Massive ceremonies focused on military display are planned by China on Sept. 3 to mark the defeat of Japan in World War II. This is yet another step in the re-writing of history that ignores most of the rest of Asia.
The facts of history are that Japan lost a war with the United States, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the concluding act. The consequence was the withdrawal of Japan from China and other conquered territories such as Korea. The Communist Party under Mao Zedong spent very little energy fighting the Japanese, leaving itself in a better position to take on the Kuomintang afterward.
Without Japan’s high-risk decision to go to war with the US, which was strangling its fuel supplies, it is very likely that Japan would still control part of China, most likely Manchuria, in which it had invested heavily in industry and infrastructure.
China’s rulers today are not only exaggerating China’s role in Japan’s defeat but most specifically that of the Communist Party. Propaganda now claims that Mao himself, not Chiang Kai-shek, was present along with Roosevelt and Churchill at the 1943 Cairo conference which discussed what to do with Japan and its conquered territories after the war.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was conspicuous by his absence from Cairo because the Soviets (Mao’s supporters) had a non-aggression pact with Japan. This did not end until August 8, 1945, two days after the Hiroshima bomb, when the Soviets declared war and moved into Manchuria and the Kurile islands. Earlier Stalin has promised his Anglo-American allies that he would attack Japan at some point in exchange for their agreement to his seizing Sakhalin and the Kuriles.
Stirring continuing hatred of Japan has long been a theme of the Communist Party’s attempt to wrap itself in nationalist clothes and to paint Japan as an aggressor despised throughout Asia.
Not black and white
However, the history is rather more complicated. Korea surely suffered under Japanese rule. Yet the fact remains that many Koreans voluntarily joined the Japanese war effort (almost certainly including at least some of the “comfort women” who have become a focus of Korean outrage.) The best known of those volunteers was none other than former President Park Chung-hee, whose daughter is now president. He joined the Changchun Military Academy in 1942, graduated third in his class and became an officer in the Imperial Army in Manchuria, changing his name to Okamoto Minoru.
Japan’s war with China was brutal, as witness the Nanjing massacre. But Chinese under Japanese rule in Taiwan and to some extent Manchuria enjoyed peace and modest prosperity. Taiwanese nationalist president Lee Teng-hui was a lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army and went to Kyoto University. He took pride in his knowledge of Japan and its culture. His brother joined the Japanese navy and was killed in Manila.
However much China (and to a lesser degree Korea) rant on about Japanese imperialism and demand never ending apologies, the fact remains that Korea, Taiwan and even mainland China itself respected Japan’s achievements, economic structure and social order.
Japan as liberators from the colonial yoke
As for the rest of Asia, many saw the Japanese as liberators from western colonialism and even when that soured as they faced the realities of Japanese rule Japan’s initial defeat of the west ensured that the old colonial systems could not be revived.
In the Philippines many leading families and politicians collaborated with the Japanese even while most of the government of President Quezon went into exile in the US. Current President Aquino’s grandfather was leader of the government party and speaker of the national assembly in the “puppet” government of President Jose P. Laurel, 1943-45. None were prosecuted and Laurel returned to political life, running unsuccessfully for president in 1949, then being returned as a senator. Other distinguished Filipinos who served the Japanese included the revered nationalist Claro M. Recto, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs
In Indonesia, nationalist leader Sukarno welcomed the Japanese and cooperated with them throughout the war including helping them recruit Javanese laborers for work overseas – many of whom died. Japanese food requisitions caused food shortages in Java but Sukarno's nationalist credentials survived and he used the Japanese defeat to proclaim independence and resist the Dutch attempt to return.
Sukarno’s successor as President, Suharto, joined the Dutch army in Indonesia, transferred to a Japanese led unit after the Dutch defeat and then the Indonesian army following Japan’s defeat and the declaration of independence.
In Malaysia and Singapore, resistance to the Japanese was almost entirely an ethnic Chinese affair and was seen as part of a wider war against Japan. Malay leaders kept a low profile. The anti-Japanese leader, Chin Peng, was decorated by the British but went on to lead the 1948-1960 Communist insurgency which was nominally nationalist but had little support from the Malay majority. In Singapore, the young Lee Kuan Yew worked for the Japanese news agency before becoming useful to the British.
In Burma, the nationalist leader Aung San – father of Aung San Suu Kyi -- formed the Burma Independence Army with Japanese help and following the successful Japanese invasion of British-occupied Burma became War Minister in a supposedly independent Burma. But he found the Japanese worse than the British and changed sides before the war ended and he was about become prime minister of an independent Burma when assassinated in 1947.
History is not written in black and white. Only propaganda is.