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Nasty, brutish, and flawed

by Fiona Webster

A SUDDEN RAMPAGE: The Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941-1945, by Nicholas Tarling. London: Hurst & Company, 2001, 286 pp., $36 (paper)

As a rule, there are few positive accounts in Western literature of Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II, and this book by Nicholas Tarling is no exception.

In “A Sudden Rampage,” the New Zealand history professor describes the origins, methods and results of the occupation, focusing on the failure of Japan’s policymaking efforts.

Tarling examines the occupation in the context of Japan’s relationship with the outside world over the longer term, beginning with the Meiji Restoration (1868) through to the outbreak of the Pacific War. He provides a short account of the conflict and attempts that were made to make peace. Over the course of the book we are given a sense of the ideology of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere as it came to be shaped by the many contributing parties — politicians, administrators, diplomats and soldiers. Tarling outlines in turn the political and economic activities of the Japanese in occupied Southeast Asia country by country.

The descriptive sections of this book are comprehensive and provide an excellent summary of Japan’s exploits in Southeast Asia over the relevant period. For the purposes of reflective review, the final chapter of the book is of particular interest. There, Tarling assesses the contribution Japan’s occupation made to postwar Southeast Asia in the light of the suffering and destruction it brought. Ultimately, his assessment is negative, focusing on the violence of the Japanese soldiery and the inadequacy of their administration.

Tarling notes that the violence of the Japanese during World War II remains fresh in people’s minds, not because the atrocities they committed were unique, but rather because it is perceived that they have not “owned up” to them. The Germans, he says, have accepted their defeat in the war, even their responsibility for it, more fully than the Japanese. “In Japan,” in contrast, “there is no clarity about responsibility for the war, nor any official interest in encouraging debate about it.” A general sense of resentment toward the Japanese has only been fueled by the postwar economic success of the country.

Tarling is careful to note the difficulties involved in passing judgment on the Japanese population in general in the context of their postwar conditions. Indeed, in the light of the lack of education about the war provided to postwar generations, it is hardly surprising that there is a culture of unwillingness to discuss, much less apologize for, the war.

Judgment is called for nevertheless, and Tarling argues that the Japanese, particularly in relation to their treatment of prisoners of war, behaved differently from others. For instance, he notes that while the mortality rate of the American and British POWs who fell into the hands of the Germans and Italians was 4 percent, that of those who fell into the hands of the Japanese was 27 percent — a striking comparison. He connects this to some extent with the Japanese belief that surrender was dishonorable and therefore those who did surrender were an object of contempt.

In Southeast Asia, Tarling notes that the treatment of Europeans can be explained in part by the Japanese wish to destroy not only their empire, but the prestige on which it was based. Likewise, some explanation can be provided for their treatment of the Chinese — related in part to the struggles in China itself. Yet he finds it less easy to give an explanation for the violence with which the Japanese treated other peoples in Southeast Asia. He writes, “Their arbitrariness and their use of terror alienated those whose support they needed, and their exploitation of labor was as ruthless as it was inefficient.”

Japan’s colonialism was late and hurried, and this inevitably led to ruthless policy. Tarling argues that while most colonial powers have based themselves on a mixture of collaboration and the selective application of force, the Japanese seldom got this mixture right. He suggests three main factors that contributed to the failure of Japan’s colonialism.

First, in Southeast Asia Japan’s military operations were brilliantly carried out, yet their civilian planning was poor. Tarling notes the tendency for the Japanese Army to fall back on policies used in the Manchurian experience — both in terms of structures of political control and mobilization as well as an interventionist approach to the economy.

Second, Japan’s conquests in the region were carried out under war conditions. There was always a tendency to adopt command approaches.

Third, Japan’s army was trained to be tough and brutal — it expanded, reflected and reinforced the hierarchical values of the Japanese village community.

This approach and behavior combined to make Japan’s conquests ultimately unsuccessful. For the countries of the region, independence was by far more favorable. Although Japan put an end to Western control and weakened former leaders, Tarling concludes that Japan did not “liberate” Asia — on the contrary, “securing independence out of the international situation at the end of the war was . . . very much the work of the Southeast Asian elites themselves.”

According to Tarling, the Japanese did not leave behind them methods of good governance. They did not, he says, “teach a responsible handling of problems,” because their political legacy was one of mass mobilization.

Part of the reason for the failure of Japan’s conquests in Southeast Asia is identified by Tarling as precisely the “suddenness” of their rampage. The conquests were not undertaken as a result of long-term planning, but took place rather as a result of “a sudden frustration” — the European war. Because of this, he argues, “military objectives predominated and planning for the empire was limited and largely improvised.”

“A Sudden Rampage” would serve well as a resource for study of Japan’s role in Southeast Asia by students and academics alike. Critics of Tarling’s approach may take issue with his resoundingly negative assessment of Japan’s role in the development of the region despite his convincing arguments on particular issues. For example, some would argue Japan’s political and economic legacy is not entirely negative, particularly when studied across the longer term. We are nevertheless left with a clear picture of the many factors that contributed to the ultimate failure of Japan’s conquests and, more importantly, provided with an opportunity to judge them in the context of the political and economic instability of the world in which they took place.