Why I Described the End of the Greater East Asia War as a Japanese Holocaust
An Interview with Dr. David Williams (Part 2)
"Some Views of Western Experts Who Thought Japan's War Were Justified"


David Williams

One of Europe’s leading thinkers on modern Japan. Born in Los Angeles, he was educated in Japan and at UCLA, and has contributed for many years to the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times. He has taught at Oxford, where he took his doctorate, Sheffield and Cardiff Universities. During twelve of his twenty-five years in Japan, he was an editorial writer for The Japan Times. He is the author of Japan: Beyond the End of History, Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science and Defending Japan’s Pacific War, all published by Routledge.

American Imperialism Took the Form of a Global Policeman

Q: When did American Imperialism start?

A: Americans have objected to the term because the US didn’t have colonies. So Americans invented a new kind of imperialism or global management: an empire of military bases in uneasy alliance with Wall Street. The result was a kind of international policeman. In effect, America has learned to apply the philosophy of the Monroe Doctrine across the world

When did it officially begin? It began probably with the Monroe doctrine in 1823. Once independent, American wanted Europe out of the New World. It wanted a free hand to make decisions about Latin America so that America could be in charge. After nearly a century of dominating Latin America affairs, the whole text of the Monroe doctrine was incorporated in the Versailles Treaty, and thus made to apply to the entire world.

If you did not have American recognition for territorial change, the new borders had insecure legal status. America could apply sanctions. The Open Door was the economic equivalent. It became an extraordinary geopolitical game. Everyone recognized the rules.


Many Countries Lost Sovereignty

This became a practiced strategy repeatedly pursued, all over the world. The result was what the French call our American ‘hyperpuissance’, the world’s unique superpower or hyper-power that decided things. That’s why inevitably British sovereignty was curbed, German sovereignty was diminished, and Japanese sovereignty was eliminated.

It had to be for a liberal world order to function under Washington’s leadership. No one could be able to challenge America. That’s why modern-day China has been so interesting, and Russia has been, too. They have been asserting the status of their great powers, and Washington has not been accepting it.


The Alternative to America’s Global Hegemony Was the Idea of Independent, Historical Regions

The alternative to a cosmos ruled by a single power could be found in the Kyoto School’s dream of autonomous regions: East Asia, Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, etc. This was what the Japanese wanted in 1941, a world composed of historical regions independent from each other. This Japanese idea as an idea was perfectly reasonable, but American power trumped this vision.


The Japanese Do and Don’t Want Sovereignty

Q: Have you been focusing on the notion of subjectivity because the Kyoto school embraced that notion? Other than war or appeasement, there were alternatives both then and now.

A: Yes, there were alternatives. Thus, I regularly pose this question to my Japanese friends: “Do you want Japan to have subjectivity (shutaitsei)? Most educated Japanese, certainly of my generation, will have at least a vague idea of what subjectivity means.

For any Anglo-American, this is a quite intriguing question because ‘subjectivity’ is not part of our philosophic vocabulary in the Anglosphere (eigoken). In contrast, almost any educated continental European will grasp this concept.

I’ve asked them (my Japanese friends), and the most interesting answer came from a man who was a middle ranking executive in an oil company. He said, “Of course, I want Japan to have subjectivity, but I’m not sure Japan wants it now.”

He was worried about taking on the pre-1945 burdens again. He wasn’t confident in his own mind whether his countrymen would be willing to pay the price for managing Japan’s affairs independent of the United States. Of course, he’d love Japan to be autonomous, but…


People Who Understand the War Know That Japan Lost Its Sovereignty When It Surrendered

I thought this answer was very revealing. Back in the 1990s I had argued, perhaps naively, the case for Japanese subjectivity. So my friend’s answer struck me as odd.

More recently, I began to understand the war better. The Greater East Asian War had decided the matter. In 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, sovereignty went; and subjectivity went with it.

Until this situation is reversed, or changed, there will only be partial restoration of sovereignty and subjectivity. Hegel, the German philosopher who as much as anyone invented the idea of subjectivity, insisted that one had to fight for it. Curiously, Japan would regain its sovereignty if the Americans sailed home tomorrow, but will the country be ready to meet the resulting challenge?

Think back to the First Gulf War. On the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, there was apparently no one on duty in the Japanese Prime Minister’s office, no one at all. In Britain or France, this would have been unthinkable.

Was it some failure in Japanese crisis management? In one sense, I envied the Japanese who were so relaxed about such things, but it cost Japan thirteen billion dollars because Tokyo was psychologically so ill-prepared for this kind of crisis. Whatever its limitations, prewar Japan could have coped with such an emergency. Something mastered after the Meiji Restoration has been unlearned since 1945, but it could be learned again.

The Japanese do have the mental toughness to do things in crises, but when the Great Hanshin earthquake occurred, and when Fukushima happened, people could see a system that wasn’t quite responsible for itself.

Q: No subjectivity?


Pre-War Japan Had a Much Stronger, More Capable Government

A: Not, ‘no’ subjectivity, but not enough. Pre-war Japan would have dealt better with it. This has been one of the contrasts between prewar and postwar that even liberal historians have had to accept.

In many ways, pre-war Japan was more Japanese than postwar Japan. In a sense, “Shutai” (subjectivity) was clearer then. Sovereignty was more genuine. Prewar Japan was still a modernizing society. Prewar Japan was less secure, less peaceful, and less wealthy, but it was trying to master its own affairs. In some ways it could cope better because it had to.

Every East Asian who respected Imperial Japan admired this demonstrated subjectivity. People wanted subjectivity for China, Korea, and Vietnam. The Japanese experience showed that it was possible. It was enormously encouraging to nationalists and patriots in those countries, but it didn’t make modernity and independence any easier to achieve.


Even as Part of the United Kingdom, Wales Needs To Enhance Its Subjectivity

Let me cite a European example. I now live in Wales, a nation of three million people. It has been a dependency of England for a very long time. It’s just acquiring more autonomy. It’s finding it difficult to learn to manage its affairs well. As a people, the Welsh need to be more responsible for themselves, and that means making mistakes and learning the necessary lessons from those mistakes.

If Scotland becomes independent, Wales may have of necessity to manage its own affairs should England grow weary of the task and the expense. Managing one’s own affairs is not a romantic nationalist dream; it is a set of skills that has to be learned.

Above all, it demands a particular attitude, an outlook, a certain discipline of mind. If we in Wales make a mistake, the cry should not be, “Oh, London help us!” Nor can we blame others when we fail. Not if a nation wants true subjectivity, true sovereignty. Likewise Japan should stop saying, “Washington save us.”


The Alliance Between Japan and Germany Did Not Help with Japan’s Mission To Create a Buffer Zone Between the Soviet Union and the Rest of Asia

Q: My next question is related to the difference between Germany and Japan in the Greater East Asian War. During the time of the war, Japan was an ally of Germany. China has recently been criticizing Japan, saying that at the time Japan was allied with Germany, it was fascist. What were the fundamental differences between Japan and Germany back then?

A: Let’s leave the Chinese response to the side, and just deal with the relationship between Japan and Germany first.

The Kyoto School, Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, and his faction of the Imperial Navy opposed an alliance with Germany and Italy because they could see no strategic advantage for Japan. It didn’t make Japan stronger.

Yonai’s opponents in the Foreign Ministry who were for an alliance, and those in the Army and in certain circles of the Navy said, “No, it will frighten the United States. It’ll make the United States more careful.”

Yonai’s critics were probably wrong. The Axis alliance made the United States more determined. Curiously, the Army was in favor of an alliance with Germany, but the Imperial Army’s strategy did not rely on Germany except in connection with the problem of the Soviet Union, which the alliance didn’t help to solve, at least from a naval perspective.


Germany Wasn’t a Sovereign Country in the Early Twentieth Century

Leaving the Hitler question aside, Germany’s experience at Versailles was like Japan’s experience in 1945. The canals and rivers of Germany were internationalized, and controlled by the allied powers like Okinawa still effectively is.

Germany was autonomous, and supposedly sovereign, but its sovereignty was enormously impaired because of its financial payments to France and other countries. You had this game of play-pretend fictions in which Germany was nominally independent, nominally sovereign, but other countries took away a lot of its sovereign rights. The strategy was invented, largely by the Americans (with French help), largely under Wilson, and largely in 1919 / 1920. Twenty-five years later, it was applied to Japan.


The Tensions Between Japan and the United States Began with the Russo-Japanese War

The Pacific War did not begin with Pearl Harbor. The war did not begin with Manchuria. The struggle actually began with the Russian-Japanese War, and most importantly with the First World War because in 1919, at Versailles, the treaty negotiations produced the first evidence of how America began its march to unipolar domination. In the end, Japan would have to relinquish its empire because America would tolerate no great power rivals.


‘War Crime’ Was an American Invention First Used Against Germany, Then Japan

The Germans were the first people to be accused of war crimes. The Kaiser was blamed for starting the war; he was the first ‘war criminal’. Wilsons’ lawyers at Versailles demanded the Kaiser be tried as a war criminal. This was something entirely new in European or international law. Europeans thought the idea was bizarre, after about a year, London and Paris gave up bothering about the Kaiser, who was living in Dutch exile.

Nevertheless, the liberal revolution in international law launched by Wilson gradually took hold as the moderate doctrine of ‘just enemies’ was replaced by the unsparing doctrine of ‘just war’. The old restraints on the conduct of war were brutally eroded, first by the Axis and then by the Allies. The war crimes tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo were the result. After 1945, liberal international law became a pillar of America’s global hegemony, and vice versa.


Ernst Nolte, a German Historian Who Wanted To Restore the Dignity of Germany

Ernst Nolte was a famous revisionist German historian, who was also very well-known in Japan. I met him in Nagoya, or maybe it was in Tokyo, when I interviewed him for The Japan Times after Professor Helmut Wagner arranged for me to meet him.

Reading through Professor Nolte’s major works in preparation for the interview, I concluded that at the root, Nolte wanted to demonstrate that whatever their failings, Germans were not in essence evil. This feeling motivated his determined search for non-German origins for the horrors of the Third Reich. But this stance immediately raised the issue of the Holocaust, so the first question I put to him had to be: “Do you accept that the Holocaust happened?” And he replied, “Of course, it happened, however, let’s talk about other things.”

Nolte admitted what was wrong, was wrong. Then he said, “Well, let’s look at the causes. Let’s examine the details of the war more closely.” He stooped to conquer.

I respected him even though he was very controversial. Many people hated him. He said to me, “You become your own kind of revisionist. You don’t have to be my kind, but you become your own kind.” I was very encouraged.

Because of his encouragement, when the magazine ‘The Liberty’ contacted me, I thought, “Ok, you’re encouraging me. Even if we disagree, and Ernst Nolte and I disagree, and perhaps you and I disagree, we can talk sensibly about things. That’s a good thing.”


The Jews Who Japan Saved from the War in Germany Didn’t Regard the Japanese as Anti-Semitic

Well, oddly enough, a number of these European Jews that escaped to Japan ended up in the United States. Some of them became famous. I interviewed one of them, a man who was from a family that was saved because they were able to get from Russia to Japan, who later became a member of the cabinet of President Bush Senior.

His attitude was measured, “We were grateful because, however racial minded we thought the Japanese were, they weren’t toward us.”


Truth and Reconciliation

East Asian military history has been a brutal story. Cities have been sacked. Civilians have been killed. Battles have been fought to the death. Captured people have been slaughtered or made slaves. This past has provided the most persuasive standard and precedent for understanding the brutalities of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the final phase of the Chinese Civil War which followed.

Maybe it is an instinctive impulse to conclude the same crime committed by a foreigner is worse. Certainly many Chinese seem sanguine about the brutalities of the civil war between Mao’s forces and the KMT but quite unforgiving about Japanese conduct during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

But finally we are all human beings. Whatever one calls it, the savage struggles on the Asian continent between 1937 and 1945 were horrible. Both sides did terrible things. The Japanese had the upper hand, and so they had more opportunities to do more bad things. They did bad things.

Nevertheless, if we are objective, we listen to all the victims. Every voice needs to be heard victim and perpetrator alike. That is the first indispensable step of the process of ‘truth and reconciliation.’

We talk about the people who were in charge fairly, not like the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. We listen properly to all sides. We listen not in order to judge or punish or even to understand, but merely to listen. And having listened, we try to come up with some historical compromise that makes sense to everybody up to a point, if possible, and we draw a line. We must move on because our memories should not poison the lives of the living.

The second step is to honor the dead on all sides. If monuments and ceremonies are judged useful, we must organize them. If someday someone very important in Japan needs to go to Nanjing, well then, have that person go. If an American President needs to come to Hiroshima, let the president come. If the Chinese victims of the Chinese Civil War are gradually being commemorated, we can learn to do the same for all the victims of the Greater East Asian War, from Seoul to Rangoon. In this way, we will honor the dead, but mainly we find ways to free ourselves of the poison of the past. This is vital.


My View of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal

Q: Japanese people are still trapped in the mindset of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. What is your view of this?

A: The way I was raised and educated made me a historian who firmly believed that such war crime tribunals were based upon sound legal and moral foundations. But I gradually became uneasy about this assumption when I worked for The Japan Times.

Every year in August, like other Japanese newspapers, we published an editorial to honor the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as well as to mark the anniversary of the end of the war. One year someone senior remarked that when we ask people to remember the horrors of the atomic bombings it is also important that we not forget the horrors of the conventional bombings of the Japanese cities, like the great fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945.

Over the years my unease grew. Later, when I read Carl Schmitt, the theorist on national sovereignty and international law, the logic of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal became clearer. For example, before Versailles, wars weren’t unjust in Europe.

Q: There were no war crimes?

A: No, there was no concept of war crimes. Even if there were bad things done during wars, atrocities for example, every treaty ended, as I understood it, with an amnesty clause that forgave each side. War was a sin and therefore immoral, but it was not, strictly speaking, a crime.

In response to the horrors of the Wars of Religion, thoughtful Europeans turned against the philosophy of just wars. The whole idea that “I fought a just war; God was on my side” was rejected because everybody thinks God is on their side. European jurists insisted that, in conflicts between Europeans, my enemy should be viewed as a just enemy. Furthermore because he was a just enemy, I had to treat him with humane restraint.


Wilson Promoted a View of Just Wars with Unjust Enemies

Between 1648 and 1918, wars were not just because people couldn’t say who was. The Europeans gave up trying to decide. They said, “The Pope can’t decide, nobody can decide. Ok, we just won’t say war is moral. It’s morally neutral. We won’t ask why you’re going to war. If you do it, we’ll hope it’s constrained. Civilians, leave them alone. Neutral countries leave them alone.” That kind of thinking made war less terrible.

At Versailles, Wilson revived just wars, of moral crusades to end all wars. There were reasons why he did it, and why Europeans accepted it, but the consequence was that within a generation, enemies of the United States became unjust enemies against whom anything could be done.

The Pacific War was a prime example of the new attitude. Americans fire bombed Japanese cities relentlessly, and used two atomic weapons. In this sense, Wilson’s most consequential heir was Curtis Le May and his strategy of bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age.


Invented Law Made War Criminals of State Officials

With astonishing speed and clarity of purpose, American policymakers reinvented international law during and after the Pacific War. For example, the entire 1941 cabinet that approved the Japanese decision to go to war was arrested because they had approved the decision. Before 1918, this would have never happened. It would have been unthinkable.

Japan was a sovereign country. To declare war was a terrible thing, but it wasn’t illegal. How could Americans have arrested people for violating a law that did not exist in 1941?

How could Americans have made war criminals of people who were state officials? There was a lot of law invented at the time, and it seemed reasonable to American and British jurists then, but looking back now, as a historian, these invented laws did not qualify as law.

Q: Do you know Justice Pal? He was the only Indian participant in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. He was very concerned about the abuse of legal procedures to aid the prosecution at the expense of the defense.


Unthinkable Legal Procedures Created Problems Between Japan and America

A: The French judge at the Tokyo Tribunal also had serious qualms because of the rooted European legal principle that there could be no crime, and no punishment, if no law was violated. But even in the United States, it was inconceivable to have a trial in which the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, and the executioner were all the same people. It was juridical nonsense.

Americans thought about the Japanese prewar conspiracy, and they decided that the historiography of the vast effort to prove this conspiracy was not plausible because it was not scientific. Americans made up their minds that Japan’s past deeds justified doing those things, but legally it marched us down the road to the legalization and legitimization of America’s global hegemony via the slippery slope of victor’s justice.

This conclusion is not moral judgment; it is a statement of fact.


General Yamashita Was Not a War Criminal

For example, as I understand it, General Yamashita was accused of the Rape of the Philippines in Manila in 1945. Basically, Japanese army discipline disintegrated. The city was in chaos, and a lot of bad things happened.

General Yamashita was executed after the war as a war criminal, but he wasn’t. He had lost control of his army. He didn’t order his soldiers to kill anyone. Yet, he was tried and convicted, not for anything he did do or failed to do, but because he was there and supposedly in charge. When I ask legal scholars “Did that make sense?” they tend to reply, “Well, actually, you can just about, sort have, maybe, no.”


Angry People Made Accusations Against the Japanese at the Tokyo Tribunals, Which Were Not Fair-Minded

When I have said that the Tokyo Tribunal was poor justice and worse history, liberals and pacifist have cried, “Oh, you’re defending war criminals.” I’ve replied, “You’re being emotional. Historians do not take sides.”

The history between Versailles and the San Francisco Treaty was less than 30 years long. Legal ideas invented during those three decades were, nevertheless, very influential. Postwar international law would be unthinkable without the foundations erected between 1918 and 1946. The development of the International Criminal Court and an extraordinary revolution in international criminal law followed.

We now live in that world. Maybe we have to accept it. Maybe finally it is the right thing. As a historian, it is my job to tell you the facts, warts and all. Many people are still angry about the war. It is hard to reason with those angry people. If you had said, “We must not let the past poison the present,” they might have responded, “Oh, it was easy for you to say that. You didn’t suffer.”


Become Well Versed in the Facts of the War Before Becoming Emotional

The history of international law before Versailles provides the most compelling approach to the Tokyo Trial. It makes people better informed and less emotional.

Q: It also gives people good reason to think about the events again, doesn’t it?

A: Yes, and to think about Japan’s own position in the global legal system. That’s good. We must live in the world together, so international law has to be made to work.


To Be an Honorable Nation, Japan Must Someday Revise Its Peace Constitution

Q: We want to amend Article 9. The GHQ (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) actually created it. What’s your view of Article 9?

A: Article 9 was a complete denial of Japanese sovereignty. Before 1919, it would have never happened because the right to make war was and has remained the definition of national sovereignty. If a country renounced that right, it didn’t have sovereignty any more.

Article 9 looked entirely plausible if you didn’t tackle the sovereignty question: “Does Japan really want to exercise it again?” When Japan does, Article 9 and the preamble will have to go.

The Japanese elite have been complicated in their attitudes towards sovereignty. The war was demanding, and there was a lot of suffering. The country was ruined, and at some point they thought, “Oh, enough, let somebody else do it.”

When I talk with my Japanese classmates, who are usually on the left politically and frequently pacifists as well, I sometimes urge the abolition of Article 9. And they respond, “But since 1945, no Japanese soldiers have died and our solders haven’t killed anyone else”. International peace keeping aside, this is true.

It is a fact that Japan has been at peace for a long time. Given Japan’s martial tradition, which is samurai, to have no one die on the battlefield for so long is a kind of miracle. In a way it is wonderful, and in another, it means that other people die to keep the peace, and the Japanese don’t. And this means the Japan is not independent. I don’t think this is honorable.

Japan will be responsible for its own affairs again someday. When the Americans leave, Japan will have to. Modern Japan is a product of a particular situation that is real, but it will not last forever. Indeed, if and when the Japanese are attacked by one of their neighbors, the whole moral commitment to Article 9 will die.

If one North Korean missile falls on Tokyo, it will be all over. Washington must understand that the present Constitution rests entirely on America’s ability and willingness to protect Japan. As I warned in the pages of the Los Angeles Times many years ago, “If we don’t defend Japan, Article 9 is dead.”

Finally I must confess that I don’t think a country as great as Japan should live with Article 9. The Japanese should learn to manage their affairs, but I’m not Japanese. That’s just my feeling about it, and I listen to my Japanese friends who say, “We Japanese don’t miss having sovereignty.”

Q: I hope that kind of opinion will become the majority opinion in Japan. Do you know about General MacArthur’s testimony after the war? When he was faced with the threat of the Korean War, General MacArthur testified that security largely dictated Japan’s decision to enter the Second World War. Do you think the American people should be more aware of MacArthur’s perspective? Isn’t this testimony still unknown to the American people?


The Dropping the Atomic Bombs Was Unnecessary

A: The Smithsonian Institute Museum in Washington D.C. (Air and Space Museum) planned an exhibition for the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War that included part of the “Enola Gay”, the B-29 that destroyed Hiroshima. The exhibitors planned to include, among many other things, photographs of the damage and testimony of the victims. Also to be exhibited were quotations from several very famous Americans, including Eisenhower and MacArthur, which expressed doubts about the necessity for the bomb.

The exhibition was abandoned because veterans’ groups pressured politicians in Congress to remove any historical documents that questioned the orthodox story of WW2. They demanded that Eisenhower’s comments be removed so the American visitors to the exhibition would not see them.

Do you understand why? Americans fought a moral crusade, a good and just war. They didn’t want to be told their sacrifice was grey or black. The very idea offended them. This attitude has persisted to even now. Textbooks, public discussions, and educational television have been very careful to censure presentations about the war. This was Woodrow Wilson’s curse.


The Facts of the War Offend How Both Sides Regard Themselves

French people have a word, ‘amour-propre’, which means self-regard. You have it. I have it, everybody has it. The ‘amour-propre’, the self-regard of America, is offended by some of the facts of the Pacific War, the Greater East Asian War.

Americans should be told about what was done and what wasn’t done objectively. What applies to America, applies to all of the countries that fought in the Pacific War, Japan, China, Korea, and every country. There can be no exceptions. Every country needs to learn the facts.


Both Sides Committed War Crimes During WW2

I have repeatedly attempted to bring balance to discussions of the Pacific War in Europe and in the United States. This was the principal reason that I have been using the expression, the ‘Japanese Holocaust’, to describe the American air war against Japanese cities.

When I’ve urged balance on my audiences, I’ve sometimes cited a contemporary film of Japanese prisoners of war being dumped out of an Australian aircraft over New Guinea several thousand feet in the air. They were being murdered.

If the film was accurate, this was a war crime. I’ve asked my audiences, “Wasn’t this a war crime? Shouldn’t those Australians have been tried?” Their responses have been very revealing.

“Oh,” they’ve said with anger, “Our boys fought heroically against the Japanese aggressors.”

Legally this attitude is intolerable. The law is the law. It applies to all. If international law does not apply to this incident, it applies to no one. We cannot have it both ways.

Just to get people to imagine the very idea of applying war crime law to both sides is resisted because people don’t want to feel in any way discomforted by the story of the war. In this way WW2 has become a comforting fiction, a great war as myth. But this is a struggle revisionist historians are going to win because truth is on their side.


Historians Describe What Happened

When I wrote that book called ‘Defending Japan’s Pacific War’, I expressed the following sentiment: “Let’s talk about the good things the Japanese did as well as the bad. Let’s talk about the bad things America did as well as the good.” Let us be fair. After sixty years, I thought that morally we could afford to be fair.

That was in 2004. But more recently I read an English historian’s how-to-do-history kind of book, written in the 1930s by Herbert Butterfield. He said history was not about taking sides. Indeed he insisted that historians must not take sides. The historian tries to establish the truth. Balance is not the point. The goal of objective history is to describe what really happened (sono tori).


Balance is the First Step Toward Truth and Reconciliation for the Victims of War

Nevertheless, for truth and reconciliation, the first goal should be just that: balance. Ok, Americans think the Japanese did bad things, and I think that the Japanese did bad things. But so did everybody else. It was this terrible and terrifying thing we call “war”.

Without repeating the errors of the Tokyo Tribunal, let’s re-examine the evidence in public forums. Let’s have exhibitions for both sides. Let us give all sides an opportunity merely to be heard. Such forums may be controversial. There may be tensions. But through this process we may achieve what we have yet to achieve in our understanding of the Asia-Pacific War: balance. That’s the middle stage.

In the end, as a historian, I want objectivity. I want the facts. Balance is not enough. I want the truth, but for the in-between stages, fairness will suffice. Balance means that at least part of the story should be credible to the Japanese themselves. I include those veterans and those who experienced the war. Their stories need to be told, everybody’s story, however inconvenient it is.

I have a modest example. I had a close Japanese dorm mate when I was a university student in Japan. He took me to Hokkaido, and we stayed with his aunt and uncle in Sapporo. We slept upstairs on futons and there were wooden beams above us. It was an old wooden house. It was a windy night, and there was a creaking noise from the wood which was badly distressed.

I asked my classmate, “What’s that?” He said, “I don’t know,” so he went downstairs to check, and he returned with a big smile. “That is war damage. Your country did that when your country bombed this city. It was a big nasty plane.” He was teasing me. Every time he said ‘your country’ he laughed more.

More seriously, think of the scene. This student and his relations had me in their home even though my countrymen had strafed it. To me, that was a beginning of truth and reconciliation because I thought they were very generous and understanding. The way in which it was funny made it human, although it must have been terrifying when it happened.

Q: Concerning the Enola Gay, weren’t you the first person to describe the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a Japanese Holocaust? It was actually a shocking expression to the Japanese because Japanese historians have not touched the issue in this way, but in viewing the events in a fair way, I think you were really right.


If It Was Not Genocide, What Was It? The Motives for the Fire-Bombing of Tokyo

A: Yes, I believe I am the first historian to describe the terror bombing of Japanese cities during the Pacific War as a ‘Japanese holocaust’. The idea came to me when I had worked for The Japan Times during the 1990s: all those editorials about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the other fiftieth war anniversaries. My boss I mentioned earlier, the one who stressed the horrors of the conventional bombing, went on to say “Tokyo was awful, the firebombing.” He then added grimly, “Nobody talks about it, nobody. Yet the Tokyo firebombing was absolutely appalling.”

Then I began to think more about it, and I asked old residents of Tokyo that I had known what they remembered of the attack, the flames, the explosions, the screams, and later the stench of death.

I read records of survivors and military assessments of the raid. I wanted my colleagues to wake up to the immense horror that we, the Allies, the supposed good guys in white hats, inflicted on the civilian population-children, grannies and pets-of the Japanese capital with indiscriminate bombing of the most savage kind. Then I took my findings to academic conferences where I said, “Do you know how many civilians died in those attacks? Don’t you know that the bombing civilian targets was illegal and against international law?” And I was greeted with silence.


The Japanese Holocaust

So I said to myself, “Ok, if you’re going to deny it, and refuse to talk to me, I will make you listen.” It was then and only then that I settled on the phrase “the Japanese holocaust.” It came to me when I heard yet another orthodox historian of the Pacific War say, “The Japanese brought it on themselves” with the callous confidence of the anti-Semite who says, “The Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves”.

Yet the mass murder of Japanese civilians was not a form of genocide. So why did those thousands of people have to die? It took a close reading of Carl Schmitt and Bruno Teschke to understand the American motive for the mass murder of civilians. I finally saw the purpose of it. The fire storms of March 9th and 10th in 1945 formed an indispensable part of what I call in my new book, The Philosophy of Japanese Wartime Resistance, “a liberal war of annihilation.”


The Pacific War as a Liberal War of Annihilation

Japan had to be threatened with annihilation to force the country unconditionally to surrender so that America could remake Japanese society by occupying it, and having occupied it, transform Japan into something liberal, unthreatening, and compliant.

Terror bombing wasn’t an accident. It was a strategy. The goal was to flatten Japan morally, politically, and militarily. That’s what the logic was. How else could one explain the photos of the burnt out, ruin of mostly working class Tokyo-Kiba, Asakusa, and the rest-after B-29s dropped some 1,665 tons of incendiaries on a city built of paper and wood?

The holocaust argument might have been missing the point because it wasn’t a holocaust in the same sense as Hitler’s, who wanted to eliminate every Jew. The American position was, “We will eliminate one Japanese city after another until the Japanese are putty in our liberal hands.” So the means were genocidal means, but not the intent. America threatened Japan with annihilation to gain a political goal.

The expression “Japanese holocaust” has remained very powerful, but I understand better now what the history was really about. My thoughts have moved on about it because I’ve accepted that moral judgments are not sound, that is objective history.


Looking at Tragedies as Natural Disasters

This goes back to the holocaust thing and your response to the holocaust. Before 1945, if something terrible like the war had happened in Japan, it would have been understood in the way the Great Kanto Earthquake was, as a force of nature. “Terrible, I lost my children. I will always miss them, but it happened.” There’d be no complaining about the fairness or morality of the earthquake, because it was a natural disaster.

The bombing of the cities was accepted by the population as a kind of man-made ‘natural disaster’. Of course, you could say the B-29 attacks were war crimes, but I haven’t found that to be the Japanese reaction. Hiroshima / Nagasaki, with the nuclear radiation poisoning, the lingering death, that has been harder.

However, East Asians have accepted political tragedy much in the same way as natural disasters. Therefore, there has been less of a tendency to accuse and blame. Europeans have gone on and on, and still go on complaining because they’ve seen their tragedies as moral.


Japan Is in a Cocoon

The Japanese have been in a postwar cocoon. Someday they’ll break out, something new will happen. Maybe they’re ready now. Maybe they’ll be ready tomorrow. I don’t know, but it’ll happen.

In Japanese history these islands have been independent forever. The Japanese have made their own culture and made their own way. The Japanese will return to that tradition. When Japan returns, it will be as a changed country, but it will return.

The word that I use, which is never used nowadays, is honorable, that is a condition at once true and worthy of respect. For any process of truth and reconciliation to work, a place for this sense of honor must be found.


American Veterans of the Second World War Still Think of Their Service as Honorable

When I’ve talked with American veterans, I almost always have had the sense that they’ve believed that their wartime sacrifices were honorable. Whatever else they were, whatever anybody else thought, whoever else suffered on the other side, their sacrifices were honorable.

Q: In his autobiography, President Hoover criticized President Roosevelt’s reasons for entering the war. What was the American cause to enter the war? Was it to realize democracy in the world?

A: Obviously, like Japanese diplomacy at the time, America’s situation was complicated. Roosevelt was a very secretive person, he never told anybody anything. He was so very hard to read, and it was difficult to understand what his intentions were.

His cabinet officials used to tell each other, “We don’t know what the president is thinking.” So, it’s been hard to say for sure as a historian, but I would bet that Roosevelt’s strategy could be traced back to President Wilson’s and his resurrection of ‘just war’ at Versailles.


Wilson’s Slogan; Ending All Wars with America in Charge

Wilson thought the only way to end the war was to have a final war. He wanted to create an international system which would keep the peace by suasion or force, but the main arguments against seeing the continuity in American geo-strategy between Versailles and Pearl Harbor have been the influence of American isolationism.


The Theories on American Isolationism Missed the Point; Plan Orange Was Consistent from 1908

If Japan hadn’t been expanding, and if Germany hadn’t been pushing, America would have stayed on the sidelines, and there would have been no Pacific War. This self-serving orthodox theory has missed the point.

Granted WW1 was costly and the results were morally unsatisfactory from an American point of view: too many messy compromises with devious Europeans. This contributed to the growth of pacifist feeling. The cry “No more wars, we don’t want war” was, like in Japan after 1945, very strong in the US during 1920s and 30s. But isolationism would not have been an objection to American involvement in the world if America could have run the world. How feeble American isolationism has been since 1945.

In any case, key members of the US elite rejected the pacifist argument. The Navy Board, the international lawyers serving successive interwar presidents, and the bankers who attempted to bankrupt Japan before Pearl Harbor laid the foundations for American’s postwar hegemony. Their strategic ambitions were uncompromising.

US Navy planners were determined to make sure that America could win any war with Japan. They were ready: the war strategy that the US Navy pursued during the Pacific War was laid down, in essence, back in 1908 when Plan Orange was drawn up in the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia.

There was sometimes not enough money for Navy shipbuilding and sometimes there was, but the push was the same. The strategy was the same. Elite thinking was clear and consistent, and isolationism spurred on such strategizing because the war planners and the isolationist finally wanted the same thing: irresistible American supremacy.


Roosevelt Wanted Americans To Inherit the World After They Fought in the War

Roosevelt was very mindful of the German threat, but he didn’t mind Europe exhausting its powers fighting itself, just as long as the British didn’t quit the war. Only an exhausted and bankrupt Britain would be a compliant postwar Britain. He didn’t want the Americans to do anything until the US could inherit the world because he thought it was best for the world. He honestly and sincerely believed this. Roosevelt had his strategy, which was to get into the war at the most convenient time. This was Realpolitik American style, and orthodox historians have rarely faced up to this truth.


The U.S. Position Forced Japan To Fight the War

Determined not to fire the first shot, Roosevelt skilfully pushed Japan to the brink. Washington refused to accept any Japanese action that enhanced Japanese national security and status as a Great Power. Like Britain, Roosevelt was determined to keep China fighting because an exhausted and bankrupt China would be a compliant postwar China.

When the Japanese took de facto control of French Indochina, Washington imposed an oil and steel embargo on Japan. It was not tightly enforced but it caused panic among Imperial Navy planners. Then Secretary of State Hull sent his famous diplomatic note demanding Japanese withdrawal from Indochina, Manchuria, and China.

Tojo was appalled when he read the Hull Note. It was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine and Wilson’s vision of a liberal world order under American hegemony. Hull was declaring that the US was now the arbiter of the Western Pacific. Washington would henceforth decide which territory Japan was to keep or lose.

The Hull Note marked the beginning of the end of Japanese sovereignty and Great Power privileges. It mocked Shidehara diplomacy and all the other liberal-minded Japanese efforts after Versailles to appease Washington’s vaulting ambitions.

Roosevelt was a brilliant strategist who held all the cards. The only way Tojo could have prevented the violent deconstruction of the Japanese Empire was to surrender without a fight. But he was a man of honor who refused. His was the patriot’s cry: liberty or death. Either way the empire was lost. The United States would have picked at it until it got rid of it.

Q: Would Japan have become colonized?


The New American World Order and the Roles of Other Countries in It

A: No, Japan would have become what it is today: a willing and prosperous vassal of the American global order. It would have been a protectorate. America would have protected Japan, and Japan would have done as it was told.

In some ways, it would have been worse than being a colony, and in some ways, it would have been better. In a good sense, Japan would have at least been able to run its own internal affairs. Colonies don’t usually run their own internal affairs. In a bad sense, the Japanese would have been under an illusion about how much freedom they had.

Q: So many years have already passed…

A: Yes, so many years, and so much opposition to the facts. It’s been very sad.

Q: You frequently cited Max Weber’s phrase, “inconvenient facts.”

Sharing the Real Facts of the War Will Make People Less Emotional and Act Saner

A: Yes, inconvenient facts, let’s have them. Everybody will be inconvenienced. That’s called living in the post modern world. Everybody’s inconvenienced, but rather inconvenient facts than convenient lies. Let’s make the world a little bit safer and saner. Even if we don’t like each other, we have to get on with each other. That’s the best we can hope for.

(The end of interview)


Why I Described the End of the Greater East Asia War as a Japanese Holocaust
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