Southeast Asia, Japanese Occupation of

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Southeast Asia, Japanese Occupation of

The Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia developed out of what was arguably the first international conflict that was truly "global," in that it mounted a challenge to the Eurocentric world system and to increasing American intervention in the region. Japan's leaders in the occupation championed the fight for Japanese hegemony in East Asia, which they saw as a legitimate right, and led what they conceived as a pan-Asian struggle to throw off the yoke of Western imperialism.

Prior to World War II (1939–1945), Japan controlled Korea (formally annexed in 1910), Taiwan (colonized in 1895), Karafuto (or Sakhalin Island), the Guangdong Leased Territory, and the Pacific Islands (most of Micronesia), and sought to integrate their economies with its own as suppliers of raw materials and foodstuffs in exchange for Japanese investment and technology.

In September 1931, units of the Japanese army stationed in Manchuria in northeastern China took steps to protect the security of the Russian-built railroad that Japan had acquired a quarter-century earlier. Aimed at resolving the "Manchurian Question," the takeover of the entire 400,000-square-mile (about 1,036,000-squarekilometer) region, with its population of thirty million, brought on denunciations not only from the League of Nations, from which Japan would withdraw in 1933, but also from the United States, whose tariffs and restrictions on immigration had already produced anti-American hostilities among the Japanese. The subsequent freezing of Japanese financial assets by the United States and its embargo on all oil exports to Japan led to the latter's decision to wage war against its Western adversaries.

The powerful Japanese army subscribed to the colonialist theory that the key to Japan's future prosperity and strength as a world power lay in control of Chinese raw materials and the vast market that that country had to offer. The Great Depression of the 1930s meant a loss of sales to foreign clients and the imposition of tariffs on Japanese imports. Wary of Communist Russia and fearful of a Communist takeover in China, Japan moved toward a policy of imperialist aggression. In 1937 Prime Minister Konoye Fumimaro (1891–1945) declared a "New Order in East Asia"; in political reality, its mission was to erect a buffer or Asian hinterland to ensure the security of an expanded Japanese Empire. Indeed, the slogan of "Asia for the Asians" pointed to an Asia liberated from Western domination but unified under Japanese rule.

In September 1940 Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, becoming therewith the ally of Germany and Italy. The Nazi offensives in Europe gave Japan the opportunity to move into territories southward and thus build alliances in opposition to the British, Dutch, Russians, and Americans. On invading northern Indochina, Japanese troops tried to close the Burma Road by which the Americans and the British brought supplies to the Chinese Nationalists. This action on the part of the Japanese brought them into opposition with the Allied powers. Japan subsequently proclaimed the expansion of its new order into French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

Japan had joined Vichy France in enforcing a protectorate over the entire French colony. Japanese troops invaded French-controlled Cochin China (southern Vietnam), entering Saigon (later called Ho Chi Minh City) in July of 1941. With the conclusion of the Hanoi convention in Spring of 1940, Japan had obtained permission from France to occupy northern Indochina. Japan in these movements was seeking to acquire control over the tin, rubber, and oil of Indonesia. Once the Nazis had taken over the Netherlands in May of 1940, Japan sent its delegates to Batavia (Jakarta), but it was not until after Japan's incursions in 1942 and its subsequent occupation that the Dutch conceded rights to oil and other resources in the Indonesian archipelago. With the internment of some 100,000 Dutch and Eurasians, many Javanese rejoiced, welcoming the invasion as a step in the process of "liberation from the colonial yoke."

Japan invaded British-controlled Malaya in December 1941 from the east coast at the same time that Singapore was bombarded. In this confrontation, the British fleet was sunk in the South China Sea. North Borneo would be occupied, then, in February, Singapore and Bali. Japan finally conquered Malaya in January 1942 and soon thereafter the Dutch East Indies, the great prize in this contest, in March 1942. British rule in Asia had ended. Wanting control over raw materials in Malaya, the Japanese chose to impose direct rule. By January 4, 1942, the Japanese took control of Manila, and the Japanese Imperial High Command announced the "liberation" of the formerly American-controlled Philippines.

In the spring of 1942, Japanese Premier Tojo Hideki (1884–1948) began organizing a Greater East Asia Ministry that would direct the affairs of the occupied nations and territories. The Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere was inaugurated in November 1942 with a promise to create a pan-Asian union. A year later, leaders of Japan, China, Manchukuo (Japanese Manchuria), Malaya, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Singapore, and the Philippines met at the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo, where they declared their solidarity and united opposition to Western imperialism. The Coprosperity Sphere was heralded as a pact of "mutual cooperation" between the signatory nations that aimed to "ensure stability of their region and construct an order of common prosperity and well-being based upon justice."

In reality, the Japanese occupation entailed harsh measures of control over national governments, economies, and cultures, with the settlement in the colonized countries of thousands of Japanese officials and laborers, all mainly for the benefit of Japan itself. Typically, Japanese officials held the bulk of authority in colonial administrations, whereas locals were consigned to subordinate functions. Indeed, Japan had promised independence to the Dutch East Indies but placed more than 23,000 Japanese officials in its colonial bureaucracy. Throughout the occupied territories, Japanese soldiers acted under no obligation to obey officers or even sentries of the "host" countries' military forces.

In the countries it occupied, Japanese authorities imposed educational reforms that would replace Western teachings with principles consistent with the "new order." Textbooks and periodicals were censored or banned, and Nippongo (the Japanese language) became a required part of the curriculum. Yet the brutality of Japanese rule and the establishment of a pro-Japanese hierarchy produced disillusionment throughout Southeast Asia. Japan suppressed shows of anti-Japanese nationalism in the occupied countries and exacted forced labor from their peoples. In mobilizing the masses for their cause, the Japanese high commands broadcast pro-Japanese propaganda on the radio and controlled the media. Throughout the occupied territories, moreover, Japanese troops inflicted violence on the local populations, which included the forcing of females into sexual slavery as "comfort women." Such outrages bred dissatisfaction but also catalyzed nationalist movements. Indonesia's Sukarno (1901–1970) would declare independence for his country on August 17, 1945, eight days after the atomic bomb fell over Nagasaki.

The temporary victory of Japan in Asia signified an end to the myth of Western invincibility and gave the European colonial regimes in Southeast Asia a shock from which they never recovered. In a unique confluence of historical movements, the Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia set countries of the region into multiple conflicts against powers that were fascist or imperialist or both. Japan's own imperialist drive extended its control over the broadest expanse of territory that Japan would ever know. Yet the defeat of Japan at the end of the Pacific War meant both the end of the Japanese Empire in Southeast Asia and the sunset of Western colonialism in the region.

see also Empire, Japanese; Occupations, East Asia; Occupations, the Pacific.


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