What the Class Politics of World War II Mean for Tensions in Asia Today

What the Class Politics of World War II Mean for Tensions in Asia Today

What the Class Politics of World War II Mean for Tensions in Asia Today


This September marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Yet even seven full decades since Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945, fallout over the bitter conflict continues to shape the politics of the countries that fell under Japanese imperial rule.

The war left its mark not only on relations between Japan and its neighbors, but also on class politics within these countries. How each country handled its collaborator classes, in turn, has had a considerable impact on how they’ve responded to the current Japanese government’s push to revise the country’s “peace constitution” into irrelevance.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Philippines, where postwar US authorities helped rehabilitate erstwhile collaborators with the Japanese occupation in the name of fighting communism. Generations later, it’s led to the grandson of a despised Philippine collaborator endorsing the remilitarization of his country’s former occupiers—by the grandson of a war criminal, no less.

History certainly works in mysterious ways.

Horrors of the Occupation

One month before this year’s anniversary, one of my favorite cousins passed away at 100 years of age. During the war, her husband left their house in Manila to serve as a medical doctor in the Filipino-American army, which retreated to the Bataan Peninsula as invading Japanese forces advanced. She never heard from him again.

It was only three years later, after Manila was liberated by General Douglas MacArthur’s troops and Filipino guerrillas, that she learned her husband had been summarily executed, along with three other doctors, while trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. Many of his comrades suffered the same fate upon their surrender to the Japanese. During the weeklong Bataan Death March alone, the Japanese killed 18,000 of their 72,000 Filipino and American prisoners—a mortality rate of 25 percent in just seven days.

My cousin was left with three young children to raise alone, a situation shared by many women during the Japanese occupation.

The Japanese military regime in the Philippines was unrelentingly brutal. Innocent people suspected of aiding the guerrillas were routinely tortured and executed. My uncle was bayoneted and left for dead when he refused a Japanese officer’s order to take down the American flag at his school. My father was beaten with a baseball bat in Fort Santiago, the Spanish-era fortress in Manila that the Japanese converted into a prison and torture center. He was lucky to survive.

Young women and girls, some as young as 11 or 12, were rounded up to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops. Nobody knows for certain how many Filipinas were forced into sexual slavery, but historians estimate that up to 200,000 women from the Philippines, Korea, China, and other countries occupied by the Japanese suffered this fate. Some 400 of these “comfort women” have surfaced in the Philippines since the 1990s, but this figure is probably only a fraction of those who were actually forced into sexual service. Many others preferred to keep silent.

Overshadowing even the Bataan Death March as a war crime was the indiscriminate killing spree that Japanese naval infantrymen unleashed in Manila as the war drew to a close. Filipino author Joan Orendain has rightfully asserted that the “Rape of Manila” rivaled the better known Rape of Nanking in its brutality, with “100,000 burned, bayoneted, bombed, shelled, and shrapneled dead in the span of 28 days.” Unborn babies “ripped from their mothers’ womb provided sport: thrown up in the air and caught, impaled on bayonet tips.” Rape was rampant, and “after the dirty deed was done, nipples were sliced off, and bodies bayoneted open from the neck down.”

Abe’s “Apology”

With this record of atrocities, one would have expected that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent remarks on the war—in which he admitted that Japan had caused “immeasurable damage and suffering” but asserted that “generations to come” must not be “predestined to apologize”—would elicit the same negative reaction in the Philippines that it did in China and Korea.

Abe, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement, should have “made a sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle.” South Korea’s ruling party, for its part, criticized the Abe statement “because it did not directly mention remorse and apology for Japan’s past history of aggression, but only expressed them in a roundabout way in the past tense.”

In both China and South Korea, resentment and suspicion of Japan continue to boil just beneath the surface.

On the contrary, remarks by top Philippine officials were positive. “Japan has acted with compassion and in accordance with international law,” said a presidential spokesperson, “and has more actively and positively engaged with the region and the world after the war.”

Contrasting Trajectories

The different responses stem from the unique political and economic trajectories of the three countries. Three considerations are important:

First, for China and Korea, the anti-Japanese struggle was a central element in the forging of their nationalist identities, or what Benedict Anderson famously termed their “imagined community.”

The Chinese Communist Party has projected itself as the central figure in the victorious “patriotic war” against Japan (though many historians are of the opinion that it was the Communists’ rivals—the Nationalists—who did most of the fighting and dying). Both Korean states see themselves as emerging from the anti-colonial struggle against Japan, which annexed and colonized the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

For the Philippines, in contrast, the official narrative puts the elite-led revolution against Spain in the late 19th century as its nationalist centerpiece—with the subsequent American annexation of the country painted in largely positive terms and the Second World War depicted as a violent but brief episode on the way to independence.

Second, the three countries have contrasting economic relationships with contemporary Japan. For China and Korea, Japan isn’t just a former military overlord but a contemporary economic rival. Trade and investment relations with the Japanese are seen as a necessary evil to acquire the needed resources and technology to beat them.

In the case of the Philippines, Japan was never seen as an economic competitor but a source of development aid, investment, and jobs. Japan’s image as a wartime enemy was transformed beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Japanese corporate investments starting producing local jobs in appreciable numbers. Meanwhile, Philippine migrant workers in Japan’s entertainment and sex industries sent back remittances to their families that enabled not only their survival but their social mobility.

Elite Collaboration, Popular Resistance

But perhaps the main factor explaining the different attitudes toward Japan is the class factor.

In Korea, the politics of remembrance was boosted by the destruction of the prewar landed elite that collaborated with the Japanese—the Korean civil war of 1950-53 and the subsequent land reform all but wiped these elites away. In the Philippines, in contrast, the politics of forgetting was facilitated by a postwar whitewashing of the elite’s role during the occupation.

Once the pillars of US colonial rule, after the Japanese invasion most Philippine elites swiftly switched sides and collaborated with the Japanese. A complex kind of class war ensued, in which the national and local elites worked closely with the Japanese while the masses for the most part hated the invaders and waited for the Americans to return, as promised by MacArthur.

Scores of guerrilla groups formed, the best known and most effective being the communist-led Hukbalahap, which chased away the hated landlords in Central Luzon even as it fought the Japanese. But aside from the “Huks,” there were other, less ideological outfits that were headed by lower-class or middle-class figures—like the charismatic Marcos Villa Agustin, or “Marking,” a former bus driver whose units operated from the Sierra Madre mountain range in Luzon to terrorize not only Japanese soldiers but also local elites.

The end of the war saw impassioned calls from the resistance to try the elite collaborators as traitors. Among the most hated servitors of Japan was Manuel Roxas, the director of the Rice Procurement Agency, who’s described in an authoritative study as having “organized the extraction of rice from peasant farmers to supply the Japanese military” and “was thus the collaborator most clearly identified in the minds of peasants with the betrayal and abuses suffered during the occupation.”

However, the returning General MacArthur intervened to save his pre-war friend Roxas from hanging, an act that anticipated Washington’s rehabilitation of the reviled elite in order to contain the communist-led guerrilla forces.

Laundered and provided international respectability by Washington, Roxas bribed, intimidated, and terrorized his way to victory during the presidential elections of 1946. Shortly before his unexpected death in 1948, Roxas issued the infamous Proclamation No. 51, which granted amnesty to accused collaborators. Reflecting the acute class enmities triggered by the experience of the occupation, one of the reasons cited for the decree was the fact that “the question of collaboration has divided the people of the Philippines since liberation in a manner which threatens the unity of the nation at a time when the public welfare requires that said unity be safeguarded and preserved.”

The first decades of the postwar era were thus marked by a contradiction in the popular mind between the memory of legendary resistance to the Japanese and the reality of continuing domination of national politics by a largely collaborationist elite—one that had been whitewashed by Washington in the name of the anti-communist struggle with the dawning of the Cold War.

So unlike the Chinese and South Korean governments, the Filipino political elite soft-pedaled war damage claims against Japan; extended a warm welcome in the 1950s to Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, a class A war criminal and the grandfather of Shinzo Abe; and did little to help Filipina comfort women in their struggles for an apology and restitution from Tokyo.

Japan Rearms

This history informs the Philippine response to Abe’s drive to subvert Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution—the so-called “Peace Clause” that prohibits Japan from engaging in offensive warfare—in order to promote his strategy of “Collective Defense,” which would deploy Japanese troops in offensive operations outside Japan.

China and South Korea have sternly condemned Collective Defense, seeing it as part of a comprehensive right-wing program to deny Japanese war crimes, refuse restitution to Japan’s sex slaves, bring back old-style Japanese nationalism, and erode the Japanese people’s still dominant pacifism. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s reaction, on the other hand, could hardly be more different.

While acknowledging that “there’s been some debate on the Japanese government’s plan to revisit certain interpretations of its constitution,” Aquino asserted during his state visit to Japan in late June 2014 that “nations of good will can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others, and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defense.” He added that he did “not view with alarm any proposal to revisit the Japanese constitution.”

This was, at the very least, inappropriate meddling in Japanese domestic politics, one that some analysts say was calculated to influence Japanese public opinion at a time when the majority of Japanese had come out against the country’s remilitarization. A poll released at around the time of the Aquino visit found 56 percent against collective self-defense and only 28 percent in favor. Yet on July 1, 2014, fortified by support from the visiting Aquino, Abe gutted Article 9, resorting to a cabinet decision to skirt parliamentary approval and the requirement for a referendum.

The drastic endorsement of a move opposed by the majority of Japanese as well as Japan’s neighbors is difficult to explain as stemming solely from the Philippine government’s desire to gain an ally in its territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea. Other countries in East and Southeast Asia, even those directly threatened by China’s moves, have been careful not to endorse Tokyo’s new doctrine of power projection beyond Japan—Vietnam being a prime example. Most are worried that the Abe doctrine is intended not so much to assist allies against China’s moves but to support the Japanese leader’s strategic aim of developing a nuclear weapons capability, exercising a more aggressive posture, and rewriting history.

Grandfathers and Grandsons

One element that hasn’t been adequately examined, but which is likely to have played a role in Aquino’s endorsement, is his class memory.

Aquino comes from a class whose experience of the Second World War was very different from that of ordinary Filipinos. Aquino is better known as the son of two icons in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, Cory and Ninoy Aquino. But he’s also the grandson of Benigno Simeon Aquino Sr.—who is chiefly remembered as the Japanese-designated speaker of the National Assembly during the puppet regime, and earlier as the director general of the country’s only political party during the occupation.

Possibly the only reason Aquino Sr. escaped death at the hands of Philippine partisans was that he spent the closing months of the war in Japan. Brought back to the Philippines one year after the cessation of hostilities, he was arraigned on charges of treason at the People’s Court before being released on bail. However, he died before he could take advantage of his friend Manuel Roxas’ general amnesty for local quislings like him.

Did psycho-biographical factors play a role in Aquino’s unquestioning endorsement of Abe’s moves? It’s inconceivable that one whose parents or grandparents suffered under the Japanese occupation would have provided such enthusiastic support for Abe’s quest to project Japanese military power. True, Filipinos have generally become more positive towards Japan, but few would cross the line that Aquino did.

So one is left with the question: Was it more than coincidence that a dangerous new course for the region would be launched by the joining of hands of Aquino, the grandson of a despised collaborator, and Abe, the grandson of a war criminal?

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