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Japan and the Century Since World War I

By Alex Calvo

Almost seventy years after the guns fell silent, the Pacific War still haunts Japan in many ways. While the country’s reconstruction took place successfully, and Tokyo found a place in the Pax Americana underpinning economic growth in the Pacific for decades, historical disputes often make headlines and act as an obstacle to deeper relationships with countries such as South Korea.

However, the Second World War (and the Second Sino-Japanese War) are not the only conflicts in the contemporary era in which Japan has participated, and remembering other wars in which Tokyo fought very differently may be a way to help offer an alternative image of Japan. In particular, the Great War, the First World War, which broke out a hundred years ago, and where Tokyo fought on the Allied side, may allow Japanese scholars and authorities to present the country in a very different light. While this cannot obviate the ultimate need for a historical consensus with other countries concerning the Second World War, it may well provide opportunities for Japan to project soft power, in particular in the period to 2018, with much of the world focused on WWI hundredth anniversary commemorations. In order to achieve this objective, Japan will have to combat the dearth of knowledge about its role in the war not only abroad, but even at home, with many people knowing little about about this aspect of the conflict.

An early indication of Japanese interest in taking part in some such events, highlighting the country’s contribution to Allied military operations in the Great War, was the Fifth Japan-Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations, held on June 11. The resulting joint press release explained that participants had “reconfirmed arrangements for Japan’s participation, through a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel, in the Albany Convoy Commemorative Event in late 2014.” This event will mark the hundredth anniversary of the departure of the first convoy carrying ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand) troops, escorted by HIJMS Ibuki, from the port of Albany in Australia.

Escorting and other naval support duties by the Imperial Japanese Navy are likely to receive much attention for a number of reasons. First of all, they provide the opportunity to stress historical links with countries like Australia, seen by Japan as important security and defense partners, but where memories of prisoner abuse in the Second World War are still alive. Second, the protection of convoys fits with the concept of freedom of navigation, an important component of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign affairs and defense policy narrative. Third, it makes it possible to highlight Japanese naval capabilities without the negative undertones of other historical episodes. In a sense, the First World War is convenient from a heritage and remembrance perspective for Japan, since the country can stress links with Allied nations without prompting unease among the defeated, which did not experience extensive Japanese military operations leaving a bitter legacy.

There are two countries, though, which may to some extent contest Japan’s WWI narrative. In the case of China, Nanjing was also one of the Allies, and made a major contribution in the form of labor to countries like France. It may thus seem that the anniversary may furnish an occasion to see Japanese and Chinese leaders move towards reconciliation, taking advantage of the fact that they fought on the same side. However, Japan also saw the First World War also as an opportunity to become the dominant power in China, issuing the famous “Twenty-One Demands,” and it would not be surprising to see Chinese leaders stressing this aspect and attempting to portray Tokyo’s participation in the war not as a contribution to collective security but as a thinly-disguised attempt to reinforce national power and lay down the foundations for its later expansion into China.

Concerning Russia, which also fought on the Allied side but concluded a separate peace, the main bone of contention may be the Japanese participation in the multinational 1918 intervention in Siberia, with Tokyo’s troops staying until 1925. However, while the long history of foreign invasions is and remains an important factor in Russian culture, Moscow is much less likely to engage in public controversies with Tokyo than Beijing is, and bilateral relations are reasonably good.

To conclude, we can say that over the next four years Tokyo may be keen to highlight its participation in the First World War, implicitly connecting it to currently important concepts such as freedom of navigation and collective security. The memory of the conflict provides an opportunity for Japan to portray its recent history in a much more favorable light than the Second World War does. It is also a chance to reinforce relations with key regional security and defense partners such as Australia.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University.