Why Japan is not an acceptable military ally

Jan 5, 2023
Japanese Parade of Self Defence Force.

There is some terrible double-foolishness afoot, that is certain to be widely noticed beyond the Western bubble. Australia is stepping forward with gusto to secure its position as a best-military-buddy not only with America, the most warlike nation in history, according to Jimmy Carter, but also with Japan, one of the 20th century’s most infamous warmongers, presently rearming with alarming relish. You are, as they say, known by the company you keep.

America imposed a Pacificist Constitution on Japan in 1947, after it was defeated in World War II. Article 9 of this constitution outlaws the resort to war by Japan as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.

There were very good reasons to impose this constitution at that time. And there are still very good reasons, explained below, why this constitution should apply today. But it is useful to consider, first, certain views on the Japanese economic miracle that unfolded following the last war.

I visited Mainland China, over a period of years, interviewing Gaokao or final year High School students who were applicants to enter undergraduate study at Hong Kong University. We typically quizzed them in groups using a short debate topic. A popular, open-ended topic asked them to discuss their views on Japan. The loathing of Japan’s pitiless historical rule over much of China starting in the 1930s was sharply evident. But this stood alongside candid, pragmatic respect coupled with a measure of admiration for the economic achievements of Japan and the outstanding, reliable quality of the widest range of Japanese products. Furthermore, while Beijing’s influential China Central Television Service has covered the appalling horrors of the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in great depth it has also noted positive aspects of the industrial revolution imposed on China, by Japan.

Moreover, as China’s open-door policy began to be applied over 40 years ago, after the death of Mao Zedong, Japan played a singular role in the rebuilding of China. Deng Xiaoping first encouraged Panasonic, for example, to come to China during a visit to Japan in 1978. According to a recent report, Panasonic, today, has around 80 subsidiaries in China, employs some 52,000 people and China business (at US$16 billion per year) accounts for about one third of all its business. There are many similar stories.

We need now, however, to look further back in history.

The list of specifically documented Japanese war crimes committed during their ferocious imperial onslaught is breathtakingly extensive. This offensive truly began, according to the historian, Sterling Seagrave, in 1895 when the Japanese assassinated Korea’s Queen Min and then swiftly absorbed Korea into the new Japanese Empire. According to Seagrave and other historians, Japan waged war with a terrifying, continuous intensity for half a century across East Asia and South East Asia until they were defeated in 1945. Japan claimed to be “liberating” the many jurisdictions they invaded from European colonial rule or subjugation in order to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Total estimates of civilian deaths caused by the Japanese range from a conservative 10 million up to 30 million, with the majority of these occurring in China. Organised massacres, biological and chemical warfare and indiscriminate, terror-bombing account for many of these deaths. The massacres, of Muslims within China and Malaya are well documented. Some massacres involved a wanton, competitive element.

In late 1937, the Chinese Nationalist (or KMT) Government had to flee from its then capital Nanjing lest it be annihilated by the very swiftly advancing Japanese invaders. Nanjing was left entirely undefended. For the Japanese, this created an open invitation to commit the most terrible military massacre imaginable, included mass rape, indiscriminate killing, torture and wholesale looting. This continuous barbarity extended over a period of at least six weeks from early December 1937. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that as many as 260,000 civilians and prisoners of war were massacred (including 20,000 cases of rape). Other historical estimates put this figure at well over 300,000.

Human experimentation of the very worst kind, including live vivisection without anesthesia, was carried out on an industrial scale by the infamous Unit 731 and other Japanese units in China. Thousands were regularly tortured in the interests of a depraved concept of science before being killed. Making the horror still more shameful, it was later found that top officers were not prosecuted in exchange for delivering the results of their research to the Allies. Certain staff members later went on to take positions in medical schools, the pharmaceutical industry and the health ministry in post-war Japan, according to reports in the British press in 2011.

Historian, Mitsuyoshi Himeta confirmed that the unpardonable, scorched-earth, Three Alls policy (Kill All, Burn All and Loot All), which ran from 1942 – 1945 in China, was approved by Emperor Hirohito, himself. Arguably, still more terrible was the authorised military policy of enforced sex-slavery to serve Japanese soldiers, euphemised in the term comfort women. Some historians argue that up to 200,000 women from Korea (especially), China and South East Asia were forced to work in military brothels, alongside women from Japan. Europeans caught during the war were also “recruited”. One Dutch woman captured in Indonesia said she was raped day and night for three months at age 21. In East Timor, very young, prepubescent girls were chosen and then regularly raped according to a Japanese report from 2008.

One Japanese army officer, quoted in the oral history book, “Japan at War” (1993), put it this way: We never really considered the Chinese as humanswe concluded that the Japanese race was superior. 

The carefully documented list goes on: forced general labour, indistinguishable from slavery (with massively high death rates); torture and regular execution of prisoners of war; attacking hospital ships; desperate but premeditated cannibalism – eating of opposing combatants; and perfidy (using surrender flags to trap and kill opposing combatants).

All modern militaries at war do terrible things and create bedlam. But the scope and time-scale of Japanese military atrocities, lethally affecting not just combatants but tens of millions of civilians, puts it in a terrible class, keeping company with the massive, Nazi-led display of utmost depravity which engulfed Europe. This is the fundamental reason why a Pacifist Constitution was imposed in 1947. By its collective, widespread resort to continuous, dehumanised conduct when waging war, Japan had placed itself in an exceptionally reprehensible category. And the very worst of this inexcusable conduct was centred on China for over 20 years, until the end of WWII.

This alone, however, is not what makes Japan a fundamentally unfit nation as a military ally. It is the alarming way that key, nationalist elites in Japan collectively continue to deal with this ruinously wicked record. Although the atrocity-denial industry in Japan is the province of minority groups, these groups remain highly influential and determined.

On March 1, 2007, during his first spell as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe openly denied that the Japanese Imperial military engaged in sex slavery. On the same day, a former Japanese veteran, Yasuji Kaneko, told the Washington Post that, for the soldiers, it was immaterial whether the women lived or died adding that, “whether in the military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance”.

A Japan-based scholar, William Underwood, observed in the Asia-Pacific Journal in 2006 that: The [Japanese] Mitsubishi Materials Corp in startling closing arguments last September issued a blanket denial of historical facts routinely recognised by other Japanese courts, while heaping criticism on the Tokyo Trials and openly questioning whether Japan ever “invaded” China at all. Mitsubishi has ominously warned that a redress award for the elderly Chinese plaintiffs, or even a court finding that forced labor occurred, would saddle Japan with a “mistaken burden”.

More recently, John Menadue noted that: China’s war against Japan was not just their war, but our war too – and without China we may not have won it at all. In the late 1950s, Japan’s unfinished antagonistic business with China was led by the Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Shinzo Abe’s admired grandfather. As Menadue explains: Nobusuke Kishi was known for his brutal rule of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Northeast China in the 1930s. He was nicknamed the “Monster of the Shōwa era”. He drove hundreds of thousands of Chinese into slave labour, referring to them as “dogs”. He spent three years in Sugamo prison awaiting trial as a Class-A war criminal [before being selected by the US as a Class A, anti-communist Japanese Prime Minister], see: China and Australia once were allies.

It is true that Japan has, since the last war, offered focused apologies and made compensation payments to many countries it invaded. These remain clearly more than token gestures but they still stand within the dark shadow cast by concurrent, disgraceful behaviour.

Possibly the single most alarming reminder of the entrenched nature of the project to secure a military rebirth of Japan is the continuous veneration of war criminals at Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni Shrine. Visitors are able to pay respect, there, to over 2 million who have fallen fighting for Japan, including over 1,000 convicted war criminals and 14 class A war criminals. Shinzo Abe visited once whilst Prime Minster and he regularly sent tributes, prior to his assassination last July. It is relatively common for senior, serving Japanese politicians to send tributes to this shrine. The current Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, did so just a few months ago.

According to Associated Press, more than 150,000 German nationals served in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021. Over the same approximate period, around 26,000 Australian military personnel served in Afghanistan. Just imagine that the named remains of leading Nazi figures, such as Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, had been placed in Cologne Cathedral, after Germany’s surrender in 1945. And, in accord with this arrangement, sympathisers – including current senior German political leaders – could visit to venerate or send tributes. Under such circumstances, it is almost unimaginable that Australia would have agreed that its troops should serve shoulder-to-shoulder with German military personnel in Afghanistan.

The warm embracing by current Australian politicians, from all main parties, of the rapidly advancing re-militarisation of Japan (now fervently encouraged by the US, which would like, today, to see a sword put to that Pacifist Constitution) is doubtless pleasing to those influencing Australia’s foreign policy from Washington. But the intemperate value placed on this approbation in Canberra requires the deployment of an exceptional disregard of some militarily obscene, centrally important history.

This frightful enfolding of Australia within a US-Japan military-glaring project directed at China is distinctly wrong-headed at many levels. A paramount concern is that for the most extreme elites in Japan, China remains unfinished business ultimately best settled by military might, if needs be. And Australia is stitching itself into being a sword carrier, now, not just for Washington but for a fundamentally re-armed, increasingly aggressive Japan – which still unforgivably venerates depraved war criminals.

This terrible foolishness will be acutely noted by China, of course. But it will also be sharply perceived across East Asia and South East Asia and in the developing world more generally. Here is Australia, reflexively stepping forward with conspicuous gusto, eager to be best military-buddies with America, the most warlike nation in history (according to President Jimmy Carter) and Japan, one of the 20th century’s most infamous warmongers, presently rearming with alarming relish. You are, as they say, known by the company you keep.

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