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The Start of Japan’s war

LAURENCE REES: When would you say the war actually started for the Japanese?

AKIRA IRIYE: Well, I’m one of those people who say that the war started in China in 1931 with the Japanese aggression in Manchuria. I say that because one thing led to another throughout the 1930s, the war in China escalated and before you knew it Japan was tied to Germany, in part in order to facilitate the conquest of China. But by bringing Germany into it the United States and European countries became alarmed and we can talk more about that later, but without the Japanese war in China none of these other developments would have taken place. In other words, I don’t think that there would have been a war against the United States, against the British and Dutch and so on if there had been no war against China, even though there is a tendency in Japan, and some other scholars too, to talk of these different wars not as one war but as separate wars. In addition to the war against China there is the war against the United States which may or may not be separable from the war against Great Britain.

Even if we say that war against the British and Americans was the same thing, was one war, then there is the war against the Soviet Union. Towards the very end of 1945 in the Second World War there is a war which again is a separate war. So you’re at least talking about three separate wars: one very short one, which lasted about a week, the first one lasted fourteen years, and then the one against the United States and British Empire and so on lasted for four years. And it seems to me in the Japanese mind, when you say ‘the war’ there is a tendency to be thinking about this separate theatres of war, separate wars in fact.

LAURENCE REES: But as far as you look at it, it’s essentially one war that begins as early as 1931?

AKIRA IRIYE:  I look at it as having started in September 1931.

LAURENCE REES: Because without that then none of these other consequential things would have happened?

AKIRA IRIYE: Right, I think so. One, specifically, because Japan started a war in China and China resisted that. Not in Manchuria but in the rest of China when Japan wanted to further expand into China. Proper Chinese nationalists, Chinese Communists and those other factions who resisted had no other consequence than to expand the war. Eventually the United States and Britain become involved and in part because Japan conquered or tried to conquer the southern part of China. The Japanese forces come very close to the French Empire in China and the British Empire in Burma and Hong Kong and so on. So the European nations become alarmed by that by 1940 and then the Japanese in fact even begin to try to expand into Indochina and start thinking about further expanding into Indonesia, basically because they thought strategically speaking this kind of expansion would help them win the war in China. The ultimate goal is to conquer China. The British and French by then had started their war in Europe and they would not be able to help very much at a similar time, and so in the end they turned to the United States for assistance. The United States becomes involved and so on and so on. I still think that even though they were separate wars, if there is one link that connects them all that would be China. That’s in the specific China-Japan context.

The second way in which we can say it started in 1931 is because by going against China unilaterally without provocation Japan was violating the spirit of the first treaties that Japan had concluded in the 1920s: the Washington Conference Treaty, treaties regarding China, the Caribbean Pact, all kinds of agreement in Japan’s membership in the League of Nations, which all had defined some kind of international order, in which in theory at least you’re not supposed to use force as a means of solving your dispute. Even if there was a dispute, and I rather doubt there was a dispute, but even if there was, the Japanese said the Chinese are violating this and violating that and killing some Japanese, things like that in 1931. But all these disputes are supposed to have been solved peacefully or at first been referred to the League of Nations or even The Hague Court for mediation. There were mechanisms for solving disputes peacefully. Instead of doing that they used violence, they used force and committed an act of aggression. And so in that sense this is not just a war against our neighbouring countries, it’s also a war against a whole international system. And in that sense the war that leads to Japan’s war against the entire world, virtually speaking, could also be said to have begun with Japan’s defiance of the international order. Again, that began in 1931.