Role reversal: how Japan became America’s ally and China fell from grace

Author: Jean-Pierre Lehmann, IMD

Ask ‘who were the allies in WWII?’ and the answer will likely be: ‘the US, the USSR and Britain’. The fourth ally, China, has been airbrushed from history.

Yet China fought valiantly and suffered hugely. Had the Chinese not kept up the war with Japan in the Pacific, the US would not have been able to concentrate its military efforts on the Atlantic. Only after the war was won in Europe was the US able to hop across the Pacific, capture Iwo Jima in February 1945, Okinawa in April, drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, and force Tokyo’s unconditional surrender.

In a bizarre twist — after China and the US had suffered at Japanese hands — the positions of the two East Asian countries vis-à-vis the US were reversed: Japan became the ally, China the enemy. This has been the paradigm since; it informed Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo and the need he felt to show support for Tokyo in its rift over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with Beijing.

This was not how the narrative was expected to develop. The sudden turn that occurred in the late 1940s/early 1950s accounts for the explosive powder keg that prevails in Northeast Asia to this day.

In the early to mid-19th century the rising Western imperialist powers, led by Britain, were seeking to open markets in East Asia. And it was the US, in the person of Commodore Matthew Perry, who forced the ‘opening’ of Japan in 1854 — setting in motion a series of striking developments that propelled Japan into a major industrial and imperial power.

The Chinese story is completely different. The Sino–American relationship developed in such a way that emotional bonds were created. In the late 19th century as the rapacious European imperialist powers and Japan were extending ‘spheres of influence’ in China, the US Secretary of State John Hay issued the ‘open door policy’. Though not as altruistic as it sounds, the intention could be seen as an attempt to prevent a European ‘scramble for China’ that occurred in Africa.

A powerful American China lobby emerged: China was America’s friend and America was China’s protector. The wife of Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling, a Christian with native fluency in English, was tremendously effective in building up an influential American network.

When the Pacific war ended, Washington’s plan was to chastise Japan and build a special relationship with what was referred to as the Chinese ‘sister republic’ headed by Chiang Kai-shek. The ‘loss’ of China when it ‘fell’ to communism under Mao Zedong in October 1949 was a huge shock and resulted in a 180-degree shift in US strategy in the Pacific and occupation policy in Japan. Overnight yesterday’s enemy became today’s ally and vice-versa. It is as if in Europe immediately after World War II Britain had become America’s enemy and Germany its chief ally.

Prior to October 1949, the American occupiers in Japan brought about a number of important social and political reforms, including the promulgation of a new ‘liberal’ constitution in 1947.

But with the fall of China and the policy reversal, many Japanese war criminals prosecuted in the 1946 International Military Tribunals for the Far East were freed so that they might administratively contribute to Japan’s reconstruction. Washington wanted its Pacific ally, in light of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, to be strong. Much was done, including massive technology transfer, to achieve that end.

One of the freed war criminals was Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (his administrative skills must indeed have been substantial as he had ‘managed’ huge numbers of industrial slaves in China). Kishi himself became prime minister in 1957.

This explains why in many ways the US–Japan relationship appears unnatural. Though it has been effective, and fostered by global realpolitik, it has not always been close or warm. The ‘Ron-Yasu’ (Ronald Reagan–Yasuhiro Nakasone) relationship that emerged during the 1980s period of trade friction was artificial. The 1989 publication of The Japan That Can Say ‘No’, by Sony chairman Akio Morita and the ultra-rightist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, vividly illustrated a rejection of and contempt for the US by many Japanese at the time — when the US was perceived as weak and the Japanese economy growing on steroids.

Since the war, Japan has come a very long way. Yet the American policy reversals of the latter years of the occupation and the restoration of pre-war elites (albeit minus the military) have left their sequels. Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine stands out as a hubristic defiant snub not only of Japan’s neighbours and erstwhile victims of war but also of the US. Imagine Angela Merkel praying at the tombs of Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg!

The most critical sequel is that the political psyche of the Japanese establishment is not only ambivalent about recognition of war-time atrocities but also of American munificence. Japanese skills and efforts notwithstanding, given America’s occupation policy, the opening of US markets to Japanese exports, setting a weak yen (¥360:$1), massive technology transfer, and the military protection accorded to Japan for over six decades, to a considerable extent contemporary Japan was ‘made in the USA’. This is not to say that American policies were altruistic; US policy corresponded with US interests.

Looking ahead in this extremely turbulent environment, a Japan that demonstrates genuine repentance vis-à-vis its Asian neighbours and genuine gratitude vis-à-vis the United States is a Japan that will have demonstrated a sense of global citizenship. Japan, East Asia and indeed the world would all stand to benefit considerably were that to transpire.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of IMD, Switzerland, Founder of The Evian Group, visiting professor at Hong Kong University and NIIT University in India. He is co-author with John Haffner and Tomas Casas i Klett of Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship (2009).