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When reason became treason in China

by Jeff Kingston

JAPAN’S IMPERIAL DIPLOMACY: Consuls, Treaty Ports and War in China 1895-1938, by Barbara Brooks. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000, 272 pp., $55.

Why did Japan suddenly lurch from being a good international citizen in the 1920s to becoming a regional rogue in the 1930s? Usually Japan’s Asian rampage is explained in terms of a deteriorating international context, increasingly violent and effective anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism, the dislocation of the Great Depression, and flaws in the Meiji constitution that facilitated the military’s rise to power.

In addition, Japanese moderates had very little to show for their efforts to advance national interests diplomatically and through trade and investment, and they lost all legitimacy when the Western powers abandoned international cooperation in the wake of the depression. Their beggar-thy-neighbor protectionist policies hit Japan hard and gave ammunition to those who condemned the “weak-kneed internationalism” associated with Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara.

In this fascinating study of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Gaimusho, Barbara Brooks examines the reasons for the demise of internationalism and the increasing sway of militarists over Japanese foreign policy. She challenges the orthodox position of Akira Iriye and other scholars that the 1930s was an aberration in Japan’s modernization trajectory, arguing that institutional instability was characteristic of Japanese government since the Meiji era. She argues convincingly that institutional developments and a series of setbacks for the ministry explain a great deal about how the military came to dominate Japan’s foreign policy.

The series of colossal blunders and miscalculations characteristic of Japan’s China policy in the 1920s and 1930s are surprising given how important China was to Japan. Resolving the China problem topped the foreign policy agenda in the post-World War I era, but Japanese leaders could not forge a consensus on what exactly that “problem” was nor on how to tackle it.

This was not for want of specialists on China, but rather reflected the bias in the Foreign Ministry toward those who specialized in Anglo-American relations. At the time of the invasion of Manchuria, there were no high-ranking China service diplomats since they were locked out of influential postings. Oddly, the director of the Asian bureau at the time had no relevant language skills nor specialized knowledge of China, a shortcoming that the media soon used to skewer the ministry.

It is puzzling to learn that, “In contrast, the army has trained its best and brightest in China affairs and set up numerous information-gathering posts. . . . Military men who knew China, understood the Chinese language and had many Chinese contacts had penetrated every layer of Chinese society. . . .”

If this was the case, why did the military’s “best and brightest” champion decisions and actions that proved so spectacularly out of touch with the realities in China presciently understood by their Foreign Ministry counterparts? Why did they so doggedly pursue policies that proved so devastating to Japan’s interests and paved the way for a widened war with the West?

It is all the more disheartening to read here the alternatives proposed by the China service diplomats that might have averted the calamity the military foisted on Japan and its regional neighbors. However, it is worth recalling that in the political climate of that era, the voice of reason was the voice of treason and those who worked to save their nation from the aggressive impulses of the military often paid a heavy price for their heroism.

Brooks provides an interesting description of the intraministerial battles that brought the Foreign Ministry’s Anglo-American clique low and catapulted China service diplomats into positions of influence during the 1930s. Reformists in the Foreign Ministry had brooded since the end of World War I about personnel policies and the internationalist/pro-Western leanings of their bosses. By the early 1930s, the internal bickering proved decisive in weakening the Foreign Ministry and leaving it poorly prepared for the turf battles that gutted its control of foreign policy. The media played a significant role in whipping up public sentiment against the “elitists” in the ministry and their “failed” policies of international cooperation.

Reports of Foreign Ministry officials in China hampering military operations aimed at the seizure of Manchuria were presented as further evidence of how out of touch the diplomats were with the people’s desires and the “Imperial Way” spirit of military leaders.

The general vilification of the Foreign Ministry undermined its prestige and set the stage for transferring its powers to institutions and opportunists who understood the new realities of Japan’s descent into militarism.

Ironically, when Japan made the fateful decisions that led to an all-out escalation of war in China in summer 1937, the China service diplomats were at their peak of power within the ministry. They fought valiantly, but with little success, to counter the misguided policies of military leaders and their sympathizers. They led a ministry without power, one of the consequences of the intraministerial battles they had “won” in the early 1930s.

Brooks draws heavily on the diaries of key China specialists and conveys the frustration and dismay they felt in seeing the military and weak political leaders repeatedly ignore their sensible advice and make choices designed to provoke and widen a war they could not win. The missed opportunities and craven opportunism that permeated Japan’s misadventures in China during the 1930s remain as mind-boggling now as they were to these contemporary observers.

The story of their failure reflects badly on Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro and Foreign Minister Hirota Koki, here portrayed as weak men out of their depth, paralyzed by indecision and unable to rein in the military. One leading China specialist’s diary contains repeated references to the disgust he felt at the brutality of Japanese troops in China and the despair he expressed in learning the news about the Rape of Nanjing.

He understood how the military was alienating the Chinese and the international community while getting mired in a quagmire of its own making. The costs of the military’s policies were all too obvious while the benefits were nonexistent.

At great personal risk he submitted reports that defied and critiqued the military consensus on how to resolve the China problem by force, but there was little he could do to prevent the headlong course into a war the militarists wanted and the public, brainwashed by a rabid media, supported.