From Brighton through Bangalore to Nagasaki: why Japanese Imperialism?

As an academic person, I have always assumed that I will one day pursue a PhD. I fell into my undergraduate and I stumbled into my Master’s, so it just seemed natural I’d slip into a PhD at some point in my life.

So sitting at a hotel bar in Chamonix at the conclusion of my Master’s year, enjoying a trip with my dad to the French Alps, I started composing the beginnings of a PhD thesis. The bartender was loose with the tequila and the ideas were flowing. I soon crafted the outlines to explore how Western philosophy has attempted to capture the paradoxical phenomenon of freedom in modern, bourgeois society. I thought I had diagnosed a key transition from Rousseau to Hegel, where freedom as an individual was only ever temporarily surrendered for the former (i.e. in moments of great revolution or when dealing with people who absolutely intransigent), whereas freedom for Hegel was only to be found in the most developed form of society, the German state of his day, and required the surrendering of previous notions to fully embrace the present.

(The key was that for Rousseau, some semblance of freedom before modern society was not just acknowledged but considered to be the equal of social freedom. Rousseau would’ve happily damned all arts and culture, which he accurately diagnosed as symptoms of a malignant culture (though without making the more complete charge of diagnosing the nascent imperialism and capitalism). Hegel would’ve acknowledged the benefits of previous forms of society but also pointed out how they collapsed under their own contradictions, so freedom could only be conceived as that which was granted by the (liberal, capitalist) state. This distinction would help capture how we are formally free in a capitalist state, and yet how social control binds us with a force far stronger than any bayonet.)

It was a good idea, and it built solidly on some of the work I had pursued during my Master’s. I didn’t doubt my ability to get funding (at least in Australia) nor did I really question my credentials. It just seemed the thing to do, especially as I didn’t necessarily want to go into corporate or working life, at least not straight away.

Yet a few days on from this initial attempt at a PhD outline, I became increasingly unsure of the idea of squirrelling myself away intellectually into a three-four rut based on some errant post-Master’s reflections. With perhaps more foresight than I usually possess, I realised that signing myself up for a PhD so early on would just have the effect of pigeon-holing myself, foreclosing any new experiences under the sheer weight of academic texts. Life needed to be lived first, with many new journeys beginning.

And so began a new intellectual process, one in which I didn’t feel compelled to have academic hot takes on certain issues, where reading became more to inform myself rather than just trying to ‘nail’ a certain concept in political or sociological language. As clichéd as it sounds, I also put myself in new and interesting situations by travelling around India and learning from activists and academics there (also significantly expanding my bookshelf). I also had the sheer amount of time to pursue some academic texts which I knew would push me in a new direction, putting a critical lens on the imperial underpinnings of all European political theory, including Hegel and Haiti and Foucault in Iran, as well as more recently From the Ruins of Empire.

It takes a long time to uproot old habits, and committing myself to an intellectual project which wouldn’t build itself on the same rotten colonial pretensions of Western political theory was something which required active thought and engagement with the world around me. It also required significant time reading, thinking and rethinking. A commitment towards reading the entirety of Nehru’s Glimpses of World History certainly helped this ‘unmooring’ of history from its traditional trajectories. Once universal history isn’t assumed to tend towards the European state (in whatever form – liberal, social democratic, socialist or fascist) the suddenly open-ended project of history becomes more unwieldy, because so many options which were previously off the table can suddenly be reconsidered. So many political shibboleths have to be un-assumed and reassessed on their own terms.

The practical upshot of this is that it also introduces contingency back into the success of European capitalism, i.e. the progress of ‘liberal democracy’ with its colonial undercurrent suddenly has to be explained, rather than assumed under some particularly chauvinistic and naive interpretations of Hegel. So in addition to explaining the success of the European model of imperialism in the last 300 years, critical historical analysis also has to investigate the failure of other models on their own terms – in my case, mainly that of Asian and African societies. How had the previously these great empires declined vis-à-vis these Western European upstarts? They were not merely superseded by these new challengers – they’d already seen off plenty other rivals in the past – but they frequently collapsed under the weight of their internal contradictions in their attempt to adjust to the rapidly changing global power dynamics. So the Ottoman Empire, Qing Dynasty and Mughal India didn’t simply buckle to the might of the British, French or Dutch when they first arrived on their shores – they instead lost territory and influence over decades and centuries to more militarised and efficient war machines.

It was this element of contingency in history, the realisation that distinctions between ‘West’ and ‘East’ were effectively meaningless, that helped me realise where I could take my research. If all historical laws were just a series of tautologies, only codifying what did happen, not what could have, then investigating this contingency could help uncover and explain a lot of modern history which was otherwise neglected due to it having been swept into the ‘dustbin of history’, a phrase which perfectly captures the presumed irrelevance of the unactualised.

So a lot can be found in our ‘false start’ moments of history, where certain developments could have taken place but did not. This concept should be familiar to any scholars of the Frankfurt School, as it is closely related to Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics, an attempt rid Hegelian methodology of its boorish complicity with the violent victors of history, itself a concept influenced by Walter Benjamin’s re-reading of history as not some set of chronological events, but a fluid series of past atrocities and future political projects, both of which are already visible in our present.

Yet what is more obscure is when certain history-defying events do occur, but are never incorporated into an effective historical or international relations narrative. Naturally historians and political theorists will be forced to create abstractions out of the complexity of real life, but the act of privileging some events above others is a central conceit of particularly international relations scholarship, which uniquely among academic disciplines is an openly partisan social science, in the active pursuit of legitimising state and military actions. To quote a critical IR scholar who I studied under at the University of Sussex:

Here was a whole field of academic inquiry that makes no bones about being directly subservient to state power, in which scholars moved effortlessly between university departments, think tanks, and governmental positions – all united in suggesting ways of how the United States could maintain or enhance its position at the apex of the interstate hierarchy – whether through conflict or cooperation. The result was an intellectual shallowness that struck me from the start as scandalously out of sync with all the standards of social-scientific and historiographical inquiry.

Accordingly, subjects which are not directly relevant to the political calculations of states are not pursued in the academy, as IR’s framework is explicitly designed to support this statecraft. This was what I found when I wrote a Master’s coursework essay on the subject of Japanese Imperialism – not only was it exceptionally difficult to find substantive material, but little had been produced in the last 30 years as it no longer had any relevance to the English-language academy.

Initially, the study of Japan in Europe and the US had grown with its increasing economic and military importance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reaching a peak in the 1930s-40s during the height of the war in China and Europe. Once the war was over however and Japan transitioned from former enemy into valuable trade partner and anti-communist bulwark, the scholarship similarly adjusted to the ‘area studies’ model, analysing Japan’s economy, nation-state and culture as a fixed entity, with various experts and mandarin on call in Western countries to explain developments in the Far East. All pursuit of critical historiography had ended largely by the 1970s-80s, with Japan’s history increasingly taught as ‘one damn thing after another’, leading up to contemporary Japan’s ‘new economic miracle’, without any critical investigation as to how such an arrangement could ever have been made possible.

Obviously all social science is pursued with some end in mind. What is missing however in these fields of study is the critical analysis of Japanese Imperialism as a moment whose relevance in historical terms did not suddenly end in 1945, but had far-reaching possibility beyond its impact on the strategic European and American interests. This is in effect only telling one part of the story, from the perspectives of the then-rulers of East and South-East Asia, disclosing the possibility of alternative accounts from the governed.

For the Japanese example was widely understood and documented by Asian intellectuals of the time, from the Middle East to India to China, as successfully challenging Western imperialism on its own terms, as ‘the one that got away’. Both Europeans and Asians were highly conscious of Japan’s example, fearing and welcoming respectively the notion that Japan might indeed lead the way into the future for Asians out from the grasps of their colonial clutches. The fact that Japan had merely imitated – and in many senses bettered – its European rivals is something which Japanese nationalists bitterly contest to this day, and was the basis of a famous dissenting opinion by Indian judge Radhabinod Pal in the post-war Tokyo Trials. Upon my visit to the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo earlier this year (with the solidarity and bemusement of my friend Noemi), I encountered a statue dedicated to Pal which commemorated his refusal to accept a ‘victor’s justice’ and the Western desire to humiliate and exact revenge on Japan. Those who are more interested in Pal can watch the Netflix series ‘Tokyo Trial’, where he is played exceptionally by Irrfan Khan.

There is also the historical fact that Japan’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific destroyed the material basis for European imperialism and enabled the rapid decolonisation of the area. Its removal of European governments in the region, accompanied with potent ‘Asia for the Asians’ propaganda, undermined the capacity for Western European nations to maintain hegemony in the region, which was being increasingly ceded to Japan and later, the US. So Japan’s rapid industrialisation is firmly linked with its ability to dictate both national and even regional autonomy, something which did not go unnoticed.

The fact that Japan was able to do this where other countries such as Egypt, Turkey and China had failed is likely down to the fact that Japan was geographically separated from Europe and the US, and had developed a strong unitary state which was capable of administering the bureaucratic and social changes required to rapidly industrialise. Why Japan wasn’t colonised is fairly easy to grasp when one looks at the routes that Europeans had to take to reach it – all the way around the west coast of Africa, beneath South Africa, before making it all the way up through Indonesia to the eventual destination of Nagasaki. Having been lucky enough to visit this famous trading city on a recent trip to Japan, I saw with my own eyes the limited quarters and freedoms that the predominantly Dutch traders had at the artificial island port of Dejima. Japan was able to process the rise of the West on its own terms, with the limited adoption of modern scientific techniques moderated by the continuity of traditional forms of authority. This was a calculation which had paid off by strengthening the national governance of Japan, such that when push came to shove and the US’s Commodore Perry demanded Japan open up to foreign trade in 1853, Japan was in a position to pursue a more effective national strengthening mission than any other Asian nation had been able to in the last two centuries.

This story tells a rarely-known tale that Asian countries could remake their nations and indeed the world in their own image, without appealing to Western examples. While this is something we increasingly see in the early 21st century, this is by no means a novel development, and had several factors of history gone differently – had Japan’s foreign policymakers actually been more interested in regional development than self-interested economic extraction, had more sustained anticolonial efforts been better resourced and pursued earlier (I mean imagine if Bose’s anti-colonial forces in India had actually posed an existential threat to British Raj), and had some kind of genuine rapprochement been reached with both the US and USSR – then it is entirely possible to imagine a still-extant and ferociously powerful Japanese Empire in the Asia-Pacific, in direct control of most of China, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, the Philippines and former French Indochina, with vassal states in India (which would not have been subject to partition without British rule), Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and possibly even Australia and New Zealand (after all, the US only came to our defence as a method of thwarting the Japanese). This tri-polar world would’ve greatly shaped the geopolitics of the post-WWII era in ways difficult to chart – China would potentially have never emerged as a global superpower, the Soviet Union would have had a freer hand in Europe with the US fighting a cold war on two fronts, with potentially an impact on the pace of African decolonisation as well.

Such counterfactuals are never the point of any historical argument, as ‘what if’ remains ‘what if’, but it helps us to understand the contingency of each historical development. In most conventional Japanese historiographies, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is routinely dismissed as a poorly-articulated, latter-day justification for naked geopolitical ambition, and yet similar systems of control – the British Empire, its successor in the Commonwealth, NATO and the Warsaw Pact – are treated with complete sincerity. Japan’s colonial possessions – Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan – were never expected to fully accept or assimilate to the idea of being part of the Japanese Empire, and yet the Anglicisation of South Africa and India is regarded as a successful project because English is an official government language in these countries. Japan’s rule in was militaristic and fascistic, and yet somehow European domination over African and Asian nations is still to this day regarded under the moniker of ‘liberal democracy’ or this misnomer ‘liberal imperialism’, despite the lived reality of genocides, famines and the absolute unaccountability of any soldier or imperial government official. In every instance, acts of Western imperialism are understood in a charitable manner as ‘understandable if not condoned’ whereas Japanese acts – though certainly worthy of condemnation – are cast as rapacious, thoughtless and evil. The fact that this typically concludes with the milquetoast acceptance of the necessity of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrates how poor historical literacy can lead people to adopting the most ethically atrocious arguments with complete sincerity.

This turned out to be a longer post than I had originally anticipated, especially for a subject so self-absorbed, but I feel there’s merit in rigorously justifying why one should take a particular path in their life, particularly for something as all-encompassing as a PhD. My hope is that in pursuing my current research I will be able to correct the course of how imperialism is taught, fill in a glaring hole in the history of modern imperialism and establish more nuance in the relationship between Japanese imperialism and its anti-imperial ambitions and effects. Perhaps such extended periods of reflection between study isn’t recommended for all PhD students – after all, using the institutional basis of your Master’s university to propel yourself into future studies makes a lot of sense – but I think that I am only now capable of producing work which I could be proud of.

Follow-up resources:

Tokyo Trial on Netflix, a worthy account of the issues at hand in war crimes tribunals, through with an irritating focus on the melodrama surrounding the Dutch Judge

A well-written article on Radhabinod Pal by the Madras Courier

From the Ruins of Empire, a highly novel and thoroughly readable account of the intellectual influence of Japanese imperialism and Asian anti-imperial activists.

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