The Islands Question



by Alexander McGregor

Following the potentially historic apology offered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the legion of Korean “comfort women” abused during the Second Sino-Japanese War, something vital is in danger of being overlooked.

In December 2015, Japan’s conservative government announced that it will spend 5.05 trillion yen on defence over the next financial year. Proceeding a decade of cuts, this is the fourth annual defence budget increase in a row and marks the first time in Japanese history that military expenditure will breach 5 trillion yen. This budget is wholly commensurate with a range of more assertive foreign policy decisions made by Abe since he took office in 2012. Perhaps the most striking of which was last September’s security bill, enabling Japanese troops to undertake overseas military endeavours for the first time since the end of WWII.

Western observers have explained what we might describe this as Japan’s military renaissance, as moves on the East Asian geopolitical chessboard designed to check the expansionist aggression of China. Nevertheless, Abe’s own hawkishness continues to inspire a fretful question amongst those same observers: might Japan’s security measures provoke greater insecurity with China?

But for all the journalistic and diplomatic handwringing in the West, one truth has been crystalised, or at least underscored: we do not know our history. As a result, the Cold War paradigm continues to endure. Indeed, the Western press has contextualised the fermenting tension between Japan and China within the borders of their current relations. Even The Guardian described the Japanese budget increase as designed to “protect” the string of Senkaku islands in Japan’s southernmost reaches from Chinese appropriation, as if it was as simple a thing as purchasing a lock to secure one’s bicycle. And whilst there may not be anything inherently wrong with The Guardian’s language, international relations are again being understood through the whims of a highly politicised contemporary bias. Japan’s emergent culture of remilitarisation may be focused on the current Senkaku question but that is not its cause.

Our continuing need in the West to understand contemporary international relations through a Cold War prism, in which democracies must protect individual freedoms from the clutches of a rapacious Red Menace, provides a comforting though profoundly reductionist explanation of the world. Moreover, it is an explanation that recommends dangerously insufficient solutions. For all the acumen of diplomats and the experience of journalists, in order to understand today’s tension between Japan and China we need historians to put aside their remit to curate the past and embrace their potential as activists. After all, might there not be deeply ingrained cultural imperatives that both shape and inform the way Japan and China’s political classes see the world? Might a failure to appreciate these unique historical experiences compel Western observers to understand contemporary Japanese and Chinese motivations based more on the observer’s own paradigm and not of those they observe?

China’s diplomatic lenses do not filter international relations in terms of Cold War chessboards or even (to a large extent at any rate) geopolitical balances of power. Even if we afford an appropriate acknowledgment of realpolitik, at a fundamental level China understands Japan’s more assertive line as a potential threat to its socio-political integrity. Indeed, China remains haunted by the ghosts of the Second Sino-Japanese War; where during eight years of Japanese occupation it suffered anywhere between 10 to 25 million civilian deaths. In 1938, the poet W. H. Auden visited Shanghai and saw first hand the horrors of a brutal, desecrating conflict. In Journey To A War he wrote,

Who even to themselves deny a human freedom,
And dwell in the estranging tyrant’s vision of the earth
In a calm stupor under their blood spotted flag.

Whilst Auden captured the dehumanising effects of the war on the aggressor, his “stupor” cannot be applied to its victims. In December 1937 alone, historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking. Robert O. Wilson, a surgeon at Nanking’s University Hospital wrote,

Let me recount some instances occurring in the last two days. Last night the house of one of the Chinese staff members of the university was broken into and two of the women, his relatives, were raped. Two girls, about 16, were raped to death in one of the refugee camps. In the University Middle School where there are 8,000 people the Japs came in ten times last night, over the wall, stole food, clothing, and raped until they were satisfied. They bayoneted one little boy of eight who have five bayonet wounds including one that penetrated his stomach, a portion of omentum was outside the abdomen. I think he will live.

The Reverend James M. McCallum was another eye witness. “I know not where to end”, he wrote. “Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet … People are hysterical … Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.”

China’s attitude towards Japan in the 21st century cannot be separated from an experience still within living memory. Indeed, the popularity of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War (which brought Mao Zedong to power and immediately followed Japan’s defeat in World War II) can in some measure be accounted for by the CCP’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. Like a double helix, one of the reasons for Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists were so unpopular during the civil war was their initial reluctance to take on the Japanese between 1931 to 1936 and their subsequent use of Japanese (and US) assistance to combat the rise of the CCP in the years after 1945.

Whilst it is true that the China of today bears little resemblance to the one that endured so much suffering, the stories of the occupation are passed down between the generations with virulence. Amongst the vast diaspora of Chinese heritage across the globe families continue to share this common experience with their children, and grandchildren, creating a “withness” or solidarity that cannot be broken by political affiliation or dissatisfaction with the internal status quo. There are ethnically Chinese people under the age of 21 who have never lived in China that may loathe the Communist regime but have been taught never to forgive the Japanese. Indeed, Gao Mingxuan accounts for this by tracing Chinese clan loyalty and the spirit of collective responsibility back to the second millennium BCE.

As a consequence, there remains in China a significant distrust that borders on anxiety towards Japanese intentions in East Asia. This manifests itself in what appears to Western observers as an aggressive would-be land grab, including but limited to the Senkako islands. However, whilst Beijing’s attitude may well be counterproductive to regional stability, understanding Senkaku as a land grab is as much a logical fallacy as the Cold War’s domino theory. China is not empire building, determined either to pillage resources or spread its institutions, in the manner of 19th Century Europe or a Manifest Destiny-inspired America. Rather, China believes it is protecting its socio-political integrity through a modern variation of a traditional diplomatic practice.

China’s historical response to international conflict has often been to protect its core through sacrificing swathes of its outer territory. During the Qing Dynasty this became a dominant motif. Following defeat in the Opium War in 1841, China ceded Hong Kong to Britain. In the following years, Indochina was granted to the French and the Liaotung peninsula to the Russians. This practice was of course greatly out of step with European intentions towards the Far East. The Qings misunderstood the nature of the West’s economic model and the value it put on resources and markets. In fact, their policy only encouraged further incursions into Chinese territory. In other words, surrendering land to the West was a disaster. But leaving aside the efficacy, the intention was to nullify a foreign threat through the use of land. This instinct has become ingrained in Chinese diplomatic culture, though today it has transformed from nullifying external threats through the surrender of land to nullifying external threats through the acquisition of land. In fact, this is not as great a change as it may appear. The Chinese empire had long operated a suzerainty system with its neighbours, in which Korea provided protection from the Japanese in the East and Mongolia provided protection from the Russians in the North.

A historic diplomatic relationship between land and foreigners, and an acute distrust of Japanese aggression may explain some of the long term cultural causes of China’s attitude towards the Senkaku islands, but it does little to explain Japan’s. Again, Western observers fail to fully appreciate the weight of historical forces upon the shoulders of contemporary circumstances. Japan’s diplomatic relationship with China is equally haunted by the spectre of the Second Sino-Japanese War, but that trauma has manifested itself in a radically different way. China talks about the Rape of Nanking: it verbalises its past suffering. Similarly, Russia talks about The Great Patriotic War. It wants to discuss the horrors of Stalingrad, Leningrad and the loss of some 27 million Soviet citizens. Germany too wants to talk about World War II. It wishes truth and reconciliation through open dialogue. These are powerful cultural trends that can help a society make sense of its past. Japan, on the contrary, remains largely silent.

For 70 years Japan was reticent to acknowledge the existence of “comfort women”, tens of thousands of Koreans forcibly sent to brothels in Manchuria to provide sexual leisure opportunities for Japanese soldiers. And when it does talk, it selects the linguistic equivalent of a dismissive hand gesture. After all, in Japan, the Rape of Nanking is known solely as the Nanking Incident. Perhaps more telling still was the 2013 claim of Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, that the comfort women had been “necessary”. And while the statement from Abe, delivered in Seoul by foreign minister Fumido Kashida on the cusp of the new year, offering his “most sincere apologies” to the women of Korea is a welcome, if long overdue, gesture, one cannot help but wonder whether its timing, so close to the defence budget announcement, is designed to placate worried allies as much to make historical amends. After all, if the apology was indeed sincere then alongside the offered 1 billion yen compensation to be paid by the Japanese government to the 46 surviving women, perhaps Japan might also take the lead combatting modern day international sex slave trafficking.

Indeed, those occupying Japan’s corridors of power remain deeply conflicted concerning responsibility for atrocities committed during World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War. To some extent this is understandable. The firebombing of Tokyo (leaving approximately 150,000 dead and 1 million displaced) and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were appalling human tragedies that were followed by a seven year occupation by the US, during which time bread and milk were introduced to the Japanese diet. This may appear inconsequential compared to the above examples but diet is a powerful daily underscoring of cultural identity. The introduction of American culinary imperatives would have been seen as a further insult to Japanese autonomy. In fact, Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial for Japan’s war dead, presents Japan as the victim claiming that the Tokyo trials were fuelled by the West’s need to vilify the defeated to justify their own acts of aggression. Nowhere is this made clearer than at Yasukuni’s monument to Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo. The monument praises Pal as “the most outstanding” of all the judges due to his realisation that “the tribunal, known as the Tokyo trials, was none other than the formalised vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied powers.” Of course there may be some truth in this, which has made it considerably harder for Japan to express the same degree of openness about the period as one finds in, say, Germany. After all, Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Tokyo firebombing, argued that had the US lost the Second World War he himself would have been put on trial for war crimes. This perception of ill treatment at the hands of a cruel victor must be contextualised through the sense of shame felt in defeat in Japanese culture. Laura Hildebrand argues that “few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a lose of honour could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.”

This may start to account for the flexing of Japanese muscle currently made in China’s direction: a reassertion of pride or an attempt to recover lost dignity. However, to reduce Japanese motivation over Senkaku to defeat in the Second Sino-Japanese War would be to misunderstand the historical and cultural depth of Japanese exceptionalism. Until 1853 Japan remained closed. This was not the isolation of a remote tribe or the insular nature of a deeply private civilisation. Japan was closed purposefully and deliberately by its rulers to protect its purity. Japanese were not allowed to leave the country and foreigners were not allowed to enter unless given (rarely granted) permission. In the 18th Century, the Dutch were allowed to trade only under the strictest of conditions best represented by the wooden trading islands, or dejima, they were restricted to off the coast of Nagasaki. Their barbarian boots were not permitted to debase Japanese soil. Furthermore, discovery of a bible in the possession of a Dutchman, even aboard a dejima, could result in execution.

The zeal with which people offered devotion to the emperor, considered the direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess who had created the islands of Japan from the shards of a broken sword, and the militarisation of classes under the governorship of the Tokugawa shogunate (military governor) saw Japanese culture develop a form of state Shintoism wherein religion, land and race became entwined. Devotion, sacrifice, duty and constancy were significant cultural norms. Isolation and purity meshed with a sense of cultural superiority none the more fanatically held despite the essential irony that Confucianism (the principles of which Japanese society was built upon) and Japanese ideograms had been imported from China.

Indeed, fealty had been deeply ingrained into the customs of society. For example, according the Bushido code written in the 17th Century by the Samurai Tairo Shigesuke, should a Samurai be on a mission from his master to deliver a message and happen upon the bandit responsible years earlier for the murder of his father (a set of circumstances Shigesuke accepts as unlikely) he is honour bound to deliver the message of his master first, though he should also look to avenge his father at the opportune moment. Perhaps this sentiment is best expressed by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima when he wrote, “Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood”.

In 1853, US commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships sailed into Edo (now Tokyo) harbour and presented the Shogun with a fait accompli to open Japan to Western trade. It was arguably the era’s most literal example of gunboat diplomacy. It also resulted in the period’s most euphemistically titled diplomatic accord, 1854’s Treaty of Peace and Amity between the US and Japan. The Shogun’s inability to protect Japanese borders (and by extension the nation’s purity) resulted in the Boshin war of the 1860s, a series of Samurai-led uprisings against the House of Tokugawa. In 1868 a group of young turk Samurai from the regions of Satsuma and Choshu overthrew the crumbling Shogunate system and created an oligarchy with the Emperor Meiji as Head of State. Under the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan fundamentally reorganised its political, social and economic systems along Western lines. This was not an acquiescence to Western hegemony. As the popular slogans “Wakon Yosai” (Western Learning, Japanese Spirit) and “Oitsuke Oikose” (Catch Up, Overtake) suggest, the Meiji period aimed to use the techniques of the West to further assert Japanese cultural superiority. It was during this period that the Japanese railway, so central to the nation’s identity, was constructed and industrial behemoths such as Mitsubishi, Toshiba and NEC were founded. Under the Shoguns, Japanese exceptionalism expressed itself through isolationism and stasis, whereas during the Meiji period it expressed itself through industrialisation and modernisation.

In other words, the ends remained the same, only the means had changed. Where it once attempted to insulate itself against the corrupting influences of the world, now Japan was determined to protect its exceptionalism through Westernisation. And one key facet of Westernisation adopted by the Japanese was expansionism. After all, if it dominated the region, the region could pose no threat to its handsome purity and cherished sanctity. In 1895, Japan successfully fought the First Sino-Japanese War against China, wrestling from it dominion over Korea (a long desired land of milk and honey populated by a race considered inferior). This war fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the region. It contributed greatly to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty only 15 years later (a mere blink of an eye in Chinese historical terms), saw Britain sign an equal military alliance with Japan–the first between an European imperial power and an Asian nation–and enabled Japan to emerge as the dominant military power in the region.

The First Sino-Japanese War represented both the culmination of the Meiji project to build Japanese exceptionalism upon expansionism and the start of a new process that would lead Japan to possess a continent-spanning empire within 50 years. Nine years after the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan fought and defeated Russia, enabling it to control the South Manchurian Railway line. 14 years after the First Sino-Japanese War, Korea had been fully annexed by Tokyo. Within 35 years of the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan had over a million boots on the ground in Chinese territory. As Mishima wrote, “If we look on idly, heaven and earth will never be joined. To join heaven and earth, some decisive deed of purity is necessary. To accomplish so resolute an action, you have to stake your life, giving no thought to personal gain or loss. You have to turn into a dragon and stir up a whirlwind, tear the dark, brooding clouds asunder and soar up into the azure-blue sky.” In 2013, The Economist sought to contextualise the Senkaku tension between China and Japan by examining the two nation’s historical conflicts. It described the First Sino-Japanese War simply as “brief”, and with this one word revealed the full extent of the challenge facing anyone who wishes to understand this issue: we do not know our history.

Japan’s contemporary attitude towards remilitarisation and Chinese geopolitical posturing may at the moment coalesce around the Senkaku islands, but it is not caused by them anymore than it is caused by a Cold War hangover of righteous democracies duelling with totalitarian dictatorships. The Senkaku question needs to be understood through a haunting, traumatic history that culminated in the Second Sino-Japanese War. These historical memories manifest themselves differently for both Japan and China: a desire to be purified of shame and despoilment in the case of the former, and a desire to aggressively protect oneself from shame and despoilment in the case of the latter. Until Western observers understand this, meaningful intervention will be restricted to the diplomatic equivalent of putting one’s finger in the dike.

About the Author:

Alexander McGregor is the author of The Catholic Church and Hollywood (2013) and The Shaping of Popular Consent (2007). He was awarded a PhD in History from the University of East Anglia and is the head of history at the United World College of South East Asia. His research interests include cultural theory, ideology, propaganda and education.