Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

August 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 5)


The Three Lakes in Japan’s Strategy in East and Southeast Asia
By Raphael Israeli *



When one looks at Japan’s geo-political location in East Asia, one is struck by the contours of three maritime ‘lakes’ which delineate the limits of Japanese strategic interests in various epochs of its history. These three ‘lakes’ which extend from north to south, east of the Euro-Asian landmass, coincide with Japan’s ambitions for political, military and economic dominance: the further her ambitions and successes led it, the more focused she became on ensuring her positions around those lakes; first in the north, around the Japan Sea; then in the Central Lake delineated by the Ryukyus and Taiwan; and then the Southern Lake, demarcated by the Southeast Asian vast archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines. The northernmost “lake” around the Sea of Okhotsk, bordered by the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and East Siberia, will remain beyond the scope of this study, since it had never constituted a real strategic option for the Japanese, due to its sparse population and its harsh climatic conditions which make its ports unnavigable most of the year. This, despite the fact that Japan has always taken direct interest in the Kurils ever since it encompassed Hokkaido in its Empire, not so much as part of another lake, but as a territory whose proximity to the northern reaches of its lands warranted a measure of caution.

Japan’s strategic defence around those three lakes, which was often perceived as a “strategy of survival”, even when it seemed offensive and aggressive in import, may constitute yet another manifestation of the Japanese “insular” state of mind. For exactly as the Japanese conceived the defence policy of their own territory in terms of ensuring that the oceans around them be secure, or at least free of direct threats against them, so did they move, as their defensive horizons and capacities expanded, to transcend the perimeters of their immediate vicinity, into oceans further south.

In time, the instinct to defend those “inner oceans” around her new acquisitions in Asia in late Imperial Japan, was no different than her innate propensity to defend the inner Japanese islands themselves. This similarity in perception and strategy, made Japan regard itself as the natural power to control those waters as of right, and instigated her to coin the “Co-Prosperity Zone” concept as a matter of course.


The Northern Lake

Unlike her neighbours–Korea and especially China, which had a continental orientation and except for a brief ocean-faring period during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) did not venture far beyond the continental shelf, Japan was instinctively and passionately, and almost obsessively, a maritime nation since its inception. Its closest link to the outside world was 100 miles across the Japan Sea between Kyushu and the southeastern tip of Korea. Chinese and Korean early technologies; as well as goods and culture, slowly made their way across the Straits into Japan and left an indelible impact on her development. Korea becomes, therefore, the first target of Japanese strategic thinking, both positively as the source and partner of trade, cultural borrowing and a medium to China; and negatively as the launching pad of potential attacks as manifested ultimately in the two aborted Mongol invasions (13th Century). Thus we find Japanese troops involved in Korean internecine wars in the early centuries of the Common Era, and many Korean refugees settling in Japan and assimilating into Japanese nobility. Korea, the Koreans, and Tsushima Straights became part and parcel of the Japanese existential experience.

The absorption of Buddhism and Confucianism into the Japanese cultural fiber, the adoption of the Chinese writing system, and the basic adoration for China, naturally strengthened the relations between Japan and Korea–the medium, but also heightened the interest of the Japanese in China–the source, and official relations were established between the two countries as early as the 6th Century. It is true that the Chinese continued as before to look down on the Japanese as inferior, despite Japanese insistence that they be recognised as equal. In view of the importance both sides accorded to this asymmetrical relationship, it was maintained through ritual facades and make-believe stratagems. Be it as it may, China started to make its way into Japanese strategic thinking. She was there, as real as Korea, and one had to refer to her, no one could ignore her.

China’s image in Japanese thinking as a super model of culture and statecraft soon changed into one of a threatening rival. In her quest to turn Korea into her vassal, she also intervened in Korean affairs and forced the Japanese troops posted there to retreat, a scenario that brought about clashes between the two East-Asian powers for years to come. This did not prevent the Japanese from sending delegations from the Nara Court to China, to model their capital and then the Heian capital–Kyoto, after the Tang’s capital–Chang-an; to import countless numbers of Chinese scholars and traders from there, and to institutionalise Confucian education for their nobles.

During the Ashikaga period (1336-1573), domestic wars destroyed much of Japan, but trade with China and Korea continued undisturbed, and it extended into the Ryukyu’s. The Japanese seafaring boats which did well at the time of the Mongol invasion, went on expanding Japan’s maritime commerce, despite the disruptions occasioned by the Japanese pirates who assaulted Chinese, Korean and Japanese ships. In the course of time the pirates learned to attack coastal cities along the Chinese and Korean shores, and even sailed up Chinese rivers to rob cities in the hinterland. This was the first Japanese ‘unofficial’ interest in coveting the Chinese shores, against which the Chinese authorities protested, but to no avail. But the Koreans were firmer in their reactions and they landed in the strategic Tsusima Island (1419) which served as a base for the pirates, and razed all its houses to the ground.

China and Korea having definitely fallen into Japan’s strategic purview, due to their forming the western shore of the northern and the central Japanese Lakes respectively, it was only to be expected that when Hideyoshi again united Japan in the late 17th-Century, and the strategic vision of Japan’s defence began to take shape, that he should set his thoughts westwards. The first version of East-Asian Co-Prosperity under Japan’s hegemony, indeed took root in Japanese strategic thinking ever since. Not only did he make no secret of his ambition to become King of China and Korea, thus securing his grip on both shores of the two lakes, but he then ventured into the Southern Lake when he dispatched a message to the Spanish Governor of the Philippines in 1591, demanding to be recognised the sovereign. In 1592 Hideyoshi’s troops, 150,000 strong, and armed with modern guns he had purchased from the West, landed in Pusan. Burning and looting everything in their path, the Japanese advanced north, rapidly occupying Seoul and Pyongyang and massacring their population, a precursor of what was to come centuries later. The dwindling Ming Dynasty, which was itself approaching its end (1644), nevertheless came to her vassal’s rescue, and joined forces with it to thwart the invasion and push the Japanese back. The Chinese, in a pattern that would recur in later centuries, attempted to secure the retreat of all foreign troops from Korea in order to maintain the Korean status as a protectorate of the Ming Court, but since Hideyoshi insisted on remaining in Korea as an occupier, hostilities were resumed. It was only Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 that put an end to the Japanese venture in East Asia. But his strategic heritage survived.

The two centuries of self-imposed isolation (sakoku) which followed, far from making the Japanese retract their strategic ambitions, signalled their admission of their inferior strength in the face of the Western maritime forces which continued to play a predominant commercial role in East Asia, including in Japanese waters. Since then, when Japan faced the alternative of withdrawing or sustaining a humiliating showdown, she would elect the former. Japan’s rising self-conciousness during that era as first among nations, and the development of “kokugaku” (National Studies), began to discard China as the origin of civilisation and to posit Japanese authenticity and rootedness as the genuine source of culture. The opening of Japan by the West in the mid 19th-Century, and then the Meiji Restoration of 1868, thrust Japan back onto the seas, and a renewed interest in the three-lake concept came to the fore. At first, Japan having long ago completed its expansion to Hokkaido and the Kurils, needed to target Sakhalin, the Russian Far East, Manchuria and Korea in order to complete its domination of the Northern Lake; then it would turn to the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the Chinese coast in order to stabilise itself around the Central Lake; and finally to base itself in the Philippines, the South China Sea, Southeast Asia and the Indonesian Archipelago, in order to set foot around the Southern Lake and implement in full its grand designs.

The post-Tokugawa period saw events telescoped, and the pace of happenings unfold rapidly, as befitted the entrace into the modern world and international politics. After the eclipse of Portugal and Spain, the West, notably Britain, France, Germany and the US, and Czarist Russia, showed a strong interest and a viable presence in East Asian waters, as part of their imperialistic policy. International politics having become closely inter-related, we will watch Japan also acting aggressively in both the Northern and the Central Lakes simultaneously. And although Japan’s isolation in the previous two centuries was voluntary and self- imposed, once forced to open to the West, she threw herself into the fray with a vengeance and did no less well than her Western mentors who had dragged her out of her seeming indolence.

Although it was to be the US which opened Japan to the West, Edo’s first contender was Russia, which already under Catherine the Great did not hide her designs in Sakhalin and the Kurils, which Japan regarded as her own. In an attempt to prepare for a clash with Russia, which made several aggressive passes at Japan, at the beginning of the 18th-Century, the Tokugawa Shogun took direct control of Hokkaido. In 1811 a clash between Japanese and Russian sailors occurred in the Kurils, and it was probably only Moscow’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars in Europe which warded off a military showdown between the two. Only following the Kanagawa Treaty (1854), which ended Japan’s isolation, did the Russians and the Japanese sign the Shimoda Treaty (1855) which temporarily settled the relations of the two nations, by partitioning the Kurils between them, leaving the four southern islands to Japan, and putting Sakhalin under joint control.

This remarkable manifestation of practicality on the part of Japan, which chose to yield to Western power rather than resist it and sustain defeat, turned out, nonetheless, to be no more than a provisional exercise in genteel self-restraint, which would erupt violently once again when circumstances allowed. In other words, the contained trauma of the opening of Japan by a show of Western force, which the West mistook as a sign of docile civility or reasonable pragmatism, was no more than a dormant volcano whose destructive power was to be unleashed in the successive battles for the three lakes in the coming decades. Tokyo’s strategic designs were, if anything, strengthened when it realised that:

1. Only a strong Japan could be sheltered from Western violations of her borders and way of life;

2. The defence of Japan, at least in the Age of Imperialism, lay outside its perimeters, hence the increasing vitality of dominating the three lakes and the access thereto and therefrom;

3. Japan could be respected and attain equality in the international scene only when it showed its mettle in combat and in expanding its colonial domains.


The Central Lake

While the Western powers initially exhibited friendship toward post-Perry Japan, Russia manifested its expansive designs which seemed to directly threaten the Northern Lake. Vladivostok, which faced the Japan Sea, was established in 1860 as a major maritime base for the Russian fleet in the Far East. In 1861, the Russians attempted to take over Tsushima Island in the straights separating Korea from Japan, before they were expelled by a British fleet. After the Restoration, Japan instituted universal conscription since 1873, and what used to be separate armies of the shogun and the various daimyo’s, grew gradually into a central, professional, modern and powerful national army, which for the first time would allow Japan to implement her strategic schemes. This new army was coupled with a large and modern naval force which would expressly serve as the long arm of the military for overseas operations. Since 1872, in fact, the Navy enjoyed a separate command from the Army, and both were subordinated, through their General Staffs, to the supreme command of the Emperor.

After the Restoration, Japan turned to China and Korea in an attempt to gain diplomatic recognition of her new regime by establishing official ties with them. While Imperial China, which had been forced to accept in the Peking Accords of 1860 the presence of foreign legations in the Capital, and established its Tsungli Yamen as an office to deal on a basis of equality with the Western powers, showed no objection to this demarche, the Koreans instinctively refuted it. They were reluctant to shrug off Chinese millenial patronage and accept the Japanese embrace which might be to their detriment. Japan had difficulties in swallowing that slight at a time when she had achieved equality in diplomatic recognition with the Western powers and with China–Korea’s patron. The old grudge against Korea was revived, but plans that were concocted by the Japanese government in 1873 to land troops in Korea, were shelved for fear of Western intervention at a time when Japan was ill-prepared to confront them militarily.

Concurrently, however, the Japanese began to set their eyes on the Central Lake by targeting the Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan. The latter was Chinese territory, and under more or less effective control of the Ching since the end of the Koxinga venture in late 17th Century. But the former were no more than a tiny vassal state which paid tribute to the Chinese Court, though since the 17th Century, it had also begun paying tribute to the Daimyo of Satsuma in southern Kyushu. This ambivalent situation naturally opened the way for contradictory claims to those territories. With regard to Taiwan, the Japanese government exploited a local rift between Japanese sailors and Taiwanese, which had occurred in 1871, to send a punitive naval expedition in 1874 which landed on the island and occupied part of it. Only through British mediation and a large indemnity, could Japan be made to retreat. But it escaped no one’s attention that Japan had sent an expeditionary naval force overseas as an instrument of its imperial policy which by then was targeting the Central Lake as well as the Northern one. However, this retreat did not prevent Japan from annexing to its territory the Ryukyus in 1879, and rebaptised them as the Province of Okinawa. Half the goal was thus attained without incurring much in terms of damage or casualties, in the process enhancing Japan’s prestige as an international naval force to reckon with. The Northern Lake designs were served at that time when Japan signed an agreement with Russia in 1875 whereby all the Kurils came under Japanese domination in return for their renunciation of the southern part of Sakhalin which was yielded to the Russians.

In 1875, boosted by her military and diplomatic successes, Japan again dispatched a fleet to Korea and forced the Koreans to sign the Kang-hwa Convention which gave them the equal diplomatic status they had sought before but failed to achieve, and proclaimed Korea as an independent nation. But it was not until 1894 that Japan went to war to ensure her interests in Korea which were geared to foster her strategy in both the Northern and the Central lakes. In this context, Korea was not only a worthwhile prey unto herself but, in view of the fact that both Russia and China coveted her, thereby disturbing Japan’s schemes in the two lakes, she became a doubly-prized target. For China, Korea had been a millenial vassal which it would not let go; for Russia it was essential for the consolidation and the protection of her potential acquisitions in south Manchuria, and the Liaodong Peninsula in particular. In the meantime, it was China’s proximity to Korea which gave her initial advantages over the other contenders, and she erected in Port Arthur a formidable base for her Northern Pact (Beiyang). In 1884, Japan determined to intervene, manipulating the pro-Japanese Korean faction in order to take over the Imperial Palace. But the Chinese were swift to respond, and their garrison rapidly quelled the Japanese-instigated rebellion. But when the Japanese dispatched troops to assist their nationals in Korea, negotiations between the parties ensued, which resulted in the Sino-Japanese Tientsin Convention of 1885, under which both powers undertook to withdraw their forces and not to send them again unless by mutual consent. Thus, Japan’s ambition of getting an equal footing with China in Korea was elegantly accomplished through diplomacy backed by gunboats.

When in 1891 Russia began laying the railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, it became apparent that since that port was frozen during winter, she would covet the warmer waters of Manchuria and Korea and might extend their railway system southwards. A trigger was needed for Japan to go to the rescue of her Northern Lake, especially against Russia, even as China and Korea were designated as the immediate targets. In 1894 the aborted scenario of the Sino-Japanese war of 1884 was re-enacted, but this time for real. The Tongkhak peasant rebellion, an essentially domestic Korean affair, indeed triggered Chinese military intervention at the behest of the Korean King. According to the Tientsin Covention, the presence of Chinese troops in Korea automatically required a Japanese response in kind. Invading Japanese troops stormed the King’s Palace and forced him to “ask” for their “assistance” to rid themselves of the Chinese.

For Japan, the Chinese trigger was God-sent and became a perfect pretext for her own intervention which had long obsessed her as part of securing her Northern and Central Lakes. So, having first secured Britain’s neutrality in the fray, Japan launched her attack, achieving an overwhelming military superiority over the more numerous but less agile, less disciplined, less trained, less equipped and less determined Chinese. In a series of swift, daring and tactically sound moves, the Japanese land and sea forces delivered a resounding blow to their Chinese counterparts, bringing upon them a rout of disastrous proportions. Both Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula, including newly constructed Port Arthur, came under Japanese conquest, and the conquerors once again perpetrated large scale massacres among both the defeated military and civilians, and pursued the Chinese escapees as far away as Shandong, across the Yellow Sea. The latter came under Japanese domination in consequence, and with it much of the East China Sea bordering the Central Lake. At the outcome, not only was Japan’s prestige enhanced as a land and naval power, and her self-consciousness and patriotism as a great nation crystallised in the national psyche, but the victors came to look down upon the once-adored China, and did not desist from the battles until they extracted from the defeated Chinese the Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895. Under that humiliating pact, Liaodong, Taiwan and the Pescadores in the Taiwan Straights were ceded to Japan to serve as her positions bordering on her Central Lake; and they achieved Chinese formal recognition of Korean “independence” before that country was to fall under Japanese servility some years hence. Japan’s conquests in Shandong were also anchored in the Treaty pending China’s payment of the exorbitant 200 million Tael indemnity she was to disburse during the next seven years.

Japan’s takeover of Liaodong not only established her dominance of the Central Lake, but also to a great extent circumvented Russia’s threat to the Northern Lake from her positions in Vladivostok and Sakhalin. Indeed, merely days after Shimoniseki, Russia demanded, with German and French support, Japanese evacuation of Liaodong for the sake of “peace in the Far East,” and backed up their demand by placing their Vladivostok fleet on a war footing. Japan had to yield to the tripartite threat and restored Liaodong to China in return for more war indemnities. So, while her domination of the Northern and Central Lakes was once again challenged, Japan emerged nonetheless as a recognised regional power with interests in both lakes. The ultimate showdown was once again postponed until Japan felt self-confident enough to confront Western powers. The Russians were quick to penetrate into this power inter-regnum and soon after the Japanese evacuation, they made their moves to replace them in Liaodong. For Russia, Port Arthur and Dairen were substitutes for Vladivostok in winter, and they undertook to build a shortcut for their Trans-Siberian Railway via Chinese Manchuria into her Far Eastern naval base. Extensions to Liaodong were later built from that railway to help resolve Russian strategic concerns.

During the scramble for concessions in China at the turn of the century, Japan which had evacuated Shandong when the Chinese indemnities were paid in full, found solace in the new sphere of influence she obtained in Fujian across the straights from her Taiwan colonial possession, thus controlling both sides of the straights which constitute the southern entrance/exit of her Central Lake. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Japan constituted close to half of the foreign contingent which went to the rescue of the foreign embassies in Peking, and this won her recognition as part of the interested parties in China. No sooner had the Boxer crisis been settled that Japan’s and Russia’s conflicting interests in Manchuria and Korea rekindled. Korea, which feared Japanese designs, was edging closer to Russia for protection and balance, but Japan could not sit by and wait. After Shimonoseki, having just secured Korea’s independence, the Japanese concocted the murder of a member of the Korean Court, a demarche that pushed the frightened Koreans tighter into the Russian fold. The latter gained economic rights in Korea which gave her strategic superiority over all other contenders. After they achieved their privileges in Manchuria, backed by the Russian troops which had remained there after the Boxer settlement, the Russians were now in a position to endanger Japan’s grip on both her Northern and Central Lakes. It was only a matter of time before the clash between the two powers burst into the open.

The Japanese first secured British backing under the terms of their unprecedented alliance signed in 1902, then feeling threatened enough and strong enough to confront the Russians, they decided to act single-handedly. In early 1904, using Russian intransigence in Manchuria and Korea as a casus belli, they attacked the prime of the Russian Navy in Port Arthur and in Korean waters in an early, but as deadly and devastating, version of Pearl Harbour; then, they declared war on Russia and sent in land troops. They swept the Korean Peninsula in a remarkable blitzkrieg, crossed the Yalu into Manchuria, soon joining forces with their troops in the Liaodong Peninsula and laying siege to Port Arthur, a move which again assured them control of the Yellow Sea, i.e. the northern access to the Central Lake. Then, the Japanese turned north and conquered Mukden in a delirious attempt to expel the Russians from all Manchuria so as to gain a foothold on the shores commanding the northwestern access to the Northern Lake. As a bonus, the Japanese Navy also took over Sakhalin once again, thus ensuring her virtual domination of the entire lake, save the Russian littoral north of Vladivostok. This was the firmest and most complete hold the Japanese had ever achieved in both the Northern and Central Lakes. This victory, which seemed to finally realise Japan’s strategic dreams, was so overwhelming that the Navy has been celebrating it ever since on (May 27 every year).


The Southern Lake

The Americans, being the rulers of the Philippines since their war against Spain in 1898, began to show their concern about Japan’s expansionism from Taiwan southwards into Southeast Asian waters. They accepted in consequence to mediate the Portsmouth Treaty in 1905 between Russia and Japan in order to end the war between those two Asian rivals and to check Japan’s ambitions, but not before they secured Tokyo’s recognition of American presence and interests in the Filipino archipelago. In return, President Roosevelt recognised Japan’s interests in Korea, as long as she kept away from the Philippines, a naivete that would cost the US dearly less than three decades later. At any rate, the Portsmouth Convention was seen as an opportunity for Japan to obtain control not only in Korea, Manchuria and Sakhalin, but also to impose the demilitarisation of Vladivostok so that militarily, the Northern Lake became truly, entirely and exclusively Japanese. But they had to compromise under the peace terms: although their hegemony in Korea was recognised and their possession of Port Arthur and of the South Manchurian Railway leading there was acknowledged, they had to accept the redivision of Sakhalin, with the southern part accruing to them and the north ceded back to Russia. The result was, nevertheless, that almost all of Japan’s ambitions around the Northern and Central Lakes were fulfilled, save for Vladivostok which remained a threatening Russian naval base. But the Japanese people, who had been psyched-up during the war and showed patriotism and enthusiasm, came to regard the Japanese “concessions” in Portsmouth as a sell-out.

Japan, which had gone to war against China in 1894 to secure the independence of Korea, now crushed that same independence under her military boot, and forced that country to become a Japanese protectorate. In 1910 the Japanese, using the murder of their governor of Korea, the glorious Ito Hirobumi, as the pretext they were waiting for, annexed the peninsula outright as the first step towards turning the two lakes they had under their control, into a formal part of their Empire. Annexation would normally entail naturalising the native population and according it the rights of the metropol, including the right to vote. But Japan’s designs were different: they continued to hold the Koreans in contempt, they suppressed their identity and strove to annihilate their culture. They wanted domination, not equalisation; and their huge investments in the economic development and the infrastructure of their colony were geared to serve their military control of that land, and preparing it as the launching pad for future campaigns, evincing once again the role of the new acquisition which was spanning the two lakes, in furthering their overall strategy.

World War I gave Japan the opportunity to take control of the western part of the East China Sea which would consolidate her grip on the entire perimeter of the Central Lake. Based on her alliance with Britain, she declared war on Germany and sent troops to Shandong to take over German positions there, notably the naval base in Chingdao (1914), thus setting the pattern of deploying a great strategic effort every decade to control the Lakes: 1894–the war against China; 1894–the war against Russia; and now, in 1914–again on the Chinese shores. Victory over the Germans allowed her to sweep the entire province of Shandong, the native place of Confucius–a particularly sensitive site for the Chinese. The Japanese also dispatched their Navy further down into the Pacific and took over the Marshall and other German islands. That was not yet an inroad into the Southern Lake where Japan would have had to challenge American and British power if it had decided to interfere directly in Filipino or Malay waters, but it was certainly one step forward which signalled Japan’s interest beyond the established Northern and Central Lakes. Those acquisitions propped Japan to eye the entire east coast of China which would have allowed her to control the entire periphery of the Central Lake, exactly as it had done with the Northern Lake in 1905. While the Japanese were not yet ready for the direct takeover of the Chinese landmass, they felt well-positioned enough to submit the “21 Demands” to China’s ruler, Yuan Shikai, which would have given her an indirect control of the entire country. Yuan stalled at first, and the Japanese had to mitigate their demands, but even those that were eventually implemented were forceful enough to lift Japan’s status in China almost above that of all other foreign nations in the country, and recognised her “rights” in Manchuria and Shandong.

The October Revolution in Russia (1917) again presented an opportunity to Japan to fill the only gap that had remained in her dominance of the Northern Lake, i.e. the Siberian coast north of Vladivostok. Concerned about the danger of the spread of Communism into their nations, Western powers had determined to assist the White Russians against the total takeover of Russia by the Bolsheviks. But since they were busy in the war in Europe, only Japan, and the US to a lesser extent, could allocate troops for this endeavour, and they constituted together an international force to land in eastern Siberia. The Japanese needed no prodding, and in 1918, contributing 90 per cent of the force, they conquered Vladivostok. Soon, they also occupied northern Manchuria which had been under Russian influence, and marched into east Siberia. Even when the US and the rest of the Western nations who had sent a token contingent decided to withdraw after the war (1920), the Japanese dug in to stay, and they even, once again, extended their rule to entire Sakhalin in spite of their obligation in Portsmouth which had confined them to the southern part thereof. Japan participated at the Versailles Conference in 1919 as one of the five victorious powers and gained as a result a permanent seat at the League of Nations, a privilege which catapulted her to the internationally recognised status of a world power. At the Conference, the Powers yielded to Japan’s claim to her right to inherit permanently the German positions in Shandong.

In the post-War period, Japan pursued her policy of targeting China as a protectorate that would allow her to come closer to fully implement her three lake strategy. Although Japan had to yield in the Washington Conference (1922) to the Western demands to restore Shandong to China, to reduce her naval power, to return Northern Sakhalin to the Soviets and to evacuate her forces from Siberia, that was only a temporary and tactical “concession” pending a new opportunity to revert to her expansionist policy. Her bases in Liaodong and southern Manchuria allowed her to continue to concoct her schemes with the help of local Chinese stooges. At the end of World War I it was Chinese warlord Zhang Cuolin who was placed at the helm of Manchuria under Japan’s auspices. But when Chiang Kai-shek, the new ruler of China, launched his Northern Expedition in 1926, “threatening” to sweep the entire country all the way to Manchuria, the Japanese again landed in Shangdong (1928), in an attempt to bar his route, and it was only under Western pressure that they retreated, again temporarily. The pattern of Japanese activity became clear: like a thief in a hotel, they tried to turn open door-knobs when there was no one present, or taking advantage of local upheavals; but they retreated when the tenants or the hotel authorities raised their voices or showed signs of resistance.

When warlord Zhang “defected” to Chiang Kai-shek, whose popularity was soaring, he was liquidated by the agents of the “Guangdong Army”–an euphemism for the Japanese garrison in southern Manchuria. His son and successor, Zhang Xueliang who sided with Chiang’s nationalists if only to avenge the murder of his father, facilitated the posting of Chinese troops in Manchuria, and encouraged acts of sabotage and boycott against the Japanese. The Guangdong Army staged the “Mukden Incident” in 1931, by falsely claiming that Chinese nationals had blown up the south-Manchurian railway which was under their ownership and control, and used this as a pretext to launch an all-out offensive against the Chinese forces in the province. With reinforcements from Japan, the Japanese succeeded in overrunning all of Manchuria inspite of the much larger Chinese troops posted there. They also made an abortive attempt to take over Shanghai, but they were thwarted. Manchu-Kuo was declared in 1932, with the deposed last Ching Emperor at its helm but in full subordination to the Manchu occupiers. The unanimity of Western powers, which pressured Japan to relinquish Manchuria and return it to the Chinese, did nothing more than prompt her to slam behind her the door of the League of Nations. It became evident that the age of naivete had ended and that Japan felt confident that she could go for it all alone, despite and against the entire world. The occupiers then embarked in earnest to build and expand the infrastructure of Manchuria, joining it to their older acquisition in Korea, and preparing it as the launching pad for their forthcoming attack against entire China. For, this time, their rule of all China would not only permit them to solidify their exclusive hold on the Northern and Central Lakes, but would also open to them direct and unhampered access to the South China Sea–their Southern Lake.

In 1934 the Guangdong Army expanded into Inner Mongolia, thus extending Manchu-Kuo to the approaches of Peking (in the city itself the Japanese maintained a contingent since the Boxer Rebellion). They also obtained from the Chinese authorities the demilitarisation of the ports of northern China that were adjacent to Manchu-Kuo. In 1937, border skirmishes between the Chinese and Japanese grew into a full-fledged war, and the Japanese troops invaded Peking and Tientsin. Soviet Russia, which became concerned about Japanese expansion in its proximity, aided nationalist China militarily, but soon the war spread to Shanghai which was occupied by the invaders, then came Nanking, the Capital, where the Japanese committed atrocities on a scale never known before in the chronicles of warfare. A rapid conquest of the entire coastal area of China followed, from Manchuria to Canton, inspite of last-stand battles by the retreating nationalist armies, daring counter-attacks by the Chinese Communists in northern China, and serious engagements between Japanese and Soviet troops on the Manchu-Kuo borders.

Now Japan was master of the northern shores of their Southern Lake, and had secured the boundaries of the New Order they wished to establish in East Asia under their tutelage. In 1940, Wang Chingwei, the Chinese Vice-President, defected to the Japanese, and they used him to erect another puppet regime, the likes of Manchu-Kuo. So, when the European powers were nailed down from 1939 on to the European war theater and could no longer defend their east-Asian colonies, Japan was quick to seize that opportunity in order to complete the encirclement of her third lake and lay her hand on the riches of those countries which would supply her war needs (rubber in Malaya, oil in Indonesia). The US which was the only Western power not yet involved in the war, saw its colony in the Philippines nevertheless directly threatened by the overwhelming power of Japan. But the Japanese were not deviated from their designs: they systematically occupied, first, French Indo-China, and even resisted the German proposal to join the Nazi attack against Russia in 1941, so as to leave their hands free to achieve the creation of the Southern Lake.

After Pearl Harbour (1941), which resulted in the destruction of the American Pacific Fleet, Japan saw herself free to pursue her scheme: from her bases in Taiwan, in the southern tip of her Central Lake, her bombers set out to annihilate the American power in the Philippines–the eastern limit of the Southern Lake, at a time when her forces had already had taken hold of its western limit in Vietnam. In 1941-1942, Japan completed the circle by occupying Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra, the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and the Philippines and Burma. The Japanese dream was now fully realised for the first and last time in her history. But it was not to last: when the tide was reversed towards the end of the Pacific War (1944-1945), the US retook the Philippines, and the British–Malaya and Singapore. In the Northern Lake, the Soviet army invaded Manchuria, North Korea, south Sakhalin, took over the entire chain of the Kuril Islands, and once again discontinued Japan’s exclusive hold on its shores. The post-War settlements also deprived Japan of the Central Lake when they had to evacuate China and Taiwan, including Liaodong and Shandong, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea.



We have shown above that Japan’s perception of her strategic needs had grown since the Middle Ages, and were not only the fruit of a sudden eruption of nationalism and expansionism. Judging from its ephemeral nature, even the short-lived liberal trend which had developed in Japan after World War I was an aberrant exception rather than a new prevailing state of mind. Its brittle character, which translated into lack of durability, did not result only from the rise of the military in the 1930s, as some would have it, but from the fact that expansion toward the three lakes was part and parcel of Japanese thinking almost since its inception, and certaintly since early modern Japan.

The evolution of strategic thinking in Japan went hand-in-hand with its own growth, and at the same time with the perceived threat on her growth and well-being. Korea, Manchuria, the Kurils and Sakhalin, i.e. the outside borders of the Japan Sea, came first and foremost. Then, the territories bordering on the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, namely the West side of Korea, Shandong and south Manchuria, the East China coast, Taiwan and the Ryukyus. And then, the countries on the perimeter of the South China Sea, i.e. southern China, and Southeast Asia. Although chronologically, and understandably so, Japan’s expansion began in the Northern Lake and then proceded southwards to the Central and Southern Lakes, she was constrained most of the time to struggle simultaneously, by military and diplomatic means, to maintain her acquired positions in one region or another, and marked setbacks no less than victories, though the general direction was clear from the outset. They gained East Siberia and then evacuated it; they took over Korea, once and again, but had to relinquish it; they invaded Sakhalin, in part or in full and then retreated; they invaded Manchuria, China, or only Shandong and Liaodong, but had to withdraw from them. This does not mean that the Japanese were hesitant or adopted a policy of zigzags, or that they changed their strategic designs to the pace of the change of their hearts or minds. This only means that the tactical gains or setbacks expressed the limits of Japan’s capacities, not the visions of her grand design which guided her strategic thinking.

Admittedly, strategic thinking can itself change, in function of prevailing domestic needs and abilities or international circumstances. But in view of the recurring resurgence in Japan of patriotism, militarism, expansionism, nationalism, enthusiasm for battle, belief in the divine origin of the Emperor, the sense of superiority over others, a penchant for competition and one-upmanship, and a constant need to prove to themselves and to the world that they are no worse, in fact better, than others, it is no surprise that we find Japan throughout its history, looking for new knobs to turn open when the occasion arises and retreating into her shell, or lowering her profile when insurmountable difficulties arise. The concept of shame in a society which has always wielded the sword while waving the chrysanthemum, that is to say a profound commitment to honour, culture and aesthetics, and a fanatic obligation to defend them, and even impose them, has generated a supreme urge to avoid humiliation, almost at any cost. To expand and oppress adversaries is an expression of pride, superiority and might; to yield to them, in order to avoid the humiliation of being coerced to act against their will, is a necessary evil. But yielding is temporary by definition, and whenever the situation will allow, a return to conquest and expansion becomes necessary to wipe out all traces of humiliation. No other culture has ever made self-immolation, individual or collective, such a lofty ideal which allows one and society to escape humiliation. Countless samurai performed harakiri to avoid punishment by their lord; politicians and generals who failed their duty committed suicide or were assassinated by other Japanese who felt humiliated by their deeds; massive kamikaze attacks during the Pacific War were deemed as an honourable way to escape the humiliation of a military defeat; and the election of self-inflicted death rather than the humiliation of submission, surrender or betrayal of duty, was manifested dramatically in the last stand mass suicides when the fortunes of the war began turning against Japan. Most poignant of all, was the mass harakiri performed in front of the Imperial Palace in Hibiya when the Emperor accepted to surrender unconditionally to the Americans in August, 1945.

Unlike Germany, which has attempted to exonerate herself by apologising, paying indemnities, and renouncing part of her territory after the war, we find no trace of that in Japan. The war heroes are still adored in the shrines, and their annual commemorations attended by the leading national statesmen. No apologies from the Japanese authorities, unless forced or pressured to do so; no massive indemnities to the millions who suffered and to the relatives of the millions who perished by torture, murder, abuse, slave labour and “medical” tests, in spite of the huge wealth of the country; Even the Hiroshima Peace Museum has elected to drown in general and verbose niceties about peace, harmony and universal love, Japan’s part in triggering the war and inflicting death, conquest, suffering and abuse on so many nations. No mention of the “comfort women” in Korea, no apology about the invasions, violations, massacres and untold misery that they brought upon so many unfortunate victims. Only a long litany of complaints, suffering and self-pity about their own plight when the bombs were dropped on their innocent cities, in a Kafkaesque sequence which recognised no cause-and-effect logic, and dwelt on the consequence rather than on the root reasons. If such an analysis had been allowed to pass, the Japanese might have had to face the humiliation of the culprit. But they elected to escape from it, put on a mask and pretended that the war events happened on some other planet, in which they had no part. Japanese school textbooks do not discuss the war, and the topic remains much of a taboo in Japanese society. For, an admission of guilt amounts in itself to humiliation, something the Japanese cannot bear.

The post-war period has profoundly shaken the Japanese psyche. Once the vanity of her imperial designs became manifest in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all Japan could do was to bow to circumstances and show signs, not of repentance which would have meant humiliation, but of avoidance, repression and forgetting. But the sense of competition and one-upmanship did not disappear: it is now deployed in the economic field, because militarism had produced disaster. But when, in the future, circumstances arise once again, no one should discard the possibility, even likelihood, of a new surge of Japan’s traditional strategic thinking. As long as contemporary Japan does not come to terms with her past, renounces in public her wrongdoings and amends them (her shameful behaviour towards the Koreans is only one example), apologises to her victims or their descendants and compensates them, and accepts humiliation as a purgatory process, one may look with fear and skepticism at the “New Japan”, and hope that it will not remain merely as the name of a hotel in downtown Tokyo.

Rare are the instances in history where a country which was on the way to liberalism and democracy would reverse herself and become a blatant example of militarism and ultra-nationalism. Japan and Germany, not a coincidence, constitute the most disturbing exceptions. Japan’s occupation of Korea, Manchuria and the rest of Asia were not the reason for this reversal in Japan but the result thereof. We have seen that the bouts of expansionism in medieval and modern Japan were often preceded, not only followed, by proto-nationalistic and then ultra-nationalistic thoughts among the intellegentsia, statesmen and the military. Manchuria, Korea, China and others were occupied because of Japan’s strategic thinking, before and after Japan’s short bout of liberalism subsequent to World War I. Korea had been annexed in 1910, and that annexation had not been annulled when Japan experienced democracy. Even the liberal democracy since World War II has not reversed Japanese attitudes towards the Koreans within and without Japan, nor did it produce official and whole-hearted apologies and compensations to the victims. All of Japan’s invasions and occupations and annexations of territory were undone only by force, when Japan lost a war, or when, in order to avoid greater humiliation, she was pressed to renounce them. As long as Japan has to submit to American protection in order to ensure her economic prosperity, she will be docile in maintaining the fiction of dubbing her formidable armed forces a “Self Defence Force”. But when circumstances change, no constitution will stand in the way of calling a spade a spade, and armed force an armed force, and of reverting to the strategy of the Three Lakes. Japan’s growing leaning towards Asia, and correspondingly diminishing American role in her strategic thinking in the last decade, may be the first indications of that trend.



Note *: Harry Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace  Back.