Sympathy for the devils?

A common trope among the Japanese right’s apologists, revisionists, and other outright deniers of Japan’s wartime crimes is that Japanese imperialism was little different from the European imperialism that had divided up Asia over the centuries — indeed, Japanese imperialism was superior because it had the effect (intended or not) of liberating Asians from the European empires.

This may have been the case in the early years of the Japanese empire, when the Meiji oligarchs who conducted Japanese foreign policy were following lessons learned from the imperial powers. But Japan’s imperialism from the 1930s onward (with roots in the immediate aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war) was arguably a different matter entirely. (Perhaps this difference is best illustrated in the differing legacies of Japanese imperialism in Taiwan and Korea.)

Why? In The War of the World, Niall Ferguson provides one explanation:

The new empires of the twentieth century were not content with the somewhat haphazard administrative arrangements that had characterized the old — the messy mixtures of imperial and local law, the delegation of powers as well as status to certain indigenous groups. They inherited from the nineteenth-century nation-builders an insatiable appetite for uniformity; in that sense, they were more like ’empire-states’ than empires in the old sense. The new empires repudiated traditional religious and legal constraints on the use of force. They insisted on the creation of new hierarchies in place of existing social structures. They delighted in sweeping away old political institutions. Above all, they made a virtue of ruthlessness. In pursuit of their objectives, they were willing to make war on whole categories of people, at home and abroad, rather than on merely the armed and trained representatives of an identified enemy state. It was entirely typical of the new generation of would-be emperors that Hitler could accuse the British of excessive softness in their treatment of the Indian nationalists.

“Introduction,” lxvi

I am not suggesting that I buy this argument entirely, but it’s worth keeping in mind the next time a Japanese hyper-nationalist rolls out the argument that Japan was just doing what Britain, France, and Holland were doing.

2 thoughts on “Sympathy for the devils?

  1. Bryce

    Hmm. I think Fergusson is recycling Benedict Anderson here. I do wonder though whether the new empires were all that different from the old. Were the British Empires really not \”willing to make war on whole categories of people, at home and abroad, rather than on merely the armed and trained representatives of an identified enemy state\”. I know some Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and to a lesser extent, Maori who might disagree. Maybe the difference is that Britain and the other \”traditional\” Empires (including the United States) are just history\’s \”winners\”.In any case, our reading lists are remarkably similar. I\’ve eyed \”The War of the World\” up in the book shop for the last month or two. How is it?


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