Asia after World War Two
Japan epilogue
author Paul Boșcu, June 2019
World War Two fundamentally changed the destinies of China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia. Each country faced new challenges after the war, often as a direct consequence of the war, challenges that would shape their destinies for decades to come.
The Pacific War did not end with one final and crushing battlefield defeat. The Allied victory was the outcome of relentless pressure that squeezed the life out of Japan's capacity to continue, even though millions of soldiers and civilians were still willing to die for the Emperor. The atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war merely gave the Japanese government the opportunity to surrender.

By July 1945, Japan was under siege from all sides. American and British carriers were conducting strikes against the home islands. American submarines were in the Sea of Japan. Most of Japan's navy had been sunk, and its overseas forces were isolated and surrounded. At home, however, the Japanese army was rapidly forming new divisions to repel the expected American invasion. Soon it numbered about 2 million troops in 60 divisions. But Japan was running low on the equipment, fuel, food, and other resources needed to continue the war.

The double shock of the atomic bombs and the Russian attack decided the issue: three of the six members of the Imperial Council agreed to surrender. The other three wanted to fight on. The Emperor tipped the balance and decided to surrender; on the following day the Japanese government announced that it would accept the Allied terms provided they did not prejudice the prerogatives of the Emperor. The USA responded that the Emperor should be subject to the authority of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. Japan informed the Allies that it accepted the terms. Afterwards several army officers attempted a coup. If the War Minister, General Anami Korechika, had supported the coup it might have succeeded, but he committed suicide, as did other military leaders.

Though handfuls of Japanese soldiers remained in hiding and even sustained guerrilla activity in the Philippines and on remote Pacific islands for months or years, MacArthur and his occupying army were received in Japan with almost slavish obeisance. Many of Hirohito’s warriors who had professed themselves willing to die for their Emperor admitted relief that the sacrifice was not required. Captain Yoshiro Minamoto and thirty crewmen of a kaiten suicide boat unit emerged from hiding on the island of Tokahishi, off Okinawa, in response to American loudspeaker appeals. ‘I wanted everything done properly,’ said Minamoto, ‘so I had everyone wash their fatigues and clean their weapons. I paraded the men, we bowed towards Tokyo and saluted, then I led a group with a white flag towards the American lines. They treated us very well. I felt happy to have survived.’

When the war in the Pacific ended with the Japanese surrender, peace was accompanied by turmoil. In East Asia, the stages of surrender of Japanese forces in widely scattered areas from Burma to New Guinea, from Luzon to Java, was a lengthy and complicated process, followed soon after by new troubles between local nationalist groups and returning colonial powers. Only in Japan itself, ironically, was there a real peace at a time when China was about to dissolve in renewed — or continued — civil war. But everywhere there was at least a sense of hope that, with the end of the fighting, things would somehow be better.

At the war's end, the movement of people caused by the great upheaval did not come to a halt. Millions had been displaced as refugees or deportees, and many of them found it difficult or impossible to go home. In some instances political conditions in their prior home areas had so changed as to make return inadvisable. In other cases, the people who did try to go home found themselves so unwelcome on return that they had to flee once again.

The destruction caused by the war was tremendous. There had been extensive damage in China, especially in the early years of fighting there; there had been great destruction in the Philippines, and much of Manila had been wrecked in the fighting for that city. Innumerable other cities, towns and villages had been dramatically and directly damaged during hostilities. Millions of tons of shipping had been sunk; factories destroyed or damaged; bridges and dams deliberately blown up by one side or the other.

Of all the occupied countries, only Burma, Manchuria and the Philippines had been liberated by Allied armies before Japan’s surrender. Four million Japanese still inhabited China. Already aware of the plight of the Allied POWs and civilian internees, Anglo-American expeditionary forces rushed to the political centers of Asia to rescue POWs and accept Japanese surrenders. Their mission was to ship the Japanese back to the Home Islands as quickly as possible before wars of revenge broke out all over Asia. In Hong Kong, for example, a Chinese mob assaulted the disarmed Japanese as they marched to their ships and killed hundreds — without firearms.

In China, the post-surrender political arrangements produced alliances of a kind between the Japanese Army, the Chinese Nationalists, and the surviving warlords. The Western Allies had designated Chiang Kai-shek the official agent for accepting Japanese surrenders, but the Nationalist armies were still cowed by the Japanese and too poorly armed and too small in number to keep order. Therefore, the Japanese Army remained armed and dangerous throughout the coastal areas of China, while other Japanese forces backed toward the sea and repatriation.

In defeat, the Japanese discovered that the Americans and the Chinese Nationalists could be more malleable victors than the Japanese could ever have imagined, given their own perception of the rights of conquerors. Despite political confusion throughout Asia, the Allies, primarily with American money and Japanese shipping, evacuated 5 million overseas Japanese, all but 500,000 in the first ten months after the surrender.

Japan’s total war dead are estimated at 2.69 million. Chinese historians today seek to increase figures for their nation’s wartime death toll from 15 to 25 or even 50 million. Some 5 million inhabitants of South-East Asia are thought to have perished under Japanese occupation, most of these in Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. None of these numbers are reliable, but they offer an indication of scale. The US Army, meanwhile, lost some 55,145 killed in the Pacific conflict. The US Navy lost 29,263 dead in the east, the Marines 19,163. About 30,000 British servicemen perished in the war against the Japanese, many of them as prisoners.

The most reliable statistics suggest that 185,647 Japanese were killed in China between 1937 and 1941. The Imperial Army lost a further 1,140,429 dead between Pearl Harbor and August 1945, while the navy lost 414,879. At least 97,031 civilian dead were listed in Tokyo and a further 86,336 in other cities, but many more bombing casualties were unrecorded. Over 100,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of the 8 to 9 million war-related deaths among civilians in occupied Asia, hundreds of thousands were Chinese massacred by the Japanese in the 1937-1942 period. Chinese and other Asians who were worked to death in Japanese slave-labor projects throughout the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere certainly numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As the Chinese example shows, defining ‘war-related’ deaths is not easy, and it is especially problematic in dealing with deaths from disease, whether caused by epidemics or malnutrition.

Some 150,000 civilians are alleged to have perished on Okinawa, and 10,000 on Saipan, though these figures are thought by modern Western scholars to have been exaggerated, perhaps as much as tenfold. Anything up to 250,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians died in Manchuria during the icy winter of 1945, after the war ended, along with many more who served as slave laborers for the Soviets in Siberia through the succeeding decade. It can confidently be asserted that Japan’s human losses were vastly surpassed by those of the nations which it attacked and occupied between 1931 and 1945.

The slaughter of civilians in World War II reflected changes in military technology and the capacity of twentieth-century nation-states to direct their vast resources toward waging mass, industrialized warfare. The specter of ‘total war’, glimpsed in the last two years of World War I, moved from the imaginative fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells into wretched reality after 1937. The technology of warfare, especially the refinement of aerial attack, made it possible to strike concentrated civilian populations in industrialized cities, refugee-swollen transportation centers, and agricultural villages.

The war saw the United States change in its attitude toward the world in two closely interrelated ways. On the one hand the dramatic way in which the country was drawn in, the attack on Pearl Harbor, showed the American people in a way nothing else could have that their preference for stopping the world and getting off was simply not a feasible policy line. More important was the general recognition by much of the population that an involvement in international affairs was an essential part of any sensible policy. Possible dangers had to be met by policies designed to engage them at a distance, preferably preventing them from becoming dangerous in the first place.

‘Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes’ may well have been sound advice at a time of limited home industry and resources as well as inaccurate weapons; it made no sense in an era of long-distance planes. Concern over any possible new surprise attack, very much like Soviet concern about any new surprise invasion, dominated thinking about defense policy in post-war America.

America’s broad turn in public sentiment was both directed and assisted by a conscious effort on the part of the administration to avoid what were believed to have been errors made in 1918-20 and to anchor the new international policy of the country firmly in both political parties and in the population at large. It was no coincidence that the Roosevelt administration insisted that the preparatory conference for the United Nations Organization, the organizing meeting for it, and its headquarters once it was established, should all be located in the United States.

Although President Roosevelt did not live to see the end of the war, he was clearly trying to get the American people to think of the United Nations as something essential to them, not just to others, and to accustom them to a new role in the world. The details of that role were left to his successors, and they were to find the American people even more willing to follow new concepts than Roosevelt himself had thought likely.

If the most conspicuous effect of the war on the United States was its impact on the nation's position in international affairs, there were also major internal changes. The slow economic recovery from the great depression was very much speeded up by the rearmament and later the war programs of the country. The placing of numerous training facilities and new factories in the south and the west played a major role in rearranging the internal economic and demographic picture of the country. The role of Alaska and Hawaii during hostilities contributed to their subsequent admission as states into the union.

The United States was the only belligerent which emerged from the war without a sense of victimhood. Most of its people took pride both in their contribution to Allied victory, and in their new status as the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It was characteristic of American romanticism that a war which the United States joined only because it was attacked by Japan evolved during the ensuing forty-five months into a ‘crusade for freedom’. Thanks to Pearl Harbor, fewer of Roosevelt’s people questioned the justice of their cause than in any other war their country has fought.

The outcome of the Pacific conflict persuaded some Americans that they could win wars at relatively small human cost, by the application of their country’s boundless technological ingenuity and industrial resources. The lesson appeared to be that, if the US possessed bases from which its warships and aircraft could strike at the land of an enemy, victories could be gained by the expenditure of mere treasure, and relatively little blood. Only in the course of succeeding decades did it become plain that Japan was a foe uniquely vulnerable to American naval and air power projection. Modern experience suggests that never again will overwhelming military, naval and air power suffice to fulfil American purposes abroad as effectively as it did in the Pacific war.

Some modern US historians assert that the pursuit of decisive victory is central to the American way of war. If true, this renders their country chronically vulnerable to disappointment. The 1950-53 Korean conflict proved only the first of many demonstrations that the comprehensive triumph achieved by the US in the Second World War was a freak of history, representing no norm.

Limited wars offer notable opportunities to belligerents of limited means. Only total war enabled a liberal democracy to exploit weapons of mass destruction. Even granted such circumstances, posterity has shown itself profoundly equivocal about America’s 1945 bombardment of Japan.

In the light of the events of August 1945, it can be suggested that Japan would not have surrendered any later even if the US ground forces had never advanced beyond their capture of the Marianas in the summer of 1944. It is superficially arguable, therefore, that Iwo Jima, Okinawa and MacArthur’s Philippines campaign contributed no more to the final outcome than did Slim’s victory in Burma. The Japanese were induced to quit by fuel starvation, the collapse of industry caused by blockade and in lesser degree aerial bombardment, together with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombs. From the beginning of the Pacific War it was clear that the decisive factor would be the industrial power of the USA.

It would have been politically as well as militarily unthinkable for large American and British forces to stand idle in the Pacific and South-East Asia, waiting upon the impact of hypothetical scientific, strategic and economic developments. The loss of the Philippines and Burma played at least a marginal part in persuading Emperor Hirohito and those around him that their nation was doomed.

Had large Allied armies merely lingered passive after the fall of the Marianas, waiting for blockade and bombardment to force Japan’s capitulation, the military leadership in Tokyo would certainly have interpreted this as infirmity of will. It would be foolish to doubt that even the most fanatical Japanese were deeply shaken by the destruction of their cities, the loss of between one-quarter and one-third of their national wealth to the B-29s.

At the very least, the 1945 air and land campaigns emphasized the Allies’ implacable resolution. Even the war party in Tokyo could not convincingly argue that American commitment, indeed ruthlessness, was inferior to that of samurai, when they beheld Japan’s ruined cities, the slaughter of its people in hundreds of thousands, and the dogged erosion of its armies. Japan’s leaders started the war supposing that their nation’s spirit could compensate for its relative material weakness. By August 1945, this proposition was decisively discredited.

After the war, Admiral Nagano Osami, Chief of the Naval General Staff, told his interrogators: 'If I were to give you one factor ... that led to your victory, I would give you the air force.' It was not until the last year of the war that the USA was able to deploy and utilize its full industrial power. As General Ushijima Mitsuru, the Japanese commander on Okinawa, put it, 'our strategy, tactics and techniques were all used to the utmost and we fought valiantly. But it was as nothing before the material strength of the enemy.' Prince Konoye, at one stage the Japanese prime minister and one of the Emperor's key advisers at the end of the war, said that 'fundamentally the thing that brought about the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s.'

The United States Navy and Marine Corps were chiefly responsible for the defeat of Japan. In pursuing that end, many battles were fought, notably in Burma and the Philippines, which were strategically redundant. But the momentum of war imposed its own imperatives, and such a judgement is much easier for historians than it was for contemporary national leaderships – as might also be said about the arguments against dropping the atomic bombs.

General Slim’s 1945 reconquest was among the most successful British campaigns of the war, reflecting the highest credit on its commander and his soldiers. But it represented a last convulsion of empire, rather than a convincing contribution to the defeat of Japan. In 1947 the British left India. They quit Burma a year later, and Malaya in 1957. The Dutch were forced to abandon their East Indian possessions in 1949, after four years of bloody guerrilla war. The French suffered futile agonies in Indochina before bowing to the inevitable when they lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh nationalists in 1954.

For all of Britain’s hopes of restoring its eastern hegemony in 1945, many of General Slim’s soldiers of Fourteenth Army retained sentimental memories of the Japanese war as the last gathering of the British Empire in arms. ‘Dear Sir,’ wrote Garba Yola, a Nigerian of 82nd West African Division, to his former commander Maj.-Gen. Sir Hugh Stockwell in 1946. ‘Of course it is a very long time ago since I come back home to my native land, and I hope that these few lines will meet you in an excellent condition. I arrived home safely and found all my people all right, nothing strange to be reported in respect of my present health, only that I always remember you in any circumstances of the day. I have seen the letter you sent me, and I am very glad to see that it comes from you. Give my special compliments to my “mother” your wife. I enclose herewith my portrait, so that she may know me. Warm compliments from my wife, and my friend Jauro. My father and mother ask me to remember them to you. I would like to hear from you as regards your conditions, and your present place of abode, yours obediently.’

British officials returning to Burma were appalled to find destitution: public services and transport had collapsed, while many people were starving and traumatised by their experiences. In Rangoon, civil servant T.L. Hughes found ‘old friends so changed as to be unrecognisable; many were emaciated and shrunken; many were white-haired prematurely and many continued to cast an anxious eye over their shoulder on the look-out for the Japanese Gestapo’. British onlookers at the Burmese capital’s victory parade watched uneasily as Aung San’s nationalist troops goose stepped down the central avenue in Japanese-style uniforms. It was plain to all but the most stubborn imperialists that the clock could not be set back to 1941, and that the British must soon leave for good, just as they would also have to quit India.

In spite of Churchill's own preference for the maintenance of Britain's imperial role, especially in India, the very success he had had in leading the country through the great ordeal contributed to the sapping of its strength. It had been in part his recognition of this process which had led him to advocate a policy of extensive concessions to the Soviet Union, in order at least to set specific limits to Soviet expansion before Britain had been weakened even more. Under a new government, the United Kingdom would become a more just society at home even as it shed many of the remaining imperial trappings; finding a new place for itself in a changed world was to prove a lengthier and more difficult task.

In the Dutch possessions of Southeast Asia, the tides of nationalism had been accentuated by the war at the same time as the prestige of the colonial power had been shattered. It took several years for the various areas on the continent and in the islands to secure their independence, but the process was irreversible and, in the case of the former Netherlands East Indies, vigorously pushed by the United States.

Ironically, the European colonial nations found themselves in much more comfortable economic circumstances after shedding their cherished Asian possessions. These had become drains upon their straitened resources, rather than the assets their owners had supposed.

The US granted independence to the Philippines in 1946. That year, Manuel Roxas was elected national president. He had been prominent among Filipino politicians who collaborated with the Japanese occupation regime, and indeed declared war on the US in September 1944. The electoral success of Roxas served to highlight the equivocal attitude of the Filipino people to the Second World War and to the United States.

The Philippines were the most obvious example of the mixture of delay and speeding up in decolonization as a result of the war. The United States had decided to leave before the war; independence was to come in 1944 and the last American bases were to be given up in 1946. The Japanese invasion delayed the former and concern over Soviet power in the Pacific delayed the latter deadline. But there was never any doubt that the islands would be independent. The new defense agreements meant that independence would be accompanied by vastly greater American financial aid to the new state than could otherwise have been anticipated.

The most dramatic decolonization took place in the colonial empire Japan had accumulated. The attempt to expand that empire by new seizures beginning in 1931 had failed. Not only were the remaining conquests, including Thailand, freed of the Japanese presence, but the portions of the empire acquired earlier were now stripped from Japan. Formosa was to be returned to China, and Korea was to regain its independence after an intermediate period of American and Russian military occupation. When that occupation ended, two states emerged, but certainly neither of them would again be ruled from Tokyo. Japan also lost the islands in the Pacific acquired from Germany after World War I.

Japan lost its Pacific islands through American trusteeship into independence or commonwealth status, together with the southern half of the island of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, which had been taken from Russia at the end of the Russo-Japanese War. When they occupied the Kuriles, the Soviets also seized some small islands off the shore of Hokkaido which had been Japanese for centuries; whatever might have been the military advantages derived from this step, the political repercussions were to plague Russo-Japanese relations for decades.

As the Soviet armies swept into Korea, the soldiers continued their campaign of pillage and mayhem despite the fact that Moscow had plans to turn Korea into a model socialist state. The Red Army did not discriminate between the Japanese and the Koreans, a subject people who wanted nothing more than to leave the Japanese empire. Filled with terror, Korean refugees packed all the belongings they could carry and headed south for the 38th Parallel and the American occupation zone.

Far from the Soviets fulfilling fears that they would prolong their presence in Manchuria for imperialistic reasons, Chiang Kai-shek was obliged to beg Stalin’s occupying forces to serve overtime, to give the Nationalists time to send their own troops to take possession. The Soviets withdrew between January and May 1946, having systematically pillaged the region of every scrap of industrial plant. They justified this by asserting that their booty was not Chinese property but Japanese-owned, and thus represented legitimate war reparations. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese captives found themselves laboring for the Russians in Siberia, enduring cold and starvation.

In his years behind the wire, young Souhei Nakamura was only once allowed to send home a card via the Red Cross in Switzerland, announcing that he was ‘well and happy’, like so many wretched British and American prisoners of the Japanese a few years earlier. The wheel had turned full circle. ‘It seemed so unjust,’ said Nakamura. ‘The world was at peace, and yet there were we, living as prisoners in terrible conditions.’ They constantly begged of their captors: ‘When can we go home?’ and always received the same reply: ‘In forty-five days.’ When the time was up, they asked again, and received the same stony answer: ‘In forty-five days.’ Some men became sufficiently impressed by ideological indoctrination to profess Communism on their return to Japan. Nakamura himself was repatriated in July 1948.

Under the terms of a preliminary agreement reached at Yalta and a subsequent treaty between the Chinese Nationalist government and Moscow, the special facilities Japan had held at and near Port Arthur in Manchuria went to the Soviet Union, not China; but after some years were retroceded to China anyway. The area which had been the focus of international dispute in East Asia since the end of the nineteenth century, Manchuria, was returned to Chinese control where it was to remain. Ironically, the decade and a half of Japanese occupation had brought a demographic revolution in this huge territory: for the first time the massive influx of Chinese workers into the factories and farms of the region had made it predominantly Chinese rather than Manchu in population.

Chiang Kai-shek’s occupation of Manchuria proved a strategic error. His forces there found themselves cut off as the Chinese civil war developed. Vast quantities of American military aid provided to his armies counted for nothing due to the corruption and incompetence of his regime. In 1949 Mao Zedong became master of China, excluding only the island of Formosa, which became Chiang’s pocket nation-state, modern Taiwan. Thus was confounded the Americans’ great fantasy of the wartime era, their vision for China, as was the matching British one, of redeeming their Asian empire. The Japanese slogan ‘Asia for Asians’ achieved fulfilment in a fashion undreamt of by those who coined it.

The surrender of the Japanese at a time when their troops were still in occupation of vast stretches of China, including many of its most important cities, led to a race between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists to claim both the territory and the surrendered Japanese weapons. Although very greatly assisted by the United States in this process, the Nationalists proceeded very quickly to throw away their advantage. Their confiscation of economic assets in the liberated areas, together with the establishment of an exchange rate from the occupation to their own currency which wiped out savings, turned the business interests in these areas against them.

The failure in the latter years of the war to engage in serious fighting against the Japanese left the Nationalist armies demoralized when now — after the war was supposed to be over — they were required to fight once again. Within a short time, mainland China came under the control of the Communists who would rule it for decades; first in an uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union, and then in equally uneasy enmity to that power.

Chiang was left with Formosa (Taiwan), the area restored to China fifty years after its loss to Japan. One of the more preposterous excuses advanced by Japanese expansionists for their course of action had been that of extirpating the danger of Communism from East Asia; they had instead played a major role in destroying the Chinese Nationalists and turning the world's most populous country to Communist rule.

Few historians today suppose that MacArthur ranks among the great commanders of history. Yet so prodigious were his theatrical powers, so remarkable was the achievement of his wartime publicity machine, that he remains the most famous figure of the Pacific War. Nonetheless, it is essential also to recognize the charisma, intellect and self-conscious aspiration to nobility which enabled MacArthur at times to scale heights no ordinary commander could achieve, as he did at the Japanese surrender. As post-war ruler of Japan, he displayed a wisdom and magnanimity conspicuously absent from his tenure as Supreme Commander in the south-west Pacific.

More than forty years after the general accepted the Japanese surrender, American historian Ronald Spector wrote of the general: ‘Despite his undoubted qualities of leadership, he was unsuited by temperament, character, and judgment for the positions of high command which he occupied throughout the war.’ MacArthur’s megalomania, disloyalty to his own national leadership, pettiness, contempt for intelligence, poor selection of staff and subordinates, refusal to acknowledge error, and determination to shape national strategy to conform with his personal ambitions suggest that this verdict errs on the side of generosity.

It should also be acknowledged that between December 1941 and August 1945, deservedly or not, he became for the American people the embodiment of their national purpose in the east. Nations at war need symbols, and no less so do fighting soldiers: ‘We thought he was above God,’ one veteran said of MacArthur. Another asserted: ‘He was the greatest military commander America has ever produced.’ Even though this is quite untrue, it is noteworthy that some of his old soldiers believe it.

It was MacArthur’s good fortune that, after presiding over the initial disaster in the Philippines, he served in a theater where American material dominance became so overwhelming that his misjudgements and follies were redeemable. The US Navy achieved the decisive victories, but MacArthur was able to reap much of the glory. That dramatic profile in its oversized cap and glinting sunglasses dominated every image of war against Japan. Admiral Chester Nimitz, a supremely professional naval officer, neither sought nor received a due share of fame for his stellar performance in the Pacific. The US Navy’s achievement was as brilliant and as decisive as that of the Royal Navy in frustrating Napoleon’s ambitions almost a century and a half earlier.

In 1945-46, some Japanese were prosecuted for war crimes. To impose retribution on all those guilty of barbarous acts would have required tens of thousands of executions, for which the Allies lacked stomach. Very few Japanese were called to account for their deeds in China and South-East Asia. The US, dominant partner in the alliance, focused its vengeance upon those who had committed atrocities against white people and US colonial subjects. The most prominent figure to be charged was former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who was hanged. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita was indicted for his role as Japan’s commander in the Philippines when so many atrocities were committed against its people. Yamashita too was hanged. Gen. Masaharu Homma was shot by firing squad, convicted of responsibility for the Bataan death march.

The proceedings began on 29 October 1945, and at first General Yamashita declined to go into the witness box. When persuaded to do so, he presented an impressive image of dignity and fluency. Convicted and sentenced to hang, he removed his belt and presented it to an American colonel as a souvenir, observing jovially: ‘You’re the only man here fat enough to wear this.’ Pinioned before being marched to the gallows, he complained of the tightness of the handcuffs, but then strode courageously to meet death.

Homma said: ‘I am being executed for the Bataan incident. What I want to know is: who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? MacArthur or Truman?’ He went gaily to execution, raising a beer glass to the chaplain and interpreter, saying in perfect English: ‘Come on gentlemen, please. Bottoms up!’

Many people, American as well as Japanese, were dismayed by the fashion in which Yamashita and Homma were done to death. Their trials bore an ugly stamp of kangaroo court proceedings, at which evidence of the generals’ opposition to inhumane treatment of civilians and POWs was swept aside. It was widely believed that the sentences represented MacArthur’s personal vengeance upon Japanese commanders who had humiliated him in the field. There is, however, a strong contrary argument. Yamashita and Homma were sympathetic and personally honorable figures. Yet they held the responsible commands when unlawful and indeed unspeakable acts were committed against a host of innocents. How could their subordinates be punished for carrying out such deeds, if commanders went free?

Japanese atrocities might not have been directly ordered by Yamashita or Homma, but they reflected a culture of massacre in which the entire Japanese military was complicit, and which it worked assiduously for decades to promote. The American decision to leave Hirohito on his throne caused many Japanese afterwards to suppose that their nation could not have behaved so very badly, if their emperor’s reign was permitted to continue. Had Japan’s most senior commanders also been judged unaccountable for the ghastly deeds of the nation’s soldiers, their survival would have appeared to be a betrayal of millions dead by Japanese hands.

MacArthur arranged the trials conducted by the International Military Tribunal Far East, a court of eleven judges from as many different countries who tried and convicted 25 of 28 indicted Class A war criminals, that is, Japanese policymakers identified with the decisions for war between 1937 and 1941. Two defendants died during the proceedings, while another became too insane to try. Many other potential defendants, including Minister of War Anami Korechika, had already committed seppuku. As with the Yamashita and Homma trials, the verdicts produced no surprises. Seven defendants died by hanging and sixteen were given life imprisonment; only two received lesser sentences. Poised and unrepentant, Tojo Hideki went to his death after writing delicate verse and observing Buddhist rituals.

Ten nations pursued more conventional war criminals, Japanese Class B and C suspects who had committed atrocities against POWs or civilians. The first category of defendants had committed the crimes; the second category were responsible officers who had failed to prevent the crimes or had encouraged them. Over a period of six years, Allied tribunals tried 5,700, convicted more than half, and executed approximately 1,000. Although legal standards did not always prevail, these trials at least had roots in established international law on the conduct of war, and they considered the evidence with some care. As tempers cooled, many sentences were reduced.

It is plainly true that the 1945-46 war crimes trials, in Europe as well as Asia, represented victors’ justice. No attempt was made to impose even token punishment upon Allied personnel who committed unlawful deeds. But it seemed preferable then to subject to trial some of those responsible for crimes against humanity, rather than to hold none responsible because so many were guilty.

More controversial were all those Japanese who escaped retribution, especially those who had abused fellow Asians. The most famous failure to prosecute focused on Lieutenant General Ishii Shiro, a medical doctor and the evil genius behind Unit 731 and other organizations dedicated to bacteriological warfare research and other medical ‘challenges’. This research had involved human subjects and almost always produced death for the laboratory subjects. Doctor Ishii and his associates, however, bargained all their scientific findings in return for amnesia on the part of US war crimes investigators.

Human subjects were used to study the effect of hypothermia, extreme gravitational pressure, and hazardous drugs and medical procedures. Some experiments involved vivisection. Ishii lived fourteen years after the war as a free man because Americans wanted to keep his research accessible but secret, away from the prying eyes of the Soviets and Chinese Communists.

Japan itself, stripped of its colonial empire and with its major cities largely destroyed, was in a desperate condition. The whole country was occupied by Allied troops, most of it by American soldiers, the western portion of Honshu and the island of Shikoku by the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. There were, however, mitigating factors which contributed to the country's recovery. Unlike Germany and Italy, the home islands of Japan had not been fought over mile by mile; the surrender induced by the atomic bombs and Soviet entrance into the war meant that the process of destruction had not included ground fighting with its attendant destruction of small towns and facilities, to say nothing of the accompanying casualties.

The surrender at a time when the military still had over seven million men in uniform meant that these men would almost all return home rather than fight to the death, either in the far-flung territories where they had been holding out or in the home islands, as had been their practice in the preceding years. The country to which they were repatriated was in dire straits, and many of them were now happy to secure menial jobs with the occupation forces in order to make a living. But they had survived along with the energies and skills they brought back with them.

Of additional significance was the fact that Japan, unlike Germany, was not divided into occupation zones which were sealed off from each other. The central administration continued to operate under supposedly Allied but in reality American supervision; and a restructuring of the society by extensive land reform, the development of free labor unions, the extension of political rights to women, and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy far more broadly based than the one Japan had tried in the 1920s, provided the basis for a relatively quick and massive recovery.

Who was to blame for the catastrophe that had befallen Japan? Petty Officer Kisao Ebisawa shrugged: ‘The brass – the people in charge.’ But then he added: ‘Really, though, one must include the whole nation, because its mood had been dragging us towards war for so long. There was a horrible inevitability about the way we just plunged deeper and deeper into the mire.’ After 1945 the Japanese people renounced their militarists, and indeed the soldiers who had fought in the war, with a fervor that distressed the nation’s veterans, many of whom remained impenitent. Colonel Hattori Takushiro, former military secretary to Japan’s war minister, wrote proudly in 1956: ‘The Japanese army had no peer in its terrific fighting capacity, which is a separate issue from the fact that Japan lost the war.’

In the wake of Japan’s surrender, Hirohito’s soldiers, sailors and airmen were shocked to find themselves objects of strong public condemnation among their own people. Public animosity embraced the humblest as well as the loftiest warriors. Japan’s early post-war years were characterized by a collapse of hierarchies. Decadence, even depravity, flourished, as the defeated people astonished their conquerors by the fashion in which they abased themselves before all things American. Perhaps this was a necessary part of a cleansing process after the years of military dominance and national self-delusion. From 1950 onwards there followed an economic resurrection which awed the world. The new Japan proved distressingly reluctant to confront the historic guilt of the old. Its spirit of denial contrasted starkly with the penitence of post-war Germany.

After years of suffering, all the pent-up frustration and misery of the Japanese people was made manifest in the wake of defeat. Servicemen who had mindlessly accepted the code of bushido, and sometimes suffered terribly to fulfil its demands, now faced the contempt of their own nation. Amazingly, the US army of occupation found itself protecting the survivors of the Imperial Japanese Army from the fury of its own people. This was an experience unknown among German veterans who had served in Hitler’s legions.

Although successive Japanese prime ministers expressed formal regret for Japan’s wartime actions, the country refused to pay reparations to victims, or to acknowledge its record in school history texts. Many Japanese today adopt the view that it is time to bury all old grievances—those of Japan’s former enemies about the treatment of prisoners and subject peoples, along with those of their own nation about fire-bombing, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘In war, both sides do terrible things,’ former Lieutenant Hayashi Inoue argued in 2005. ‘If you win, then that justifies any action you have taken. If you lose, you become the guilty party. Surely after sixty years, the time has come to stop criticizing Japan for things done so long ago.’ Maj. Shigeru Funaki, a former staff officer at Japanese army HQ in Nanjing, says sternly: ‘A lot of the stuff about what Japan is supposed to have done in China is simply invented. At the end of the war, I had to negotiate constantly with Nationalist army officers. None of them said a word about, for instance, a massacre in Nanjing. OK, some people died there, because there was a battle and people die in battles. But this idea that 150,000 or 200,000 were killed — who is supposed to have counted them?’ Japanese media tycoon Tsuneo Watanabe has sponsored a major project to review more realistically Japan’s record in World War II. Most of his fellow countrymen, however, decisively reject both the concept of self-analysis and his bleak conclusions.

Both the policy of denial and the alternative doctrine of moral equivalence are unconvincing, when Japanese brutality was institutionalized for many years before the Allies commenced their own excesses. Even General LeMay’s bombing campaign was designed to hasten the end of the war. Many Japanese actions, by contrast, including the torture and beheading of prisoners, reflected a gratuitous pride in the infliction of suffering. Wartime Japan was responsible for almost as many deaths in Asia as was Nazi Germany in Europe. Yet only a few modern Japanese acknowledge as much, and incur the disdain or outright hostility of their fellow countrymen for doing so. The nation is guilty of a collective rejection of historical fact.

Japan’s recovery was undoubtedly aided by the economic stimulus provided by the Korean War from 1950-53, but it had already started well before then. Japan was on the political and economic road to recovery; only the unwillingness to deal honestly with the darker elements in its own past continued to hold it back.

MacArthur presided over a set of dramatic reforms actually designed by American diplomats, technocrats, and Japanophiles. The imperial armed forces were dissolved; more than 200,000 ‘undesirables’ left the government ministries; and the industrial conglomerates received orders to divide their operations into smaller, independent corporations. MacArthur advocated women’s suffrage, the protection of labor unions, land reform, regulation of public services, educational restructuring, and the sanctity of the vote. This political diet proved too rich for some of the Japanese, but at least it created an alternative to the authoritarian and militarized modernization that had taken them to war.

The Pacific War saw the deployment of huge forces across a vast geographic area, but it was still a relatively small war by comparison with the European theater - especially with respect to the numbers of soldiers mobilized for land operations. The atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki transformed warfare. Countries now tried to limit wars so that they would not escalate to the nuclear threshold. The Pacific War was thus followed by 30 years of lesser wars across the Asia-Pacific region. They were driven by two imperatives - communism and decolonization - that came to prominence because of the Pacific War. At the end of that time the region had been transformed from that which existed before the onset of the Pacific War: by 1975 all of the former European colonies had gained their independence.

The eminent military historian John Keegan noted that 'although the Japanese had mobilized 6 million men, five-sixths of those deployed outside the home islands had been stationed in China; the number committed to the fighting in the islands had perhaps not exceeded that which America had sent.' Of the 29 US army and Marine divisions in the Pacific, only six army and four Marine divisions 'were involved in regular periods of prolonged combat.' By comparison, in the European theater in mid-1944 '300 German and satellite divisions confronted 300 Russian and seventy British and American divisions.' The Japanese army still suffered heavily, incurring 1.4 million deaths. But this heavy loss of life was caused by the weight of firepower delivered by the Americans and the willingness of the Japanese to fight to the death, rather than by large-scale land battles.

Some of the skills learned in the Pacific War were employed in the limited wars of the following decades. For example, revolutionary forces in China, Malaya, Vietnam, and the Philippines exploited their guerrilla warfare expertise. The security forces deployed by the British Commonwealth in Malaya in the 1950s had learned their jungle warfare skills against the Japanese in Burma and New Guinea. The Allies had also learned how to provide logistic support in this difficult environment and to counteract the debilitating effects of tropical disease.

Although in 1945 the Allies deployed armies with up to a dozen divisions in Burma and the Philippines, they did not conduct the large-scale mechanized and armored operations that characterized the campaigns in Russia and north-west Europe and set the benchmark for the growth of mobile warfare in the following decades. Not much was modern about the grinding land battles of the Pacific War. But the use of carriers, amphibious operations, and air power in the Pacific set the stage for the further development of modern war. More generally, the war demonstrated the importance of cooperation between land, naval, and air forces.

In 1937 only Japan, China, and Thailand were independent countries, and the Chinese Nationalist regime was not in full control of its country. The rest of the area was dominated by Britain, France, the Netherlands, the USA, and Australia. By 1975 China was a powerful united country under communist rule, except for Taiwan, which was already gaining strength as a separate economic entity. North and South Korea were in existence, with the latter also becoming an economic power. Farther south and west, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan had become independent countries.

The Pacific War confirmed the involvement of the USA as a Pacific power. The US committed large forces to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and has continued to base forces in Honshu, Okinawa, South Korea, and Guam. For many years it had air and naval forces in the Philippines. The mighty carrier battle groups of the Third and Seventh Fleets still patrol the waters of the Pacific. The USA's former enemy, Japan, is now one of its principal allies. Its former allies, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and China, have been seen more as adversaries than as friends.

Japan's economic strength has given it friendly access to South Korea, China, south-east Asia, and Australia. But South Korea and China, and many people in the other countries, cannot forget Japan's wartime brutality. They are dismayed that some Japanese leaders (admittedly a minority) still refuse to acknowledge that their country fought an aggressive war and that their forces treated innocent civilians in an inhuman manner. The Pacific War might have transformed the region strategically, politically and economically, but its shadow will hang over it for decades to come.