Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and fellow revisionists prefer to think that Japan’s 20th century imperialist aggression has been misunderstood. But on this score they are isolated not only from the international community, but also within Japan.
In January and February, Emperor Akihito and Prince Naruhito respectively expressed in their ineffable way their shared concerns about Abe’s revisionist agenda on history and the Constitution. Moreover, some senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party are also anxious about the forthcoming Abe statement, which will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
Even NHK news recently highlighted the key phrases of the 1995 Murayama statement, which accepted responsibility and apologized for the aggression and colonialism that Abe cavils about but really can’t ignore. He has convened a blue-ribbon panel of eminent figures to offer advice, but his options are limited unless he wants to be remembered as “Abe the Shirker.”
A century ago, in 1915, the Japanese government presented “21 Demands” to the Republic of China at a time when that government was weak, financially dependent on Tokyo, and Europe was focused on auto-genocide. The timing was therefore propitious, but it all blew up in Japan’s face when the Chinese leaked the contents of the ultimatum to governments in Europe and the United States. Under pressure, Japan backed down. It withdrew the fifth set of demands that would have turned China into a quasi-colony.
This experience embittered Tokyo and raised alarms in Western capitals about Japan’s hegemonic ambitions in China. More importantly, Japan became public enemy No. 1 to the Chinese and the main target of a rising tide of anti-foreign nationalism; a boycott cut Japanese exports to China by 40 percent. So it appears that Japan’s diplomatic initiative was a major blunder.
By the time World War I broke out in 1914, Japan was already a significant imperial power in Asia with colonies in Taiwan and Korea. During the war, based on surging investments and exports, Japan was displacing Great Britain as the preeminent foreign power in China and had already secured significant mining interests and a major railway concession in Manchuria. Given the fragility of the new republic, Japan’s rapidly expanding interests in China and Tokyo’s certainty that there were beneficial synergies to be tapped, the 21 Demands had a powerful logic, but only for the Japanese.
But what if the West had acquiesced to Japan’s hostile takeover of China via the 21 Demands? How might that have influenced subsequent developments in the region? Gaming such a scenario is complicated and there are all sorts of contingent factors that cannot all be considered in this brief space, but the possibilities are intriguing. One would involve Japan strengthening the central government, convincing the prominent nationalist Sun Yat-sen to assume power, curbing the rise of warlordism and containing political turmoil. In fact there were many Chinese nationalists at the time that greatly admired Japan and knew there was a lot to learn and gain from more extensive relations. Sun was well-disposed toward Japan at the time and considered it to be a beacon in Asia, so if he had lent his prestige to the collaborative project, it might have gained some legitimacy.
If Japan had managed to improve governance and develop and modernize China along the lines it pursued in Manchukuo in the 1930s, could Japan’s regional rampage from 1931 to 1945 have been averted? Might this not have improved the well-being of the Chinese and avoid the horrific war Japan waged there that claimed some 15-20 million lives, displaced 100 million more and destroyed the nascent modern economy?
Alas, this would have involved continued imperial exploitation of China under Japan’s leadership, but if Tokyo had gained control in 1915 and countered nationalist hostility by making common cause with the Kuomintang and improving living standards, there might have been no need to subjugate Manchuria from 1931, no escalation of hostilities in 1937 and no need to widen the war to Southeast Asia in 1941 to secure the natural resources needed to win the war in China. No Pearl Harbor and all that happened in its aftermath, including Hiroshima. Surely the U.S. would have found some other reason to enter the war against Adolf Hitler, but Asia might have been spared Japan’s inferno.
The Great Depression was already undermining the basis of colonialism in Southeast Asia and Hitler was administering the coup de grace in Europe, so strong nationalist movements in the region could have achieved independence without Japan’s invasions and brutal occupations. And, if Japanese forces had not decimated the Kuomintang army lead by Chiang Kai-shek — and instead had bolstered his nationalist government — China might have been spared the many subsequent Mao-made disasters and could have followed an accelerated modernization similar to what the Kuomintang launched in Taiwan, way before Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms. Perhaps.
Rana Mitter, a Sinologist at Oxford University, thinks that any Japanese quasi-colonial rule would have lasted a generation at most, but probably less. He believes that, “the same thing that happened on 4 May 1919 — angry nationalist revivalism — would have happened, just a bit later than it did in practice.” The Japanese would have faced, “an insurgent movement from within China (and) holding on to China — as the (World War II) period showed — would have been too expensive and difficult for Japan to manage.”
Stanford University historian Peter Duus points out that the Western powers would not acquiesce to the 21 Demands because “Japan now seemed to have its eye not simply on Southern Manchuria but also on the Shantung Peninsula and the Yangtze Valley.” From a European perspective, he says, “they were getting too big for their britches.”
Duus also thinks Sun was an unlikely partner.
“It is difficult to imagine that Sun would have become a ‘puppet’ as Pu Yi did later on” in Manchukuo, Duus argues. “He had an agenda of his own, and he had a charisma that allowed him to be independent. He also had the support of a younger generation of more militantly nationalist leaders that was coming along behind him.”
Moreover, “Chinese nationalists also thought the Japanese were too big for their britches.” So a puppet state would not have survived the post-World War I tide of Chinese nationalism and “the Japanese might have found themselves in a ‘China quagmire’ two decades before they did in fact.”
So whatever other whimsies revisionists may harbor, the upcoming Abe statement can’t really gloss over the fact that Japan’s ambitions for empire put it on a collision course with Asian nationalisms with catastrophic consequences for the entire region.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.