By Stephen Gowans
Japanese politicians and military leaders have been revisiting their country’s wartime history, concluding that Japan’s imperialism wasn’t the bundle of unalloyed negatives the Chinese, Koreans and other East Asians – victims of Japanese aggressions — would have us believe.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted that Japan’s wartime military had never forced East Asian women into prostitution. They had voluntarily signed up as euphemistically titled “comfort women” to service the sexual desires of Japanese soldiers. At least, there was no documentary proof of official coercion, he said.
Trouble is, scores of official documents put the Japanese military at the scene of the crime, building brothels and recruiting women.
Former prime minister Taro Aso enraged Koreans when he said what amounted to, “Oh sure, maybe colonizing Korea wasn’t the best moment of our history, but that’s only if you look at the negatives. We did a lot of good things, too.”
And last week General Toshio Mamogami put a positive spin on Japan’s wartime history when he attributed advances in racial equality to the colonization of Korea and the Imperial Army’s invasions of China, the Philippines, Indochina, Indonesia, and Malaya. In an essay that won a hotel company’s $30,000 “true modern history” contest, the head of Japan’s air force (until he was fired Friday night) wrote:
“If Japan had not fought the Great East Asia War at the time, it might have taken another 100 or 200 years before we could have experienced the world of racial equality we have today.” 
Mamogami’s attributing growing racial equality to Japanese imperialism stirs up memories of Washington painting US imperialism in Iraq as an exercise in dictator-cleansing. Despite the contrived reasons for war, the piles of bodies, and the humanitarian catastrophe that makes Darfur look like a fender-bender, the Iraq predation is supposed to be a net gain for humanity because the dictator and his rape rooms are gone.
What has been most troubling about Mamogami’s views in the US is his thesis that US president Franklin D. Roosevelt tricked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, to justify breaking a pledge he had made to US citizens to stay out of the war.
You might look at it that way. But the game Mamogami is playing, and the one his American counterparts play when they insist the attack on Pearl Harbor was an event of pure infamy that materialized fully-formed out of nothing, is to angelize one side and demonize the other.
The truth is far more complex.
When Japan invaded Mongolia in 1931, and then started moving south through China, it invoked the necessity of cleansing East Asia of Western domination as its justification.
It’s true that Western powers regarded East Asia as theirs to possess (as they did the rest of Asia, Latin America and Africa.) The British were in Malaya and Burma, the French in Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the US in the Philippines and Guam. And China was divided up among European powers into separate spheres of influence.
What the Japanese didn’t say was that while they were driving Western powers out of East Asia, they had no intention of bringing an end to imperialism. Instead, in place of Western imperialism, a new Japanese imperialism would take its place. China would become an exclusive domain of exploitation for Japan.
Washington, then a rising industrial power with few colonial possessions, and a compulsion to find new markets, could hardly regard this development with equanimity, especially since the Nazis were also intent on shutting the US out of their own closed market in occupied Europe.
Washington insisted on an open door in China for its exports and investments and imposed an oil embargo on Japan to give its demand teeth.
The Japanese countered with a demand for reciprocity — an open door in China for an open door in Washington’s informal Central American empire. Washington demurred.
Desperate for a secure source of oil to power its military machine and industrial economy, Japan looked to neighboring Indonesia and Malaya, both of which boasted rich supplies of oil.
But before Japan could secure these prizes, it would have to neutralize the US Pacific Fleet, based at Hawaii. Hence, the attack on Pearl Harbor.
There were, then, no white hats and black hats. Just two imperialist powers, maneuvering for economic advantage. Sure, outright war between the two countries hadn’t broken out before 1941, but in the age of great power rivalries, peace was simply war by other means.
After Japan’s defeat, the US moved to supplant Japan as East Asia’s hegemonic power. Part of Korea was occupied, its nascent national liberation government crushed by US forces in the south, and the US took the imperialist baton from France in Vietnam.
With the blood of millions on its hands, the US government had much to apologize for.
But rather than apologize, one US president, George H. W. Bush, boasted that:
“When I say I’ll never apologize for America, I really believe that. And I believe that we are the most decent, fairest, most honorable country in the world.” 
Bush’s words reflected the same sentiment that lies behind Japanese attempts to salvage their sullied reputation from the rogues’ gallery of history.
When Bush Senior said he’d never apologize for America, US citizens applauded. When Shinzo Abe said Japan hadn’t recruited comfort women, the US Congress passed legislation demanding he apologize for Japan.
It seems that in the US, chauvinism is all right, as long as it’s stamped Made in America. Stamped Made in Japan, it’s deplorable.
But chauvinism of any stripe, US or Japanese, is deplorable. And more than that, it is a con.
People say “we invaded Iraq,” or that they “support our troops,” though they’ve had no say over the decision to dispatch troops to far away lands, and, significantly, reap none of the benefits of military intervention. In the US, Bechtel, Lockheed-Martin, General Electric and other corporate titans do. The rest simply furnish their bodies and pay the taxes to make it happen.
My country right or wrong means nothing more than my government right or wrong, but why should anyone feel compelled to stand behind the wrong decisions of a government they have no practical control over?
The idea that capitalist governments speak in one’s name is equally untenable, unless one happens to be part of the intermarrying elite of investment bankers, corporate board members and corporate lawyers, who, through their virtual monopoly over society’s resources, dominate political life. No capitalist government speaks in my name, or in the names of billions more like me.
“Working men have no country,” remarked a pair of 19th century intellectuals, whose status has recently been elevated by the financial crisis. With corporations dominating political life through their extensive lobbying, funding of policy formulation think tanks, appointments of executives to key political positions, financing of major political parties, and ability to extort concessions from governments by threats of capital flight and strike, ordinary people do indeed have no country – and no reason, therefore, for chauvinism.
1. Blaine Harden, “WWII Apologists Persist Despite Japanese Policy,” Washington Post, November 3, 2008.
2. “The Republicans ‘I’ve Been Underestimated’”, Time, August 2, 1988. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,968176-1,00.html
2 thoughts on “The Old Chauvinist Con”
As you say, Japan is not, today, an empire, and if it appears as if I suggested it was, I can only fault myself for being unclear.
The nationalism of a nation that has been dominated politically in order to be exploited economically by a capitalist class outside its borders, is very different from the chauvinism of an internally class-divided society. In the former case, nationalism reflects the unity of an oppressed people against their common oppressor; in the latter, it obscures class division and binds the oppressed class to its oppressor.
This article makes some very good points but I get the impression that Japan is equated to the US as an empire in the present day. This is not quite so.
Another point that has to be addressed is the Japanese
punishment of the WWII apologists.
On the question of Marx on the national question,
He also noted that a “nation that oppresses another cannot itself be free”.
I have not fully resolved this conundrum in Marx’s thinking. The issue of not belonging to a country but being a subject in an empire surely resolved by an anti-imperialist identity that is part in parcel of
international working class solidarity, that defends
countries as such against in imperialism, and thus gives forms of nationalism a revolutionary content.