By Shingo Ito
TOKYO: Ever since Japan's crushing defeat in World War II, the question has lingered of who and what led it on the path of militarism. Today, Japan is gradually accepting how broad the responsibility lies.
Japan, fresh on the world stage after centuries of self-isolation, entered the 20th century in triumph by crushing Russia. But within decades, its self-image as Asia¡¯s savior from Western colonialism turned it into a fascist empire daring to strike Pearl Harbor and bring the United States into the war.
The issue of why still reverberates today. But among experts, a loose consensus has emerged: not only the military was to blame but everybody in the era: politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, the media, the public as a whole and erstwhile demigod Emperor Hirohito.
¡°Only the military has often been blamed, but that's not a fair argument,¡± said Masayasu Hosaka, a visiting lecturer at Rikkyo University and author of histories on wartime Japan.
¡°And some experts argue that the emperor was not responsible, but that¡¯s not an objective recognition either,¡± Hosaka told AFP.
¡°Even if the emperor were just a rubberstamp, he was the only one in a position to have a say to the military. And in reality, a lot of people dared to die screaming ¡®Emperor Banzai,¡¯ or ¡®Long Live the Emperor,¡¯¡± he said.
Japan¡¯s emergence into an aggressive imperialist and then a peaceful economic power traces back to the mid-19th century.
The country awoke from a two-century policy of self-seclusion in 1853, when US naval officer Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay and reopened Japan to the international community.
Japan, whose clock had stopped in the 17th century, was stunned to see Western technology such as a steamer and scrambled to catch up, revitalizing industry, restructuring society and replacing an order of samurai knights with a new military that would become the Imperial Army and Navy.
The nation stunned the West in the 1904-05 war with Russia by becoming the first Asian state to humble Europeans. But there were harbingers of its expansionism: massive riots broke out among Japanese who believed the US-brokered Treaty of Portsmouth did not give enough territorial concessions.
Emboldened by the triumph, Japan took a major step toward its new role in 1910 by colonizing the Korean peninsula, starting a bloody occupation that would last until the end of World War II and continues to haunt Tokyo.
From 1937 Japan began an aggressive expansion in China, including the notorious massacre of the occupied city of Nanjing.
History remains a bitter topic in Japan. The education ministry in April approved a new version of a little-used history textbook that has triggered outrage in Asia by making few mentions of Japanese atrocities such as Nanjing.
The textbook argues that Japan was responding to European colonialism and was largely welcomed by other Asian nations in its militarist phase. The book was approved in July for use at a limited number of schools in Tokyo.
Shohei Muta, senior researcher at Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, said the complicated legacy is in part because of Japan's peculiar position in dispersing responsibility.
¡°Germany had Hitler. Italy had Mussolini. But Japan did not have a matching person,¡± Muta said.
¡°No particular person took the leadership in the war,¡± Muta said. ¡°This may be part of Japan's national characteristics¡ªJapanese tend to avoid making personal responsibility clear, resulting in a faceless country.¡±
Former Prime Minister Hi-deki Tojo and six other men were hanged by the US-led International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
The war criminals are still a key issue in Japan. China and South Korea fiercely oppose Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the convicted war criminals among 2.5 million war dead.
While nationalists say the Tokyo trial was ¡°victors' justice¡± humiliating the defeated, some historians with different views are equally critical saying the tribunal merely made an example of military officers.
Unlike Westerners, the Japanese had never experienced a true civil revolution, meaning they lacked a sense of citizenship and dedication to resisting tyranny, allowing the military to hijack the nation easily.
¡°Politicians, bureaucrats and the media as well failed to prevent the nation¡¯s blind moves forward,¡± Hosoka said.
¡°Everybody including the emperor was a cog in the wheel. This is one of the most reasonable takes on Japan in the 1930s and 1940s,¡± Hosoka said.
Some experts say Japan had a narrow chance to put the brake on its expansionism during the Taisho Era from 1912-26 under the reign of the Emperor Yoshihito, when party politics emerged in Japan for the first time.
¡°But Japan failed to carry out fundamental revision of its legal system, particularly the constitution, which was later turned into a bastion of militarism,¡± said Takayoshi Matsuo, honorary professor of Kyoto University.
¡°Also, Japan stuck to strict colonial rule, which eventually turned out to be a burden on Japan itself militarily and economically,¡± Matsuo said.
A historic turning point came in 1932. Then-Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated by young naval officers in an attempted coup d¡¯¨¦tat, which led to the demise of the party Cabinet system.
Japan afterward rushed into the control of the military, further forays into Asia and isolation from the international community.
Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 and joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940.
Concerned about Japan's expansionism in China, the United States imposed economic sanctions against Japan by stopping oil exports to the resource-deficient island nation.
The measures prompted Japan to extend its presence to Indochina in an effort to secure shipments of crude oil.
Tokyo negotiated with Washington over the sanctions, but the talks broke down at the end of November 1941 when then US Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent a statement, known as the Hull note, demanding Japan withdraw from China and Indochina completely.
Japan took the statement as an ultimatum and attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, killing 2,403 Americans and awakening a new giant of world history.
In the name of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere, Japan advanced in the initial stage of the war, seizing Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.
Some Asian countries, which had suffered Western colonialism initially hailed Japan for ousting Western rulers. But soon the subject people found themselves confronting another aggressor, who while also Asian was sometimes much harsher.
While Tokyo expanded its territory rapidly, it failed to secure supply of war materials to the front and was unable to concentrate armed strength for battles in a wide range of the Pacific.
The scales turned against Japan in 1942 after it suffered from a major defeat at the naval Battle of Midway.
The US military hopped through islands in the Pacific and turned Japanese cities into a sea of fire. US troops made the only land incursion into Japan in the summer of 1945, taking over Okinawa island in a battle that left one quarter of the island dead.
Japan's defeat became decisive after an American B-29 dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki, killing some 210,000 people.
The curtain fell on Japan¡¯s quest for Asian hegemony less than a week after the Nagasaki nuclear bombing, as Japan surrendered unconditionally by accepting the Potsdam Declaration.
¡°Making the intolerable tolerable and the unbearable bearable, our empire accepts the provisions of [the Allies¡¯] joint declaration,¡± the emperor declared, breaking imperial silence to broadcast over the radio for the first time.
Some historians say the emperor, considered a demigod during the war, cheated the gallows. But General Douglas MacArthur, who led the Pacific war and then the occupation of Japan, made use of the emperor's absolute authority in Japan in keeping peace.
Hirohito's ¡°influence had much to do with the success of the occupation,¡± MacArthur once said.
If the emperor were to be tried as a war criminal, ¡°a vendetta for revenge will thereby be initiated whose cycle may well not be complete for centuries¡ªif ever,¡± he added.
After the war, the role of the Japanese emperor would never be the same, although his words would always be respected.
Hirohito turned into a figurehead who presided over a nation that drew close to the United States and became the world's second largest economy. He died in 1989, leaving the ancient Chrysanthemum Throne to his son Akihito but never resolving questions over his own responsibility in the war.
¡°Japanese have the talent to achieve a goal in a shorter period than any other country,¡± Hosaka said.
¡°Japan desperately pushed westernization in the first half of the century, but it turned into fatigue,¡± he said. ¡°From a viewpoint of the international community, Japan has been such an unbalanced country.¡±
(Source: The Manila Times)