The Greater East Asia and Pacific Conflict

If you say which ruler possesses moral influence, which commander is the more able, which army obtains the advantages of nature and the terrain, in which regulations and instructions are better carried out, which troops are the stronger, which has the better trained officers and men, and which administers rewards and punishments in a more enlightened manner – I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, fourth century BC

Part I

ASIAN CONFLICT

  1 China and Japan

  2 Japan in International Affairs

  3 The Japan Which Struck

  4 The China Which Was Struck At

  5 Naval Conflict by Methods Short of War

  6 The Great Manchurian Adventure

  7 China: Internal Revolutions and Foreign Policy

  8 Japan: Internal Revolutions and Foreign Policy

  9 The War Resumed: The Outbreak of the China Incident

10 International Alarums: Japan and Appeasement

11 India and the Conflict

12 The Magnetic North

CHAPTER 1

China and Japan

THERE are two principal countries of the Far East with an ancient civilization, China and Japan: and the war in the Far East had its origin in the quarrel between them. This developed gradually out of events which began about a century earlier and set afoot historical processes which were seemingly uncheckable. With apparent fatalism inflammable materials were stacked.

Ultimately, the fire started and flames enfolded the two countries in a most bitter war of survival. This in turn caused a wider blaze in the Pacific; and the fire in the East coincided with Hitler’s fire in Europe. The conflagrations merged, and the wars became one. Almost all the peoples of East Asia and South Asia were engaged.

The start of this great drama came with the different ways that China and Japan responded to the unfamiliar intrusion of the West into Asian affairs.

In East Asia China, even in its decadence, has always been a most absorbing topic. It has lain across the map of Asia, establishing standards and precedents, rather as the Roman Empire dominated the ancient western world. Traditionally, East Asia had no system of international relations in which independent countries coexist with one another, such as was known from the earliest times in Europe, but was a system in which all the lesser countries revolved like satellites around the great central structure, which was regarded by all men as central, necessary and almost unchanging. In the middle of the nineteenth century, this was still true, even though China was standing on the verge of one of the most calamitous periods of its history that was to cause its very name to be a reproach. It still dominated the political imagination, both of its inhabitants, and of visitors to East Asia. So much history had gone into its making, and so revered was Chinese civilization in Asia, that traces of mortal disease did not at first cause extreme alarm. Nevertheless China belonged to the ancient world, which, in 1850, was passing rapidly away.

What was threatening China was the impact of the western world. China was known as the Middle Kingdom for it seemed the centre round which all things revolved and it had flourished through so many ages because it was unique. Now, for the first time in its history, it was coming into contact with Powers which had totally different traditions and which were totally ruthless. They came from the other side of the world, but, from the alarm they caused, and from the absence of normal human rapport, they might have come from Mars. These Powers, well organized politically, were not inclined to concede to China a moral superiority.

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The history of China and the West is chequered. The record of the foreign Powers is not so black as it is painted, whether by Chinese communists or by liberal western historians, who are overwhelmed, often quite unreasonably, by guilt. In some ways China’s suffering was inevitable. It was the necessary result of the unavoidable process of a withdrawn state being thrust upon the world. Many of its experiences can be seen today to have been renascent; they conferred new and valuable matter upon an ancient civilization. The version put about by the communists is exaggerated, perverted and untrue. But something like their view is held by most of the Chinese people. The myth has been agreed upon. It must be attended to in any account of what really happened.

China, according to this view, was, for nearly a hundred years, harried by several foreign Powers which had projected themselves into East Asia by their navies and their fleets of merchantmen; and for most of the time it fought a losing battle against them.

The agony of China began in the middle of the last century. It was compelled by foreign governments to open itself for trade, which meant consenting to having its tariffs fixed by these agents; to accord to foreigners extra-territorial rights, which rendered them immune from Chinese law; and to permit them to set up in some of the choicest parts of the Empire small foreign communities which were thereafter protected from Chinese jurisdiction by warships and small bodies of troops. These were the famous Treaty Ports, now of dolorous memory. In addition, the same rights were exacted for Christian missionaries, who were let loose to subvert the ancient Confucian system. The Chinese Government was powerless to resist. It had neither the technical means (in arms and warships), nor the political stamina, nor the control of its own people, nor the ability to organize them.

Externally nothing had changed except for the establishment of neat, well-ordered townships side by side with the sprawling cities of China. They were clean; they appeared innocent. In this innocuous guise, imperialism came to China and soon began its work without anybody recognizing that it was initiating a new age. The first trade treaty, the Treaty of Nanking of 1842, which opened the five ports to British trade and residence, contained crippling restraints on China’s sovereignty, but at the time was regarded as relatively innocuous. The Treaty provided that foreigners should administer their own justice to aliens and so appeared to be relieving the Chinese of a vexatious duty and to be keeping the foreigner at arm’s length, which was very much the Chinese desire.

Moreover, by specifying areas where foreigners could live, it appeared to have spared the Chinese demands for the sale of land elsewhere. The foreigner was generally prohibited from acquiring real estate in China – a kind of apartheid set-up. But the foreigner had been given the means to enforce his will, and used it ruthlessly. He partly got round the rule that he should not own land by inducing the Christian missionaries, specifically exempt from the prohibition which applied to foreign businessmen, to hold the land in their name.

At first the Chinese did not understand what was being done to them, or how serious was the damage done to them in the Treaty Ports. But the misdeeds of the imperialists slowly became clear to everyone, and gradually produced a mood of terrible baffled rage.

China had not only to fear imperialism when it was seaborne. Before the coming of the foreign ships, it had been conscious of the land threat from its neighbour, Russia. This threat endured without interruption and in varying degrees of intensity. By land or sea China was surrounded by adversaries. It was still the Middle Kingdom, but no longer the axis round which the world turned; rather it could boast the name because it was the centre against which the spoliative instincts of the world were directed.

China was, it is true, saved from conquest and annexation. This was because the foreign Powers arrived not alone, but in multiplicity, because each was jealous of the other, because each realized that its trading rights depended on none achieving full political control of China. The Chinese Empire was thus permitted to continue.

It is important not to overstate the case. There were many personalities among the foreigners in China who bore nothing but goodwill to the country. There were institutions which were actively philanthropic. Foreign influence often brought about great changes, almost by accident. The Treaty Ports were often impressive for their neatness of construction and they disseminated new standards of public administration over a limited area. But the Chinese argued that this kind of imperialism did the maximum harm to China while ensuring that the imperialist Powers conferred no countervailing benefits.

Thus, groups of foreigners – nearly all businessmen – lived in China, organized entirely according to the customs and conventions of their homeland and subject to their own laws, in juxtaposition to the Chinese who were still subject to their ancient form of government. Most of the foreigners had only one interest: to make money through trade. Inevitably, even if the foreign communities had had no intention to influence Chinese society, the free action of the foreign groups deeply modified the Chinese society all around them, especially because the Chinese Government was unable to place limits on their activities. The operations of buying and selling, the freedom to conduct almost all forms of enterprise which private initiative could suggest, the freedom of money and its free use – all tended to erode the old Chinese civilization, which the Chinese, bound by treaty, were unable to safeguard.

The Chinese were in the position of a man bound hand and foot, watching the activities of an assailant who was openly plotting his ruin. As a result of the unwelcome guests, Chinese society was changing; but China could do nothing about it. Chinese anger mounted against the foreign communities, but China was impotent.

The Chinese feeling raged more strongly against the Chinese who collaborated with foreigners than against the foreigners themselves. The Chinese who showed himself unduly obliging to the foreigner, who set himself to make money by taking advantage of the conditions of foreign business, who was willing to act as the agent of the foreign business community and performed the indispensable role of interpreter and middleman, roused angry resentment. This class was called the compradors, from the Portuguese word meaning ‘to provide’: they were China’s universal agents, at the disposal of the foreigner. Without the compradors, the pattern of the new type of imperialism would never have come into being.

The comprador class became extremely rich and prosperous. Eventually many of the Chinese Nationalists came from this class. So did many people who contributed in various ways to the new China: in arts, in science, in medicine. For many decades the Chinese creative energies seemed to be located in this class. The fact that it was hated was never sufficiently appreciated by foreigners, whose needs had called it into being.

The principal state in the hostile group ringing China was Great Britain, but there was one foreign country which behaved in a way unlike the others, the United States of America, which had a different history and different traditions from those of the European nation-states like Great Britain.

The United States, which came into being as the result of rebellion against Britain, did not form a new national state of its own, but was, rather, a repository of the elements of the western world which showed, by emigrating to America, that they desired to have a new political civilization. The United States did not altogether escape the nineteenth-century trend of western countries to be aggressive and self-assertive, but was distinctly less predatory, less remorseless, than others.

Thus in its relations with China the United States pursued a milder course than its western peers. True, it was drawn into the harrying. When the other states took the extra-territorial privileges, for the protection of their nationals, the United States joined in; and it took its share among the other powers in setting up the International Settlement at Shanghai. But its pursuit of China was not relentless, and it did not demand exclusive concessions of its own, which were the aim of other governments and which came to be dotted all over China like so many colonies. The United States’ interest was in international trade – in contrast to Britain whose special concern was with the investment of capital in China – and in promoting it the United States was no more scrupulous than other states in forcing its activities upon China, which, officially, did not welcome them. But in this international trade the American concern was more with the attitude of other Western Powers than with that of China. The United States had always the fear that these would end in a policy of splitting up China into various spheres of interest, from which American interests would be excluded or discriminated against.

Hence the United States’ aim of preserving the open door into China. On this principle American official policy turned. It sought to establish a system by which all the Powers voluntarily restricted the use of political influence to secure for themselves an economic privilege such as was not enjoyed equally by other Powers. The American activity on these lines culminated in securing in 1900 the assent of Powers interested in the China trade to this ‘Open Door doctrine’ and in guaranteeing American support for China’s territorial integrity. The United States regarded this as a pro-Chinese policy, anti-imperialist, and in fact it was more so than suited the habits and interests of the other Powers. But it is understandable that later generations of Chinese should have pointed to the solid gains which it was the United States’ intention to gain from it. They were not impressed by the advantages that this non-cooperation of the United States with the other Powers undoubtedly brought to China, and regarded these as incidental and not philanthropic.

Nevertheless, the United States was philanthropic. From the 1870s a section of the American public became aware of China as a great Asiatic people which might with justice call upon the United States for aid. This was the United States’ first public response to the needs of a section of the world community; a response which afterwards became progressively wider, and embraced successively Japan, the states in Europe assisted by the Marshall Plan, and states of Latin America. They had no legal or other claim on the United States; the United States had no obligation to them. It responded in their cases to the simple fact that they had needs which the United States could fill, and the United States did not pass them by on the other side. Often, of course, there was, mixed with the practical philanthropy, a great deal of hypocrisy, of unscrupulous dealing, of serving a concealed interest, of power hunger only a little better than Europe’s because it was veiled; but, though these existed, it was a remarkable fact that there was a genuinely philanthropic policy in which these found a place.

The initiators of the wave of goodwill were the American missionaries. Thousands of these were active in China and, through them, links were forged between innumerable small towns in the United States and similar units in China. To a remarkable extent the American people actually took the Chinese people by the hand, and led them over the first stages of their modernization. Politically, the organs of government in the United States impressed the Chinese people, many of whom recognized the remarkable behaviour of the US, even though their vast pride suffered from the American patronage. It was natural for the descendants of two thousand years of mandarins to feel disgust at becoming pupils of such a commercial people, lacking a long history, as the Americans. Relations were therefore not easy. But Chinese, in a more judicious mood, had to admit that this relationship was the most satisfactory that China had experienced in modern history.

This adventure in philanthropy was a part of the history of the American people, not the American Government. It was not officially inspired. The thousands of American missionaries, the vast expenditure, the use of skill and manpower, were all of them privately directed. So also American businessmen for the most part took their own risks and reaped their return, and largely did not employ American organized public force. The interplay of the missionary and the businessman, the clash between disinterest and the long-term interest which American activity promoted, was of course one of the principal themes for the historian of the time to savour. And in the United States the widespread goodwill to China set up currents which, in a society as democratic as that of the United States, were bound to influence the state and produce subtle changes in its policy towards China. So intertwined were most of the impulses of the United States.

Confronted with such acute danger, China made sporadic efforts to modernize itself and to generate a counteractive power; this should have been possible by reason of its size, its population and the reasonableness of its people. But for a long while its governing class was so set in conservative ways – as an essential part of their Confucian civilization – that the efforts failed. To reform and reorganize, China had to go through a shattering revolution, leave its ancient political civilization and venture out on ways new and untested. It had to experience a slow rebirth.

For a time the Chinese mandarins, the higher civil servants of the Confucian bureaucracy, had supposed that the secret of the terribly formidable strength of the West lay in some technical devices which had been added to the instruments of government. If they could discover what these were, the Government of the ancient Empire would be rejuvenated, and able to stand up for itself. Steam power, explosives, modern weapons were all of them the candidates for the shattering secret of western power. But the Empire’s attempt to purchase these devices from the West left it no better off. It was clear that the Chinese Government lacked the talent to reorganize its society so that it might adapt itself to make proper use of these. It could not mobilize China. It remained inert, and a powerless victim to those who chose to victimize it.

Under constant strain, the old system of government was ceasing to act. The old régime had been based on the principle that a harmony had to be imposed on the disharmonious elements of which society consists. The policy was largely based on government by exhortation, and by displaying the example (at least in theory) of universal benevolence; and this proved workable because of the Confucian ideas which prevailed in all areas under Chinese rule. Confucianism, as much as the secular institutions of the old China, held the state together. But the old Confucian philosophy was being undermined as Chinese society, for the first time in two thousand years, began to change fundamentally. In the rough world which had developed, China had to discover new principles on which to base its government.

Some Chinese looked abroad at the new system of parliamentary democracy which was becoming so fashionable. Could this be the secret which made the West so strong, and could its institutions not be taken over by China? For a time there was enthusiasm and hope about these ideas. But it should have been clear that they were not likely to be a helpful model to China, which had its own powerful political traditions, built by more than two thousand years of history, and not readily set aside. Nor could a system of government be easily imported and acclimatized, which had been built up so painfully in Europe, which was the product of so many attitudes of action and habit, themselves born of wars, revolution, and the slow work of many centuries. China was too unlike Europe, and China was made a dangerous gift by its friends who intemperately supported this nostrum.

The course which China took was therefore quite unpredictable; it was empirical and, even today, with hindsight, it is hard to trace out what experiments it made, and how much China suffered.

One of the reforms which it made apparently without realizing the profound consequences which it had, was to abolish the Civil Service. This it did in 1905; the examinations by which it was recruited were suspended. Earlier, the existence of this college of administrators, chosen to serve the Empire by competitive public examinations, had been regarded, with some justification, as one of the strong points of Chinese civilization. But in the first decade of this century, the Chinese Civil Service was held to be old-fashioned and conservative. It was selected from among the classes which were steeped in Confucianism, and this made it the enemy of reform. The classes in favour of modernization all combined their resentment against it as constricting the development of the country. It was supposed that by striking it away, China would release forces which would transform it. That the mandarinate preserved standards of government and maintained the unity of the country was totally ignored. A great blow was struck at public order by its abolition, but the country thought that it was a blow in the cause of progress and liberation.

The Manchu Empire survived the sacrifice of the mandarins by only six years. The Empire and its outworn apparatus were discarded in 1911: it had stood in the way of reform; probably a revolution was the necessary prelude to recovery. But the first results of the fall were catastrophic. The power of the Empire was divided between war-lords, who commanded their own provinces. This was the worst and most helpless period of Chinese history up to that time. Chinese politics seemed to be without rhyme or reason. Power drifted from one war-lord to another with no meaningful result. The rise or fall of one provincial satrap or another brought no lightening of the gloom. There was no change, no regeneration, no significance.

The dawn for which men hoped first became visible with the rule at Canton, a city in the south of China, of the group called the Kuomintang, which had emerged from a revolutionary party of the last days of the Manchus. This group proclaimed itself the Nationalist Party of China and held its first National Congress in 1924. It was at first primitive, overlaid with the colour of circumambient war-lord governments, incompetent, corrupt, and very weak. But it was in certain aspects new, and had, at least in form, a modern party organization which was in part borrowed from western countries, though the methods of its operations were mainly drawn from China itself. It functioned in an authoritarian way, owing its power to its Army and police, but it claimed that this method of government was a transitory one. After a period during which it held the nation in tutelage, it would transfer the basis of government, and would become liberal and democratic. In after years, the length of this period of tutelage, the holding of the Kuomintang to its promise of democratization, became one of the principal questions of Chinese politics.

The Kuomintang slowly widened its authority; and came to be looked on as the party of national regeneration. It was a focus which attracted the support of all Chinese everywhere, who longed for a sign that China was at last reasserting its national strength.

It was the turning of the tide. Nationalism, with all the social and political reorganization which that connoted, began to do its work upon the Chinese people. The leader of the Kuomintang, Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), had described the great weakness of China, in its enforced competition with the Western Powers, as the absence of any cohesive power which could hold the people together. China, he said, was like a tray of sand: shake it and it fell apart. But, in China as in other parts of the world, the power of nationalism was to introduce a new faculty of maintaining social unity. How and why is one of the arcana imperil of the time. But it was abundantly clear that, as the movement proceeded and gathered strength, China was behaving quite differently from the recent past. The tray of sand was shaken; and the grains now tended to cohere in patterns which promised well for the future.

A fact which should have recommended the Kuomintang of the 1920s to serious attention by the outside observer was that in its organization and spirit it was not a copy of the western parliamentary parties. It was something devised for China, produced by Chinese thought to meet specific Chinese needs. It owed something to Soviet practice – many of the features in the organization of the party being borrowed from Russia at a time when Sun Yat-sen was enthusiastic, but had little understanding of Communism – and, with a rosy eye-wash, it professed to look forward to a time of universal democratic rights. But the Kuomintang – as it was to function in the 1930s – was a party of nationalist authoritarianism.


Cutting across the political vicissitudes of the times was a social crisis. In a sense China was doomed to experience disorders in any case. China has a long history, and has endured a time of acute crisis once in every three or four hundred years which is marked by troubles, the fall of a dynasty, civil commotion of a prolonged and hopeless kind. Various causes have been suggested for this clearly marked cyclical course of Chinese history, but the most probable is that it is caused by pressure of population.

In the time of prosperity – when a dynasty is at the peak of its fortunes – the population is within manageable limits. The prosperity continues; the population grows; it becomes too large; there is intense pressure on the land; there are rising rents, and a diminishing food surplus for the towns; there are social distress, outbreaks of civil war and banditry, reverses in the struggle to maintain the frontier; there are corruption and extraordinary administrative decadence. After a time there comes the near or total collapse of government. China enters on a nadir of its history, from which there comes eventual recovery as the population regulates itself. Malthusian checks come into play, the extreme pressures are relaxed, the natural Chinese civilization reasserts itself.

There can be no doubt that China had entered on one of those adverse phases in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The Manchu dynasty ended its golden age in the unnaturally long reign of the Emperor Chien Lung (who reigned from 1736–96), and the population increased ominously. In the nineteenth century it would have been due for its time of troubles, regardless of the troubles brought on it by its new problems of foreign relations. The middle years of the century saw the Taiping rebellion and the revolt of the Chinese Muslims against the Government, both classic cases of a population explosion, both resulting in a very great slaughter. The two political maladies came together – the troubles from the cyclical character of Chinese history and the troubles from the totally new and exceptional strain of encountering its rivals in the world. Each set of troubles complicated the other; each intensified the other; recovery became ever more difficult.

The Kuomintang, and Chinese nationalism, promised to bring relief to the political problems of China in the 1930s. At the same time there were signs that the social causes which had brought political collapse were about to be ameliorated by process of time, and it seemed likely that the efforts of the Kuomintang at social and economic improvement would not continue to be dogged with adversity. These signs, however, were hard to read correctly, and may have been misconstrued.

For the relative slowness of China’s regeneration there are a number of reasons. The rebirth of a nation – it was nothing less – takes time, which cannot be cut short beyond a certain measure. It is a natural process, not entirely controllable by political or human means. But China’s peculiar and horrifying experience of the last century remains to some extent a mystery. China’s progress in our day has been so rapid, so revolutionary, that it is hard to understand why in the fairly recent past it took so long to get off the ground. In the last resort one is left with the bare statement – that a crisis of population coincided with a crisis of foreign relations, that the results of both became merged, and that it took more than a century to work out the consequences.


The other country, Japan, had an altogether different experience and its past must also be studied if Japan’s place in the world cataclysm is to be understood. Japan was a lesser country than China. Generally its population was only about one sixth of China’s. But it was inhabited by a people, which, by vigour, by a genius for imitation and adaptation, and by artistic and warlike qualities, had made itself unique in the history of Asia. Japan had built up a civilization in many respects peculiar and outstanding. It responded to the stimulus of the coming of the westerners in a way which transformed the history of the region.

Since the beginning of the seventeenth century Japan had been exercised by the problem of relations with the West. It read the writing on the wall in the shadow cast by the Portuguese and Spanish galleons which at this time used to visit Japanese ports. Should Japan encourage them or should it deter them? After a brief period of cultivating their friendship it withdrew itself into seclusion. It persecuted mercilessly, as possible enemies of Japanese security, the missionaries about whom at first it had been enthusiastic. It cut all ties with the external world, diplomatic, cultural and, as far as this was possible, economic. It was the classic case of a hermit kingdom. This policy of exclusiveness preserved Japan intact until the United States, in the year 1853 and again in 1854, dispatched a naval squadron under the command of Commodore Perry and compelled it to resume normal intercourse and foreign trade.

Thereupon Japan was in danger of being reduced to a colony by the imperialist Powers. For its escape it had to thank the diplomatic adroitness, the skilful reasonableness of a few leading Japanese statesmen during the first years of the 1870s while Japan was renewing its contacts with the world. Once they had lost their first instinctive anti-foreignness they exposed themselves with zeal to all western influences. Japan’s survival beyond this critical interval is owed to the remarkable changes which were brought about in Japanese society as a result of contact with western countries. From a militarily weak country, with a contemptible technology, Japan in a few years became like a hedgehog, which the imperial Powers, even at the height of their aggressiveness, thought twice about mauling.

Japan’s history, which made this national strength possible, has been one of social change – a marked contrast to the sluggish conservatism of China’s official social history. Japan was able to accept change because the Japanese were born relatively free of an overpowering tradition. Its governing circles were able, in contrast to the Chinese, to produce men who were imaginative, forceful, and free of the deadening desire that life should be preserved exactly as it had been known in previous centuries. They were daring and iconoclastic. They were not bound by a thwarting public opinion, as was the mandarinate in China.

In China, the society, the civilization, took precedence over the Government. It was a civilization not disposed for change. But in Japan the Government was not held in invisible fetters by public opinion and by the past.

Furthermore a Japanese Government which desired to make changes was more likely to be able to implement them. Society was more responsive to governmental direction: it was more at its mercy. For this the main reason was geography. Japan consisted of a chain of islands, all of them comparatively small, all of them accessible by sea. Thus a fairly good system of communication could be established. This alone made it very different from China: in China there were, by the standards of that day, majestic roads, but, even so, the population in the outer provinces was at three months distance from the seat of central government. In consequence the ability of the centre to regulate the affairs of a large part of China was much reduced. But in Japan, no such inhibition palsied the national administration. Its efforts did not peter out in vast distances which separated it from its subjects.

The progress of Japan was rapid and, to the Western Powers spreading their influence through the world, unprecedented. In 1868 occurred the so-called Meiji Restoration. This was a revolution, not a restoration, although this great political change in Japan was dressed up as a revival of things past. An old, vestigial system of an Emperor, long confined to a kind of museum existence, and preserved partly for religious reasons, was called into employment; the existing system of government, a highly traditional one presided over by hereditary prime ministers or Shōguns, was suppressed. The new system was organized by the Samurai, the ex-feudatories of Japan’s feudal past which it was abandoning. Exercising their remarkable talent for mimesis, they copied from what their intelligence judged to be the essentials of the formidable western system.

The Japanese surprised themselves by the ease with which they were able to reproduce in Japan most of what went into the making of western civilization. From Britain they copied the organization of the navy; from France the army structure, the nucleus of an educational system and hybrid neo-Napoleonic codes of criminal and civil law; from Germany the Army General Staff organization, certain legal principles and commercial practices, modern medical training and some political institutions. Subsequently, the influence of the American educational system supplanted that of the French. Western-style agriculture, forestry and mining, the rapid expansion and efficient use of new railways, and phenomenal growth in the textile industry transformed the life of most Japanese, helping to provide sustenance for the engineering, shipbuilding and manufacturing industries which took somewhat longer to enter the modern era. The degree of Japan’s modernization was often even greater in its appearance than in reality, for the old, and essentially Japanese, institutions and modes continued behind a façade of reform. Nevertheless, reform there was, and a purposeful – if eccentric – resolve to modernize. Soon Japan began to operate with a revolutionary change in efficiency.

For the European onlooker, the spectacle of Japan at this time was of remarkable fascination. For him it was a new experience to kick an ancient civilization, and to find that it did not crumble. It was bracing and fascinating. Enough of the old, graceful, picturesque, fragile civilization of old Japan still survived to make the process of the metamorphosis of Japan of almost incredible interest; and, in addition, of poignant pathos. American, British and French men of letters grasped the occasion of describing what was happening before their eyes, and the result was a series of books describing the topography, anthropology, ethics and aesthetics of Japan in transition. Among them Redesdale’s Tales of Ancient Japan is especially valuable for the picture which it gives of the national ethos, and of the reaction to it of a civilized and imaginative westerner.

This was the elegiac tribute of the West to a country which showed spirit in resistance. It was quite different from the contemptuous tone and temper of the writings about India and China at the time. And for the foreigners who were blind to the more subtle qualities of a nation’s progress, the rapid expansion of trade and of the whole economy were impressive and sobering.


By 1890 it was plain that the once real threat that Japan would fall a victim to straightforward western imperialism was ebbing. Instead, Japan shocked the Western Powers by joining with them in harrying and nibbling at China, whose disorders invited pressure.

The Japanese designs upon China cannot be explained by greed alone. British, and afterwards French, commercial penetration of China had been accompanied by the effective exercise of military power. United States interests in the area had grown, although more fitfully in response to the vagaries of American politics. Russian exploits, however, provided the immediate catalyst for Japanese expansion onto the Asian mainland.

When Tsar Alexander Ill’s engineers began construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891, their picks and rails foretold the doom of an enfeebled China – and fatefully strengthened the influence of Japanese visionaries who sought a foothold on the Asiatic continent in the interests of self-defence but who also dreamt of Japan’s development into a first-rate Imperial Power. Thus Count Yamagata Aritomo, principal architect of the modern Japanese Army and perhaps the most important Japanese oligarch of his era, advised the Emperor Meiji in October 1893 that the Russian railway ‘poses an immediate threat to the Far East’, predicting that within a decade the Tsar would snatch Mongolia, gain control of Manchuria and advance against Peking: ‘the completion of the Trans-Siberian will sharply alter the situation in the Orient and exert a strong influence on our nation. It is not only for this reason that we must prepare adequate military power within the next eight or nine years; we must also be prepared to grasp any opportunity which may present advantages. This is a truly critical juncture in the fortunes of our nation.’

Japanese concern over Russia’s advance into the Great Power stakes of East Asia did not blind the Japanese to developments in other quarters, and Japanese eyes also fastened onto Korea, Japan’s hereditary enemy. It was conventional military wisdom – in which the teachings of the ancients harmonized with advice tendered by a forceful imperial German general staff officer assigned to help educate the Japanese officer corps – that Korea, a ‘dagger at the heart of Japan’, must not fall under the sway of any third power. The Japanese had engaged in Korean political intrigues for almost a generation, and when the vassal Korean King turned to his suzerain, China, for military support to help subdue local uprisings fomented by the anti-western Tonghak Tong (Eastern Learning Society), the Dowager Empress of China quickly sent in a small armed force. This violated the spirit of the Kanghwa Treaty of 1876, signed by Japan and Korea, and the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Tientsin of 1885, which taken together bound China and Japan to refrain from (open) interference in Korean domestic and external affairs. The Japanese feared that this would lead to replacement of Korean independence or autonomy by the re-imposition of Chinese hegemony over the peninsula and the extinction of Japanese influence in Korea. Resorting to their rights under the Chemulpo Treaty of 1882, the Japanese responded by dispatching a mixed brigade of their own, deploying some seven thousand men ostensibly for the protection of Japanese diplomats, residents and property interests. The Tonghak Rebellion was short-lived, but in the aftermath of French and British encroachment during the past half-century into Chinese tributary states (which China had been powerless to prevent in Indo-China, Tibet and Burma), the Chinese were determined to suffer no such humiliation at the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese demands were treated with ill-concealed contempt. Western offers of mediation were rejected. Fighting soon developed. Japanese troops seized the Korean royal palace on 23 July, and two days later, following a brief naval engagement off P’ung Island (in which the Japanese routed a squadron of Chinese warships), a Japanese cruiser intercepted and sank a solitary British-registered steamship, the Kowshing, which was ferrying 1,100 Chinese troops, a German military adviser and a large quantity of weaponry to Korea. Following these developments, China and Japan formally exchanged declarations of war on 1 August 1894. Within six weeks, the Japanese Army won control of most of Korea through a succession of uninterrupted victories. The Japanese Navy proved equally adept in a sea battle off the mouth of the Yalu River which left it in command of the Yellow Sea. In October, two Japanese divisions crossed into South Manchuria and three more advanced upon Liaotung. Port Arthur fell to the Japanese on 21 November, and Wei-hai-wei on the Shantung Peninsula surrendered on 12 February 1895. As seven Japanese divisions prepared to march against Peking, the Chinese sued for peace.

After difficult negotiations, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed on 17 April 1895. The jubilant Japanese equated its harshness with the requirements of moral justice. Others viewed the outcome with alarm. By its provisions, China recognized the complete independence of Korea; ceded to Japan the Liaotung Peninsula (including Port Arthur), Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadore Islands; agreed to pay Japan a punitive indemnity that recovered two thirds of the military expenses incurred by Japan during the war; opened up portions of the Yangtze River to Japanese commerce; gave Japan trade concessions at Shasi, Chungking, Soochow and Hangchow; granted the Japanese highly prized most-favoured-nation privileges, and, to guarantee compliance with these provisions, sanctioned a temporary Japanese military occupation of Wei-hai-wei to be paid for out of the Chinese exchequer.

Japan had won a spectacular victory over China, but Japanese exhilaration was short-lived. The Shimonoseki Treaty proved to produce a Pyrrhic peace, as hard-hearted settlements are wont to do. Within China, demands for reform and a national re-awakening became irresistible. Abroad, not for the last time, Chinese diplomats combined with western geopolitical schemers to deprive Japan of the fruits of conquest. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, seeking better relations with Russia and hoping to stimulate even greater Russian attention to East Asia at the expense of the Franco-Russian Alliance in Europe, persuaded the impressionable Tsar Nicholas II, who had just succeeded to the Russian imperial throne, that Japan should be induced to retrocede the Liaotung Peninsula to China in consideration of a relative pittance. In any case, the Russians had a palpabe fear that any Japanese presence on the Asiatic continent would spread, in the memorable phrase of Prince Lobanov, like ‘a drop of oil on a sheet of blotting paper’. Unwilling to see the European balance of power undermined by bilateral Russo-German collaboration, the French joined the Russians and Germans in this famous ‘Triple Intervention’, which their respective Ministers in Tokyo put to the Japanese Government on 23 April 1895. The Japanese were aghast: their Government hesitated, canvassing for support from the other Great Powers. The British Foreign Secretary expressed ‘some doubts as to whether it would be prudent in the interests of Japan’s future for her to acquire a toe-hold on the mainland. Not only would Japan have to increase her military expenditures to maintain such a possession, but she might also incur the potential danger of China and Russia embarking upon a war of revenge. In these circumstances, it might be more judicious for Japan to adopt a conciliatory attitude.’ The United States took a similar view. Only Italy declared a willingness to support Japan.

With the Russian fleet now standing at Vladivostok, the Japanese Government yielded up southern Manchuria and with it Port Arthur. The Japanese public was outraged. In an Imperial Rescript issued to his people, the Emperor Meiji counselled his subjects to ‘endure the unendurable’, a phrase to which his descendant Hirohito would return in August 1945. A sense of bitter humiliation and a thirst for satisfaction penetrated deeply into the nation’s consciousness, recalled thereafter whenever foreign Powers sought to deprive Japan of the fruits of military accomplishment.

The hypocrisy of the Western Powers was all too evident. Within three years, German troops had landed at Kiaochow Bay, occupied Tsingtao and extorted a ninety-nine-year lease on both. Then Germany obtained rights to construct two railways across Shantung Province and won important mining concessions. The Russians, meanwhile, concluded a secret alliance with China in 1896, aimed against Japan, in consideration for which China gave Russia rights to construct the so-called Chinese Eastern Railway 925 miles across North Manchuria, cutting 600 miles off the Trans-Siberian line to Vladivostok and making possible Russian economic domination of northern Manchuria. Then the Russians demanded and obtained mining rights and the huge Yalu timber concession in Korea, installed Russian military and financial ‘advisers’ and sought a naval base at Masanpo, directly opposite the Japanese island of Tsushima. The Russian battlefleet was sent to occupy Port Arthur and Dairen (Talien-wan/Dalny) in December 1897 and extorted twenty-five-year leaseholds which provided the Tsar with his first ice-free ports in East Asia. In March 1898 the Russians obtained the right to build a branch railway from Harbin to Port Arthur and a leasehold on the entire Liaotung Peninsula so recently retroceded by Japan to China. The whole of these railway zones were aggressively patrolled by Russian gendarmerie. It was plain beyond contradiction that the Tsar contemplated nothing less than the virtual annexation of Korea and Manchuria, which were to be secured by the iron rails to Vladivostok and European Russia. Far to the south, the French, too, were carving out their pound of flesh, winning a ninety-nine-year leasehold on Kwang-chow Bay together with railway rights for a line to run between French Indo-China and Yunnan-fu. Britain obtained a ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories at Hong Kong. A host of other projects and proposals appeared: the ‘Celestial Kingdom’ was disintegrating, unequal to the western onslaught, and on the horizon, half-way across the Pacific, the United States annexed Hawaii and took possession of the Philippines, raising the prospect of American imperial designs in East Asia.

While Japan redoubled its efforts to build up its military and naval resources and its domestic economy, the Japanese Government also strove to reach some kind of accommodation with the Western Powers. Seeking first to protect its interests in Korea, an agreement was concluded with Russia which on the face of it recognized Korean independence and safeguarded the Japanese commercial and industrial foothold in Korea. Both signatories promised to refrain from interference in the domestic affairs of Korea. Neither side was to send military or economic missions to Korea, and the two sides were to abandon any plans to construct defence facilities on Korean soil. Nevertheless, given the fact that China was now in no position to contest the issue, the Russo-Japanese agreement had the effect of establishing Korea as a condominium of the two contracting parties, neither of whom expected to abide by its provisions for long.

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Meanwhile, Chinese popular outrage over the nation’s devastating defeat by Japan and over the ensuing western scramble for the spoils reached boiling-point. An uprising, known to history as the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in Shantung in 1898 and soon threatened to engulf the Manchu dynasty. However, the imperial régime skilfully deflected the public’s anger away from itself and against the outside Powers. The unrest grew in seriousness and intensity under banners reading ‘protect China, exterminate foreigners’. A number of missionaries and Chinese Christian converts were murdered, churches and warehouses were destroyed and European residences in Tientsin and elsewhere were attacked. Finally, the riots reached a climax in June 1900 after the German Minister to China was murdered. Chinese government troops joined the mobs and attacked the foreign legations in Peking with the apparent aim of annihilating the ‘foreign devils’. A siege ensued in which a small force of only 458 legation guards and assorted foreign volunteers narrowly prevented the legation quarter from being overrun.

An international expedition, spearheaded by 12,000 Japanese troops, who made up more than half of the total force, was hurriedly assembled, captured Tientsin on 14 July and fought its way to relieve the foreign legations in Peking on 14 August 1900. The Chinese surrendered, agreed to punish those held to be responsible for the outbreak, permitted the foreign Powers to establish strong garrison forces along the railway to Shanhaikwan, and consented to pay the victors an indemnity twice the size of that imposed by the hated Shimonoseki Treaty. The conduct of the Japanese contingent was remarked upon by observers as being especially praiseworthy and well-disciplined, in sharp contrast to the deplorable inhumanity displayed by all of the other foreign forces, who engaged in widespread rape and looting. The German contingent, however, conducted itself with particular bestiality surpassed only by the Russians, who, while showing reluctance to participate in the relief of the legations, took independent action elsewhere, murdering thousands of civilians and, under the pretext of protecting the Chinese Eastern Railway, pouring an estimated 100,000 Russian troops into Manchuria, thereby occupying virtually the whole country. While the other international expeditionary contingents departed after the conclusion of a general settlement with the Dowager Empress, the Russians remained firmly in possession of Manchuria and demanded Chinese recognition of its status as a Russian protectorate. The other Powers prevailed upon China to reject these demands, but Russian forces continued to infiltrate into North China in large numbers. St Petersburg strongly resisted international appeals to follow the example of the other Powers by effecting a rapid withdrawal: thus hatched the casus belli of the Russo-Japanese War which followed in 1904–5.

In these incidents nearly all the ingredients of international politics in East Asia up to 1945 (and even beyond) are already plain. Japan perceived that events were presenting it with an extraordinary opportunity: Japanese were to speak, until their final defeat in 1945, of ‘Japan’s hour of destiny’, the fleeting opportunity of which they must take advantage. In East Asia, in the Japanese view, any further advance of the Western Powers into East Asia must be checked: in the long run, there must emerge a hegemony of either Japan or China, and the concept of co-existence seemed to have no place.

In general, in the comparison between the two, Japan was the weaker Power. The immense size of China, the antiquity and impressiveness of its civilization, its latent economic superiority, must in the end prove decisive – or be harnessed by the alien intelligence of the West. All the warlike qualities of the Japanese people and the advantages of geographical position could not prevail against such illimitable potential. But over the short period, in a time of instability and of unnatural weakness of China, Japan would have the advantage of stealing a march on China, of becoming, despite the historical disparity between the two, the stronger partner (if only some compromise could be reached with the Western Powers); and then, if Japan was willing to rely on its will and on the use of force, it could count on maintaining for an indefinite period the advantage which it had. Japan would stake all upon its ability to repress by force the natural event of a revival of Chinese power – or its obvious alternative, the military and economic consolidation and re-extension of western imperial interests throughout East Asia.

From that determination came the events which led Japan to its fateful participation in the Second World War. Japan’s resolution to stake all its future upon the employment of force came to determine most things in the life and domestic achievements of its gifted people.

It was an audacious resolution, and a rather horrifying one. It meant choosing to act against what many abroad regarded as the progressive forces of the age, and allying with the darker tendencies, which were never far below the surface. It involved Japan in courses of action which gradually led to its having a reputation for cruelty and insensitivity, and it coarsened the emotional life. Inevitably Japan turned away from the more delicate things in its civilization. Japan had chosen to follow Bushidō, ‘The Way of the Warrior’ (of which more anon) and to concentrate its interests on making itself feared as the ogre of the Far East. Japan was dazzled by its feudal past, and did not sufficiently take note of the fact that military effort in the new conditions of industrialism was quite unlike that of Japanese tradition. Bushidō in the twentieth century was to be unlike that of the days of the Samurai and feudal lords (Daimyō). With fevered resolution Japan found itself impelled on the road of national brutality, and this was hard because in a part of their minds, the Japanese, like the Germans and Americans, desire to be loved, and find it difficult to understand when their actions make them monstrously unlovable.


The contrast between this alarming and determined imperialism, and the natural diffidence of a great many Japanese, perhaps the majority, has often been commented on. The Japanese have a tendency to be abnormally apologetic for themselves and unassertive. As a people, they reprobate individualism. It strikes the Japanese as selfish. This trait is one of the most pronounced in the Japanese character, and is at the root of much that is peculiar in politics, in ethics, in Japanese tradition. It explains why they have rarely produced great assertive figures to take charge of the affairs of the nation individually.

But the very modesty of individual Japanese explains much of what was horrible in recent Japanese history. When the fashion for national aggressiveness set in, few people had the decisiveness, the resolution and the courage to oppose it. What was the individual Japanese doing in taking it on himself to resist the rush of the whole people, even if their direction was to the Gadarene lake? This artistic people, when its emotions were touched, was capable of a national behaviour which was arrogant, demanding, fierce and sinister in the extreme. A naturally diffident people became ready to sweep aside all the restraints which stood in its way. But the fact that there was another side to Japan, another aspect to the machine of conquest, needs to be kept constantly in mind if Japanese action is not to be a continuous puzzle.

It was some time before this hardening of the Japanese attitude towards China became plain. This is often forgotten: it is wrongly assumed that the Japanese hostility became rigid much earlier than in fact it did. For a long while Chinese and Japanese had viewed each other with natural affection. Japan remained, in a peculiar way, tied to China by linguistic, cultural and religious connections. The two languages were distinct from one another, but the Japanese had borrowed thousands of Chinese characters, could write Japanese in these and incidentally found them exceptionally valuable in rapidly assimilating complex scientific and technical innovations imported from the West in recent times. This proved a powerful bond of attachment. In the modern period many of the leaders of Chinese nationalism had been inspired by modern ideas by residence as students in Japan. They looked back on that period with nostalgia. Japan, where the conditions of life were not so very different from China’s, was for these young men the convenient forcing house and museum of western attitudes, the place where western institutions were on show but had not become too uncomfortable, and where life was not a leap in the dark. Moreover in Japan there still survived, by habit and as the result of conviction, the consoling sense that China was a land with a magnificent past.

A belief that Japan could be the natural protector of Chinese nationalism, and that together the Chinese and Japanese peoples might discomfort the western world; the fascination of the Chinese at discerning the Japanese methods of surviving in the dangerous world and getting level terms with its horrific visitors: these facts tended to postpone an inexorable break between China and Japan. The Chinese and Japanese still preserved a special feeling for each other, even when the Japanese were behaving most brutally and insensitively. For a long while the Chinese had the instinct that they should be patient, and that the day might come when the temporary clouds between the two countries would disappear and that Japan would become useful to them. They cherished Japan’s successes, as, for example, its victory in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War, as a matter for the common pride of Asians.

In the end, the relations between China and Japan took a turn for the worse, and became cooler. Events on both sides contributed to this. Chinese nationalism became more unrestrained and irresponsible: it revealed more clearly its ultimate goal. Japan set itself with more determination to thwart reviving Chinese ambition; and the internal events in Japan had rendered inactive the groups which fostered understanding and indulgence. Relations became colder; but only disastrously so during the 1930s. When this happened, much of the warm regard of each country for the other, especially among the more traditional classes, still continued in latent form. It was suppressed, but it was always there just below the surface, an imponderable factor in the situation of East Asia.


While this national resolution was slowly forming as the response to the circumstances of the time, it should be remembered that the circumstances were different from those of today. Japan made a disastrous choice, which was to lead to untold retribution and havoc, but at the time of its first moves toward empire building its decisions did not appear so eccentric. In the later part of the nineteenth century, force was still the final tool in the conduct of international relations; all countries accepted this, and Japan was not peculiar. Britain’s conquest of India still stood out as the brazen example of what imperialism might succeed in doing. The only deterrent was in the calculation of consequences, and these were at that time clear of such devastating things as the atom bombs, or even, for the most part, of the horrors of wars of attrition.

For all its apparent modernization, many features of the Japanese state continued to be very different from those of the West. In contrast with the Western Powers, Japan, though it wore the trappings of a modern state, continued to be at least mentally attached to the Middle Ages. This accounted for its often bewildering reaction to the situation in which it found itself. It explains frequently surprising recourses to the methods of the past. They did not represent an abrupt move to reaction by the Japanese, as they were apt to be interpreted by the West. Rather they were the intrusion into modern ways of the instinct of an earlier day, which had never died completely in Japan. Japan, though suitably made up for the part of a contemporary Power, was never quite at home in the modern world; it was wearing a kind of fancy dress, and the West dimly recognized the fact. The West was never entirely at home with Japan, for it sensed a certain eerie mystery, as of a survivor from a past civilization.

The psychological drama behind Japan’s attempt to prevail by force, and especially behind the attempt to prevail over China, is exceedingly interesting.

Throughout their history the Japanese have always exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia, exemplified in their attitude towards China. Japan admired China, and simultaneously it despised it; it was tied to China and yet yearned to be free. Its attitude combined the pious reverence of a child towards a grandparent with the disrespect which eventually led to war with its cultural ancestor. For the civilization of Japan, though ultimately it was due to the Japanese spirit playing upon the various influences which went into its making, was, in its remote origin, derived from China. From China came the initial impulse, and the Japanese could never put this out of their minds. On one hand they accepted, in an excess of self-abasement, the traditional Chinese view of the Japanese as being a race of ‘deformed dwarfs’; on the other, they felt themselves superior, and proclaimed themselves with neurotic insistence to be the children of the Sun Goddess – ‘the race of Yamato’ – and destined to rule the entire world, even a world as powerful, rich and wide as their extended knowledge of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proved it to be. This ambivalence and the unreality behind so much of Japanese action – together with the extremes of violence alternating with extremes of self-control – are the key to understanding a great deal of East Asian history.

The relations with China always preoccupied the Japanese. Even when Japan was led, via China, into war (which few people in Japan really desired) against the United States, Britain and finally Russia, it was essentially a by-product of this great absorbing interest. When Japan went to war against the US and Britain, it was because the West intervened between Japan and its victim China. In a sense, Japan was perfectly sincere in claiming that it wished to protect China: it was protecting it from the western aggressors so that it could be preserved intact for Japan’s benefit.

However, it must not be supposed from this description that Japan acted monolithically. For a country as consensus-orientated as was Japan, there were always surprising divergencies from the norm. From time to time there rose movements which altered the policy of the Government, and even at times seemed to offer the prospect of a reversal of policy. But, seen in perspective, Japan’s drive on China continued with little interruption throughout the period.

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