Appendices - Hirohito's War
D: THE JAPANESE EMPIRE - FROM CO-PROSPERITY TO TYRANNY
The Economics and Philosophy of Japan’s East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: The Japanese Empire was characterized by military over-commitment that weakened rather than strengthened its strategic position and a territorial overextension whose material benefits were not matched by the costs of sustaining its newly acquired territories. In addition their acquisition in this second period of Imperial expansion, particularly evident after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War after its stunning destruction of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima , started to coalesce a powerful group of enemies – the United States in particular. After 1905, US Naval and foreign policy strategy was aimed at containment of Japan, now firmly perceived as the main threat to the security of America’s Asian empire. And this reaction came as a result of Japan acquiring control of just Taiwan and Korea with an aggregate population of 30 million people. By 1938 however, after the Japanese Army’s opportunistic annexation of Manchuria, much of Northern China, the valuable seaboard on the east coast and its immediate hinterland stretching along the Yellow and Yangztse Rivers, Japan’s Empire had increased in size by a factor of ten. It now compromised almost 300m people and territories of 1.6m squ. km – more than six times the size of just Korea and Taiwan.
In Japan’s first and second phases of Imperial expansion, the government emphasized agricultural development and the export of rice to Japan where it was thought that domestic capacity was going to be inadequate to sustain Japan’s growing population, most of its urban. There were unanticipated consequences. The import of rice from its Empire pushed down prices in Japan and contributed to the agrarian depression of the 1920s and 30s. Perversely the result was that colonization of the new Imperial territories by Japanese agrarian workers and impoverished farmers was encouraged as a means of relieving the pressure being exerted on the agricultural sectors. It was a virtuous circle or a spiral of decline depending on one’s viewpoint. As Japanese colonizers increased productivity in Korea and Taiwan, so agricultural prices fell further in Japan, liberating yet more poor Japanese farmers to emigrate to the Empire. And so on.
In conjunction with the changes wrought in the agricultural sector, the acquisition of Empire was also seen as an answer to Japan’s increasing requirements for key commodities. Its growing economy demanded that commodities such as copper, pig iron, steel, tin, nickel, lead, aluminum, bauxite, tungsten, cobalt etc. had to be imported. Imperial acquisition seemed to be the answer to these problems. In Manchuria the opportunity presented itself as a result of the implosion of Chinese power after Sun Yat Sen’s 1911 revolution. In the 1920s the rule of China had descended into a shifting pattern of alliances between competing warlords.
In addition the pattern of world trade seemed to be changing – possibly forever. Depression after 1929 brought trade protection through tariffs and quotas – most famously America’s Smoot-Hawley Tariffs. Britain and her dominions also agreed a system of preferential trade within its Empire at the Ottawa Conference in 1933. Roosevelt’s administration also began to talk about the creation of a Pan-American Union, even though he started to row back on protectionist tariffs.
Inevitably Japan too began to talk of the need for an economic block. The lack of a Western response to the annexation of Manchurian suggested either the Western powers were not significantly concerned about Japanese expansion in Asia or that militarily they did not have the stomach for a fight. US isolationism in the 1920s and 1920s could only have confirmed this view of American weakness and disinterest. In 1938 the Japanese government announced a New Order in East Asia. It went out of its way to assure the Chinese that this order was not intended as a challenge to China’s independence. But the contradictions in these pronouncements were apparent to everyone except the Japanese government.
If the need to create a larger economic and autarkic trading area was the main thrust behind the idea of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a geopolitical intent was also apparent; Japan wanted to hold back the tide of western domination of Asia that had the been apparent over the previous century. On 29 June 1940 Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita pronounced, “The countries of East and the regions of the South Seas are geographically close, historically, racially and economically very closely related to each other… they are destined to co-operate.”1 Economic opportunism merged seamlessly with national geopolitical objectives. In a radio address in December 1941, Foreign Minister Dani Masayuki told the Japanese people, “It goes without saying that the aim of the war of Greater East Asia is to free Greater Asia from the yoke of America and Britain… and to contribute to the peace of the world.”2 The political concept thus promoted also served as a recruiting mantra to appeal to Asian elites to work with Japan’s imperial authorities. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere appeared to offer liberation and a modus vivendi in a post-war world for Asia’s independent states.
The economics of the northern, older Empire of Phases I – III was differentiated with the newly acquired territories of Phase IV by the conscious development of industrial activity in Formosa, Korea and Manchuria - something that had been encouraged by Great Britain of the western powers in their Indian Empire. The expansion of colonization in Manchuria massively expanded new business opportunities for traders, merchants, shopkeepers, lawyers and government officials. For the new Pacific Empire of Phase IV, Japanese concerns related almost entirely to the extraction of resources, their contribution to defence and the absolute requirement that they did not act as a drag on Japan’s domestic resources.
Unlike in Korea and Taiwan there was no investment in infrastructure. Likewise Japan, which had made considerable attempts at cultural assimilation in its Phase I - III northeast empire, made no attempt to do so in its phase IV conquests. Ultimately the work of Colonel Keiji Suzuki, a sort of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ figure who had stirred up young nationalists such as Aung San to revolt against the British Empire in Burma, was not backed up by Japan’s military rulers who quickly quashed the hopes of independence of the ‘liberated’ countries of Asia. The political regimes set up with collaborators such as Baw Maw in Burma and Laurel in the Philippines were little more than fig leafs for a brutal Japanese military regime. Similarly in Manchuria and China, Phase III conquests, a façade of independence was maintained with the formalities of signed treaties and local administrations. By contrast in Korea and Taiwan, senior positions in government were awarded to soldiers and administrators dispatched from Japan. Local Koreans trained in Japan’s military and civilian academies and could take jobs in the lower echelons of their own countries, although they could never aspire to leadership. Arguably without the exigencies of war, over time the Japanese might have achieved the same quiescent relationship with the Asian nations conquered in Phase IV.
However whereas cultural and racial brotherhood was claimed for Korea and Taiwan, in Southeast Asia’s Phase IV acquisitions, notably Burma, the Philippines and Indochina, Japan simply proclaimed themselves as liberators. Their assurances were taken with a pinch of salt and guerrilla activities developed almost immediately, though resistance in the Dutch East Indies was fairly minimal. Any sense of liberation was immediately dissipated by the requirement that Japan’s ‘liberating’ armies should live off the land. It was an order issued by Imperial GHQ in November 1941 as Japan prepared for a war against the West that it was logistically unable to support.
The myth of liberation of Asia still persists in Japan. Even politicians, intellectuals, academics and journalists maintain that Japan was a liberator of countries oppressed by Western imperialism. Hayashi Fusai in 1963 concluded in a series of articles later published as Daitoa senso kotei ron (An Affirmation of the Greater East Asia War) “America fought for a white Pacific… (while Japan fought for a) yellow Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”3 It is a view that is largely sustained in Japanese textbook history and a narrative that has severely comprised Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbours in the post war period. The governing party of the post-war period, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), has largely upheld this view. However there are a minority of naysayers, notably Ueyama Shumpei in Daitoa senso no imi (The Meaning of the Greater East Asian War) who countered that Asian countries were delighted to see the back of the Japanese invaders. He also points out that, in a century that he describes as a hundred years war, Japanese aggression was manifested by the fact that every military engagement took place on territory outside of Japan.