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Japanese invasion of Indochina

LAURENCE REES: And so come 1940 the Japanese decide to invade Indochina, and it’s this that precipitates the problems with the United States isn’t it?

AKIRA IRIYE: I think so. In 1940 there is what they call the Southern Advance that follows the Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries and some bombing of Great Britain. The idea is that they would take advantage of it, because while Germany was victorious, the Dutch, French, and British would not be able to defend their empires in Asia, and here was a big chance for Japan to invade those territories and try their hand first in Indochina because it seemed to be the weak spot there, and also in the China borders and China proper. There had been shipments of arms from Indochina into China also from Burma.

So what the Japanese do is, in order to win this victory in China, they want to cut off the shipment of arms from the West, from the United States and also via the Northern Vietnamese route or the Northern Burmese route. So Japan puts pressure on Great Britain to close the so-called Burma Road, also puts pressure on the French authorities in Vietnam to let the Japanese stay there, basically, essentially, occupying Northern Indochina, and making sure that no shipment went from Indochina into China.

LAURENCE REES: And, in any case, the Japanese thought people like the British were hypocrits, because they wanted to stop the Japanese expanding their Empire whilst hanging on to their own.

AKIRA IRIYE: There is that aspect of it, that Japan had its empire and Britain had accepted that, that Japan had started building its empire in 1895 when it acquired Taiwan and then went into Korea and Korea was absorbed into Japan and nobody protested. The United States, Britain and the world accepted that. So I think that was also the good old days for Japanese imperialism. And then somehow things were different in 1930s. When they saw that they had tried to extend their influence into Manchuria and China proper, now this time the British and Americans said they could not do that any more. Why was that? Well, I think there is one fundamental fact which is very important which is that in the 1930s it was a different world in the sense that after the First World War the principle of self-determination proclaimed by Wilson had begun to be accepted. Japan had not quite accepted that, but Japan was a member of the League of Nations and presumably the idea that ultimately all the colonial people would be liberated or would become autonomous had been, as I think, enshrined as part of the international order and Japan, after all, had become one of the mandatory powers.

Some of the Pacific islands that had belonged to Germany were now entrusted to the Japanese, were not given to Japan as the fruit of victory against Germany, but were entrusted to the Japanese for ruling until such time as they would be ready for Independence, so that was the new dispensation. So the Japanese knew that too, I think, and unlike the 1890s or the turn of the century, in the 1930s outright colonial acquisition was no longer acceptable.

LAURENCE REES: Except the British weren’t giving up their colonies, were they?

AKIRA IRIYE: They aren’t giving up, but they were beginning to talk about it. I mean, they’re beginning to talk to Ghandi and there were people like that. I think there is a sense that eventually some arrangement would be made, though not right away, so I think the Japanese did not quite understand that or if they understood it, they tried to hide that aspect. Even today they say that essentially there was no difference between the British Empire and the Japanese Empire and so on. We can talk more about that, but I don’t think that that argument really holds, though nevertheless from the Japanese point of view they did use that argument. So I think the argument is put in the framework of pan-asianism; they’re saying we’re going to have our own order but it’s not going to be the old-fashioned imperialism, that’s what the British had and the Dutch had and the French had. They’re going to have a new order, an Asian order. It was going to be Asia for Asians.

In this kind of new order there would be no empires but there would be no nations either. It’s got to be some kind of vision or community with Japan at the head, at the top. And then all the European colonies would be abolished and replaced by some kind of other system. The Japanese would still be the predominant nation but would primarily try to assist the other countries, the Vietnamese and others, to gain their independence. But the Europeans and Americans would not be allowed in these systems. It’s the implication of this kind of system which really alarmed not just the British but the Americans as well, because Americans are not only in the Philippines, they are determined to stay in China at least in terms of trade.

So ultimately the China issue comes back, because from the US point of view what Japan was doing was not simply conquering China. Even to create an Asia for Asians would be detrimental to American tourists and to the spirit of international trade; that’s another picture that is very important I think. By the late 1930s the United States had come to exemplify this open door of international trade, those kind of things, as the key to real economic recovery, and Japan seemed to stand in the way of this kind of new programme.