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The Larger of Two Evils: Colonized Asia’s Encounter with the Japanese in World War Two

Much of mainland Asia in the 1930s faced an unappealing choice: Western imperialism or Japanese imperialism.

japanese invading asia
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On one of the first days of 1942, Japanese intelligence officer Fujiwara Iwaichi received two important visitors. Fujiwara was in Malaya, following close behind the Japanese army which had landed one month earlier and was now pushing the British defenders back in a series of decisive actions. His job was not to fight, but to make the local inhabitants fight for Japan. The assumption behind his mission was that the peoples of Asia were eager to cast off the yoke of European rule, in turn helping the Japanese in their conquest of Southeast Asia. That assumption proved, in many cases, correct.

The two men who came to see Fujiwara that day in Malaya were a case in point. They had arrived from far behind enemy lines, traveling from the province of Aceh in what was then Dutch East India. They knew that the Japanese juggernaut would eventually reach their home, but they wanted to speed up events by launching a rebellion against their colonial rulers. It was almost personal. In Aceh, memories of a bloody Dutch war of occupation were still raw, and for Fujiwara’s two visitors, there was no doubt that the Japanese were the liberators. As one of them said at the end of the visit: “I swear my complete allegiance to the Japanese Army.”

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When the Japanese swept across Asia in late 1941 and early 1942, they met local populations whose reactions were frequently one of apathy. The general attitude was often that there had simply been a change of regime in the far-away capital, with little or no direct impact on life as it was lived in the tens of thousands of towns, villages and hamlets that were home to the majority of the population. Others resisted, and yet others supported the Japanese, hoping for revenge after decades or even centuries of European domination.

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General William Slim, writing his memoirs about his time as the British commander in Burma, summarized the situation in his theater of war: “The hill tribes were almost all actively loyal, but the Burman of the plains, where the bulk of the fighting would take place, was, generally speaking, apathetic and out to avoid getting involved on either side. A small minority was actively hostile under Japanese officers and agents.”

Japanese soldiers march into Beijing
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  • Japanese soldiers march into Beijing in 1937.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Slim acknowledges, there were instances of local inhabitants, both in Burma and elsewhere, who actively aided the Japanese in their whirlwind conquests. Dutch army units defending the East Indies in early 1942 soon discovered that locally hired troops had only fickle loyalties and were more than eager to surrender to the Japanese and divulge details about the Dutch positions to their captors. Likewise, Indian soldiers who had served in the British Army and had now become prisoners of the Japanese decided to switch sides and fight for the Japanese in substantial numbers.

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Altogether, while the Japanese claim to have launched the war partly to liberate Asia from Western imperialism was not universally accepted, it was believed by a sufficiently large number of people that it could have made the Japanese administration of the occupied areas considerably easier, had the Japanese tried harder to make their rule popular. Instead, they did the opposite.

In some cases, Japanese brutality became shockingly obvious virtually from day one. Most startlingly, after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Japanese secret police carried out a sweep of the city’s large Chinese population, killing thousands, mostly young males. The fact that the massacre targeted Chinese, put to death merely for their ethnicity, makes it somewhat similar to the German killings of Jews in newly occupied areas of the Soviet Union in 1941. To the Chinese, it brought to mind the senseless killing of defenseless prisoners and civilians in Nanjing, then the capital of China, four years earlier.

Japanese soldiers march into Singapore
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  • Japanese soldiers march through Singapore after its fall.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Soon, other ethnic groups came to suffer as well. In Java, one of the biggest islands of the former Dutch East Indies, local men were enticed into work for the Japanese on a strategic railroad between the towns of Saketi and Baya beginning in 1942. Hopeful job seekers signed up for the task, believing the Japanese promises of generous pay and comfortable work conditions, only to be met upon arrival by the sight of “men who had the task of carrying heavy loads and were as emaciated as skeletons” toiling under slave-like conditions.

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Only months after the Japanese had first appeared in the former western colonies of Southeast Asia, many who had welcomed them realized that they had simply switched one colonial master for another, with the only difference being that life was now even more miserable than before. To some extent, this was due to circumstances beyond the control of the Japanese. The standard of living in the conquered areas plummeted because war brought intra-regional trade to a virtual standstill. It was simply too dangerous to transport goods by ship from one destination to another.

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At the same time, however, the change in mood of the peoples of Asia was also a direct result of Japanese arrogance and brutality revealing that far from considering themselves equals of their fellow Asians, the Japanese often saw themselves as members of a master race, destined to rule over the continent. In this way, by alienating people who had initially been cautiously welcoming, the Japanese lost a historic opportunity to rally a continent for their own cause.

About the author: Peter Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in East Asia for two decades, has worked for Bloomberg, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Financial Times. He is also the former bureau chief in Taiwan for French news agency AFP. His books have been translated into Chinese, Danish, and Romanian. Harmsen's latest book is Japan Runs Wild, 1942-1943.

Featured photo of Japanese troops in the ruins of Shanghai: Wikimedia Commons