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). 

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Faizullah Khilji
5 May 2014 3:05 am

Whilst not disputing the position set forth by Professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann, one might add that there has always been a seriously argued point of view in the United States, even as the war in Pacific was raging, that the United States may eventually have to reckon with China, and therefore it was desirable to strengthen Japan after its expected fall.

Nicholas J Spykman for example had argued in the course of the Pacific war, that America’s adversary in the Pacific would eventually be China, not Japan; a corollary of this idea was that it was in America’s interest to build up Japan to counter China.

See: See Nicholas J Spykman, America’s strategy in world politics, (Transaction Publications, New Brunswick, 2008- reprint of the 1942 edition) pp. 466-470.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann
5 May 2014 4:57 pm

Many thanks for this information and reference which I was not aware of.

Ken Ward
5 May 2014 5:43 am

The United States didn’t wait until October 1949 to implement its ‘reverse course’ in Japan. Some writers consider the first step to have been Macarthur’s ban of a general strike planned for 1 February, 1947. As for Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke was released in December 1948, about the same time as the ‘Red Purge’ of communists and other undesirables began.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann
5 May 2014 4:59 pm
Reply to  Ken Ward

You are right. Thank you. Will make the corrections in subsequent writings. JPL

Julian Baum
5 May 2014 11:27 pm
Reply to  Ken Ward

The author adds some perspective to the US-Japan alliance, but what choice did the US have with China in the hands of misanthropic revolutionaries and an unhinged leader who morphed into a maniacal tyrant. Besides, there are few perfect allies anywhere — though for the US, maybe Canada. As for comparing visits to Yasukuni with a German leader worshiping the memories of Nazis, this is greatly overwrought. Yasukuni is primarily a shrine for memorializing Japan’s considerable population of soldiers lost in wars since the Meiji Restoration, something every self-respecting nation needs to do. There is no other national shrine such as Arlington in the US that is politically neutral, though perhaps there should be.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann
6 May 2014 4:32 pm
Reply to  Julian Baum

Thanks for the comment. At the time of Liberation it was not clear that Mao was “unhinged” as you put it. This developed subsequently. Though by the time Nixon paid his historic visit, Mao had for some time shown how “unhinged” he was. Realpolitik. And Realpolitik also probably dictated that the US should build an alliance with Japan. This does not detract from the fact that it is unnatural and it is an odd relationship. Yasukuni is clearly an affront and visits an act of defiance.

Wendell Minnick
5 May 2014 7:58 pm

Both Taiwan (ROC) and Japan were powerful allies during the Cold War. US bases on Taiwan and CIA outlets based there (Air America/Western Enterprises) were both tactically and strategically important to the US. And I take issue on the belief that KMT troops in China fought bravely. Both the KMT and Communist troops avoided Japanese forces and many of the so-called KMT forces were “rice soldiers” only willing to fight for the KMT if they were fed. They would switch over to the Japanese side often for the same reasons. The author should also check his timeline on World War II. Historians use timelines, not conjecture.

Michael Cha
29 April 2020 8:59 am

I and my family (my grandfather was an official in KMT) personally resent your remark that Chinese KMT troops avoided engagement against Japanese forces. Since Japanese forces were much superior in equipment and supplies, Chinese could only fight a war of attrition. Blind bravery in engagement against Japanese would only be committing suicide. Chinese used its vastness as advantage to allow Japanese to be swallowed and disoriented. make Japanese pay in casualties for their advances. Chinese strategically important locations. Read up on General Alexander Falkenhausen, German advisor to Chiang Kai Shek and Sino-German Cooperation. And the Battle of Shanghai 1937.

Richard Broinowski
6 May 2014 2:19 pm

Jean Pierre Lehmann makes a valid point when he claims that China’s role on the Pacific War has been ‘air-brushed from history’. Certainly it was from American and Western history, although I suspect not from the Chinese perspective. However, Lehmann’s claim that the United States could not concentrate on the Pacific War until after victory had been won in Europe is a bit of a stretch. By May 1945, the American Navy was cruising to victory. The hard yards had been undertaken well before then, and neither the Marines nor the Navy felt constrained by events in Europe from prosecuting a vigorous campaign against Japan. The Navy began to gain traction between 4 and 8 May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea. It gathered momentum at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, and with the Marines taking island after island, gained increasing effect at Guadalcanal in November 1942, the Bismark Sea in March 1943, and in Leyte Gulf in October 1944. During all these campaigns, the astonishing capacity of the American military-industrial complex was able increasingly to supply all Pacific forces without much concern about what was going on in Europe. Whether the Japanese were unable to replenish island garrisons because the Army was tied down in China remains a relatively unexplored question. Maybe here Lehmann has a point, although the Japanese Army and navy hated each other so much, they were not given to much cooperation in any theatre. American military doctrine was then established that the United States should be able to fight with equal effectiveness on two fronts at once. Until the spate of current war weariness in Washington, the Pentagon has continued to maintain this doctrine.

Andrea Ostrov Letania
7 May 2014 12:12 am

Were Americans war criminals for conquering America from the Indians and committing ‘genocide’? Or for the slavery of blacks? Or for all the atrocities in the Philippines?

If Japanese committed war crimes in WWII, why don’t we refer to American violence as war crimes?
How come Nakba, the massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, called a war crime?

Btw, US lost China because FDR invited Stalin to take northern parts of China and Korea. Stalin effectively secured communist domination in Soviet-controlled area.
If FDR had insisted on the USSR staying out of Asia, US would never lost China. There would have been no North Korea, thus no Korean War. And no Vietnam War as North Vietnam relied heavily on communist Chinese aid to carry on with the war.

28 January 2015 7:21 pm

This article is very illuminating to me. I never knew that China had been so highly regarded during WWII. Nor did I realise that the Communist victory lead to the release of Japanese war criminals, who were needed to take over the reigns of power again. I had always wondered why the Japanese government seemed so different from the post war Japanese general public. It’s because the people who were in the war were not kept out of office, and their families like Abe became
dynasties, like the US has the Bush’s.

It sounds like the way America handles post war governments hasn’t improved in 80 years.

On a separate note, it’s a shame Japan doesn’t do what Germany did regarding its behaviour during WWII. If they did, they would be able to unify most of Asia behind it, and it could be exactly where Germany is- the top dog in one of the wealthiest, and most populous regions in the world. China would not be an issue because Japan, Taiwan, South Korea could keep it in check. Sadly it’s not the case.

17 April 2015 12:50 pm

Congrats on your thoughtful remarks on this subject Mr.Lehmann. Almost impossible in the closed environment that pervades US policy circles. The US treated China very poorly during and after WWII. It bombed Tokyo and landed its planes in China without prior approval of China. A quarter of a million Chinese died as a result of Japanese reprisals. It sold out China at Yalta and then handed China a f’ait accompli. China was given no say in the postwar occupation even though she lost 25 million people due to the war. One might say that the US occupation made it impossible for Japan to face up to its responsibility and the continued alliance with the US is an impediment for Japan to mature as a nation and to seek a true reconciliation with both China and Korea.

Michael Cha
29 April 2020 9:36 am

I think people need to look into more than just relationship between nations. The relationship between China and United States was about relationship between FDR and Chiang Kai Shek (CKS). in Taipei, one of the main road is named Roosevelt Road, and it starts at CKS Memorial Hall. FDR was a figure that Chinese liked a lot. Although he wasn’t perfect, but he was definitely much more progressive than at least Churchill and Stalin for sure. People forget that Colonialism was still very much alive and well during WW2. Churchill was upset at FDR for inviting CKS to Cairo Conference. British control of Hong Kong (HK), was still in the mind of British; and they weren’t prepared to give up any colony in Asia. The picture where FDR was in the middle as mediator, CKS and Churchill were separate was ironically very real. Read CKS Generalissimo by Jay Taylor (Former US Department Foreign Service Officer stationed in Taiwan), Rana Mitter China, the forgotten Ally; bother are excellent that give you the perspective of the Chinese during WW2.

Churchill kept on raiding supplies that were meant for the CBI Theater (China Burma India), and ask them to be sent to Europe. While Chinese paid with blood and lives against the Japanese with leftover arms from former Soviet and German supports. Indians were almost anticipating welcoming Japanese as liberators rather than conquerors. Indians already were tired of British Occupation, but CKS had to visit Ghandi in India to convince him that Japanese are anything but liberators. Vinegar Joe Stilwell discontent for CKS was also a constant tear between Chunking and Washington. FDR often had to feed CKS to press, as most American are calling for revenge against Japanese, not the Germans. Many American at this time was still thinking Germany is a British problem, not American. Japan was American problem, as Pearl Harbor was attacked; Philippines was occupied.

After the defeat of Germany, Soviet agreed to engage Japanese in the Far East, but they made demands of China without consulting with CKS, but agreed by Churchill and Stalin. FDR was already very ill, and Truman was even worse how he treated China. Soviet demanded support the independence and recognition of Mongolia, Manchurian Railroads, and Port Arthur (Dalian). CKS sent his foreign minister (TV Soong, Soong Mei-Ling brother) to ask trade for the Ally Concession to Soviets that was without CKS consent. Stalin conceded nothing, and didn’t even accept a meeting with TV Soong. China already was bargained for Soviet to enter the war against Japan. How should the Chinese feel about post WW2 world? The only thing about FDR that he at least did for China is agreed to have China as a permanent member of the security council.