Hirohito; drawing by David Levine

One of the worst pieces of news reaching me recently through the publishers’ grapevine—worst, that is to say, in the small closed world of books and history, for there is plenty of other hair-raising news in the world around us—is that 1973 is to be “Hitler’s year.” When, one sometimes despairingly asks oneself, are historians going to grow up? If we are going to celebrate the anniversary of 1933, more repetitious books on the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler are the last thing we need. Not that the time has come to close the ledger on the 1930s. Far from it. As, one by one, the familiar problems of the Thirties—including (to go no further than this morning’s newspaper) “competitive devaluation,” “exchange rates warfare,” and a “world depression”1—loom up across our horizon, it is obvious that we need to know more, not less, about the decade that led up to World War II. But it is important that we should get our priorities right.

The reason for saying this is not, as Walter Laqueur chooses to believe, because I am “bored with Hitler.”2 He would be a peculiar historian, indeed, who found Hitler’s personality anything but fascinating. But precisely this fascination with a single person is what we need to guard against, if we wish to keep any sort of perspective on the 1930s. Fundamentally, the trouble about the obsession with Hitler is that it closes our minds to the broader dynamic of the historical process and makes it impossible, as Akira Iriye has put it, “to view the international crisis of the 1930s as it should be viewed, internationally.”3

This happens in two ways. First, the implication of this emphasis, however much it may be hedged around with qualifications, is that the crisis was brought about in all essential respects by Hitler, and that but for him all might have been well. Secondly, by concentrating all our attention on Nazi Germany, it suggests that the crisis—again in all essential respects—was a European crisis. For Walter Laqueur, who was born in Wroclaw and still writes as though Silesia were the axis of world history, this may seem natural enough. It simply happens not to be true.

Laqueur is not, of course, the only European historian whose vision is bounded by the end of his European nose. Beginning with A.J.P. Taylor’s much discussed book,4 the literature on the origins of the Second World War is dominated by European preoccupations and the ins and outs of European diplomacy. And the latest history of the war not only makes no attempt to treat it as an intelligible whole but specifically lays down that the war in Europe and the war in Asia and the Pacific are two separate stories, better “told in sequence…than in parallel.”5

One of the immediate practical results, so far as the literature is concerned, is that, by comparison with Germany, Japan has come off a very bad second. For ten books on Hitler and National Socialism, one would be lucky to find one on Japan and the Showa restoration; and this applies particularly to comprehensive largescale histories with a wide popular readership. That is why, whatever else one may have to say about it, David Bergamini’s long book, now available in paperback, marks a turning point.6 Ever since 1960 we have had William Shirer’s popular history of Nazi Germany, an immensely influential book which created a vast reading public with an insatiable appetite for the antics of war criminals such as Albert Speer. No one, until Bergamini came along, attempted anything similar for Japan.

Considering the importance of the subject, one could wish that he had done so less idiosyncratically. Bergamini’s book has been mauled—in most particulars with ample justification—by the experts. But it is only fair to add that he has succeeded, where they have failed, in opening the general public’s eyes to the role of Japan in the 1930s and offsetting the overwhelming preoccupation with Nazi Germany. Moreover, he has done so at a moment when Japan, far more than Germany, is exercising our minds. As it becomes obvious, in the wake of the dollar crisis, that the international order set up after 1945 has irretrievably collapsed—in the same way as the liberal order somewhat shakily re-established after 1918 fell to pieces in the wake of the financial crash of 1929—nothing is more symptomatic or reminiscent of the 1930s than the sudden rash of books and essays anxiously debating the likely Japanese reactions to the new situation. 7 What is overlooked—though one would have thought that this, if anything, was the lesson of the 1930s—is that it is the unexpected reactions that are going to matter.

There are obvious reasons why Nazi Germany rather than Showa Japan should have captured the reading public’s imagination. For one thing, Japan was governed between 1932 and 1945 not by a single charismatic leader of Hitler’s towering stature, but by a series of shadowy, short-lived ministers, most of whom the average reader has probably never heard of. Japanese policy has to be pieced together from scattered, difficult, and contradictory documents; German policy appears, at least to the superficial observer, to spring with astounding consistency from Hitler’s brain. All this makes it easy to picture Germany’s role in the international crisis of the 1930s in dramatic colors which Japanese history, at least before Pearl Harbor, appears to lack. But one would have thought that the historian’s business was to correct this superficial view, rather than to perpetuate it.


I am not, of course, suggesting that we should simply reverse the roles and cast Japan, rather than Germany, as the villain of the piece. That would be as pointless as it is childish. What I am suggesting, rather, is that until we pay as much attention to the war in Asia as is commonly paid to the war in Europe, and, more particularly, until we take seriously the connections between the different areas of conflict, we shall miss the essential feature of the crisis, which was its international character.

Nothing is easier than to ridicule and write off the various pacts between Germany, Japan, and Italy between 1936 and 1940 as a “paper tiger” or an “empty collection of formulas” of “trivial significance.” Nothing could be more ill advised. In the end, it is true, there was no coordination of Axis policies, but the threat implicit in what Hitler called “a great world-political triangle” was taken with the utmost seriousness in Washington and Moscow, and not least of all, as Bradford A. Lee’s new book abundantly confirms, in London.8

The notorious pact which Stalin concluded on August 23, 1939, may seem nothing but a cynical deal between the two dictators if we seek to explain it, as is usually done, in purely European terms, but it is intelligible enough if we remember that the Soviet Union was engaged in full-scale hostilities with Japan from May to September, 1939, and was fully aware of the danger of being trapped in a war on two fronts. And the course of the Pacific war might certainly have been very different if the best Japanese divisions had not been tied down inactive for practically its whole duration guarding the Mongolian and Siberian frontiers with Russia.

For the United States, it is hardly necessary to add, the priority of Asia was implicit in its history. The American attitude toward Europe, particularly toward European political entanglements, was always ambivalent. In Asia, on the other hand, the United States had a continuing interest which extended back, as R.W. Van Alstyne’s new book makes abundantly clear, for many years before 1898.9 One of the many fascinating aspects of Max Silberschmidt’s recent survey of the relations between the United States and Europe is the way he shows how they were conditioned by American interests in Asia, with the paradoxical result that “it was in China that the United States encountered the European powers which it had avoided in Europe.”10

This view, it is true, has not always gone unchallenged. Beard and Tansill and an older generation of so-called revisionists sought to show that Roosevelt had his eye fixed on Europe from the beginning and schemed after 1939 to get the United States into the European war on the side of Great Britain. Few if any reputable historians share their view today. Nearer the mark, probably, is Robert Divine’s description of the United States in the 1930s as “the silent accomplice of Hitler,” and it may be doubted whether, but for Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war, the United States would have engaged directly in the European conflict. Silberschmidt is surely right in saying that it was “wholly in keeping with the logic of history” that “the United States was challenged in the Pacific.” What was “contrary to the logic of history”—or so it appeared—was Roosevelt’s decision, after Pearl Harbor, “not to give priority to the war with Japan, which would have accorded with US tradition, but to concentrate on the war in Europe against Hitler.”

Few people would argue, in retrospect, that this historic decision was wrong. But it is also clear that this decision has exercised a lasting effect over the writing of history. In giving precedence to Europe, historians have in effect silently endorsed Roosevelt’s view that Germany was “the most dangerous enemy,” though probably only a minority of Americans shared his opinion at the time. The result is a historiography which (to use the current fashionable phrase) is decidedly “Eurocentric.” “The eastern war,” Calvocoressi and Wint assert, “was inevitably overshadowed by Hitler’s war.” Why “inevitably” we are not told. If Roosevelt had followed the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the British were blocking American plans, and had put Japan first, things would have looked very different.


The other factor which has profoundly influenced historians’ attitudes is the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials. I find it hard, at this distance of time, to get as excited about their anomalies and iniquities as Richard H. Minear does in his recent book;11 but there is no doubt that the accusation of “conspiracy to wage aggressive war,” supported by a mass of apparently unequivocal evidence, made an enduring impression.

For a dozen years at least the conspiracy theory established by the military tribunals was accepted as the framework of historical writing. The credit for challenging it, so far as Europe is concerned, goes to A.J.P Taylor. His book, it is true, immediately provoked the inevitable backlash. But by 1967, when Alan Bullock went a good halfway to meet him, it was evident that the old interpretation was on the way out, at least among serious historians.12

In regard to the Far East it was different. Here also there were revisionists who found the conspiracy theory unconvincing, beginning with Paul Schroeder as long ago as 1958.13 But they were content for the most part to nibble away at special points and limited periods. James B. Crowley’s study of Japan’s Quest for Autonomy is frequently acclaimed as the outstanding work of revision.14 But though it is admirably painstaking within its limits, it has neither the challenging qualities nor the narrative sweep which made Taylor’s book, for all its occasional extravagances, a turning point. Japan, as Brzezinski says, “has been a matter of concern for Asian specialists,” who write largely for each other, but not for “generalists” attempting to fit together the whole interrelated field of world politics.

There is thus ample scope for a full-length account, such as Bergamini has set out to write, of Japan’s foreign relations and the part they played in the events leading to World War II. Unhappily, for all his obvious talents, he has missed what might have been a great opportunity. He has done so essentially because he has taken over the conspiracy theory and magnified it to monster dimensions.

Bergamini refuses to believe that Japan, unlike Germany, lacked a mastermind pulling the strings and executing a preconceived design, and has, in effect, invented one. For Bergamini the archvillain—one might almost say the Japanese Hitler—is the emperor Hirohito. Everything Hitler subsequently did, we used to be told, was planned fifteen years in advance, in 1924; everything Hirohito subsequently did, according to Bergamini, was planned even earlier, in 1921. Indeed, the “original program for dealing with the Western menace” went back much further, to the very beginning of modern Japanese history in 1862, and it was Hirohito’s attempt to “carry out the Choshu plan of 1862” that led by logical steps “to Nanking in 1937, Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Hiroshima in 1945.”

This is a story we have heard ad nauseam in regard to Germany, the central theme of scores of writers who have traced the origins of Nazism back, if not to the primeval forests of Germanic antiquity, at least to Bismarck and the foundation of the Second German Empire in 1871. If no one any longer believes it in regard to Germany, it is even less plausible in regard to Japan.

Far Eastern experts have criticized Bergamini mainly for his cavalier handling of the sources.15 This may be true, but the essential point is surely different. For me, the trouble with Bergamini’s book is that, by postulating a grand design spanning twenty years or more of Japanese history, he obscures the very real complexities of the Far Eastern situation and the difficult options with which Japanese policy-makers found themselves faced in the 1930s. Bergamini is possibly right in insisting that Hirohito “was not the passive dupe of history that he has been made out to be”; but this seems to me to be a subordinate and not very interesting point. The interesting point is how Japan stumbled into war, and here it is sufficient to say that the emperor’s alleged design, though it may have been one factor, was certainly not the only, still less the decisive one.

If I have used the word “stumbled,” I do not mean to imply that there were not powerful groups in Japan advocating a definite policy of territorial expansion. Even before 1914 they were urging the government to fulfill “Japan’s divine duty” and extend Japanese influence and territory to the South Seas as well as into China.

The brutal attempt in 1915 to secure a stranglehold over China while England, Russia, and Germany were tied down in the European war and unable to intervene revealed early enough the harsh, unscrupulous character of Japanese policy. The conspiracy theory is certainly not simply a postwar myth fostered by the war crimes trials. As Bradford A. Lee points out, the British Foreign Office had managed to convince itself by 1939 that Japan was engaged in a systematic program of expansion. The point is that modern research has shown that this was not the case. Down to 1940, as Langer and Gleason long ago observed, Japan’s “new order” in Asia “represented an ideal and little more,” not, as the British supposed, “a detailed blueprint” for aggression.16

Lee’s book is another of those excellent scholarly monographs on a limited subject which, cumulatively, have gradually changed our appreciation of the prewar Far Eastern situation. It is a book for the professional historian rather than the general reader, but it has the great merit of not treating the Far East in isolation. Lee never fails to emphasize the interconnection of events in Asia and in Europe. He also pays due attention to the role of Soviet Russia. “The over-shadowing presence of Russia,” he makes clear, was a decisive factor for Japan in all its calculations, at least until the conclusion of the Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact on April 13, 1941.

This emphasis on Russia is not new, but it is important for anyone who wishes to understand the complexities of Japanese policy. As MacNair and Lach long ago pointed out, “serious clashes along the frontiers” between Japan and the Soviet Union “numbered well over one hundred every year after 1934,” culminating in the full-scale hostilities at Nomonhan in 1939.17 To suggest, as Bergamini does, that in such circumstances Japan was consistently planning aggression is inherently implausible. On the contrary, there is no doubt that much of Japanese policy was defensive in spirit—a defense, that is to say, of what were regarded as Japan’s vital interests. John Hunter Boyle even goes so far, in his recent book, as to say that the reason “the Japanese military moved into Manchuria” in 1931 was “to create a buffer against Soviet expansion.”18 This may be less than the whole truth, but it is certainly true that “they viewed Manchuria as a fortress against China to the south and, more important, the Soviet Union to the north.”

Boyle’s book is, for my taste, too long and diffuse, but it does at least drive home the ambiguities and perplexities of Japanese policy, particularly toward China. No one in Japan, not even the most hardened militarists, contemplated a total occupation of China, for which Japanese resources were totally inadequate. On the contrary, the overriding desire, shared by the emperor, was to bring the so-called “China incident” to an end before Japan became hopelessly bogged down.

And on the Chinese side, too, there was, as Boyle makes abundantly clear, far more readiness for compromise than is usually supposed. Quite apart from Wang Ching-wei and the other collaborators in the various Japanese-sponsored puppet governments, whose miserable careers scarcely deserve the extended treatment Boyle gives them, the belief that it was possible to negotiate with the Japanese was widespread in the ranks of the Kuomintang.

This was the view, among others, of Hu Shih, the distinguished Chinese scholar who later became ambassador to the United States. More important, Chiang Kai-shek himself was not averse to a deal, at least until the Japanese insisted upon his removal as a precondition for peace negotiations. No doubt Chiang’s repeated threats to “make other arrangements” with Japan if he did not get financial assistance from the West were often little more than blackmail. But his long record of negotiation suggests at least that the issues were not as clear-cut and irreconcilable as is often supposed. Indeed, evidence brought together by Lee suggests that it was the Western powers, rather than the Chinese and Japanese, who desired a continuation of the Sino-Japanese conflict, so as to relieve pressure on themselves and “safeguard our position for another generation.” The same was true of Soviet Russia and, at least for certain periods, of Nazi Germany.

These are a sample of the complications which any serious analysis of the Far Eastern situation in the 1930s has to take into account. Remembering also that decision-making in Japan was always carried on behind the scenes by a bewildering array of factions, cliques, and conspiratorial groups, they go far to explain the obscurity of Japanese policy.

Not, of course, that the Japanese were inhibited by moral scruples. But once it came to practical measures, it is astounding how fumbling, insecure, and hesitant they proved to be. How characteristic, for example, that when the question of a military alliance with Hitler arose in 1939, the Cabinet discussed it more than seventy times without being able to make up their minds, until in the end Hitler himself lost patience! And when, in 1941, the decision for war was finally taken, it was reached in a mood of fatalistic resignation and pessimism which would be hard to credit if we did not have the records.19 Nobody really believed Japan could win, only (as Admiral Yamamoto gloomily put it) that “we have come to such a pass that our fate is inescapable.”

What is so tantalizing about Bergamini’s account of this crucial phase is that he is fully aware of the hesitations which gripped the whole Japanese ruling class—elder statesmen, generals, admirals, businessmen, even Hirohito’s mother, the Empress Dowager. Furthermore, he scrupulously sets out—no fewer than six times—the emperor’s own well-founded doubts.20 And yet, in deference to his preconceived theories, he insists that the war decision was the logical outcome of “strategic plans which had been incubating for decades,” while the “palace records,” which appeared to prove the contrary, were deliberately framed to conceal Hirohito’s aggressive intentions.

Rather than criticize once again this far-fetched story—a task we may safely leave to the tender mercies of the aggrieved Far Eastern experts—it is more pertinent to try to understand the circumstances in which successive Japanese governments got tied down in what to them seemed like a spider’s web, until in the end not merely extremists (of whom there were plenty) but even moderates and conservatives came to believe that the only “way out” was to “fight to the last soldier.” More pertinent because, unless I am badly mistaken (and I sincerely hope I am), it is the sort of situation which, mutatis mutandis, might occur again sooner than we think.

Furthermore, when I write of trying to understand the circumstances, I do not mean a step-by-step account of the diplomatic exchanges over a period of ten or a dozen years. Not only would that obviously be impossible here, but it would be largely beside the point. What are important, rather, in the present context are the essential structural changes both in the local Far Eastern and in the global international situation when we view them in the longer perspective of world history.

Viewed in a larger perspective, the two decades from 1920 to 1940 were clearly a period of transition from one structure of international relationships—the European-centered structure of the pre-1914 period—to another structure, namely, the American-dominated international system which emerged after 1945 and is now disintegrating before our eyes. It is also evident that the decisive turning point, the catalyst in the whole process, was the Great Depression which engulfed the world after 1929.

Unlike the political events of the period, the Depression was decisive because it affected the whole world. Hitler might scare Europeans to death; but even when his tanks were blitzing their way through Poland or France, his name was probably unknown to more than one Chinese or one African in ten thousand. The Japanese might commit rape and murder in Nanking, but Poles and Czechs, if they heard the news at all, greeted it with indifference. But the Great Depression shook the world from China to Peru; no one could opt out. It ended one period of world history—admittedly already in visible decay—and ushered in another.

Probably because he is not a professional historian, and therefore better able to see the wood for the trees, Noam Chomsky has depicted with all his customary verve the impact of the Great Depression on Japanese policy.21 Of course, it may be argued that there were other factors and that economic pressures alone do not account for Japanese reactions. That is perfectly true. Instability in the Far East was a pre-existing reality in 1929 and 1930. It reached back at least as far as the death throes of the Manchu empire at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which created a persistent power vacuum, particularly in Manchuria.

The other empire which was in its death throes in the 1930s—though historians are only now beginning grudgingly to admit the fact—was the British empire, which was scarcely more stable in 1939 than the Austro-Hungarian empire had been in 1914. With one vast empire totally destroyed (for few took seriously the prospects of the restoration of Chinese unity by the Kuomintang), a second vast empire overextended and near to breaking point, and the whole world in the grip of an unparalleled economic depression, trouble was obviously brewing.

The essential fact about the Great Depression is that it was the solvent of the whole precarious international order pieced together by the victorious powers after 1918. Historians still write as though Hitler, Mussolini, and their Japanese opposite numbers overthrew the existing status quo. In reality, it had collapsed by the time Hitler came on the scene in 1933. All he and the Japanese did was to try—in the event with a phenomenal lack of skill—to turn to their advantage the anarchy and disarray the depression had created. If this were their only fault, we should have little reason to condemn them.

There was, after all, nothing sacred about either the Versailles settlement in Europe or the Washington treaties which were supposed to regulate the situation in the Far East and the western Pacific. As a Japanese commentator explained, the world was “divided into those who are for the maintenance of the status quo and those who are for its destruction,” and it would be pure hypocrisy to suppose that the beneficiaries of the status quo had a monopoly of right and reason, still less of morality. In point of fact, the world in the 1930s—Indians, Africans, Chinese and other Asians, as well as teeming millions of unemployed in Europe and America—was sick to death of the status quo. Which is why fascists of a variety of hues, including the numerous right-wing nationalist pressure groups in Japan, got so wide a hearing.

Nor is it much less hypocritical to suggest that those who wanted change should have proceeded by peaceful negotiation. Hitler won important concessions (most notably at the expense of Czechoslovakia) without fighting, and might conceivably have won others; but no one in his right mind would pretend that he would have done so without rearmament and the threat of war. The same is no less true of Japan.

One of Bradford A. Lee’s “primary concerns” is to establish why the powers that were so anxious to appease Hitler in Europe were so adamantly opposed to appeasing Japan in Asia. The reason is not clear, but it certainly was not sympathy with China or tenderness for Chiang Kai-shek. There is no doubt that the notorious Munich agreement of 1938 encouraged Japan. There is equally no doubt that the refusal of those who had just handed over a large slice of Czech territory to the Germans to recognize the changed status of Manchukuo was incomprehensible to the Japanese. It added immeasurably to their frustration and finally convinced them that they would get nothing by negotiation. So far as the evidence goes this belief was entirely correct.

None of this, it should scarcely be necessary to add, is meant as exculpation. In Japan, as in Germany, there have been plenty of apologists quick to put the blame for the war on Western “incomprehension.” To some extent, as historians like Schroeder have sought to show, this may be true. Nevertheless we should not make too much of it. No one looking objectively at the record, long term or short term, can say that the Western powers did not have ample grounds for suspicion of Japanese intentions. Moreover, plenty of intelligent Japanese observers—I am speaking not of the socialist left wing, whose voice had largely been suppressed, but of hard-bitten military men and diplomats—were deeply critical of the errors and intransigence of Japanese policy.

Their attempts to devise an alternative, above all to extricate Japan from the disastrous “China incident,” are really the central theme of Boyle’s book. From the emperor downward, everyone knew at heart that “the policy of aggression against China was utterly destructive of Japan’s best interests.” Why in the end nothing was done, why on the contrary Japan got bogged down ever more deeply in China, why the Japanese advocates of peace with Chiang Kai-shek proved as feeble and unreliable as those “good” German generals who were always seeking a compromise and never finding one, is another question. It was certainly not, as Bergamini would have us believe, because of a long-standing conspiracy nothing could stop. Probably it was because, in a situation of intolerable tension, it always seems easiest to cut the Gordian knot. One more short, sharp campaign and Chiang Kai-shek would fall!

None of this, however, should prevent us from recognizing that the Japanese were perfectly correct in perceiving that the old order in East and Southeast Asia was in total disintegration. And we should not refuse to recognize, either, that they had a vital interest in the shaping of the new order that was bound eventually to replace it.

Compared with Great Britain, France, and Holland, compared even with the United States, Japan (like China and, to a lesser degree, the Soviet Union) had a direct stake in the whole East Asian area. One has only to look at the map—at least with that hard “geo-political” stare that was so fashionable in the 1930s—to see that Japan had a genuine interest in Korea and the Manchurian plain beyond. One has only to consider Japan’s exposed island position, not unlike that of Great Britain, to understand its legitimate concern about the security of the sea lanes which were its life line. One has only to recall Japan’s almost total dependence on imports for its essential raw materials, and by this time for foodstuffs as well, to realize that it was, in Chomsky’s words, “in no position to tolerate a situation” which jeopardized its access to the resources of Malaya, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

The Japanese belief that the “very existence of our Empire” was “threatened” may have been exaggerated, but it was certainly genuine. As, under the impact of the Great Depression, the world broke up into closed, autarchic economic blocs, they can hardly be blamed for thinking that economic self-sufficiency was a condition of survival. What they can be blamed for is the way they reacted to this situation. Korea may have been “an arrow pointing at the heart of Japan,” which no foreign power could be allowed to possess. That did not mean the Japanese had to annex it, any more than the British, who felt the same about the Netherlands, felt they had to annex Belgium and Holland.

The complexities of the Manchurian question cannot be discussed here; but no statesman in his right mind would have expected to detach a territory as large as Germany, France, and Switzerland combined without provoking China and Russia and (the very thing Japan wished to prevent) driving them together. And the attempt to impose a unilateral solution on Southeast Asia was foredoomed from the start. As Chiang Kai-shek brutally told the British ambassador, Britain’s position in Asia may have been “tottering,” and with it that of France and Holland; but it did not need another thirty years of history to prove that the idea of excluding the United States as well was a total illusion.

Cordell Hull exploded with anger when, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese told him that for a hundred years Asia had been “compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation.” As Lloyd Gardner and William Appleman Williams and the other recent revisionists whom Walter Laqueur so resents have made clear, this may not be so wide of the mark as Cordell Hull believed. But if Japan meant its charge seriously, it should have thrown itself behind the anti-imperialist revolution fomenting in Southeast Asia. Instead, under the thinnest of camouflages, it tried to impose a new imperial tutelage. Here again, Japanese actions show only too clearly the fraudulence of Japanese claims.

This is, of course, not accidental. Japanese policy in the 1930s cannot be considered, any more than Japanese policy today, in an ideological vacuum. As in Germany, the alternative to aggressive imperialism abroad was reform and democratization at home. That was the one thing neither the German ruling classes that backed Hitler nor their Japanese opposite numbers could tolerate. Historians of all persuasions and shades of opinion have described how oppression at home went hand in hand, from 1928 onward, with increasingly tough military action on the Chinese mainland, until Konoye formally established a one-party state and Japan (in Bergamini’s words) “tasted the bitterness of police-state discipline.”

Nor should we forget that, when the end was in sight, the egregious Konoye emerged once again to warn the emperor that “what we have to fear is not so much a defeat as a communist revolution.”22 If in the 1930s aggressive foreign policy was the obvious safety valve for depression and discontent at home, by 1945 the overriding need was to make sure that military defeat did not open the door for revolution and social change.

Nor did it. A handful of scapegoats apart, the Japanese ruling class weathered the storm better than it had any right to expect, and Yoshida Shigeru, who in 1927 (as Crowley reminds us) had preached “Japan’s rightful leadership in Manchuria and throughout East Asia,” arose from the ashes to salvage the Japanese right and steer Japan back under an American umbrella into the clear waters of impeccable capitalist orthodoxy. It seemed, for more than twenty years, an ideal solution for all concerned. Even Japanese radicals and socialists welcomed the new dispensation and believed that the changes carried through by the American occupation authorities—land reform, antimonopoly legislation, and the new constitution with its explicit disavowal of militarism—meant a break with the past and a real democratization of Japanese politics.

The reality was different. Contrary to common belief, the occupation did not smash the zaibatsu, the great family trusts. Even before the Korean war, union activities were restricted and the antimonopolies law revised. The wars in Korea and later in Vietnam and the stimulus they provided for Japanese industry, particularly heavy industry, did the rest. The zaibatsu not only recovered their prewar position but actually improved upon it. By the time Sato took over as prime minister in 1965 the characteristic Japanese links between government, and business had been re-established. The Liberal Democratic Party which has a solid majority in the Diet, although it is supported by votes of less than half the electorate, is dominated by big business, which in practice chooses the key ministers, particularly the prime minister and the labor minister. According to the calculations of Chitoshi Yanaga, over 90 percent of all government activity is devoted directly to looking after business and industry. 23

These are not random thoughts. As Albert Axelbank puts it in his report on contemporary Japan, “Daubs of war paint have begun to appear on the faces of the zaibatsu,” and he concludes with a prediction of “an internal upheaval…with the military in a pivotal role” and a “return to the regimentation and surveillance of prewar days.”24 Certainly one does not have to be a genius to perceive that there are disconcerting similarities between Japan’s position in the world today and the situation it found itself in during the months preceding its first thrust into Manchuria in 1931. The problem is to draw the right conclusions from them.

This is something we shall not do until we have got the history of the 1930s into clearer perspective. If, as it seems to me, commentators on the present situation are repeating the old mistakes and compounding them with new ones, one reason is that historians writing of the 1930s, so far as they have been obsessed by the conspiracy theory, have not done a very good job and the revisionists have not succeeded in making their views widely known. The wrong light on the past throws a distorting shadow across the present. But that is a different question, which we shall consider in the next issue.

(This is the first of two articles on Japan.)

This Issue

May 31, 1973