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Comparing Japanese and German invasions…

It is tempting to
view the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia through the prism of European
history in the same period. The Japanese are seen as analogous to the Germans;
the Kempeitai to the Gestapo; Asian nationalists who made deals with the
Japanese to Quisling like collaborators; and the mainly Chinese guerrillas to
the resistance. These analogies have some validity. The Japanese state that
emerged after the Meiji Restoration was consciously modelled on Prussia. Japan
was as nationalist, imperialist and aggressive as Imperial Germany. Its fledgling
democracy was vulnerable to military cliques. Excessive reverence for the
Emperor sanctioned  a multitude of
imperialist atrocities. The Japanese rationalised conquest of other Asian
nations as a right granted by their own racial superiority. Japan was the natural
leader of all Asiatic peoples. These analogies become less convincing for one
very significant reason. German occupiers deceitfully appealed to the
nationalist sentiments of chauvinist Europeans whose nations had been occupied
by the Soviet Union (by agreement with Germany) and who shared their vile
hatred of Jews. To be sure, the Japanese regarded all Chinese civilians in
Southeast Asia as ‘hostiles’ and used violence to neutralise this purported
threat. The difference with the Shoah is that the Japanese committed barbaric
atrocities for a limited period of time and had no intention of completely
liquidating ‘the Chinese’. There is another reason to distinguish between
German and Japanese occupation strategy and ideology. The architects of
Japanese expansionism could reasonably claim that they made war not on other
Asians but on their imperial masters, the British, the Americans and the Dutch.
They invaded China not to destroy but reform a decayed civilisation. A Japanese
nationalist put it like this: ‘America and Britain had been colonising China
for many years. We felt Japan should go there… to make China a better country.’
Like the European imperialists, Japan would ruthlessly plunder and exploit the
territories it conquered. But for many Asian nationalists, the shaming expulsion
of the old colonial powers by an Asian nation smashed open a door on a new and
unexpected political landscape. In the medium term, they were surely right.

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