20: The Japanese Invasion of World War II

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Southeast Asia: “The Western Company continued to exploit my people and my land throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, there were a series of anti-colonial revolts in Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It was evident that my indigenous people were not happy and were ready for liberation from their colonial oppressors. When their fellow Asians, the Japanese, invaded in 1942, and overthrew the Western powers, my people greeted them as liberators. But the Japanese quickly showed their true colors. They wanted to exploit us just like the Europeans. Let’s look at this time period in more detail.”

Japan Easily Conquers Southeast Asia

The Axis powers that were responsible for World War II, i.e. Germany, Italy and Japan, wanted to redraw colonial maps to create their own empires. However to gain allies in Southeast Asia, Japan employed the dialogue of anti-colonialism against the ‘decadent’ West. The Japanese leaders publicly stated that they intended to eliminate both Western imperialism and communism. Japan would then replace these presumably ‘repressive’ governments with an ‘Asian Co-prosperity Sphere’. One of their popular slogans was  ‘Asia for Asians’.

Instead of freeing the subject nations from foreign rule or communism, Japan’s real intent was to establish their own empire. ‘East Asia for Japan’ was probably a more accurate slogan. The Japanese had already conquered Manchuria, including Korea, and parts of China before the beginning of WWII. In 1940 their armies occupied North Vietnam to prevent supplies from reaching the Chinese Nationalist Army, who were still providing resistance. This was the first Japanese incursion into Southeast Asia, but not the last.

In June of 1940, Germany defeated France and established the German-controlled French government in Vichy. Taking advantage of the situation, Thailand’s dictator Phibun invaded the territories that the French had been protecting from Thai aggression. These territories included parts of Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia all the way to Siem Riep, where Angkor Wat resides. Japan supported Thai claims to the disputed lands.

To further assert military and political hegemony over Southeast Asia, Japan in July 1941 formed a joint protectorate with Vichy France over all of French Indochina. Rightfully suspicious of Japanese intentions, the Thai sought assistance from England, but the British were in a fight for survival with Germany and had not a soldier to spare.

Then on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked and destroyed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Simultaneously, i.e. the next day, Japanese troops entered Thailand. After a five-hour battle, Phibun ordered the Thai troops to lay down their arms. Subsequently Thailand signed a Treaty of Alliance with Japan. In charge of the Thai government and French Indochina, Japan assumed virtual control of the entire Southeast Asian mainland. The remainder of Southeast Asia fell to the well-organized Japanese military forces in the Winter of 1942 – Manila in January, Singapore in February, and the Dutch East Indies and Rangoon, Burma in March. The Japanese claimed parts of British-controlled Burma and Malaysia for Thailand, as a reward for cooperation.

One of the primary reasons for Southeast Asia’s swift capitulation to the Japanese was that the indigenous people tended to view them as liberators. The pre-War propaganda regarding ‘Asia for Asians’ had fallen on receptive ears. In other words, Indonesians, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Burmese and Filipinos were initially fighting with the Japanese to overthrow their colonial overlords or at least undermining European resistance. Ironically, awakening and empowering local nationalism proved to be one of the factors that undermined Japan’s quest for an Asian empire.

During their initial military onslaught in 1940, Germany conquered both France and the Netherlands. Plus England was fighting for survival, hoping to persist in the face of constant bombing by Hitler’s German Air Force. None of the colonial powers were in any position to defend their property against the Japanese.

Faulty Expectations: Japan’s Knockout Punch?

The Japanese strategy for establishing a "new order in East Asia", i.e. an Empire, seemed to be proceeding according to plan. They were firmly in control of the entire east coast of Asia from Manchuria in the north to the Dutch East Indies in the south. Under their scheme, Japan was to be the center of an industrial empire surrounded by Asian satellites, i.e. China, Korea, Thailand and Malaya, with the bounty of Southeast Asia supplying the raw materials. Unfortunately for them, there were a few fatal flaws in their thinking.

First, the Japanese expected the ‘soft’ American people to retreat into a shell after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. Their assumption was that America’s anti-imperialist faction would assume control and demand a withdrawal of U.S. forces from international waters after this quick ‘knockout punch’. With the European powers fighting amongst themselves on the other side of the globe and Americans nursing their wounds back at home, there would be no challenges to their military dominance of Asia.

Second, they expected cooperation from the ‘docile’ Southeast Asians. By eliminating their colonial masters, they hoped to inspire friendship and alliance. Even if the Southeast Asians didn’t cooperate willingly, they would be easy to control due to their past history. At least that was their thinking. The Japanese were sorely wrong on both accounts.

Instead of intimidating the American public into a ‘flight’ response, Japan’s raw aggression ignited America’s urge to ‘fight’. Indeed some have suggested that the U.S. Government may have ‘allowed’ the Japanese attack as a way of catalyzing a pro-war attitude on the part of American people. Previously, the public had been reluctant to send U.S. forces overseas to do battle for foreign interests.

Pearl Harbor mobilized Americans to enter World War II, just as the sinking of the USS Maine drove them to war against Spain. In similar fashion, the attack on New York’s Twin Towers ignited the American people to enter a war against Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever may be said about the American public, they do not respond passively to attack. They instead seek retribution as a cohesive unit. Japan’s faulty perception of the American people was one factor leading to the ultimate demise of their Asian Empire. Could it be that the Company’s accurate assessment of the American temperament allowed them to manipulate their emotions so that they could retain their income property?

Six months after Pearl Harbor, the American Navy was back in the Pacific with a vengeance. In June 1942, the Americans defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. In the battle, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and many seasoned pilots. Proving their mettle once again, the Americans forced the Japanese to withdraw from the strategic Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons after a savage and brutal battle that ended in February 1943.

With their military strategy in shambles due to being on the losing end of successive battles to the ‘decadent’ imperialist power, the Japanese knew that they were going to lose the war. From this point onward, the Japanese Army acted to salvage its honor. This proved beneficial to the Southeast Asians. Rather than attempting to maintain their obviously fading empire, they began granting their conquered territories a limited amount of sovereignty over their own affairs.

Japan’s Military Hierarchy vs. Southeast Asia’s Egalitarian Culture

Aggravating the situation for the Japanese was the rise of indigenous resistance movements all over Southeast Asia. Evidently, Southeast Asians aren’t so ‘docile’ after all. Let’s examine the factors that led to the rebellion against the Japanese.

The colonialism of European powers continued until 1942, at which time the Japanese sneaked through British defenses to prove that these foreign rulers could be overthrown any time the people organized. All over Southeast Asia, the Japanese were greeted as liberators. They had thrown out the hated Europeans and now they were going to create a Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. On paper it sounded great.

It became immediately apparent after their arrival in 1941-42 that the Japanese did not intend to free the subject peoples of Southeast Asia from their colonial jailors. Instead, they were going to merely supplant the Europeans in the role of oppressor. Not only that but their version of colonial rule was perhaps more formidable and ferocious. The Japanese measures were certainly more extreme than those of their Western counterparts. Plus they exhibited a blatant sense of cultural superiority. Despite the ‘Asia for the Asians’ propaganda, the indigenous peoples quickly realized that the Japanese and European colonial rulers had more in common with each other than either had with them.

Japan sincerely wanted to unite all of Eastern Asia behind a common goal. However, the Japanese didn’t understand the Southeast Asian temperament. Coming from an East Asian Confucian military hierarchy where everyone bowed to authority, they expected the same from the Southeast Asians. Unfortunately for the Japanese, traditional Southeast Asian society tends to be more egalitarian.

There were many factors behind Southeast Asia’s egalitarian nature. The regular alternation of traders due to the monsoons, the great variety of cultures living side-by-side, the many islands, and the natural geographical barriers all contributed to generating a trade-based culture where cooperation is rewarded. In contrast, Japan’s military society was based in competition – survival of fittest. Further, military cultures tend to be hierarchical. The stratification of society generates an effective chain of command that can respond quickly in time of emergency.

When the Japanese encountered Southeast Asians, it was a classic cultural clash. The Japanese employed military force to illustrate their superior place in the hierarchy and were surprised when Southeast Asians didn’t respect their authority. As a trading culture, Southeast Asians were instead offended by this elevated sense of self-importance exhibited by the Japanese. They didn’t fall docilely in place behind Japanese military authority because they felt that it was immature behavior.

As mentioned, the indigenous Southeast Asian Empires established their boundaries through economic and cultural prestige, rather than by military force. Even the powerful Chinese Empire didn’t employ their army to force the Southeast Asian nations to join their imperial network. Instead, the Chinese enticed the Southeast Asians to join their empire by offering trading advantages, throwing parties and passing out presents.

Japan’s cultural misunderstanding prevented them from establishing any kind of effective hegemony over Southeast Asian culture. While thwarting their ultimate success, the Japanese entry into Southeast Asia had many unintended side-benefits to the peoples of the area. First and foremost, Japanese colonialism inadvertently assisted the decolonialization of Southeast Asia.

Japanese Imperialism ignites Southeast Asian Nationalism

To better understand how this happened, let’s trace what happened during the war country-by-country. These events had a huge influence on post-war developments.

Even Thailand unhappy with Japanese overlords

Due to their alliance with Japan, Thailand gained territory, which was good for national pride. Conversely, the Thai economy suffered greatly due to the war, which was bad for the pocketbook. Unfortunately, pride doesn’t buy groceries. Growing economic dissatisfaction led to the rise of internal resistance movements. From 1942 onward, the Thais joined with other groups in the United States and Britain to undermine Japanese authority and Phibun’s military dictatorship. Due to declining economic conditions, Phibun was forced to resign in July 1944. Even Thailand, Japan’s staunchest ally, the one that they had presumably treated the best, wasn’t happy with the Japanese occupation. Certainly a bad sign. The resistance to this occupying army was worse elsewhere.

Japanese grant the Philippines nominal self-rule 1943

In the Philippines, over 30 members of landed elite, called the ilustrados, immediately cooperated with the Japanese to subjugate the indigenous people. This was hardly surprising. This same group had cooperated with first the Spanish and then the Americans in an identical role. The rich change sides easily, aligning themselves with whoever is in power. The Philippine public, of course, resented these collaborators. The citified middle class, whose circumstances had been improving during the U.S. occupation, formed pro-American resistance movements. In contrast, the agrarian lower classes joined Communist resistance groups, in the hopes of both throwing the Japanese out and instituting social reform.

After losing significant battles to the U.S., the Japanese knew that they needed to minimize local resistance, if they were to have any chance of winning the war. To this end, they set up an ‘independent’ Philippine state in 1943. Of course, the ilustrados, the landed Philippine elite who had collaborated with the Japanese, were placed in charge of this new republic. Even after the Americans regained control of archipelago, these wealthy collaborators were allowed to retain control of the government. This elevation of these ‘traitors’ to positions of authority was a major aggravation to those who fought against the Japanese occupation. As always, the rich hang together against the poorer elements of society. They have more in common with each other than they have with the public of any nationality.

 

However, this was the first time in nearly 500 years that the Filipinos had any kind of local control over their national destiny. If nothing else, the Japanese set a precedent of home rule. Japan performed this same function in other Southeast Asian nations, as we shall see.

Burma 1943

As World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the leaders of the Burmese resistance movement wanted some concessions from the government before giving their support to the British. Instead the authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Aung San, one of the leaders of the Thakin movement. He escaped to China, where he sought assistance. The Japanese offered to support him in his quest for independence. After returning to Burma in secret, Aung San recruited 29 young Burmese. These "Thirty Comrades" then traveled to Japan where they received military training.

As the Japanese troops began their invasion of Southeast Asia in December 1941, Aung San formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA). After the Japanese occupied Burma, they treated Aung San’s army as an ally, although in a subservient position. They placed Aung San, Thakin Nu and Ne Win in nominal charge of the Burmese government and military, both of which were firmly under the Japanese thumb.

After losing significant battles to the U.S. military in 1943, the Japanese realized that the tide of battle had turned against them. To gain internal support and neutralize resistance, the Japanese declared Burma a fully sovereign state, just as they had done with the Philippines. However, the Japanese army still dominated the country, the Burmese government a sham.

Astutely observing that the Japanese had no real intention of granting the Burmese independence, Aung San had contacted the Allied commander in Southeast Asia, as early as October 1943 to offer his cooperation. In March 1945, Aung San’s army officially joined the British side.

The Japanese never granted full freedom to the Burmese. However, they encouraged a sense of nationalism and gave the Burmese a taste of self-rule. Their old colonial rulers, the British, had actively suppressed both of these urges. However, now that Burmese had experienced freedom, they weren’t letting go.

Further Aung San’s army was a fully armed, Japanese trained and well-organized military unit. The Burmese freedom fighters were no longer the loosely trained, poorly armed guerilla fighters that the British had faced in the past. Although the colonial rulers wanted to return to prewar conditions after the Japanese capitulated in 1945, it wasn’t going to happen.

Indonesia 1944

After seizing control of the Dutch East Indies early in 1942, the Japanese brought Sukarno, the Javanese freedom fighter that we met previously, back from exile to assist in the rule, or should we say domination, of the Indonesian archipelago. As such, Sukarno viewed the Japanese as his personal liberators. Unfortunately the Japanese were more cruel than the Europeans. Even after discovering their true intent, Sukarno continued to cooperate with the Japanese by providing them with prostitutes and slave labor. His intent was presumably to bide his time and place his party in a position to further Javanese independence in the long term. Although 200,000 Javanese lost their lives during this dire time, they began banding together behind the Communist PKI and Sukarno’s Nationalist party to fight this alien invader. In so doing the Javanese gained self-confidence.

The Japanese granted Burma and the Philippines independence in 1943. Simultaneously, they annexed the Southeast Asian islands, which included Java. While disappointing, the Javanese had been dominated by foreign powers for over 300 years, and could wait a little longer for freedom, which, as it turned out, wasn’t to be that long.

In 1944 the Japanese announced that they were going to move towards granting the islanders independence. Although Sukarno was just thinking of the Dutch East Indies as this new country, the Japanese also included the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Borneo, and Timor to get all the Austronesian speakers to cooperate. Just like the Europeans, the Japanese couldn’t recognize the differences in the Southeast Asian islanders. Although the Indonesians knew that this was just a ploy to get them to help the Japanese against the Americans, they were still excited by the possibility of freedom at last.

Vietnam splits in two

By 1944, Burma, the Philippines, and now Indonesia had formed local governments with Japanese encouragement. Although still under the Japanese military thumb, this was the first time that the indigenous people had been able to exert any control of their political destiny. What about Vietnam?

Recall that the Japanese established an alliance with German-controlled France that gave them joint control over French Indochina. On Southeast Asia’s east coast and incorporating many significant trading ports on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam became the most important staging ground for all Japanese military operations in Southeast Asia. Instead of providing any resistance, the French administration cooperated with the Japanese occupation forces. However, towards the end of the war (in March 1945), Japan ousted the French as a precautionary measure. They were afraid that the French forces might turn against them.

To gain assistance, the Japanese then allowed the Vietnamese to proclaim their independence from France. Although the Japanese military commanders retained the reins of power, this modicum of local control provided a huge boost for the Vietnamese independence movement, especially since all concerned knew that Japan’s days were numbered.

In the meantime, Ho Chi Minh hadn’t been sitting on his hands. In May 1941, he organized a broad nationalist alliance under the leadership of the Communist Party. Eventually known as the Viet Minh, their express goal was Vietnamese independence. During the war, Ho even cooperated with Allied forces by providing information on Japanese troop movements in Indochina. Simultaneously, he sought recognition of the Viet Minh as the legitimate representative of Vietnamese nationalism.

The Japanese surrendered in August 1945. The well-organized Viet Minh movement ordered a general uprising. Due to the disorganization of competing factions, Ho Chi Minh’s communist-led group was able to seize power in Hanoi, the capitol of North Vietnam. Careful years of planning and foresight allowed the Viet Minh to outmaneuver their opponents, including their colonial overlords, the French Company.

However, the Company doesn’t give up its income property without a fight. With the aid of the occupation forces of their imperial cousin, the British, the French seized control of Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam. Hence, the end of the war marked the beginning of two Vietnams: a communist north and a Company-governed south.

Japanese Invasion ultimately a Blessing

Southeast Asia: “My people had a seething hatred for the Japanese by the end of the war. This animosity was in part due to the cultural clash between the hierarchical style of Japanese military society and the egalitarian style of my trade-based society. However my Southeast Asians had much to be grateful for due to the Japanese occupation.

First, the Japanese encouraged national pride in the indigenous populations to inspire them to revolt from their Western overlords. Second, the Japanese exposed the weakness of these foreign powers. Third, the Japanese granted each of the territories a limited amount of sovereignty. Finally the Japanese left their weaponry behind, which leveled the military playing field.

In essence, the Japanese occupation allowed my indigenous populations to organize on massive national levels, both politically and militarily. This collective national organization was something that the Western colonial powers had actively suppressed. So thank you Japan for planting the seeds of nationalism in my people. The ways of the Universe are certainly mysterious.

However the growth of these seeds of independence was to be fraught with difficulty. Freedom would be easier to achieve for some, but for no country would it be immediate.”

 

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