Japanese troops exult the former Chinese capital Nanking after the city's conquest in 1937. The Japanese stand accused of perpetrating horrific atrocities in the Chinese city. Photo: AFP

In Western eyes, World War II in Asia is often viewed as contest between the Empire of Japan and the “ABCD” forces of America, Britain, China, and the Dutch. More often still, the war is simplified further into a clash between Japan and the United States.

The way the Pacific phase of the war began – with the Japanese naval attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 – and ended – with the American firebombing and atomic bombings in the spring/summer 1945 – has accentuated the Japan-US aspect of the fighting. That accent has been massively amplified by Hollywood.

This is distorted. To be sure, the Japanese and the Americans battled to dominate the Western Pacific for four and a half years of staggering destruction. But bilateral animosity had not appeared out of nowhere in December 1941.

Many in Japan bristled at racially exclusivist, nativist laws passed in the US targeting people of Asian descent. They were particularly hurt by 1907 and 1924 acts that limited Asian immigration. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was read by many in Japan as more of the same – an Asian nation excluded from the great powers on the basis of race.

When president Franklin Roosevelt attempted to strangle Japan economically with embargoes and asset freezes, Japan had finally had enough. From Tokyo’s perspective, it was time to drive the Anglo-Europeans from Asia.

It was because of Japan’s war actions in China that Roosevelt slipped an economic noose around Tokyo’s neck. A key reason Tokyo was fighting in China was to defend its Manchurian possessions. And it held those possessions because of the USSR.

US ships burn amid the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The real rivalry

The longer rivalry in Asia was, or is, between Japan and Russia. Long before Japan’s military thought about fighting the US, it was already fighting Russia. From the beginning of Russo-Japanese interaction, the relationship has been wary at best, and usually adversarial.

The Treaty of Shimoda, formalizing bilateral relations, was signed in 1855, less than a year after the Convention of Kanagawa established diplomatic relations between Japan and the US. As the Russian Empire pushed deeper into Siberia and Manchuria and began meddling in Korea, where Japan was doing the same thing, Japan and Russia came to blows in 1904.

The Russo-Japanese War is best remembered for a naval engagement, the Battle of Tsushima, in which Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s Japanese Combined Fleet won a decisive victory over the Russian Baltic Fleet in May 1905. On land, the war was fought mostly in Manchuria, Korea, and the Liaodong Peninsula, giving rise to a massive land engagement in Manchuria, in March 1905 – nearly 50 years to the day after the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda.

The land fighting was also in large part about access to the sea. Russia coveted Port Arthur (today, Dalian), the only perennially ice-free Pacific port the czar’s navy had any hopes of acquiring. However, Japan had won Port Arthur after Japan’s defeat of the decrepit Qing Dynasty nine years earlier.

In the event, the Americans saved Japan in 1905. The war on the mainland was grinding down into attrition, but neither side had the will or capital to win outright. President Theodore Roosevelt invited delegations from both empires to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in August, allowing Japan to claim victory. It was also at Portsmouth that Japan retained title to the southern half of the long Siberian island of Sakhalin, which Japan had seized in its entirety during the fighting.

Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for the treaty between the two rivals, but the end of the Russo-Japanese War merely paused open hostilities. And the victory proved pyrrhic for Japan. Its defeat of Czar Nicholas II’s forces sealed the fate of the Russian Empire, and from its shell  arose something infinitely more menacing.

An abortive revolution in 1905 nearly toppled the czar’s government, but it was World War I that finished what Admiral Togo had inadvertently started. With help from Japanese agents who sneaked into Russia to foment anti-czarist revolt, the hard-left opposition eventually brought down the Russian Empire. The new czar, Lenin, hastily cut Russia’s losses at the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and set about consolidating ideological rule over some 170 million Russians.

Seeing opportunity in Russia’s chaotic state, the Japanese, as members of the victorious World War I Allies, participated in the “Siberian Intervention” in 1918. This was ostensibly to rescue of a detachment of Czech soldiers from behind enemy lines during the Russian Civil War between the Bolsheviks (“Reds”) and Loyalists (“Whites”).

In reality, for Japan, the intervention was a dry run for a bigger role in the Far East. By weakening Russia further, Japan hoped to secure the vast territory and natural riches of Manchuria.

A rich prize

The dominance of Manchuria and the wider Far East shaped the strategic horizons of Japan’s military. Sensing with growing alarm the rise of international communism, in 1925 the Japanese government passed the Peace Preservation Law, which allowed Japan to purge from society communists plotting to overthrow the emperor. Keeping the Russians at bay in Siberia through the buffer state of Manchuria was the external arm of this anti-communist strategy.

In 1928, the Japanese military’s assassination of warlord Zhang Zuolin, who controlled Manchuria, presaged an even greater role for Japan. In 1931, a Japanese-staged bomb attack designed to grant the pretext for a full-scale invasion of Manchuria took place at Mukden.

In 1932, the state of “Manchukuo” was set up under Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last Qing emperor whom the Japanese installed as, in essence, a replacement for Zhang Zuolin and a way to work around Zhang’s intractable son, Zhang Xueliang, and gain control of Manchuria. The territory became a kind of “reverse iron curtain” against the Soviet Union for Japan.

In 1937, open warfare between Japan and China proper broke out after the “Marco Polo Bridge” incident outside Beijing. Resources deployed to defend Manchuria from the Soviets were siphoned off as Japan became entangled in war with China. The quagmire in China – into which the Soviets, working through the Comintern, were only too happy to draw Japanese forces – massively distracted Tokyo from its rivalry with the Soviet Union.

But Japan was soon reminded that its most dangerous enemy in Asia was not China.

At Nomonhan/Khalkhin Gol in 1939, the Soviets won partial revenge on Japan for 1905 by securing a major victory on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria. After securing this victory, the Soviets were able to turn their full attention to the war brewing in the west.

Nomonhan was a fateful turning point for another reason, too.

The southward policy

Japan’s navy was one of the mightiest on the seas and had proved itself against both Russia and China. With Japan’s army bogged down on the mainland, the “advance north” stratagem, according to which Japan would throw its main power against the Soviets in Manchuria and Siberia, gave way to the “advance south” approach, according to which Japan would attack the European and American colonies in Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma and eventually, India.

This massive expansion of the war might look like a strategy of biting off far more than could be chewed. But seen holistically, these actions make sense. Japan had staved off encroachment by Europeans and Americans in its own rise to power; it now felt compelled to overthrow white imperialism in the Far East.

Many Japanese called for a “pan-Asianism” to drive out the usurpers and interlopers who had held sway in Asia for centuries. It was a movement loaded with historical significance.

To be sure, there was money involved. The riches of the East, which had drawn the Europeans in, remained for the new Japanese power to extract and exploit. Manifest Destiny, yes, but also crude oil and rubber and jute and sugar cane brought Yamato deeper into Asia.

Hoping to obviate a reprisal from the Americans, the Japanese struck a surprise blow at the US air and naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. Meanwhile, in a brilliant series of combined operations, Tokyo – which already controlled French Indochina – stormed into the Dutch and British Southeast Asia colonies.

Japan inflicted the most humiliating defeat the British had suffered in their history at Singapore. But while Japan took control of the vast natural wealth of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, the British retreated into Burma. That would become a battlescape for the remainder of the war as the British and their Indian subjects fought back, soon assisted by the Chinese and Americans.  

A vast new empire – stretching from Papua New Guinea, through the vast Pacific, to all of Southeast Asia bar Thailand, most of southern China, Manchuria and the home islands – now spread across the maps.

But with the United States in the war and fighting back from across the vast Pacific, Japan’s ultimate fate was sealed.

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s prize battleship, the Yamato, was a magnificent vessel but she was ill-designed to resist the waves of carrier-born US fighters who sent her to the bottom. Photo: AFP

Stalin looks east

The Soviets did not fight in the Pacific theater.

Thanks to the machinations of Soviet spies – in particular the group working under Richard Sorge, the double agent who was so close to the Germans in Japan that he was sleeping with the German ambassador’s wife and plying her husband for information over drinks – the Kremlin knew Japan was going to follow the southern route and not attack them.  

Japan and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in 1941. The Red Army was thereby free to meet Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, which came storming in from the west after the Germans abrogated their own neutrality agreement with the Soviets and launched “Operation Barbarossa.”

The Soviets’ not having to defend Siberia from Japan was a fatal development for the Third Reich. The Soviets, not the Western Allies, stopped Hitler. Josef Stalin rightly judged the Nazis to be the main enemy, so had secured his far eastern flank doubly: via treaty of non-aggression and by contributing to the Pacific War, courtesy of communist spies surrounding Roosevelt.

By 1943, Stalin began looking back east. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the Soviets agreed to join the war against Japan three months after the demise of the Nazis. In return, Stalin would get back the southern half of Sakhalin and the Kuriles.

Naively, the Japanese, had been hoping the Soviets would broker a peace deal. Stalin, as Roosevelt had done, babied the Japanese along.

The USSR joined the war against Japan three months and one day – August 9, 1945 – after Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8. August 9 was also the day that the second of two atomic bombs was dropped on a virtually defenseless Japanese civilian population.

In the crucible of the closing days of World War II, we can see virtually all the elements which long constituted the Russo-Japanese rivalry. That rivalry, which started under the banners of imperialism, then switched to communism in both the Soviet Union and China, metastasized into most of the ongoing tensions plaguing East Asia to this day.

One must view the sudden, massive “blitzkrieg” attack by the Soviets into Manchuria in the context of Soviet realities and anticipations. The Soviets deployed 1.6 million bayonets, backed by massive armor and air assets, against Japan. The Kremlin moved so decisively as it feared that Japan would surrender before the Soviets could join the fight, and could thus lose the spoils.

There was also a challenge to Moscow rising in China. The Soviets were keenly aware of Mao Zedong’s “Sinification of Marxism” campaign and his routing of the “28 Bolsheviks” as part of the internal war in the party between the international faction devoted to the Comintern and the nativist faction determined to follow the Maoist, China-first line.

In the event, however, it was Mao who won Manchuria. Using his foothold in North China and Manchuria, Mao outflanked the Nationalists and won the Chinese civil war in 1949. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan, formerly part of the Japanese Empire.

As for other parts of the pre-1941 Japanese Empire, the Russians got Sakhalin and control of half of Korea.

And there was another, hidden Soviet victory – the infiltration of Japanese institutions. Japan was flooded with local communists after World War II. First, the members of the Japan Communist Party were released from prison by the Americans in October of 1945.

Next, the Siberian Detainees, more than a million soldiers and civilians captured by the Soviets and interned in concentration camps, returned. The Siberian Detainees, many brainwashed, exercised enormous ideological control over postwar Japanese thinking.

Soviet naval infantry raise the red flag over Port Arthur, scene of a Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then and now

Today, ex-enemy America is Japan’s chief ally and protector. Japan’s former European foes (the French and Dutch) and allies (Germany and Italy), united under the EU, are on-side too, albeit via a free-trade agreement, not an alliance. Former wartime enemies Australia, India and the UK all appear to be upgrading military cooperation with Japan, and Tokyo and London are negotiating an FTA.

Russia continues to view Japan as its main rival in the Far East. President Vladimir Putin has been stringing along negotiations over the Northern Islands that Japan claims and Russia occupies, with minimal progress.

Russia has no more territory to gain in the Far East, but it does have one final legacy from World War II to clear up – the elimination of the Americans from Russia’s Pacific flank and the end, finally, to the challenge to the great Russian empire from Japan.

The Kremlin looks unlikely to be able to do that. Instead, a vast new communist state has eclipsed Russia. Today, the rising power of China is casting ever longer shadows over the land of the rising sun and the region as a whole.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships and US Navy ships take part in an exercise. Photo: AFP/Michael Russell/US Navy