Ending aggression in East Asia


The Asia-Pacific war began in 1937. It became part of World War II, as Japan was Nazi Germany’s ally. In Asia, Japan was the aggressor and China the initial battlefield.

The Japanese leaders believed that Japanese were superior to other races and sought hegemony in Asia. Genocide was not one of their war aims. But the brutalities committed by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces in China and Southeast Asia as well as against Allied prisoners of war were horrific war crimes. Japanese attacks on the Americans at Pearl Harbor and on the British in Malaya were carried out without warning before war was declared. They were seen in America especially as Japanese treachery.

The fight against Japanese aggression was a just war for many other cogent reasons. The facts about the conduct of Imperial Japanese armed forces in China are set out objectively on the basis of detailed research in “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival,” by Rana Mitter, director of the China Institute at Oxford.

Mitter is critical of both the Chinese Nationalists and Communists as well as of the Americans and the British in China, but he describes Japanese behavior as “inexcusable” not only in the Nanjing massacre but also in many other incidents in Japanese-occupied China. He notes that the relentless Japanese air attacks on Chonqing led to an appalling loss of life and long predated the Allied use of saturation bombing of civilian targets in Japan.

Anyone who doubts the extent of war crimes committed in China by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces should also read “Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice” by Barak Kushner, an American historian working at Cambridge University

The Communist regime in China suppresses democratic movements, flouts human rights and has been responsible for countless deaths through persecution and famine. These facts in no way justify war crimes by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, as some Japanese historical revisionists seem to argue. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The crimes committed in Manchuria by Unit 731 can never be forgotten, even if, with the connivance of American authorities, who wanted to get their hands on the results, the crimes committed went largely unpunished. Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, which undertook lethal human experiments amounting to heinous crimes.

In the territories, which they occupied in Southeast Asia, the Japanese government claimed that it was “liberating” the colonies of European imperialist powers in the name of the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” This was a charade and the occupied territories found that they were exchanging one form of imperialism for another, which was more oppressive and ruthless.

In Japanese-occupied Singapore and other territories, the Military Police Corps (Kempeitai), with the approval of the high command, behaved with particular brutality to the indigenous populations. Some 60,000 British and Australian prisoners of war, together with about 180,000 indigenous forced laborers, were compelled to work in appalling conditions to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Some of the guards (Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese) treated the workers with sadistic brutality.

Americans cannot forget the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which over 10,000 American and many thousand Filipino prisoners of war died. Nor will the population of the Philippines ever erase from their memories the Japanese massacre of civilians in Manila in 1945.

I realize that for many Japanese the events that I have briefly cited are overlaid by their memories of the death and destruction caused in Japan by the United State’s saturation bombing of Japanese cities, and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some see Japan as victims rather than guilty of war crimes.

The Japanese people did become victims, but the responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of Japan’s war leaders. It was clear to former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe in January 1945 that Japan could not win the war. The Japanese leaders had miscalculated American resolve. The battle for Okinawa had been brutal, and for many Japanese and Okinawans suicidal. If similar battles were to be fought for Kyushu and Honshu Japan would be reduced to rubble and many millions of Japanese and Allied personnel would die.

The Allies, fearful of the huge casualties that would be involved, and believing that an attack on Kyushu or Honshu would trigger a Japanese massacre of Allied prisoners of war who were being forced to work in Japanese mines, hoped that Allied bombing would force Japanese leaders to admit that their gamble on victory had failed.

Unfortunately for Japan, none of Japan’s military commanders had the courage to confess that they had failed. Only after the atomic bombs had been dropped and the number of Japanese dead had escalated was the Emperor and those around him able to force acceptance of Allied terms.

Inability to accept responsibility for failure and an unjustified belief in Japanese uniqueness are sadly qualities that can still be seen in some Japanese people.

I do not defend everything that the Allies did in the war against Japan but I do think that it was a just war.

Japan, having adopted a new democratic Constitution upholding human rights, is a totally different society from that which existed in 1941. Japan has made and will, I hope, continue to make, a significant contribution to culture, science and technology. Japan has established close and friendly relations with Britain and other former enemies.

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in East Asia, I hope that the Japanese government, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular, will not do anything that might jeopardize these good relationships. Reconciliation efforts have borne fruit, but memories not only in my generation, which is passing away, live on and could easily be reawakened by a Japanese misstatement.

In its Jan. 29 editorial “Tinkering with the War Apology,” The Japan Times urged that Japan uphold the 1995 Murayama statement, pointing out that this “served as the foundation of its postwar relations with other countries.” Yes, indeed.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • Dipak Bose

    At least 10,000 people in Northern India were killed by the British, when the Indian people revolted against the British rule.
    Free Indian Government in Exile was formed in Singapore by Japan.
    Japan declared Burma as an Independent country.
    5 million people in Bengal, India were forced to starve to death because the British confiscated all food stocks for its army, industrial workers and exports to Middle East by the order of Winston Churchill.
    In Tokyo Conference of the Asian Col-Prosperity Sphere was attained by all freedom fighters from all over Asia: Sukarno from Indonesia, Subhas Chandra Bose from India, Aung Sang from Burma, Freedom fighters from Malay.
    Indonesia got self rule.
    80,000 Japanese soldiers gave their lives to raise the flag of Independent India in two of the North Eastern States. Andaman and Nicobar Islands were liberated.
    10,000 Indonesians were killed in Suravaya by the British and Dutch forces.
    French went back to regain their colony in Vietnam and the war started.
    British reoccupied Malay, Burma. war started in Malay against the British.
    British partitioned India, at least 2 million were killed, at least 15 million became refugees.
    China occupied Tibet,, East Turkistan, Mongolia and Formosa to kill millions.
    1950: China got Manchuria and killed millions.
    There is always another version of history.

    • Starviking

      Hard to believe all your “facts” are accurate. The Japanese invasion of Burma cut off rice imports to India. No evidence of British confiscation of Bengali food, and the fact that the other Indian Provinces would not export food caused misery and death in Bengal.

  • Donatello Sarkosky

    Those nasty expansionist, evil, communist, baby eating Han Chinese thugs love to talk about Japanese atrocities all the time. Lemme ask them this question. How many minorities were killed in their conquest of Tibet, East Turkestan/Uyghurland, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Zhuang, and many more. Lol. Those minorities and the land I mentioned are not chinese. Let this be a clear message to all baby eating yellow evil han chinese people that the world will not tolerate their illegal han chinese settlements on those lands. Tibet, East Turkestan/Uyghurland, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Zhuang will be free very soon. Oh Japan. Please slaughter all those evil baby eating han chinese people once more like you did in WW2. Chinese crimes against humanity are far more greater than Japanese crimes. India, Central Asia, Koreas, and the whole world want those han chinese savages dead. Han Chinese people have no morals nor they are honest. They even eat their dead/alive babies. That’s just plain nasty. China’s collapse is very near.

  • JimmyJM

    Mr. Cortazzi’s article is pretty much in agreement with most historians I’ve read. To the two commenters below, I would reiterate what he said: “two wrongs do not make a right”. I also recommend Rana Mitter’s book “Forgotten Ally” and Peter Harmsen’s book “Shanghai 1937”. Those wanting to know the history of that period could do worse than read these two books. No one is spared.

    • Dipak Bose

      These are Anglo-American views. Rana Mitter is Indian but he is a slave. There are alternative history always.
      What about 1400 pages long report of Justice radha Binod Pal? Why is it suppressed even today?

      • JimmyJM

        I would disagree with you and do recommend reading “Shanghai 1937”. Both the Japanese and Chang Kai Shek’s army are exposed for their actions (or inactions). As for Justice Pal, his “report” is not surpressed but only historians are willing to plod through all 1400 pages. Another book recommendation is the “Tokyo War Crimes Trial” by Yuma Totani. There are scholars, particularly in China, Russia, and Japan, who allow their biases to influence their version of history so it takes a lot of reading to come up with the reality of various events.

  • Dipak Bose

    Western authors used to glorify japan until 1920.when Japan was an ally. Since then it has started to glorify China and ignore all the mass murders committed by China , by Chiang kai Sheik, by Mao Tse Tung and they accept every propaganda of China. Japan Times has Gregory Clark, Oxford has Rana Mitter ( although they are from Australia and India respectively, they are pro-Chinese). Books written by the Western authors on China are just as biased as the books written by the Western authors on the Soviet Union and Russia. They are all pro-Chinese and anti-Russian.

  • Dipak Bose

    Western authors are all anti-Japanese; even those who are married to Japanese ladies. One cannot get any truth in their writings. Curtazzi is another example. He has ignored the truth and propagated a pro-Chinese propaganda. Curtazzi cannot explain why Japan is so much popular in South East Asia and India.