Know your enemy

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Japan's attempt to win global power in the Second World War is a warning from history for western policymakers.

Japanese attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbour, 1941.
Japanese attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbour, 1941. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The late sage of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was sought out for his insights on affairs beyond the bounds of the island city-state he led to independence in 1965. His Chinese heritage, a long life in politics and a bleak view of human nature produced a world view that was sometimes wise but rarely comforting. Does it stand the test of time?

In the 1990s, Lee was a prophet of globalisation. He watched the rise of China with awe. While Singapore prospered, he fretted. In semi-retirement he still held court in a white colonial building guarded by palm trees and Gurkhas. I found him there one day in his favourite mode of foreboding and admonition.

Beijing was knocking on the doors of the World Trade Organisation. Its exports flowed across the planet. In the West, optimists outweighed pessimists about the future. Lee thought that trade raised the chances of peace. But it was a utilitarian rather than an idealistic belief.

‘If you don’t exclude a people from the international exchange of goods and services you enable them to stay within their boundaries,’ he said. ‘Their excess energy, skills and drive can be used in producing goods and services, or in making investments to improve their lot, then there is no need for aggression.’

Lee warned every dignitary who came to see him that the rise of China would have to be accommodated or there would be war.

‘If the West tries to isolate China economically it must be prepared for a military conflict at some stage because the response from the Chinese must be to build up a sphere of influence in which their goods and services will predominate and that is bound to lead to conflict,’ he said.

Lee’s views had credibility because of Singapore’s success as a place for multinational firms, banks and shipping. It lived by free exchange even though its domestic economy had a strong dirigiste streak, which was often glossed over, as was its authoritarian bent.

Lee also spoke with the authority of a young man who survived the capture of Singapore by the Imperial Japanese Army, who had grown old still fluent in his native Hakka dialect and who met Mao Zedong and every Chinese leader of note after him, claiming to have influenced China’s ‘reform and opening up’.

‘World War Two was because of empires and protectionism,’ he said firmly. ‘During the depression of the 1930s every empire put up barriers around itself. So the Japanese built up their own. They decided to include China in their empire. The Americans put a halt to that before they had a colossus to deal with, and embargoed oil for Japan and this resulted in a world war.’

I reported these views in 1996 for The Sunday Times without much fear of contradiction. They were the consensus of the age. But were they true? If they were, then today’s policy makers are set on a path of containment, deterrence and sanctions that will lead to war with China. If not, then the outlook is reassuring, more nuanced and less ominous.

It did not do to challenge the tenets of globalisation at its high-water mark. History was put at its service during innumerable corporate summits and seminars. But the history, as packaged by Lee, was false. Japan did not launch the Second World War because of sanctions. It had a plan for world domination devised by fanatics who longed for conquest. They could not have been deterred and were not to be stopped.

The lessons, one fears, are there for all who deal with today’s chauvinist autocratic powers. But they are also a cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity when making our own analysis of the past.

There is a remarkable, pioneering and all but forgotten work by the American writer David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, published in 1971 (William Morrow and Company, New York). The author was born in Japan, became fluent in the language, endured wartime internment as a teenager in the Philippines and escaped execution by a day when American troops saved the prisoners in 1945.

Despite his ordeal Bergamini appreciated the ‘logic and beauty of Japanese culture,’ and set out to find why a nation with a literacy rate of 99 per cent had set out on a war that ended in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘had made the delightful, intelligent, artistic Japanese people… run amok?’

It was a prodigious effort. Bergamini moved his wife and family to an old-style house in the fields outside Kyoto. He combed through 50,000 pages of testimony at the Tokyo war crimes trials and another 30,000 pages of captured documents and US intelligence reports. He talked to everybody who would talk to him. Since it was the 1960s, many of the protagonists were still alive. Some were unhappy: there were spies and threats.

He sailed away from Japan with ‘eight thick loose-leaf folders inscribed with the personnel records of 932 leading Japanese bureaucrats and military officers, 2,000 pages of closely scribbled notebooks, a hundred issues of Japanese magazines, 60 volumes of Japanese diaries and reminiscences, and 240 hours of interviews and impressions on magnetic tape’.

Back in Connecticut, he assembled a huge manuscript (the book is 1,239 pages with notes) and reached a conclusion that broke every historical convention of the time. Emperor Hirohito, the figurehead monarch of modern democratic Japan, had led his people to war.

The victorious allies, making the hardest humanitarian bargain of the last century, had kept him on the throne to save lives and keep Japan stable in the Cold War.

‘Hirohito, had, indeed, been emperor,’ Bergamini wrote. He ‘was not the passive dupe’ of history that he had been made out to be. He had ‘inherited a mission, which was to rid Asia of white men’ and set out to achieve it.

A monarch of extraordinary intelligence, he mastered detail, poked into military affairs and gave precise indications of his wishes. The pre-war constitution declared him ‘sacred and inviolable’.

Then there was the matter of dates. Japan went to war in China in 1931, expanded the invasion in 1937, planned the conquest of southeast Asia years in advance and purged an army clique in 1936 that wanted to strike north against Russia instead.

Economic sanctions by the United States came at the eleventh hour. In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt curbed strategic exports of fuels and metals. It was only in summer 1941, after Japanese troops invaded Indochina, that the US, Britain and the Netherlands imposed an embargo on oil, along with now-familiar things such as asset freezes and seizure of ships. The sanctions were an effect, not a cause.

The Bergamini book documented conspiracy and deceit from the 1920s to the last cabinet meetings of August 1945, its pages daubed with assassinations and massacres.

It argued that extremists inside the Japanese elite always intended a war of racial supremacy and conquest, operating with the tacit consent of the emperor and impervious to purely economic considerations, a divine project rooted in ideology and religion as much as in realpolitik.

There was even a doctrine of global power, Hakkō Ichiu, which roughly means ‘all the world under one roof’ of imperial benevolence. Hirohito’s foreign minister, Matsuoka Yosuke, told Stalin it did not mean Japan aspired to conquer the earth but only to unite people in mutual respect. Stalin is said to have heard him out and said merely ‘da’ before proceeding to haggle over territory.

Written with a sense of time and place, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy took the reader to the scene of the action with vivid imaginative powers. That was, perhaps, its downfall.

Bergamini was surely accurate in describing Japan’s closed pre-war society as ‘a nightmare world in which everyone spoke politely in well-modulated voices while living with the secrecy and involuted double-thinking of eternal intrigue’. A shadowy clique dictated affairs above the heads of politicians, while even the great industrial magnates were kept on the fringes and ‘the masses were nothing more than a mob’.

While this analysis foreshadowed by two decades Karel van Wolferen’s classic work of 1989 about the less sinister modern state, The Enigma of Japanese Power, it was heresy. The author did not win friends by declaring his belief that the history of Japan presented after the Second World War ‘was a skilfully contrived illusion fabricated late in the war, partly by counter-intelligence specialists in the General Staff and partly by high-ranking palace courtiers’.

In 1971, these were, to say the least, inconvenient views. His book was duly torn apart by establishment historians. It was scorned for its colourful journalese, derided for its sourcing and dismissed as the prejudiced view of a victim. The charge was led by Edwin M. Reischauer, an eminent Harvard scholar appointed ambassador in Tokyo by John  F. Kennedy, one of the architects of postwar American policy, which saw the imperial house as a bulwark against communism. Left-wing radicalism was burning in Japan and the old guard saw every need to close ranks.

Professor Charles Sheldon of Cambridge University called it ‘a polemic which, to our knowledge, contradicts all previous scholarly work’, adding that ‘specialists on Japan have unanimously demolished Bergamini’s thesis and his pretensions to careful scholarship’.

The distinguished scholar of Japan, Richard Storry, lent weight to claims that Bergamini ‘grossly misused’ documents by mistranslation and distortion, while adding incriminating statements of his own fabrication. In the view of Professor Herschel Webb of Columbia University, his portrait of the emperor was ‘utterly incompatible with everything previously written about him’.

Bergamini was shattered by the criticism. He never really spoke up in his own defence, dying in 1983 with his reputation, in academic circles at least, as one of authorial hara-kiri.

His book sat on my shelf for decades after I devoured it as a teenager. Then in 2009 I found myself in Tokyo on assignment to write about the resurgence of nationalist politics across Asia. I went to interview Professor Hata Ikuhiko, a mainstream conservative historian who is recognised as the leading authority on interwar Japanese militarism.

Something stirred in the memory, and there it was in Bergamini’s introduction, where he thanked Professor Hata for sharing army personnel records with him. There was also an enigmatic reference to ‘personal notebooks which he had compiled over a fifteen-year period’. There was no clue to their contents.

As we sat in the professor’s cluttered study in a house in the Tokyo suburbs, we turned from contemporary politics to the past. Of course he remembered Bergamini-san. Forty years or more had passed, but his recall was clear. In an enigmatic, allusive way that was entirely recognisable, he solved a mystery.

Hata was born in 1932 and was too young to serve in the war. But he was fascinated by what led to it. As a conservative historian on the rise in the 1950s, he won the confidence of men on the right, many of whom believed Japan had been justified in what it did, and wanted, as they saw it, to set the record straight.

Their case, paradoxically, was put by Sir William Webb, the chief judge at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which sat in judgement on  Japanese war criminals from May 1946 to November 1948 and handed down seven death sentences.

He wrote in an introduction to Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy: ‘I sometimes asked myself what right we had to condemn Japan for having resorted to belligerency… Japan was a tiny land of 90,000,000 and 15 per cent cultivable soil… she had been subjected to severe trade restrictions and limitations from without. The United States and Britain in a situation like Japan’s in 1941 might well have had recourse to war.’

Thanks to his right-wing connections, Hata was allowed to interview convicted war criminals who escaped the hangman to serve time in prison. Most were paroled in the 1950s. They were invaluable first-hand witnesses, but out of deference to the throne and traditional reticence they would never speak in public.

Hata kept the transcripts in filing cabinets, which lined the walls of his study. When he welcomed Bergamini to his home in the 1960s, he shared this astonishing testimony with him in a bond of honour.

For reasons of trust and loyalty among the Japanese – which Bergamini would have understood – it had been agreed that Professor Hata would keep the raw material to himself. His guest could not cite or footnote the quotes.

‘I have kept these promises because of the danger which still exists for those who speak too freely in modern Japan,’ wrote Bergamini of his general pledges of confidentiality; adding ‘I have invented nothing.’ Now we know that his sources were real.

Now ninety years old, Professor Hata remains the doyen of military historians in Japan. His later work evolved into a deep critique of its military fascism in 1930s, and he drew controversy by stating that Hirohito had rewritten the record after the war to exculpate himself.

Mainstream scholarship moved on to place Hirohito near the centre of war-making policy, notably in Herbert P. Bix’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of 2000, which detailed his ‘strong decisive role,’ said he stubbornly prolonged the war and called his treatment afterwards ‘whitewashing’. The book was acclaimed in academia.

In the words of Sir William Webb, the chief judge: ‘It may seem rather quaint for an alliance of democratic governments to wage war upon an autocratic government at great expense in life and material, and then leave the chief autocrat of that government in a position of leadership.’

One can say that Japan is unique and the past is the past. But some tentative conclusions can be drawn. One is that trade cannot stave off war if a leader or a clique is determined to wage it. Appeasement never works. Sometimes sanctions might. You could argue that sanctions on Japan came too late. On the facts alone, Lee Kuan Yew was wrong.

Bergamini’s fate showed that establishment thinking can stifle debate for years. His work can be a lesson in why we must study the autocrats, read their ideology, such as it is; test their apologists and keep our own freedom of inquiry above all else.


Michael Sheridan