. The next day the Japanese produced a body in Japanese uniform. Although rumour in Beijing claimed that the Japanese had simply dressed up a dead Chinese beggar, the Marco Polo Bridge incident became Japan’s justification for invading China south of the Great Wall and occupying a great swathe of the coast down to the border of Hong Kong. That invasion helped to turn American opinion away from isolationism to confrontation.
  • Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.
  • Imperial Japan, finally, despite undoubted influence from European fascism and despite some structural analogies to Germany and Italy, faced less critical problems than those two countries. The Japanese faced no imminent revolutionary threat, and needed to overcome neither external defeat nor internal disintegration (though they feared it, and resented Western obstacles to their expansion in Asia). Through the imperial regime used techniques of mass mobilization, no official party or autonomous grassroots movement competed with the leaders. The Japanese empire of the period 1932-45 is better understood as an expansionist military dictatorship with a high degree of state-sponsored mobilization than as a fascist regime.
  • Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people. And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, 'Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us'? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No. The only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead, and that is the kind of nation we are.
  • It is, of course, also in our interest that Japan wants to secure for herself further possessions in the South, Indo-China, etc., just as every measure of Japan directed toward expansion is in principle welcomed by us. I shall give you detailed instructions within the near future, relative to the consequences which might, and no doubt will, result from the occupation of Iceland by American military forces, and the attitude which we will take toward Japan in this connection. As a directive for talks we can advise you already today that the sending of American military forces to the support of England into a territory which has been officially announced by us as combat area, shows not only Roosevelt’s aggressive intentions, but the fact of the intrusion of American military forces into the combat area in support of England is in itself an aggression against Germany and Europe. After all, one cannot enter a theater of war in which two armies are fighting, and join the army of one side without the intention of shooting and without actually doing so. I do not doubt for a moment that in case of the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and America, in which case today already it may be considered as an absolutely established fact that only America will be the aggressor, Japan will fulfill her obligations, as agreed upon in the Three-Power Pact. However, I ask you to employ all available means in further insisting upon Japan’s entry into the war against Russia at the soonest possible date, as I have mentioned already in my note to Matsuoka. The sooner this entry is effected, the better. The natural objective still remains that we and Japan join hands on the Trans-Siberian railroad, before winter starts. After the collapse of Russia, however, the position of the Three-Power Pact states in the world will be so gigantic, that the question of England's collapse or the total destruction of the English islands will only be a matter of time. An America totally isolated from the rest of the world would then be faced with our taking possession of the remaining positions of the British Empire which are important for the Three-Power-Pact countries. I have the unshakeable conviction that a carrying through of the new order as desired by us will be a matter of course, and there will be no insurmountable difficulties if the countries of the Three-Power Pact stand close together and encounter every action of the Americans with the same weapons.
    • Joachim von Ribbentrop, Telegram from Foreign Minister Ribbentrop to the German Ambassador to Japan (10 July 1941)
  • It is a serious and extremely difficult problem that some groups in Japan deny atrocities by the wartime government when the outside world accepts these atrocities as historical fact. This atrocity denial is simply wrong, and its effects are destructive. Admitting to official atrocities in the past should not prevent the building of Japanese national pride today. No one of working age or younger in Japan today is personally responsible for Pacific War crimes. They are part of the new, postwar Japan, characterized by economic and technological prowess and admirable international citizenship. These accomplishments are not canceled out by events from the middle of the last century. As many commentators have pointed out, atrocity-denial is not in Japan’s self-interest because it restricts Japan's opportunities for cooperation with its neighbors and generally damages the otherwise favorable Japan 'brand' internationally... Japan and South Korea are both democracies that fear Chinese domination, yet the animosity between the two societies restricts what should be natural strategic partnering... Despite harboring atrocity-deniers, Japan is certainly no more likely to start a war of aggression than any other country of comparable size and economic capacity in the international community, and probably less so because of lingering anti-militarism stemming from Japan’s disastrous experience in the Pacific War.
  • Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.
  • In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Sincerely facing these facts of history, I once again express my feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology, and also express the feelings of mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, in the war. I am determined not to allow the lessons of that horrible war to erode, and to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world without ever again waging a war.
  • We stand in Tokyo today reminiscent of our countryman, Commodore Perry, ninety-two years ago. His purpose was to bring to Japan an era of enlightenment and progress, by lifting the veil of isolation to the friendship, trade, and commerce of the world. But alas the knowledge thereby gained of western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement. Freedom of expression, freedom of action, even freedom of thought were denied through appeal to superstition, and through the application of force. We are committed by the Potsdam Declaration of principles to see that the Japanese people are liberated from this condition of slavery. It is my purpose to implement this commitment just as rapidly as the armed forces are demobilized and other essential steps taken to neutralize the war potential. The energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed, will enable expansion vertically rather than horizontally. If the talents of the race are turned into constructive channels, the county can lift itself from its present deplorable state into a position of dignity. To the Pacific basin has come the vista of a new emancipated world. Today, freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the march. Today, in Asia as well as in Europe, unshackled peoples are tasting the full sweetness of liberty, the relief from fear.
  • During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.
  • Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism, promote international coordination as a responsible member of the international community and, thereby, advance the principles of peace and democracy. At the same time, as the only country to have experienced the devastation of atomic bombing, Japan, with a view to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, must actively strive to further global disarmament in areas such as the strengthening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is my conviction that in this way alone can Japan atone for its past and lay to rest the spirits of those who perished. It is said that one can rely on good faith. And so, at this time of remembrance, I declare to the people of Japan and abroad my intention to make good faith the foundation of our government policy, and this is my vow.
  • "August 6, 1945: Hiroshima. August 9, 1945: Nagasaki." I wrote the words on the classroom whiteboard in large letters. Then I crossed out both dates and places with a big red X. "Not true," I declared. "The atomic bombings never happened. A total fabrication." My university students were dumbstruck. We stared at each other in silence for a long moment. All right, I conceded, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by American warplanes 60 years ago. But only conventional bombs were used and only a few hundred people were killed. Another uncomfortable silence. Then I admitted it was a ruse. The students seemed to collectively exhale in relief. The tragic reality, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of Japanese died as the result of the two atomic bombings. The brief classroom exercise helped students imagine how citizens of Asian countries victimized by Japanese colonialism, invasion and atrocities during World War II feel when the Nanjing Massacre is labeled a fabrication, military sex slaves are portrayed as willing prostitutes, and forced laborers are claimed to have voluntarily toiled for Japan's former empire. It also gave students additional insight into why Chinese and Koreans, in particular, continue to react so indignantly to revisionist Japanese history textbooks and prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are among the Japanese war dead worshipped.
  • I know Japan; I lived there for ten years. I know the Japanese intimately. The Japanese will not crack. They will not crack morally or psychologically or economically, even when eventual defeat stares them in the face. They will pull in their belts another notch, reduce their rations from a bowl to a half bowl of rice, and fight to the bitter end. Only by utter physical destruction or utter exhaustion of their men and materials can they be defeated.

See also