Column No. 28 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH – September 2, 2004

I recently was fortunate enough to spend a three-week vacation in Japan.  Even more fortunately for me, it was my second visit to this fascinating country.  My first was in 1971, in the company of my father who, among many other things, was a teacher of Asian history with a special interest in Japan.  That interest began in 1930 when, as a graduate student at Columbia University living at the International House, my Dad made a number of friends among a group of Japanese graduate students who were also residing there.

My Dad has made his first visit to Japan in 1935 and was there numerous times again after the War, beginning in the 1960s.  From that first visit, Dad had brought back a number of pieces of Japanese art work which hung on the wall of our apartment in New York City.  Thus I grew up with something of a Japanese influence in the house.  While my Dad’s interest was more on the cultural history of the country, mine was always on the political history (not surprisingly), about which I have read on and off over the years.  For my latest trip, I renewed my acquaintance with Japanese political history by reading A Traveller’s History of Japan, 3rd edition (New York: Interlink Books, 2002), by Richard Tames, who among other things is the former head of External Services at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies

In the light of my trip, the reasons President Bush gave for his War on Iraq, and the experience to date of the American occupation of that country, some lessons of history that might be of interest and use were brought to my mind.  These lessons are from a series of events that first eventually lead to Japan’s involvement in World War II, and then followed upon her defeat and occupation by the United Sates. They might be called “When the Reasons Given for Going to War Are Not the Real Ones,” and “How to Run a Successful Occupation.” This column deals with the first of these two.  I will deal with the second in a subsequent column

When the Reasons Given for Going to War Are Not the Real Ones

Japan is unique among the world’s nations in that alone of the nations outside of Europe it was never colonized by one or more European powers.  When colonization first threatened in the late 16th century, over a 50-year period Japan responded by closing itself off from the outside world almost completely.  The door was firmly shut (with a tiny window left open for a Dutch trading post isolated on an island in Nagasaki Harbor) beginning in 1625, during a period called the Tokugawa Shogunate. When that isolation was eventually breached by the Western Powers beginning in the 1850s, Japan was able to protect itself again by very quickly importing the economic and military means to that end, during what is called the “Meiji Restoration.”

In fact, Japan became a modern military and economic power so quickly that within just over 40 years of the historic visit of Commodore Perry to Tokyo Harbor in 1853, Japan defeated the much larger China in a war. That war brought it, among things, the island of Taiwan, called by the Japanese Formosa. In a dispute over sphere of influence in northeast Asia, Japan went on to defeat Russia in 1905. One result of that event was the annexation of Korea in 1910.  During the same period, Japan also acquired permanent mining and associated railway interests in the Manchurian province of China.

Japan fought on the Allied side in World War I. Among other things, she acquired all of the former German possessions in the far-flung islands of the Western and Central Pacific.  Her imperialistic ambitions were now being really stoked, and to support them an increasingly authoritarian approach to government was fostered at home.  Among Japan’s military and her economic imperialists there was an increasing interest in acquiring a permanent, geographic presence on the Asian mainland, beyond Korea.  The economic pressures of the Great Depression stoked this interest.

And so, in 1931 an act of sabotage took place on the Japanese railway in Manchuria.   It came to be called “The Kwantung [Guandong] Incident” (after the name of the Japanese army guarding the railroad). In response to the “dastardly deed,” Japan quickly moved to military action that eventually led to the complete takeover of Manchuria by the Japanese.  They turned it into a separate “country” that they called Manchukuo, replete with a puppet Chinese ruler.  He just happened to be the last son of the Chinese Empress who had been overthrown in the democratic revolution of Sun Yat Sen in 1911.  (If you can ever get to see the marvelous movie about this man, Pu Yi, and his times called The Last Emperor, do it.) The Japanese position was, of course, that Chinese subversives had attacked them.  What were they supposed to do?  Stand idly by against this threat? Interestingly enough, it eventually turned out that anti-Japanese forces had not committed the “terrorist act.”  Rather, it had been fabricated by the Japanese military itself.

During the 1930s, aided by strategic assassinations of politicians committed to the Constitutional government, such as it was, that had been established during the Meiji Restoration in the latter part of the 19th century, the government was gradually taken over by nationalists and militarists, with the support of leading industrialists such as the Toyoda family.  (It is interesting to note that when they, a pioneer in the textile business in Japan, turned to making automobiles in the 1930s, the company’s registrar department made a mistake in transcribing the name for the new business.  And thus we have Toyotas when we really should have had Toyodas.)  When in 1933 the League of Nations condemned Japanese aggression in Manchuria, Japan simply quit the League.  In 1936, Japan joined Germany and Italy in the “Anti-Comintern Pact.” Among other things, this pact pledged mutual assistance in case of hostilities with the United States.  Japan was feeling its oats.

And so, in 1937, there occurred the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” on the Chinese Manchukuokan border, which lead to the Japanese invasion of China proper.  It later turned out that this incident, like its predecessor in 1931, had also been entirely fabricated by the Japanese military.  Japan quickly took control of the major Chinese coastal cities, in the course of which their forces committed the infamous Nanking Massacre.

The Japanese next turned northward, without an “incident” to justify the moves, and engaged in a bloody, unsuccessful war with the Soviet Union along the Manchurian-Siberian border.  (It was the resolution of this war, ironically enough in light of the “Anti-Comintern Pact,” that enabled Stalin to rush fresh Siberian troops to the defense of Moscow in late 1941, to halt the German advance into the Soviet Union for the first time.)  When France and the Netherlands fell to the Nazis in 1940, Japan moved into Southeast Asia.  Those moves caused Roosevelt to declare an embargo on oil flowing from the Dutch East Indies to Japan, which in turn eventually led to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which eventually led to the American Occupation of Japan.

But for now, just consider these fascinating parallels with the onset of Japanese aggression.  In 1931, the Japanese Army faked an “incident,” which just happened to be local in nature, that it used as a totally false justification to take over a very large and very valuable piece of real estate that happened to have belonged to China.  In 1937, they faked another “local” incident that they used to justify, totally falsely, an invasion of the whole country of China.

The Georgite use of 9/11 for everything from getting passed highly repressive domestic legislation to invading Iraq certainly comes to mind, doesn’t it?

I am certainly not saying now that the Georgites were directly involved in the 9/11 tragedy.  (My column of May, linked below, does discuss some of the possible explanations for Georgite behavior around the events of 9/11.  It happens that there is an increasing amount of speculation that they somehow were directly involved.  See, for example, Inside Job: Unmasking the 9/11 Conspiracies, by Jim Marrs, San Rafael, CA: Origin Press, 2004.  But so far, there are only coincidence and speculation.)  But it does not require direct involvement to see parallels in the use by right-wing government of a “terrorist incident” to attempt to achieve ends that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Just recall Hitler’s use of the Reichstag Fire in 1933 to justify the repeal of the Weimar Constitution, to enable the institution of a fascist dictatorship in Germany (see the SJ Columns of June 3 and 24, 2004, linked below).  In that case, virtually all historians agree that the Nazis did not set the Fire. But with a propaganda apparatus that was indeed totally revolutionary for its time, the Nazis were within days able to get a significant number of the German people to believe a total falsehood: that the fire had been set by Communists who were on the verge of creating a violent revolution to take over the German government, an event to be defended against by any means available.

The point is that the comparison of using a “terrorist incident” of a violent nature in a totally dishonest way, to justify pre-planned aggressive action, foreign and domestic, does hold in the case of Japan as well as Germany.  No, history does not repeat itself, but similarities and analogous events abound.