[REVIEW] “Ongoing Legacy: Reviewing In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire Imperial Violence” by Joshua Bird

{Written by Joshua Bird, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Barak Kushner and Andrew Levidis (editors), In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire Imperial Violence: State Destruction, and the Reordering of Modern East Asia, Hong Kong University Press, 2020. 252 pgs.

It is quite natural for us as humans to try to conceptualise historical periods as following a linear structure—with a clear beginning, a middle and an end. It is much easier for us to imagine history unfolding neatly with major historical events marking a clear delineation between one era and the next. This is how the popular imagination often perceives Japan’s defeat and the end of World War II—arguably the largest and most impactful period of military conflict in human history. History books detail the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—the final brutal punctuation mark to this bloody period of human history. The falling bombs were followed swiftly by the Japanese surrender and the end of Japan’s military rule over much of East Asia.

Yet, upon closer examination, the end of the War was also a beginning. In many ways, more of a semi-colon than a full stop. While Japan’s defeat represented an end of so much of what had come before it, the power vacuum left by Japan’s defeat also acted as a tremendous catalysing force for change. In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire: Imperial Violence, State Destruction, and the Reordering of Modern East Asia, a collection of academic writings produced by editors Barak Kushner and Andrew Levidis, attempts to reframe the aftermath of Japan’s defeat as a period of transition—not just for Japan itself but for the entire East Asian region.

This transition was a messy one. Japan’s surrender created a series of fault lines that upended empires, divided nations and set in place a geopolitical configuration that continues to this day. In fact, the book notes that nine of the eleven countries that constitute modern South-East Asia gained their independence in the direct aftermath of World War II. Drawing on research in China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the contributors to this volume explore the legacy of Japan’s defeat from the urgent political and humanitarian challenges faced in the initial aftermath of the war to the enduring, longer-term impacts felt across the region by the departure of Japanese imperial authorities.

Perhaps the most under-appreciated challenge in the immediate aftermath of the war’s end—and a topic to which the book dedicates a great deal of attention—was the logistical implications of attempting to disarm and repatriate the thousands of Japanese soldiers and prisoners of war scattered across the length and breadth of the Asia-Pacific. Such was the geographic spread of Japan’s theatre of war that it spanned from Manchuria in the north to Papua New Guinea in the south. This fact would prove to be an issue not only during wartime, when stretched supply chains proved an ongoing challenge for Japanese forces, but also in the post-war period when almost seven million Japanese found themselves requiring repatriation. It is a testament to the difficulty of this feat that a year later, in 1946, over two million Japanese had still not found their way home.

While this fact can be partially attributed to logistics, it was also part of a deliberate strategy by the victorious parties to make use of Japanese military units for their own purposes—primarily, the reassertion of European colonial authority in East Asia and guarding against potential Communist progress in the aftermath of Japanese departures. Often, both purposes went hand in hand. For example, in Vietnam, Japanese forces were redeployed by Western Allies to fight Vietminh forces seeking to unseat the French colonial power. In Indonesia, they guarded oil refineries and helped subdue pro-independence militia. In China, the Western-backed Nationalists used defeated Japanese forces to fight in their own civil war with the Communists.

The book notes this comment by President Truman in his autobiography about his fears for China at the war’s end:

It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists.

—from In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire Imperial Violence: State Destruction, and the Reordering of Modern East Asia, edited by Barak Kushner and Andrew Levidis.

Such was the importance to the Nationalists of this Japanese support that a number of former high-ranking Japanese military advisers even accompanied them as they retreated to Taiwan, continuing to serve the Republic of China until the late 1960s. The situation was, however, much worse for those Japanese soldiers captured by Soviet forces. Thousands died in captivity or would not be released till almost a decade later.

Not only did the end of Japanese imperial authority across the Asia-Pacific create a vacuum of military control that the victorious powers were not always capable of filling, it also resulted in a vacuum of administrative experience. So sudden was the end of Japanese rule that there had been no time for a smooth transfer of administrative responsibility to properly trained local authorities. As a result, in places like Korea and Taiwan, which had been administered by colonial authorities for generations, the Americans chose to retain many senior Japanese in their former positions of colonial administration. Ultimately, faced with a looming conflict with the USSR, the United States prioritised regional stability and the economy over the aspirations for greater independence among former colonised states. This ongoing role for the Japanese in the administration of their former territorial possession complicated attempts to forge a new independent path. Almost as soon as the war ended, the contestation over the events of wartime, and in some cases the decades of colonialism that preceded them, began. Even now—more than 70 years after the formal end of the Japanese empire—debate about the extent of collaboration continues in Taiwan, China and Korea.

For example, in South Korea during the post-war period, the recently decolonised nation sought to wrestle with the fact that many of its best and brightest had been actively enmeshed within the Japanese colonial system. While it was relatively simple to identify and remove Japanese colonial authorities, the process of identifying and punishing those locals deemed to have collaborated with the Japanese was a much harder process. In particular, deciding what constituted “pro-Japanese” behaviour became very complicated when all of the nation’s institutions for decades had been Japanese. This question of loyalty cast a long shadow over South Korean independence, with the definitions of patriotism and treason contested for decades. Even efforts to resolve the issue through 2004’s Truth and Reconciliation legislation proved ultimately unsatisfactory—with the question largely unresolved to this day.

In neighbouring China, similar attempts were made to punish perceived traitors. These efforts extended beyond national borders and even ethnic lines, as a pillar of the Nationalist Party’s attempts to project an image of stability and political legitimacy in the face of continuing losses in the Chinese Civil War. Traitors to the Chinese nation—hanjian 漢奸—were pursued across East Asia—from Indonesia to Vietnam. Even non-ethnic Chinese deemed to have collaborated with the Japanese, such as White Russians, were punished as hanjian. This pursuit of traitors across international borders put a strain on Nationalist China’s post war diplomatic efforts, as it attempted to claim jurisdiction over all Chinese the world over—regardless of their citizenship. Ultimately, it lost them a lot of support among the Chinese diaspora at a time when they needed it most.

The book’s first third focuses on Taiwan and provides another excellent example of the complexities that arise when states attempt to punish ethnic disloyalty. Uniquely among Japan’s former territories, Taiwan transitioned from colonial subject to reintegration into a much larger Chinese state, to which it had never previously been a part. How then could those Taiwanese who supported the Japanese be accused of “collaborating” with the very empire to which they were subjects against a nation—the Republic of China—to which they had never belonged?

While the Chinese considered the Taiwanese as its citizens, the other allied powers treated them as subjects of the recently defeated Japanese. The Chinese realised that to give the Taiwanese an exception from hanjian laws would be tantamount to acknowledging that Taiwan was not a part of China at the time. Alternatively, a decision to punish Taiwanese as traitors required significant mental gymnastics. In the end, the logistical difficulties proved insurmountable and Taiwanese offenders were punished for war crimes—as if they were Japanese—rather than treason.

This complex interplay of ethnicity, citizenship and colonialism set forth by the end of Japanese rule in Taiwan would continue to have implications for Chinese authorities. The re-Sinicisation process was less than smooth, as evident by the February 28 Incident of 1947 in which the citizenry of the recently returned island took to the streets to protest their treatment at the hands of their new “rulers”. Many Taiwanese saw the “return” to China as the mere replacement of one colonial order by another, a perception not challenged by the often mistrustful and condescending nature of Chinese rule. The experience of decades of Japanese colonialisation had fostered a sense of Taiwanese otherness, with more than half a century of differing systems, laws, culture and technologies. The fact that Taiwan was not immediately afforded the same status as other Chinese provinces upon its return to China only further heightened this sense of difference. This tension between Chinese and Taiwanese identities continues to play out today, with much broader implications for the region.

Even in Japan itself, the country struggled with the degree to which those involved in the Japanese imperial mission could be rehabilitated. One chapter is dedicated to the fluctuating fortunes of Japanese political figure Kishi Nobusuke. Having served as a member of General Tojo’s cabinet, responsible for overseeing the economy, Kishi was branded a Class-A war criminal in the aftermath of the war. However, such was the potential for reinvention possible in Japan’s post-war environment, by 1957 Kishi was elected Prime Minister. This mirrored the resurrection of the country’s military, whose rearming occurred tentatively, despite the trepidation of many, led by a United States that saw the country as a key ally in the anti-Communism struggle. The key role that the United States envisaged for Japan in the post-war world required a rapid rehabilitation of Japan’s military capacity. Founded a little less than a decade after the end of World War II, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JDSF) were soon deployed to provide logistical support to Western forces fighting in the Korean War. While still nominally adopting a defensive stance, the JSDF now operates globally as part of various international military initiatives.

As these examples illustrate, while it is simpler to quarantine Japanese imperial history from the geopolitical context of the second half of the 20th century, the former necessarily informed the latter. In its multifaceted portrait of East Asia in the immediate aftermath of World War II, what is revealed by In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire is a world that had already begun to reconfigure itself to suit the next emerging global conflict. With Germany and Japan now defeated, the United States and its allies—including its former enemy Japan—now had their eyes firmly on rebuilding the shattered global economy and creating a new coalition for the looming fight against the forces of global Communism. In such an atmosphere, there was little time, attention or resources for repatriating defeated Japanese soldiers, building the capacity of their former colonial subjects or meting out justice to those tainted by collusion with Japanese imperialism. Instead, the colonial institutions, military force and political power of the former Japanese imperial state were swiftly redeployed. This decision meant that the impact of Japanese imperialism would continue to be felt across the region for decades to come. By drawing together the disparate threads of Japanese imperial influence, In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire serves to remind us of this ongoing legacy.

How to cite: Bird, Joshua. “Ongoing Legacy: Reviewing In the Ruins of the Japanese Empire Imperial Violence.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/15/japanese-empire/.  

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Joshua Bird.jpg

Joshua Bird has been working and living across the Asia-Pacific region for almost two decades. His research interest focuses on human rights and ethnic minorities in Asia, and he was awarded the first PhD from the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. He writes regularly for the Asian Review of Books. His first book Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity Along China’s Multi-ethnic Borderlands was recently published by Routledge.

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