As we enter a dramatically altered world, both internationally and domestically, it is only natural that we look to history for bearings, points of comparison, glimmerings of the familiar. In these predictable uses of the past, “Japan” has emerged as a small trope for both horror and hope. Thus, September 11 became our generation’s Pearl Harbor (headline writers across America turned, almost instinctively, to “Day of Infamy!”). Our new enemies have been declared an “axis of evil” (with North Korea presumably replacing the Japan of the 1930s). And now we have the sanguine scenario of the democratization of “occupied Japan” after World War II as a model for post-hostilities Iraq.
None of those analogies withstand serious scrutiny, and looking back at occupied Japan should really remind us both how fundamentally different Iraq is from the Japan of 1945 and also how far the United States itself has departed from the ideals of a half-century ago. Liberalism, internationalism, serious commitment to human rights, a vision of economic democratization in which the state is assigned an important role–these were watchwords of the Americans who formulated initial policy for occupied Japan. In the Bush Administration, they are objects of derision.
There are, in any case, several other midcentury Asian occupations that may deserve closer analysis when evaluating US policy today. Two of these–in Okinawa and South Korea–were conducted under the same American “supreme command” that presided over the occupation of Japan proper. A third, surely the most suggestive and provocative, is the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, which began in 1931 and soon extended to China south of the Great Wall and eventually to Southeast Asia.
Okinawa and South Korea are instructive as reminders that where security concerns were paramount from the start, the United States turned its back on serious “democratization” of the sort initially introduced to the greater part of Japan. Coveted by military strategists as a great stationary aircraft carrier off the coast of Asia, Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, was immediately turned into a huge US military installation. Although the occupation of Japan formally ended in April 1952, Okinawa remained a US colony until the early 1970s, when sovereignty was returned to Japan. The sprawling, grotesque complex of US bases remains.
In South Korea, as in the northern half of that tragically divided country, autocratic rule followed ostensible liberation from Japanese colonialism in 1945. Stability and anti-Communism were the bedrock of US occupation and postoccupation policy, and it took decades before the people of South Korea themselves succeeded in throwing off America’s client regimes and establishing a more democratic society.
It is the almost forgotten interlude of Japan as an occupying power in Manchuria and later China, however, that poses the most intriguing analogy to the creation of a new American imperium today. Obviously, there are enormous differences between the two cases. Imperial Japan was not a hyperpower when it launched its campaign of accelerated empire-building in 1931. Its propagandists did not spout the rhetoric of democratization, privatization and free markets that fills the air today. Domestically, Japan operated under the aegis of a real emperor, rather than behind the shield of an imperial presidency.
Still, the points of resonance between the abortive Japanese empire and the burgeoning American one are striking. In both instances, we confront empire-building embedded in a larger agenda of right-wing radicalism. And in each, we find aggressive and essentially unilateral international policies wedded to a sweeping transformation of domestic priorities and practices.