Modern empires and their demise, but how did it all begin?
As we have seen from the Manchurian Incident to Word War II, part one, the conventional chronology of 1939–45 is no longer helpful. The war must be understood as a global event since the Asian and Pacific theatres were as important as the European ones, and possibly more so in their consequences.
Though Manchuria was a Chinese Territory controlled by warlords loyal (in name if not in the realm) to China’s nationalist government, thousands of Japanese soldiers were stationed there under the terms of an earlier treaty. This enabled Japanese forces to overrun the area quickly. Within weeks of the Manchurian Incident, they controlled the southern part of Manchuria, with the north following by early 1932.
This was no imperial invasion, the Japanese claimed. Instead, it was a response to the cries for help coming from the people of Manchuria, who were suffering under the warlord’s iron-fisted rule. Japan merely wanted to help oppressed people establish an independent state to liberate them from the maelstrom of corruption that enveloped China.
Japan even had a name for this new state: Manchukuo. or the land of the Manchus. To add luster to their vision, they recruited the most famous Manchu around – China’s last emperor, Puyi,
The ideological underpinning of the Japanese New Order was essential to the self-understanding of the thousands of officials, propagandists, and planners who radiated out from Japan to help run the new territories. They were animated by an idealistic view of what Japan could now achieve for the whole Asia-Pacific area. They were welcomed initially by that fraction of the occupied population who hoped that the rhetoric of the Co-Prosperity Sphere meant what it said. The problem for the Japanese intellectuals and writers mobilized to promote the ideology was the tension between the claim that Japan was ending European and American colonialism and the need to position Japan clearly as the ‘nucleus’ or ‘pivot’ of the new order. In Java, the propaganda team that accompanied the military administration developed the idea that Japan was only regaining the central position that it had played thousands of years before as the cultural leader of an area from the Middle East to the American Pacific coast. ‘In sum,’ claimed the Japanese journal Unabara (Great Ocean), ‘Japan is Asia’s sun, its origin, its ultimate power.’ The occupiers promoted a ‘Three-A Movement’ to get Indonesians to understand that their future lay with ‘Asia’s light, Japan; Asia’s mother, Japan; Asia’s leader, Japan.’ 226 In the end, the new sphere was designed to create a form of empire consistent with Japan’s cultural heritage and distinct from the West. According to the Total War Institute in a publication in early 1942, all the peoples in the sphere would obtain their ‘proper positions,’ the inhabitants would all share a ‘unity of people’s minds, but the globe would have the empire of Japan at its center.227
In all the occupied areas, the three policies agreed on in November 1941 were applied with mixed results. The pursuit of order combined the threat or reality of draconian punishment with strategies for the same pacification and self-government committees at the village level practiced in China. In Malaya, Peace Committees were set up to restore order, using a large number of the incumbent Malayan officials inherited from the British colonial administration. Complaints or bad work were judged to be anti-Japanese and risked severe punishment. In time, neighborhood associations were introduced, like those in Japan and northern China, while local police and volunteers were enlisted in the paramilitary militia and auxiliary police forces. Eventually, local ‘advisory councils’ were inaugurated in most territories, but they had no authority and allowed the Japanese officials and military to gauge local opinion without conceding responsibility. Mass movements of solidarity, now modeled on the Imperial Way Assistance Association in Japan, were created as a social discipline. In the Philippines, political parties were dissolved, and a single ‘Association for Service to the New Philippines’ was established, superseded in January 1944 by a ‘People’s Loyalty Association.’ Overseeing their conduct was the Kempeitai, attached to each army unit.232
The language of liberation exploited by the Japanese to mark the end of the regime of European and American imperialism was nevertheless accurate enough. Japanese commentators contrasted the new conception of an Asian order with the ‘egoism, injustice and unrighteousness’ of Western, mainly English, rule. Tōjō claimed that Japan’s purpose was now ‘to follow the path of justice, to deliver Greater East Asia from the fetters of America and Britain.’ 254 But this was not intended as a ‘Wilsonian moment’ in which Japan would grant total independence because President Wilson’s promises in 1918 were regarded among Japanese leaders as mere hypocrisy. As the Total War Institute put it in the same 1942 analysis, independence was not ‘to be based on the idea of liberalism and self-determination.’ Still, it was defined in terms of being a cooperative member of the Japanese sphere.255 Nor was the vision of the sphere a product of Pan-Asianism, as many anti-colonial nationalists at first believed because of Japan’s earlier flirtation with the concept, because Pan-Asianism assumed equality between the peoples of Asia. A candid assessment by the Southern Area Army of independence for Burma made clear the relationship many of the conquerors had in mind. Any new regime ‘shall have the appearance of independence on the surface, but in reality … shall be induced to carry out Japanese policies’. In Japanese government and military circles, independence was usually, though not invariably, viewed as an opportunity to acquiesce to Japan’s unique status as the imperial center. How this might have worked in the case of India as an Asian ‘brother’ of Japan was never put to the test, but it was something Japanese leaders thought about a good deal.
Before the southern advance, contact was made with the Bangkok-based Indian Independence League, led by Rash Behari Bose. Once installed in Malaya, with large numbers of captured Indian soldiers willing to abandon prisoner-of-war status, the Japanese set up an Indian National Army (INA) under the Sikh captain Mohar Singh to co-operate with the League. Tensions led to the arrest of Singh and the near-collapse of the INA. Still, in March 1943, it was reactivated under the former Congress politician Subhas Chandra Bose, who, with Tōjō’s consent, declared on 21 October 1943 the Provisional Government of Free India (Azad Hind) with himself as head of state, prime minister, minister of war and minister of foreign affairs. A division of the INA fought in 1944 in the failed invasion of northeast India, with catastrophic casualties, and Free India under Japanese supervision never materialized.256
In January 1942, Tōjō announced to the Japanese Diet that Burma and the Philippines might both at some point win independence if they proved loyal to Japan and its interests. Before the invasion, Burmese and Filipino nationalists had visited Japan as a potential supporters of anti-colonial campaigns. The Japanese army agreed to establish a Burma Independence Army in December 1941, composed initially of a group of thirty ‘Thakin’ nationalists, including Aung San, the later nationalist leader. The army made no promises, and when the BIA swiftly grew to 200,000 strong, it was dissolved, and a Japanese-led and trained Burma Defence Force was established in its place. In 1943, Burma was finally promised independence, and on 1 August, the new state was declared, with the nationalist Ba Maw, freed from British exile in East Africa, as head of state. Although lip-service was paid to Burmese sovereignty, in reality, the Japanese kept a close controlling hand. ‘This independence we have,’ complained Aung San in June 1944, ‘is only a name. It is only the Japanese version of home rule.’ 257 Much the same happened in the Philippines following Tōjō’s promise. The military administration allowed a puppet regime in January 1942, led by the Filipino politician Jorge Vargas. Its role was advisory, and the provisional council of state made clear its willingness to support the military administration and work for inclusion in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In summer 1943, a new constitution was introduced without political parties or popular suffrage, and Salvador Laurel, rather than Vargas, was appointed head of state. Unlike Burma, the Filipino elite made their peace with the Japanese and accepted that the new state had limited sovereignty so long as the Japanese military presence remained.258
Initially, there was no intention of offering ‘independence’ to the rest of the captured region, integrating with Japan. When the Greater East Asia Ministry organized a Great East Asia Conference in Tokyo in November 1943, only Burma and the Philippines were invited from the southern sphere. Changing circumstances as defeat loomed opened up the possibility of further’ independence.’ On 7 September 1944, Tōjō’s successor, Koiso Kuniaki, announced that Indonesia might win independence ’at a later date’ and allowed the nationalist flag to be displayed, as long as it flew next to a Japanese one.259 Concessions were made to integrate Indonesians with the Japanese administration, though, in a secondary role, notional independence was only offered in the last days before Japan’s surrender. The only other case was in the anomalous French possession of Indochina. Growing Japanese irritation with the attitude of French officials and business people in 1944, following the liberation of France and the end of Vichy rule, resulted in a recommendation from the Supreme War Leadership Conference in Tokyo on 1 February 1945 for the military to take complete control of Indochina to create pro-Japanese independent regimes. On 9 March, Japanese troops launched Operation’ Meigo Sakusen’ (‘bright moon action’) when they began disarming French colonial forces; desultory fighting continued until May. Although Japan did not formally grant independence, the former emperor of Cochinchina, Bao Dai, declared an independent Vietnam on 11 March. Cambodia declared its independence two days later, and Luang Prabang (Laos) on 8 April. Each state had a Japanese ‘advisory board’ and had to collaborate with Japanese forces. Each had a Japanese governor-general and general secretary, severely circumscribing any real idea of independence.260 The final concessions in the Southern Region owed something to the need to win a measure of popular support for imminent military action against the invading Allies. Still, it seems likely that Japan wanted to create aspirations for independence that would make it difficult for the returning colonial powers to reassert their authority, as indeed proved to be the case. How Japan’s Greater East Asia would have evolved if Japan had won the war or reached a peace compromise remains speculation.
The Sino-Japanese war copying Western imperialism had the unusual character that neither side was in a position to win, and the longer the war went on, the less the likelihood of outright victory.
After the war, the Allies rescinded Japanese pre-war annexations such as Manchuria. Korea became militarily occupied by the United States in the south and the Soviet Union in the north. The Philippines and Guam were returned to the United States.
In the end, an argument could also be made that political actors across the globe got involved with superpowers to wage wars not as mere proxies but as people with their agendas. Indeed, House undercuts the assertion that more than a couple of these wars were proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. He notes, for instance, that Anwar Sadat, Sukarno, and Suharto were nationalists who did not remain Soviet pawns for long. The war between Angola and Zaire in the late 1970s was a local but externally supplied conflict. When the Belgians intervened in 1978, they were more concerned with protecting [they’re] citizens than controlling the mines. The Soviets and Cubans did not cause civil wars. They intervened in them to try to gain influence. The Somalis and the Ethiopians were already fighting each other in 1977, regardless of Soviet wishes or the availability of foreign troops and weapons. External supplies “supercharged local rebellions and wars, making those conflicts more lethal and enduring than they might otherwise have been. Time and again, battles with a veneer of Marxist rhetoric were spawned by local grievances.
The surpring beginnings
In our following three articles we next will look at a new way how what we today call civilization had its origins to begin with. Here we will find out that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex and varied than we previously imagined. Some of the evidence of that is sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts.
We also will look at what may be the earliest cities of all which were discovered only in the 1970s and which date from as early as roughly 4100 B.C., hundreds of years before Uruk, the oldest known city in Mesopotamia. Even in that land of kings, urbanism antedated monarchy by centuries. And even after kings arose, popular councils and citizen assemblies were stable government features, with absolute power and autonomy. Despite what we like to believe, democratic institutions did not begin just once, millennia later, in Athens and so on.