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Japanese conduct in the East

LAURENCE REES: Can you describe how the Japanese conducted this war?

AKIRA IRIYE: This was a long, frustrating, drawn out war. Manchuria was very easy. I think it was conquered in less than a year. You could argue purely in terms of this merciless logic of fighting a war that Japan can just stop Manchuria detaching from the rest of China, that might have been better, or in terms of saving lives, both Chinese lives and Japanese lives. The League of Nations was pretty helpless at the time, does try to mediate, does try to call upon Japan to restore the status quo before the Manchurian invasion, but this was during the world economic crisis and so very few countries are willing really to come to the aid of China. They’ve got their own worries. We’ll talk more about that because the contemporary situation in many ways reminds people of what happened 80 years ago and one wonders whether the current global economy crisis is going to create another international crisis.

And that’s why I think we do have to study history. You know, you just have to understand what has changed and what has not changed. My answer would be that this is as serious a global crisis as 1929 and 1930s but that in other respects it’s a very different world, so that we’re not going to have another Japanese invasion in China or Japanese war against United States. So that’s a relief to everybody I’m sure. But because of those circumstances the League of Nations was powerless; the United States was not even a member, Great Britain did not want to be bothered at that time because British interests were not that significant in Manchuria. So they were letting the Japanese alone. Maybe the Soviet Union would have been one nation that would have been very worried, and they were very worried about the implications of this, but they were willing to basically come to some kind of modus vivandi by which Japan temporarily gave them time to prepare for an eventual war.

We know both the Japanese and Russians were preparing for some kind of inevitable conflict in Manchuria. If Japan had just stopped there things might have been quite different. Starting with several incidents in Shanghai in 1932, but more significantly starting in 1937, the Japanese decide for whatever reason, it’s very complex, to expand the war, which was a major mistake, because by going into China proper the Japanese are violating not just Chinese sovereignty but also European interests, American commercial interests, and so on. And then they, of course, are engaging in all kinds of acts of brutality that’s exemplified by the rape of Nanking in December 1937, they just go wild. The longer the war lasts the wilder they become. It sinks to an almost undisciplined kind of warfare.

LAURENCE REES: Why are the Japanese committing so many atrocities in this war?

AKIRA IRIYE: I think there are a number of reasons. Many people who have studied Japanese wars seem to think that the Japanese were not as brutal. I mean, they had committed some brutal acts in the first Chinese-Japanese war in 1894-95, but not to the same extent that they did in 1930s. Most history books will tell you that the Japanese treatment of Russian prisoners during the war against Russia in 1905 was rather exemplary, and that the Japanese treatment to German prisoners in 1914 was exemplary and so you could argue, well, the Japanese were nicer towards white European prisoners of war, and that they did not apply the same kind of discipline to the Chinese because they were not white.

But, on the other hand, the Japanese were just as brutal to the American, British and Australian prisoners in Second World War, so I think something had happened there, maybe the frustration of the long years of war. The Russian-Japanese war and the first Chinese-Japanese war ended in one year, very brief and so they could afford to be nicer to the prisoners of war perhaps. But this time it was maybe a sense of frustration and the sense that war was being prolonged because of resistance by civilians, not just by the military and so on. I think this kind of psychology led to this kind of victimisation of Chinese civilians. Also there’s another angle which is that earlier the Japanese are very much aware of international opinion. I mean, Japan was just trying to catch up with the West and they wanted to emulate the West, they wanted to be like more civilised Western countries and one way of doing that is, or was, to be nice to prisoners of war.

They thought either wrongly or rightly that this was the way the Europeans fought their wars, nice to prisoners, nice to the enemy. By the 1930s this kind of inhibition is not there or if it’s there it’s much more minimised, because of the fact that by that time the leaders in military as well as in the government and even the media had decided that the Western countries have not been very nice to Japan, that they have tried everything they could to earn the recognition of the country as a civilised country, as equal to the West and so on. So there is a sense that somehow or other they feel that they’re still being treated not as an equal partner in the international arena, that they are still being viewed as somewhat inferior, maybe A minus, not a straight A country as exemplified by the immigration dispute with United States and other countries, and even by the disarmament agreements in which Japan was given an inferior ratio for building of ships.

For whatever reason they conclude that by 1930 it was not as important as it had been in the past to try to show the West that Japan was as civilised as the Western countries. So, being released from this kind of pressure - that in a sense they have to be nice to Westerners because Westerners are watching – I mean, if anything, they are revolting against the West.  One of the ideological backgrounds of the 1930s war is that Japan was going to create a new Asian order in which new values and new principles would predominate; Asia for Asians kind of thing. And they are fighting with the Chinese because the Chinese don’t understand that, that’s their rhetoric, that the Chinese are somehow following the lead of the United States or sometimes the lead of the Soviet Union, the British and so on. The Chinese have betrayed Asia by bringing in the assistance so far and the Western measures, so they need to be punished. So there is some kind of psychological mental attitude that they are no longer bound by international norms, because a few of these allegedly international universal norms are really a Western product.