The Tamogami affair

The Times (of London) reports that Aso Taro may face an upper house censure motion over now-retired General Tamogami Toshio’s revisionist essay on Japan’s activities on mainland Asia in the 1930s.

I think this would be a mistake — as Jun Okumura noted, Mr. Aso did the right thing. General Tamogami was sacked immediately. Unless it comes out that Mr. Aso somehow vetted the essay in advance, General Tamogami’s firing should be the end of Mr. Aso’s role in this sordid affair.

But it is worth looking at the general’s essay.

Here is my summary of the general’s theses.

(1) Japan did not fight a war of aggression: it was a legitimate act of self-defense because Japan’s position in Korea and Manchuria was legally recognized.

(2) The Pacific war was effectively the product of Communist manipulation: The Comintern manipulated the Guomindong into provoking Japan so that the two would fight each other. The Comintern also manipulated Franklin Roosevelt into waging war on Japan, because Roosevelt “was not aware of the terrible nature of communism” and was thus easily duped by the Communists into supporting Chiang Kai-shek.

(3) Imperial Japan as humanitarian: Japan was kind to its colonies Korea and Taiwan, and even tried to incorporate them into metropolitan Japan, unlike the European powers. Japan was also the great friend of the peoples of Asia, fighting on their behalf at Versailles and hastening the end of the European empires.

(4) “The US-Japan alliance is great, but…”: The alliance is great, but if the alliance continues Japan as we know it will be destroyed. And by the way, if we hadn’t fought the war we might even have become “a white nation’s colony.” Oh, and our Self-Defense Forces, a branch of which I command? They cannot even defend Japan.

Let me start with the obvious contradiction in his argument in thesis (1).

At the start of the essay, General Tamogami dismisses claims that Japan was an aggressor by suggesting that critics simply don’t realize that Japan was in Manchuria and Korea on the basis of treaties. Later he suggests that other great powers were aggressors too. Without providing any examples, I will be charitable and assume that he is referring to the presence of the European empires in Asia as opposed to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which don’t help his case.

How is the legality of the European empires any different than the legality of Japan’s colonies in Northeast Asia? If anything, the European empires were more secure in their rights in their colonies than Japan was in its colonies, seeing as how it acquired both by coercing the governments of China and Korea. The Dutch had ruled the Dutch East Indies directly for more than two centuries. India had been directly ruled by the British empire for nearly a century at the time of the war. The French had ruled Indochina directly for nearly as long as the British ruled India. In short, international law didn’t apply; a Japanese attack on these colonies was legally indistinguishible from an attack on the French or British homelands. And one may recall that Japan did in fact attack these colonies, a fact unmentioned in connection with this argument, meaning ipso facto Japan was an aggressor in the war.

Meanwhile, it is worth recalling that Japan had a reason for using international law to take control of Korea, Taiwan, and portions of mainland China. Japan made a point of conducting its imperial affairs according to international law, as part of a project of showing its neighbors, especially China, that Japan was the most civilized nation in the neighborhood. The peace “negotiations” at Shimonoseki in 1895, when Japan humiliated the Chinese envoys for being unversed in Western international law, was the signature moment in Japan’s project to unseat China as the center of Asian civilization; Japan demonstrated to China that Asian affairs would now be conducted by a new standard of civilization, imported into Asia from Europe by Japan. Japan did the same with Korea, when it forced an unequal treaty on Korea in 1876. Finally, to assert that the Japanese annexation of Korea was a legal transfer of authority from the Korean kingdom to Japan — that the Korean government was signing its own death warrant of its own volition — makes a mockery of history. It may be unfair to Japan to make this comparison, seeing as how the European empires were able to acquire their Asian colonies by virtue of their denying Asian nations civilized status and with it the protection of international law, but if General Tamogami wants to make an argument based on international law, he must accept the body of international law, not just the laws that support his argument.

But there is a larger problem with the general’s first thesis. Namely he completely ignores Japan’s invasion of China proper (i.e., the parts of China where it did not have treaty rights), the Philippines (a commonwealth of the US), French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Burma, and other territories that were legally part of the American, French, Dutch, and British empires as well as the Republic of China. How is it possible to claim that Japan was not an aggressor when it invaded and occupied these territories? General Tamogami attempts a defense of Japan’s actions in China by claiming Chinese Communist and Nationalist provocation; he even uses the “T” word, claiming that Japanese forces were subject to acts of terrorism, comparing these acts as equivalent to acts of violence against US forces and civilians based in Japan. (Does he really want to make that comparison?)

But General Tamogami apparently doesn’t even believe his own argument, because after explaining why Japan wasn’t an aggressor, he concludes, “If you say that Japan was the aggressor nation, then I would like to ask what country among the great powers of that time was not an aggressor. That is not to say that because other countries were doing so it was all right for Japan to do so well, but rather that there is no reason to single out Japan as an aggressor nation.” As I’ve made clear above, there is a reason for singling Japan out as an aggressor, namely because Japan had made a point of conducting its affairs according to international law only to ignore international law when it interfered with Japan’s imperial designs.

Turning to thesis (2) about the communist conspiracy that produced the war, General Tamogami’s argument is that the US “ensnared” Japan. But not only that, the US — specifically President Roosevelt — had in turn been ensnared by the Soviet Union. The basis for this claim is the US National Security Agency’s release of the Venona decryptions, which according to General Tamogami reveal that Roosevelt was under the thumb of Moscow due to the influence of Harry Dexter White at Treasury.

The Venona decryptions reveal no such thing. (They’re available online here.)

The Soviet Union had agents in the US, true. Harry Dexter White was one, also true. But to leap from there to “Roosevelt went to war with Japan because he was manipulated by communists” is ludicrous. The US decision to support China and risk war with Japan was, if anything, overdetermined. It cannot be reduced to a simple communist conspiracy. Roosevelt’s reasons for war could include a sentimental attachment to China, a growing recognition of the need to halt aggression in Europe and Asia, alarm at humanitarian situation in China, and so on.

This is simply groundless revisionist history that rests more on the perfervid imagination of Japanese conservatives than on empirical fact.

The same applies to General Tamogami’s account of the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war, which, as noted above, blames the war on “terrorist” acts by KMT and Communist forces. He claims that the “Comintern theory” of the war’s beginning is gaining credence, citing as evidence the controversial Chang-Halliday biography of Mao and a book by conservative hack (i.e., not a historian) Sakurai Yoshiko. He dismisses out of hand the idea that the Kwantung army and the Imperial Army bear any responsibility for actions taken in the lead up to the war.

Moving on to thesis (3), General Tamogami praises Japan for its “very moderate” colonial rule in comparison to other empires. He also singles out Imperial Japan for praise because “among the major powers at that time, Japan was the only nation that tried to incorporate its colonies within the nation itself.” It is beyond me why this should be considered a good thing. Is General Tamogami really so ignorant as to believe that Japan’s subject peoples — starting with the Koreans and the Chinese — were eager to be incorporated into Japan proper, eager to be made into Japanese, bearing Japanese names, speaking the Japanese language? The general suggests that Japanese rule in Korea and Manchuria were quite peaceful, that Japan brought order and civilization to its colonies. It would be a lie to deny that Japanese imperialism brought some benefits to the colonies, just as it would be a lie to deny that British or French or Dutch empires had any positive impact on their respective colonies. The only appropriate response to all of these empires is, “Yes, but at what cost?” That General Tamogami does not even consider that subject peoples might view the Japanese empire with something other than feelings of gratitude may be the most offensive piece of this essay. The general cites a number of trivial examples illustrating how Chinese and Korean “citizens” displayed their loyalty to the empire. He shows that the Japanese imperial family permitted the last crown prince of Korea’s Yi dynasty to marry a Japanese noble woman. What he doesn’t mention is that Japanese settlers in Asian colonies were instruct not to mingle with native peoples. As John Dower writes, “Concerning overseas Japanese, admonitions against racial intermarriage were a standard part of policy documents, and the 1943 report spelled out the rationale for this: intermarriage would destroy the ‘national spirit’ of the Yamato race” (War Without Mercy, 277). Dower goes on to demonstrate just how farcical General Tamogami’s claims about “harmony between the five tribes, laying out a vision for the tribes – the Yamato (Japanese), Koreans, Chinese, Manchurians, and Mongols;” Japan’s plan for its Asian empire envisioned the economic, cultural, and social domination of subject peoples by Japan. As Dower writes, “The record of the Japanese as colonial or neocolonial administrators in Formosa, Korea, Manchukuo, and occupied China varied depending on the place and circumstances but the basic assumption of Japanese superiority was invariable” (285).

The general also makes an absurdly ahistorical claim that were it not for Japan’s conquests, it would have taken one or two centuries “before we could have experienced the world of racial equality that we have today.” While it is impossible to say for certain, it is extremely unlikely that the European empires in Asia would have survived another century, let alone two. Japan’s war may have shortened the empires by a decade or so, but as it happened the European powers struggled to resurrect their empires after the war thanks in large part to the havoc the European war wreaked on their economies. So again, the question regarding Japan’s role in decolonization is, “Yes, but at what cost?”

Finally we come to thesis (4), which is the most confusing of them all, although the confusion itself is extremely revealing. The general concludes his essay by looking at the security policy of contemporary Japan. He claims that the Tokyo trials are to blame for “misleading the Japanese people sixty-three years after the war.” Apparently the Japanese people have been duped into not trusting the JSDF to defend Japan or undertake missions abroad. To General Tamogami the restrictions on Japanese security policy are sustained only because of public pacifism (presumably the result of a program of brainwashing carried out by the left-wing Japanese media and the teachers’ union). The decisions made by Yoshida Shigeru and his successors to restrict Japan’s military activities, to use the constitution as a weapon against US requests for rearmament, have apparently played no role whatsoever in Japan’s security policy. If only the Japanese people learn to have pride again, the JSDF can be released from its restraints.

Meanwhile, his attitude towards the US is frankly schizophrenic, which is typical of the Japanese right wing. He asserts that “good relations between Japan and the United States are essential to the stability of the Asian region” — standard alliance boilerplate. But he also says that as a result of the aforementioned restraints on the JSDF, Japan has no choice but to be defended by America. But at what cost to Japan? “Japan’s economy, its finances, its business practices, its employment system, its judicial system will all converge with the American system. Our country’s traditional culture will be destroyed by the parade of reforms. Japan is undergoing a cultural revolution, is it not? But are the citizens Japan living in greater ease now or twenty years ago? Is Japan becoming a better country?” Apparently the alliance is also a Trojan horse for the dreaded American way of life. In short, the alliance is a fine vehicle for helping Japan become normal again, but Japan must keep America at arm’s length. (Interestingly, the forces within Japan arguing for economic and financial convergence with the US are often the same people who share General Tamogami’s position on national defense.) This argument is hardly new, and shows that America is a convenient scapegoat for conservatives who do not want to believe that the forces reshaping Japanese society are largely endogenous, perhaps largely the product of the postwar miracle.

I don’t disagree with General Tamogami’s argument that Japan needs to be better able to defend itself and less reliant on the US. But he has made this argument in the worst possible way, by reminding readers of just how dreadful the war was — and how egregious the arguments of Japan’s historical revisionists are (the same people who want to revise Japan’s security policy).

General Tamogami concludes his essay with an appeal against revisionism:

There is absolutely no need for lies and fabrications. If you look at individual events, there were probably some that would be called misdeeds. That is the same as saying that there is violence and murder occurring today even in advanced nations.

We must take back the glorious history of Japan. A nation that denies its own history is destined to pursue a path of decline.

If only the general could appreciate the irony of the last line of his essay.

The point is that this essay is atrocious, both intellectually and aesthetically.

But that being said, better that General Tamogami decided to share his opinions with the world (although I imagine he probably didn’t expect that the world would be paying attention to the APA essay contest). The world needs to know that these ideas are alive and well in elite Japanese circles. Having read this essay, I’m now especially curious about Mr. Aso’s book purchase on Saturday. How can Mr. Aso fire a general for espousing these beliefs — which he continues to espouse now that he’s been sacked — and then go into a bookstore and purchase a book that makes similar arguments about Japan’s history?

I hope that a journalist will pose this inconvenient question to the prime minister.

I also hope that there is a full inquiry into the circumstances surrounding General Tamogami’s essay. Did anyone see it in advance? Who knew what when? More importantly, just how widespread are these views in the JSDF? And, as Ozawa Ichiro asked, why was there no outrage in response to a previously published essay by the general that made essentially the same argument? To reiterate, unless it somehow turns out that Mr. Aso was aware of this essay beforehand, this is not an incident worthy of censure. But it does merit an inquiry into the state of affairs in the JSDF. I would prefer full exposure over the swift punishment called for by the prime minister for those involved.

7 thoughts on “The Tamogami affair

  1. Anonymous

    How dare General Toshio Tamogami claim support from any of the countries he mentioned! He is not only a stupid liar, he is also a dangerous one like his former PM Koizumi. Japan must not be given the security council seat!


  2. General Toshio Tamogami\’s comments shows some people in the higher echolons of society in Japan have expansionist ambitions. Japan does not deserve to be a member of the security council. Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indenosians condemn him in the strongest terms!


  3. Anonymous



  4. Anonymous

    I think everybody knows he is right.however, it is not a policy of the Japanese government.that\’s it.まあ本当のことを知らない人には感想文でも知らせる役には立ったでしょう


  5. Z

    Honestly, WTF, could someone explain to me how that guy managed become the chief of staff of the JSDAF.I mean, never mind the revisionist BD, he said the pacific war was a communist CONSPIRACY.The C word should be a red flag anywhere.


  6. Astroboy

    Voice of Tamogami reflects majority of Japanese. Probably majority of the world, including China and Korea, must have also been aware for the past years. People just didn\’t want to hear that.


  7. I agree with most of Mr. Tamogami's paper. Sure, Japan was a villain during WWII, but whose historial point of view is that? Of those who won the war. Winners of the war conveniently stripped the historical facts that are disadvantageous to them. That's a pretty easy thing to do for the winners.


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