Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring 2017)
The Buildup to the ‘Greater East Asian War’ from the Japanese Perspective
With the present situation in the Far East the reverse of what it was in the first part of the last century it is interesting to note that many Japanese have a very different memory of the circumstances that preceded their entry into World War II than prevails in the West. The official Western narrative of Japan’s pre-war history echoes that enunciated by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the “Tokyo trial”), which stated that a Japanese “criminal, militarist clique” launched a “war of aggression” for the “domination” of East Asia and “the rest of the world.” Since then the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan’s well-armed, though key trading partner, has taken every opportunity to lecture Japan on its past “aggressive imperialism” when criticizing what the Japanese view as domestic matters, such as visits by government officials to commemorative shrines, and corrections to post-war history textbooks. Although the “politically correct” strata in Japan accepts the Tribunal’s condemnation, the view taken by many Japanese of the era before what they call the “Greater East Asian War” remains markedly contrasted from that dictated by the Tokyo trial, and an elaboration of this Japanese view will facilitate a better understanding of post-war Japanese actions. In the first half of the last century, core Japanese interests included raising the people’s standard of living and more equal relations with the West, and to these ends, Japanese policy was molded around that of the United States, a wealthy and powerful state, rather than that of its culturally and racially related neighbor China, which was at that time completely dominated by foreign interests. The more favorable view of Japan’s role sees the country’s pre-war policy with respect to China as having responded intermittently to fluctuating circumstances, through accommodation and appeasement, rather than the attempt to fully subjugate China. In fact, the Japanese today still tend to react in a similar way towards the PRC and believe that a more aggressive reaction could lead to an unfavorable outcome for Japan, as it did in the past.