TENSIONS OF EMPIRE: Japan and Southeast Asia in the Colonial & Post-Colonial World, by Ken’ichi Goto. Ohio University Press, 2003, 349 pp., $24.95 (paper).

The media has devoted considerable coverage to the Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history who have vainly struggled to assert a vindicating and exonerating version of Japan’s shared history with Asia. Their attempts to promote a whitewashed narrative have met with repudiation by school boards around the nation, although the public appetite for this beguiling effort to minimize, mitigate and shift responsibility for various atrocities carried out by the Imperial armed forces is surprisingly robust.

In “Tensions of Empire,” Ken’ichi Goto takes issue with this blinkered history and provides an illuminating analysis of contemporary debates about Japanese imperialism in China and Southeast Asia, 1937-1945. He represents the many progressive Japanese who are not burying their heads in nationalist myopia.

This is an excellent collection of articles written by Japan’s foremost historian of Japan’s evolving relations with Southeast Asia during the 20th century. Goto refutes the widely held view that Japan invaded Southeast Asia in 1941 to liberate Asian people from Western colonialism.

Goto explores the gaping chasm between the rhetoric of Pan Asian solidarity and the realities of Japanese oppression of and contempt for fellow Asians. In doing so, he demolishes the arguments of revisionist apologists, who are still trying to win the battles lost nearly six decades ago.

Japan’s ill-fated attempts to conquer all of China from 1937 were an attempt to subjugate a country in which the Japanese were already the leading imperial power. This was a military attempt to solve the political problem of rising anti-Japanese nationalism. The economic stakes were so high, and the arrogant pride of the military leaders so inflated, that an unwinnable war could not be abandoned. The threat of U.S. sanctions aimed at forcing Japan to withdraw from its sanguinary invasion made securing an alternative source of natural resources, especially oil, imperative.

Oil and other resources crucial to the ongoing war effort in China led Japan to expand the war to Southeast Asia. An ennobling ideology has been invoked to justify ignoble aims and actions. Some Japanese have wrapped themselves in the flag of Pan Asian liberation so as to better obscure the trampling of fellow Asians. Goto has no patience with those who seek to glorify Japan’s rampage through Asia. Drawing on Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s papers, he makes it clear that the man who led Japan into the Pacific War had no interest in promoting the independence of the western colonies in Southeast Asia. His expedient gestures could not mask an emphasis on mobilizing the region’s natural and human resources on behalf of Japan.

Southeast Asian elites cooperated with Japan because they had no alternative and sought to manipulate Japan to their best advantage. Goto suggests there has been too much emphasis on the role of Japan in helping Southeast Asian nations achieve independence, arguing that it was the local nationalists who won the day. The defeat of the whites, rigorous discipline, military training and mobilization of youth groups by the Japanese did awaken the colonized and helped them in their struggles against the Western colonizers, but from the perspective of Southeast Asians the Japanese were also colonizers.

Goto laments that “During the 1990s Japan experienced a deepening inward-looking nationalism, and in connection with this development, school texts and the popular media began to echo the rhetoric of the war years in characterizing the Pacific War as a sacred struggle for Asian liberation. . . . [but] such a Japan-centric approach to history ignores much of the research on modern Southeast Asia.” He calls for moving beyond such a one-sided discourse because it sows discord in the region and inculcates attitudes among young Japanese that prevent reconciliation. In his view, the alleged benefits of Japan’s invasions were incidental and in no way justify the excesses committed in pursuit of Japan’s war-driven thirst for natural resources.

He reminds readers how important it is to question the agenda and bias of those who promote uncritical support for Japan’s wartime actions. Given the growing economic importance of China for Japan, the costs of forging an unrepentant national identity tied to such a discredited past are growing.

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