East Asia Prosperity Sphere

Bend like the bamboo in the wind. Emperor Hirohito.

Towards the close of the 19th century, Japan was adding Okinawa and small islands to the southwest to its territory, followed by the not-so-small island of Taiwan. Then, at the dawn of the 20th century, the unthinkable happened. Japan engaged the mighty European empire of Russia in war and won convincingly. The infallibility of the white man to the yellow man had been challenged.

Encouraged by these early successes, the Japanese Empire proceeded to accumulate more new territory to its west – the Korean peninsula, and then Manchuria. In Shanghai, Japan had a consulate on the North Bund alongside those of the European colonial powers who grudgingly had to treat these eastern upstarts as equals. (The neighbouring Russian building of the same era and similar design still serves as consulate today).

In 1937, China’s Generalismo Chiang Kai Shek was concerned about the Japanese military pushing south from its now decades-long occupation of Manchuria towards Beijing (Northern Capital, although at the time called Beiping, Northern Peace because it wasn’t the capital). Fatefully, Chiang decided to force the Japanese to split their forces by opening a second front. Chiang was also keen to secure interest and support of the western powers in his fight against Japan. Bringing the war adjacent to their concessions in Shanghai seemed like a good place to start. Chiang put pressure on a small Japanese military base in Shanghai. The Japanese response was comprehensive though and they shortly held big chunks of the City after landing reinforcements and fierce street fighting.

Now it was Chiang under pressure to regain the City. The Japanese navy parked itself alongside The Bund in the Huangpu River and blasted the Chinese forces in the city with their big guns. Chiang sent China’s fledgling Air Force to the attack. Not only did their bombs not find a single one of the stationary Japanese vessels, they had much trouble even finding the river. A couple of large blasts fell into the International Settlement near The Bund and along Nanjing Road killing many Chinese. The International Settlement and neigbouring French Concession had not been invaded by the Japanese out of respect for the colonising powers, so many Chinese had congregated there for safety.

By 1942 and post Pearl Harbor, Japan’s respect even for these other colonising powers was gone and it grabbed these Shanghai Concessions too. Known as “the shame of China”, Western Powers had unilaterally helped themselves to these small strips of Chinese real estate in the 19th century. Just ahead of the Japanese occupation of them in 1942, European leaders of the Concessions ran for Chongqing in Western China, well out of Japanese rifle range. From the safety of Chongqing the western leaders generously, and on paper only of course, “returned” the Concessions to China, rather than technically let title fall to enemy hands. This was the first reversal in what was by now China’s century-long loss of territory and rights to Europeans.

But back to 1937. From Shanghai Japanese troops head 200km up the Yangtse River to enact the infamous Rape of Nanking (Nanjing in standard Chinese, literally Southern Capital). At Nanjing, Japan enacted a “surrender or perish” tactic that had been in use in city-sieges across Asia for millennia. China’s own Yuan Dynasty founding Emperor Genghis Khan for one had made infamous use of it. The tactic is to make an example of a city that resists being taken over to encourage the others to surrender without bloodshed. There was a black irony in that even in the mid 20th century, Nanjing’s main defence was its towering, thick, Ming Dynasty (15C) city walls of similar vintage and construction to the Great Wall north of Beijing designed to keep post-Yuan Dynasty Khans out.

A visit to the modern memorial to the Nanjing holocaust, built above partly-open mass graves for tens of thousands of slaughtered Chinese, is a solemn experience. The Rape of Nanking has become an icon for the cruelty of Japanese in WW2. A small brighter spot on this otherwise dark tale is the work of the German engineering firm, Siemens, who sheltered large numbers of Chinese in their Nanjing factory. Possibly one of the few times in WW2 when the flying Swastika prevented atroscities against the Allies. Japan had recently entered into its alliance with the central Axis power and was powerless therefore to penetrate the Siemens’ operation.

At home in Japan, a power struggle was underway between the civilian Government and the military. As offshore victories progressed the military became stronger at home, leading eventually to the establishment of the infamous Hideki Tojo military Government. Western powers became alarmed at Japan’s rate of expansion in Asia, resulting in a US-lead embargo of vital raw materials to the land of the rising sun. Tojo’s Government saw an ‘ABCD’ (America-Britain-China-Dutch) conspiracy against it in terms of neighbouring colonial powers and lashed out at the leading protagonist, USA, at Pearl Harbor.  

Japan saw a local opportunity with European colonial powers distracted at home by the Hitler/Mussulini advance. France and Holland surrendered their long held Asian colonies (Indochina and Indonesia respectively) to the advancing Japanese without a fight. Japan attempted to console local Asian populations to this development by propaganderising a new ‘East Asia Prosperity Sphere’. It claimed the new benevolent Japanese rulers would equally share wealth and power with local populations. The reality was further brutal supression for the sole objective of siphoning off natural resources and raw materials for Japan’s benefit.

Japanese even contracted the French administration in Vietnam to carrying on ruling, by simply changing reporting line from Paris to Tokyo. This resulted in a devastating famine as food resources were diverted to the Japanese war effort. (This “outsourcing” model was later flipped on its head in post-War Indonesia. Now-defeated Japanese troops became mercenaries fighting on both sides of the independence struggle, see Part 11).

Thailand’s first coup was staged in 1932 by one Pridi Banomyong. Unfortunately, in the decades since, the country has experienced more coups than it has elections. Ironically therefore, the Monarchy that was the focus of attack in Pridi’s 1932 coup, has come to represent the one point of stable leadership in the country. Pridi’s successor was army leader Phabin, who fortuitously during the 1930s established positive relationships with the only other major Asian country not at least partially under colonial rule – Japan. Therefore, as Japan upscaled its aggression in the later stages of the decade, Thailand was spared the horror of occupation. Phabin worked with the Japanese until it became clear who would win the war, when Thailand swapped allegiance.

Britain’s fortress in South East Asia was Singapore. The big guns at Fort Silosso pointed south in defiance of any major naval attack on the tip of the South East Asian peninsula. So the Japanese simply came in through the back door – on small rubber rafts across the Straits of Johor from Malaysia into Singapore’s north. The Silosso guns never had a chance to fire at anything. Japan’s Zero fighters, state of the art for the time, decimated the antiquated British Air Force planes (Bruster Buffalos) based in Singapore. New Hurricane fighters, responsible for winning the Battle of Britain, had also arrived but hadn’t been out of their packing cases long enough for pilots to learn how to fly them before the Zeros did their damage.  

Early morning August 6 1945, B29 (B is for Bomber) Enola Gay lumbers airborne from its base on Tinian Island. Tinian, part of the Marianas group, has been painfully captured by the Americans island-hopping northwards. Okinawa and Iwojima, farther north, had subsequently fallen at huge cost of life. Enola Gay has no problem with the take-off as she is only carrying one bomb, albeit a rather large one dubbed Little Man. At 8.15am Little Man would detonate in the air above downtown Hiroshima. The nuclear age had arrived.

Even as those who fought and suffered in the World War 2 conflict grow old and pass away, the subject remains highly contensious. Clint Eastwood had to produce two parallel versions of his movie on the 1945 Iwo Jima battle. Letters from Iwo Jima in Japanese and Flags of Our Fathers in English. Western audiences who watch the former might be surprised to see scenes of US marines torturing Japanese POWs. Japan estimates it lost 3.1 million servicemen in the war. Development of mass media during World War 2 and the associated power of propaganda machines means indeliable memories have been left on both sides regarding the inhumanity of the enemy. The real conclusion is that war is abhorid. Period.

A downside of retaining the Emperor post-war is that it could be a significant contributing factor to Japan’s rather poor record in apologising to nations it aggrieved in the conflict. ‘If the big guy didn’t have to take a fall, why should we?’

A recent summer camp in Hokkaido brought together high school students from Japan, Korea, and China. They debated the War and its cruel impact on citizens of all their countries. Gestures such as these are an encouraging start to healing the pain that all three countries know is important for long-term peace and therefore mutual prosperity in the region. At the macro level, Japan, China, and South Korea are increasingly having to cooperate because of their mutual concern about North Korea.

There is an ironically happier long-term ending to the East Asia Prosperity Sphere tragedy. Asian countries saw during the Japanese advance that Europeans were not infallible. Many took advantage of their former masters’ home ruin and weakness at the end of the Second World War to ensure they didn’t return to power in Asia, at least not for long.

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