“The Pacific War” which ended 75 years ago this weekend, was not a single entity: It comprised a maelstrom of conflicts that were sparked by Japanese expansionism and were fought over the widest fronts in the history of warfare.
Though widely seen as the “Asian” sphere of World War II – militaristic Japan was, indeed allied with Fascist Germany and Italy in the wartime Axis – there was minimal correspondence between eastern and western theaters. Essentially, Japan fought an entirely separate war.
Following her remarkable 19th century Meiji era-modernization, a newly empowered Japan embarked upon an Asian manifest destiny, defeating China in 1894-1895, then Czarist Russia in 1904-5. Those victories won Tokyo control over Taiwan and Korea. Subsequently, alliance with the Western powers in World War I won Tokyo German possessions in China. In 1931, Japan advanced into Manchuria, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo.
With Manchuria as resource base and assault balcony, Japan kicked off what many insist was the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1937, with her invasion of China. That thrust the Imperial Japanese Army into a huge deep quagmire. The storm on China, and Japan’s advance into French Indochina in 1940, worsened already dire relations with the USA – which had sought, via various machinations since the 1920s, to keep Japan’s rising power in check.
After Washington froze Japanese assets and emplaced energy sanctions on Tokyo in summer 1941, Japan massively expanded hostilities in December, when the Pacific War is generally agreed to have ignited. In one of the most brilliantly coordinated series of operations ever, Japanese forces struck the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, while also seizing the white-controlled colonies in Southeast Asia and their rich natural resources.
At the peak of Japan’s imperium, the Rising Sun flag fluttered from Papua New Guinea, across the vastness of the Pacific, through Korea, Manchuria and Southern China, to all of Southeast Asia (bar neutral Thailand) and to the gates of India.
This vast mass could not hold. Chinese forces continued to fight. Anglo-British forces defeated Japan’s last offensive – the 1944 invasion of India – and routed Tokyo’s armies in Burma. Meanwhile, US naval forces were smashing the Imperial Japanese Navy in battle after battle, while Marines fought a masterly “island hopping” campaign across the Pacific
Japanese troops battled with a fanatical courage history had never seen before: last stands, banzai charges and kamikaze attacks. But they also engaged in abominable cruelty- the Rape of Nanjing, the biological warfare activities of Unit 731, scorched earth strategies and mistreatment of POWs, civilian labor and “comfort women.”
After Germany’s defeat, all Allied resources re-focused upon Japan. The firebombing and atomic bombing of Japan’s cities, and the last-minute Soviet invasion of Manchuria and Korea, forced surrender. The Land of the Rising Sun had been extinguished; a nation that had sought to lead Asia was shattered both physically and morally.
In the decades since, who have emerged the winners? And who the losers? As in most wars, the latter outnumber the former.
White Imperialism in Asia: Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere” (formally announced in Tokyo in 1940) was a combination of pan-Asian idealism and resource grab. While Japan exploited its conquests ruthlessly, there is not question that the prestige of white rule was shattered by the totality of Japanese power in Southeast Asia.
French Indochina fell under Japanese rule with barely a squeak, while Britain was humiliated by the loss of Malaya and Singapore – the worst defeat in that nation’s centuries-long military history – and the Dutch were overwhelmed in the East Indies (today, Indonesia). Even future Singaporean leader Lee Kuan-yew- who as a Chinese, had no love of Japan – would state the invasion sounded the death knell for British rule.
During the war, Japan nurtured a range of independence leaders – notably Indonesia’s Sukarno, Burma’s Aung San and Ba Maw and Indian firebrand Subha Chandra Bose – who were determined that pre-war colonial normality would not be re-imposed. It was not.
Burma, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and eventually Indochina would be freed of colonial rule, post- Pacific War. The only white imperial power to retain territory in East Asia today is Russia, with its Czarist outpost in Vladivostok the crown jewel of its resource-rich, but human-resources poor, Russian Far East.
In the European theater of World War II there was a considerable irony: It took a totalitarian nation, the Communist USSR, to defeat another totalitarian nation, Nazi Germany. In the Asian theater, the irony was equally great: It took the yellow imperialism of Japan to dismantle the white imperialism of France, Netherlands and the UK.
Yellow Imperialism in Asia: While Japan may rightfully claim the moral high ground of smashing white colonialism in Southeast Asia and various parts of China, it cannot ignore its own imperial activities. Japan’s Imperium was built from the late 19th century, and in late-war discussions in Tokyo, some officials hoped to retain Manchuria and Korea in peace negotiations. In the event, the empire was was lost.
So, too, Japan’s role as a military, political and diplomatic player beyond its own borders largely evaporated for the rest of the 20th century.
Today Japan still has an emperor, but his empire is much compressed. Like fellow monarchy the UK, which now presides over such tiny territories as Bermuda and the Falkland Islands, Japan’s empire includes just the Ryukyu (notably, Okinawa) and Nanpo (notably, Iwo Jima) island chains.
But a long-latent Asian imperialism may be reviving. A newly confident and navally empowered People’s Republic of China has seized maritime territories in the South China Sea, is probing in the East China Sea and clearly seeks to take a larger and larger role in regional and global affairs.
Japan: In addition to physical losses of blood, brick and gold, Japan lost the moral fight. Today, along with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan is painted as one of history’s greatest villains for (1) igniting the war(s); and (2) fighting them with extreme cruelty. Moreover, there is a widespread belief that while modern Germany – politically unshackled from the creed of Nazism – has atoned for its past, Japan – which continues to be led by the Imperial house which led it into the abyss – fudges its war guilt. In terms of official penance, public education, and, perhaps, public acknowledgment, Japan lags behind Germany.
Yet, unlike Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan never committed genocide. While Tokyo’s campaign in China was callous and murderous, no extermination camps existed in the Japanese Empire. Moreover, this writer knows of no former colonial power that has offered as many apologies, or offered as much remuneration, as Japan has to South Korea.
Nevertheless, in the global popular mind – and to the dismay of the current government in Tokyo – the label of super villain continues to stick to Japan. This label has granted governments around the region, notably in Seoul and Beijing, occasion to aim serious criticism at Japan in the global space, and to indulge in populist grandstanding at home.
Korea: Korea, which was colonized by Japan in 1910, and liberated as a byproduct of Allied victory in 1945, did not have a bad World War II. During the years of fighting, the peninsula was a backwater; a huge Japanese rear-area logistic and human resource base physically removed from combat.
Though Korea was a massive industrial base – and a setting for Japan’s late-stage atomic weapons research – it was not subjected to the mass aerial bombardment that devastated so much of Europe and Japan. And unlike in the USSR, Yugoslavia, Greece and parts of Western Europe, there was no domestic insurgency, hence no liquidation of civilians.
But by great power fiat – and without a single Korean voice being represented – the peninsula was divided between US and USSR at war’s end. Subsequently, two competing states, sponsored by the Cold War foes, arose on the peninsula. In the 1950-53 Korean War, the devastation the peninsula had swerved in World War II was delivered – in spades.
National division is now set in stone and barbed wire, while the war simmers on to this day. There is no end in sight to this Pacific War legacy that today casts a long nuclear shadow across the region.
USA: Could the US – which emerged as the pre-eminent victor in the Pacific War – be considered a loser? If we extend our horizons far enough – yes. World War II left the US a de facto Asiatic power, anchored to the region as occupier, protector and re-maker of Japan.
With European imperialists departing, Washington became the new standard bearer of the West in the East. But, lured ever-deeper into the continent as the Cold War intensified, American subsequently fought wars in Korea (1950-the present) and Vietnam (1965-75).
While Korea would eventually produce one of America’ greatest ever foreign policy successes – the establishment of prosperous, stable and democratic ally – Vietnam would not. American failure to prevail in that conflict created a crisis of confidence that overshadows Washington decision-making to this day.
The standout US weaknesses of our time is that, despite being possessed of hugely expensive, battle-winning armed forces, Washington has lost the iron will essential to prevail in long-term, expeditionary conflicts. Recent events in the Middle East indicate this weakness has contaminated the other liberal Western democracies.
Moreover, despite the presence of three prosperous, powerful democratic states in the region – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (which are all national legacies of the Pacific War, for one reason or another), US diplomacy has proven utterly incapable of creating a trilateral alliance in East Asia.
US: America, whose homeland was physically unscarred by war, won a victory on multiple fronts that extend beyond the military space. First, it won the leadership of the West. With the UK bankrupt from war, in hock to Washington and on course for retreat from empire, US power became pre-eminent. Since 1945, London has largely (though not entirely) fallen in behind Washington.
Other European powers largely departed Asia, leaving the US the only significant Western military force in situ, sternly monitoring a new Pax Americana – a place/era of free(ish) trade under which one Asian nation after another would win economic “tiger” status. Secondly, in Japan, the USA created a powerful Asiatic ally that is a G3 economy and a democracy of 126 million souls.
Thirdly, America’s power was not restricted to the “hard” sphere. Thanks to the soft power juggernaut that is Hollywood, America’s victories in the war were magnified. This has massively influenced global public opinion – to the point where many people, not just Americans, may well believe only the USA defeated Japan. And in the ethical sphere, despite controversies over its area bombing of Japan in the closing months of the war, it won it with a largely clean moral slate.
Russia: The Soviet Union was the only pre-war power in the region to emerge with an empire that was (1) intact, (2) in no danger of independence movements, and (3) actually expanded with new, 1945-era territorial gains. In order to avoid two-front wars Tokyo and Moscow had signed a 1941 non-aggression pact, but as the price for joining their war against Japan, the Western Allies in 1945 granted Stalin full control over the huge Sakhalin island, and the Kuril chain. These continue to be thorns in Moscow-Tokyo ties to this day.
Japan: It may seem odd to dub Japan a winner of the Pacific War. After all, from August 1945 and for the remainder of the 20th century, it largely lost its global influence in anything other than commerce, while its US-authored constitution limited its armed forces to purely defensive roles.
Only today, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe beefing up the Self Defense Force and US President Donald Trump demanding that Japan pay more for the alliance, is a paradigm that has largely held since 1945 shifting. But these disme-powering factors also worked in Japan’s favor.
Post-war, under America’s aegis, Japan – which had formerly expended massive national energies on overseas expansion – was freed to concentrate its full animal spirits upon building its infrastructure and economy. Soon, instead of invaders, Japan was exporting products. And superbly crafted products – from transistor radios, to automobiles to supertankers.
So successful was the process that, just four decades after the end of the Pacific War, Japan was a G2 economy and its benefactor, America, felt threatened by Japan Inc’s industrial muscle. Today, Japan is a G3 economy, having been overtaken by its erstwhile wartime victim, China.
However, unlike China, Japan has also emerged as a major soft power force. In combination with its export and high-tech leadership, Japanese culture – from Akira Kurosowa films to anime fantasies; from the quirkiness of Godzilla to the kitsch of Hello Kitty; and from the martial art of karate to the joys of sushi and sake – went global. This bright trend has done much, in modern times, to outshine Japan’s dark reputation as the villain of the Pacific War.