We live in a time when history is constantly being debated or reinterpreted. Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in 2021, and then invaded the neighbouring state that he believes is not a “real country” in February in order to bring it to heel. Attitudes towards the British Empire have changed completely during my lifetime – from a general feeling among the UK establishment and centre right that the ruddy-cheeked colonialists had mostly been well-intentioned good chaps, to horror at the misdeeds perpetrated in their imperial majesties’ names. After books by Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple, for instance, only the bravest of contrarians would attempt to make a positive case for British rule over the Indian subcontinent.
In East and South-East Asia, the Second World War – and Japan’s part in it in particular – still casts a shadow. On Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol marked the 77th anniversary of the Japanese defeat, and his country’s liberation from colonial rule by Tokyo, by calling for the two countries to “swiftly and properly improve” relations. “When Korea-Japan relations move towards a common future and when the mission of our times align, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us solve the historical problems,” he said, referring to recently renewed arguments about compensation for Koreans conscripted to work to support Japan’s war efforts and women forced into imperial brothels.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared “we will never again repeat the horrors of war” at a ceremony in Tokyo the same day, which struck the right note; but three of his ministers angered both South Korea and China by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million fallen soldiers and civilians, who controversially include 14 class A war criminals. “Japan must learn from history, correctly understand and profoundly reflect on its past history of aggression, and draw a clear line with militarism in order to truly win the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community,” read a statement from the Chinese embassy in Tokyo.
It would be easy to think of this from the Atlanticist perspective on the war that still predominates internationally. The Allies were fighting for freedom against the dictatorships of the Axis powers. Right vanquished wrong. And it is true that Japanese rule in East Asia nearly always ended up being brutal. Many more times the number of Asian forced labourers died during the construction of the infamous Burma railway than did Allied prisoners of war, for instance, although you wouldn’t know that from popular depictions of the three-year project.
China and South Korea have no reason to see Japan’s forcible establishment of the euphemistically named “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” any differently. But Japan’s arrival in some other countries in the region wasn’t entirely unwelcome. This should not be surprising given that the only country in South-East Asia not to be colonised was Thailand.
In Indonesia, the region’s giant, the future president Sukarno viewed liberation from the Dutch and the arrival of the Japanese as an opportunity to gain independence, and they did eventually allow the creation of a preparatory committee towards that end. In Burma, Aung San and his “30 comrades” group were trained by the Japanese, with the future independence leader only switching to the Allied side very late (too late for then British prime minister Winston Churchill, who called him a “traitor rebel leader”). In the West, Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army fought alongside the Japanese, may be considered in a similar light; but Europeans really ought to ask themselves why today they still expect any people to have gladly fought for their colonial masters.
Ba Maw, who was prime minister of Burma under both the British and the Japanese, wrote in his post-war memoir: “The case of Japan is indeed tragic. Looking at it historically, no nation has done so much to liberate Asia from white domination, yet no nation has been so misunderstood by the very people whom it has helped either to liberate or to set an example to in many things.” Being “misunderstood” is an excessively kind way of putting it given how Japanese forces routinely treated local populations, but Ba Maw’s view was that: “Japan was betrayed by her militarists and their racial fantasies. Had her Asian instincts been true, had she only been faithful to the concept of Asia for the Asians that she herself had proclaimed at the beginning of the war, Japan’s fate would have been very different.”
Perhaps this – along with the fact that the European colonialists immediately acted to re-establish their empires, even though their defeats at the hands of the Japanese had discredited their claims to superiority – explains why there is little hostility based on their wartime record towards Tokyo in South-East Asia. The period of reparations and then the years of huge investments, helping and guiding countries in the region with development, are important too. Still, if one considers the kneejerk derogatory references to Germany’s Nazi past that were prevalent in Britain for decades, it is notable that Malaysia, a country that had been occupied by Japan, could adopt a Tokyo-centric “Look East” policy in the early 1980s, not even 40 years after the war had finished.
Fortunately much of Asia has moved on from a complicated period in their collective history, but Japan needs to do more to recognise grievances still felt in China and South Korea. It is especially so if the country wants to take a more assertive foreign policy in the region. It must face the past squarely and honestly, with no hint of the creeping revisionism that many of its leading politicians have sometimes displayed. Accepting Mr Yoon’s gracious offer and acting meaningfully to make it a reality would be a good start.