The Pacific War

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2206

Ienaga Sabur is a distinguished liberal historian and Professor Emeritus of the Tokyo University of Education. His long list of publications in Japanese intellectual history includes studies of Ueki Emori, a key figure in the People’s Rights Movement of the 1880’s, and Minobe Tatsukichi, the leading prewar authority on constitutional law at Tokyo Imperial University. Minobe was attacked in 1935 for his liberal but influential interpretation of the role of the emperor in the state. Frank Baldwin’s lucid translation of Ienaga’s 1968 work, Taiheiy sens, provides the English reader with an important critical account of the Pacific war told from the standpoint of Japanese liberalism. It is much more than a military history; Ienaga paints with a broad brush, placing militarism in the context of political, intellectual, and social history.

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Ienaga divides his work into two parts. In Part One he deals with the historical roots of authoritarian thought and militarism in Japan. He argues that the failure to develop critical thinking and a spirit of democracy led to unquestioning acceptance of aggressive imperalism in Korea, Manchuria, and China. In Part Two he looks at Japanese aggression from 1931 to Hiroshima. Most Japanese studies of the war begin with the China campaign of July, 1937, and Western accounts often take Pearl Harbor as the beginning of World War II, but Ienaga sees the Manchurian Incident of 1931 as the first stage of an unbroken history of militarism. The 1930’s were a decade of growing conservatism at home and adventurism abroad. He clarifies this approach in a brief historiographical essay following the text, describing “Changing Japanese Views of the War.”

According to Ienaga, the roots of World War II go far deeper than the usual analysis of diplomatic, economic, and political tensions that arose in the 1930’s. As far back as the 1880’s, the Meiji government restricted textbooks that did not stress nationalistic themes, and by 1904 the Ministry of Education was writing texts for elementary education. After the victory over Russia in 1905, the curriculum was modified to stress ethics and military training. Although higher education was relatively untouched, generations of Japanese school children were indoctrinated with Emperor-centered patriotism and mass conformity. When expansionist ideas came to the fore after 1931, few dared to challenge them.

Other Meiji legacies contributed to militarism. Victories over China and Russia enhanced the idea of using force in Asia, and direct control of Korea in 1910 led Japan to an ever expanding involvement on the continent. Even during the internationalist decade of the 1920’s, Ienaga argues, political and economic concessions in China were pursued, although by diplomatic means. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 was a step towards democratic institutions, but it gave a central role to the Emperor and was deliberately ambiguous about control of the military.

On September 18, 1931, the military revealed how independent it had become. A group of younger officers in the Kwantung Army, with the tacit support of the general staff in Tokyo, staged an incident at Mukden that provided a justification for invasion and seizure of all Manchuria. Once the puppet state of Manchukuo was established on March 1, 1932, its retention became a fundamental concern of military strategy and led to further expansion. The military, because of their narrow professional training, saw no options other than force. Contempt for China blinded all but a few to a new and powerful force: Chinese nationalism. Arrogance and chauvinism prevented the Japanese from aligning with Chiang Kai-shek against his natural enemies, the Communists. Ienaga, noting that the Communist Eighth Route Army was surprisingly democratic for a military organization, sees Japan’s failure to subdue China in terms of “the democracy of China versus the militaristic absolutism of Japan.” While not denying the Communist success in mobilizing the peasantry against Japan, it is difficult to share Ienaga’s idealistic view of Communist democracy.

Aggression in China after fighting broke out in July, 1937, led to the Pacific war. Although quick to seize China’s ports, cities, and railways, victory eluded the Japanese army as Chiang defiantly withdrew to Chungking and the Communists organized behind Japanese lines. Ienaga suggests that the involvement in China was due to the strong anti-Communist policy of Japanese leaders. This was only part of the complex and poorly thought out Japanese policy. Ironically, Japanese militarism in China greatly aided the Communists in the long run. Mao captured the banner of Chinese nationalism as he vigorously opposed Japan, in contrast to Chiang Kai-shek. The military could neither win the war in China nor afford to retreat. Gradually American concern and economic sanctions increased until Japan faced two unpleasant options in 1941: humiliating withdrawal from China or a war with the West. Ienaga shows how, paradoxically, Japan dared throw down the gauntlet at Pearl Harbor: Japan went to war because its resources were insufficient. Control of the press and free discussion destroyed the chance of exploring other options. The military, despite strong misgivings on the part of the Navy, went to war with poor prospects of victory, blinded by their own propaganda.

The war in China required destruction of democracy and liberalism in Japanese society. In the name of ideological and social mobilization, censorship and militaristic propaganda became pervasive, although some dissent continued in limited intellectual circles. The government manipulated information to create a war fervor that did not burst out spontaneously. There was no powerful mass organization to mobilize the people of Japan, as existed in Germany. If the term Fascism is valid when applied to Japan, it must be seen as coming from the top down, not as a broad mass movement. One other reason to qualify Japanese Fascism is the unceremonious replacement of Tj as Prime Minister in July, 1944. Clearly his powers were not equal to Hitler’s, or perhaps even Mussolini’s.

In a chapter on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity sphere, the author deflates the rhetoric of pan-Asianism and shows the reality of exploitation in all occupied areas. Japanese propaganda tried to foment anticolonial and anti-Western sentiment in Asia, but even in areas such as Indonesia and Burma, where Japanese troops were at first seen as liberators, nationalism was soon redirected against Japanese dominance. All resources were to be used in the best interests of Japan, often to the detriment of local economies. Even if some Japanese really hoped to liberate former Western colonies, their autonomy would make the plight of subject peoples in Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria all the more unbearable. Japanese rule reaped a lasting harvest of animosity in East and Southeast Asia.

Ienaga makes no attempt to sanitize or glorify the atrocities committed in what he calls “a dirty war of sadistic cruelty.” The ultimate cruelty was the fact that Japan’s leaders extended the war to the Pacific with little chance of victory, and continued the war long after defeat was inevitable. While he considers the American use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be a violation of international law, Ienaga’s broader argument would place the ultimate blame on Japan’s diehard leaders. On the personal level, the brutal training practices common in the Japanese Army may have led to acts of savagery in China and other areas. The behavior of Japanese troops after 1937 was in great contrast to their discipline in earlier wars. Not content with mere statistics, Ienaga details numerous acts of barbarism committed during the war upon combatants and civilians alike. He considers officially sanctioned acts of cruelty to be related to the gradual elimination of human rights in Japan itself, as well as to the erosion of critical thinking.

The author devotes a chapter to dissent and resistance, but his efforts are rather strained since illegal antiwar activity was insignificant. A few isolated intellectuals, secret diaries, and graffiti on lavatory walls did not constitute a meaningful challenge to official nationalistic orthodoxy. Neither did passive resistance have any social effect in impeding the war. Indeed, the Japanese people endured the deprivations and horrors of war with stolid resignation. Despite the widespread destruction inflicted by air raids on Japanese cities, there were no armed uprisings against the government and few public displays of grief. Indoctrination was effective enough to hold society together until the very end.

Ienaga’s study is explicitly didactic in its approach, and few readers will agree with all the lessons he draws from the war. Both in argument and style he often overstates his case. A Marxist viewpoint predominates. In looking back into Japanese history for authoritarian precedents, countervailing liberal trends are ignored. The Meiji Constitution, while it was given to the people by the Emperor and had potential weaknesses, nevertheless was liberal for its day. Despite Ienaga’s criticisms, it did not prevent the rise of political parties and the selection of Hara Kei in 1918 as the first politician to become Prime Minister. Until 1931 there were other important liberal trends which are ignored. Ienaga’s argument that 1931 was a turning point in the growth of authoritarianism and militarism is much easier to accept than his unbalanced discussion of their historical antecedents.

In the postwar era Professor Ienaga has been in the forefront of a long legal struggle over textbook approval, and his concern over this issue is reflected in the attention paid to state orthodoxy and conformity in the prewar schools. His basic argument is that war could have been avoided, or at least shortened, if the “popular will” had influenced policy. However, definition of the popular will is a problem going back as far as Rousseau’s formulation of the concept. Ienaga’s admirable faith in democracy and liberalism sometimes leads him into dogmatic statements: “. . . only democracy can inspire patriotism,. . . true nationalism grows only in democratic soil.” Hitler’s success in arousing German nationalism and Stalin’s leadership of wartime Russia, as well as the Japanese case, suggest that totalitarian or authoritarian systems can arouse a strong national response. Whether or not they are examples of “true” nationalism seems more an issue of semantics than objective analysis.

The role of the United States in Asia is ambiguous. America’s economic and productive power was overwhelming, and Japan fell behind in technological development. The impact of years of educational indoctrination was apparent in the courage and bravery of Japanese troops who continued to fight in the face of vastly superior American weaponry. Ienaga contends that the Americans were also blessed with superior spiritual qualities based on freedom and dynamism. However, it seems that a democratic heritage did not prevent some American occupation forces from acting in the same barbaric manner that Japanese troops did in China. Although the occupation was benign in general, there were a few instances of American troops abusing the population. By focusing on the abuses, Ienaga presents a onesided view. Nor does he point out that, unlike Japanese policy in China, official American policy did not sanction brutality. Murder, robbery, and rape were not as commonplace as the author suggests. Readers will also be surprised to learn that Okinawa was kept by the United States in 1952 as a base for operations directed against China and Vietnam. While this may be true in part, it is doubtful that Vietnam was a factor at that time.

Throughout his book Ienaga draws lessons supporting democracy, liberalism and academic freedom. Occasionally this leads to contradiction. For example, he sees Japan as a postwar puppet of the United States, being pushed once more into an aggressive Asian policy. It should be remembered that the original book appeared during the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, in his advocacy of domestic freedoms he disagrees with many conservative Japanese critics of the 1947 constitution, arguing that it was not imposed. There were many prewar domestic trends that were supportive of postwar democracy, yet there exists abundant evidence that the present constitution was drafted by American officials.

On the whole, the 1931-1945 period can be seen as an escape from freedom, in Erich Fromm’s phrase; yet there were changes that presaged postwar democracy. For one thing, the mobilization of the economy entailed great social changes. In the villages, government control of rents, land transfer, and a dual price structure giving cultivators a higher price than landlords, caused a reduction in tenant rents. Wartime changes paved the way for land reform initiated by the American occupation. Social legislation, although frequently ignored, was a forerunner of postwar welfare legislation. Rationalization and amalgamation of industry created large corporations and accelerated structural changes as heavy industry came of age. Liberal and leftist thought, while suppressed during the war, was ready to burst out with renewed vigor after the war. Militarism and the Emperor system were discredited and have played no significant role in postwar society. The Japanese people were acquiescent during the war, but after suffering from massive air raids and nuclear attack, they emerged as one of the most pacifistic societies in the postwar world.

Readers will find Ienaga’s view provocative. It will stimulate thinking about the meaning of the war. His liberalism and didactic approach are obvious, tending at times to offer polemical Marxist interpretations of broad historical forces. Nevertheless, his study contains a wealth of material not previously available in English on the political and intellectual trends that led to domestic authoritarianism and overseas militarism. It will certainly stimulate further study and interpretation of the war.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

Book World. September 17, 1978, p. E4.

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, September 18, 1978, p. B11.

History: Reviews of New Books. VI, September, 1978, p. 190.

Newsweek. XCII, August 7, 1978, p. 78.

West Coast Review of Books. IV, November, 1978, p. 46.

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