Monday, May 22, 2006

Are the Japanese racist? Did the Japanese commit genocide in China prior to WWII?

Before answering the questions, it is necessary to define and analyze the terms of the question. "Genocide" was coined by Rafael Lemkin to describe the actions he observed committed by the Nazis against the Jews in Europe. In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress published by the Carnegie Foundation in 1944, Lemkin wrote: “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” His word very closed described what the Nazis attempted to accomplish vis a vis the Jews and other minorities in Europe. Subsequently, observers sought to expand the term "genocide" to describe other situations in the world that were not so clearly reminiscent of Nazi atrocities. Eventually, the UN formally defined “genocide” in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” A close reading of this definition makes it arguable that virtually any large scale action in a conflict can be called "genocide," an interpretation that makes claims of "genocide" not particularly useful as a descriptive term.

The actions of the Japanese in on the Chinese mainland prior to and during World War II, while clearly murderous, do not seem to fit into the Lemkin's original definition of genocide. His definition hinges on the mindset and intentions of the dominant party toward the party they are attempting to eradicate. The Nazis were clearly trying eliminate Jews and other minorities from Europe, and the Nazi’s actions were clearly motivated by their ideology and beliefs. There is much less documentation to suggest that the Japanese were motivated to eliminate the Chinese from China in a "genocidal" campaign.

There is no doubt that the Japanese engaged in mass killings in China. Many Chinese were killed as a result of combat operations, but many more were killed after combat operations had ceased. The Japanese troops, who in other campaigns contemporary to Manchuria, behaved with discipline, nonetheless committed atrocities during the campaign in the interior of China. The Japanese Army operated with great restraint in Taiwan, even in the face of provocations and challenges from the local aboriginal population, and never committed the scale of the atrocities that marked the Japanese operations on the Mainland. It seems that something other than raw racism was at work.

The Japanese did have racist sentiments towards Chinese, but that does not seem to be the only motivation for the killing. As Benjamin A Valentino observed in Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century: “Racism was rampant in the Japanese Army, but even in this case, strategic motives also seem to have been at work.” The strategic motives include desire to defeat and cow a restive population, and the need to ensure easy, dependable access to the resources of the Mainland. Where the Japanese had few problems pacifying the population, such as in Taiwan, there were few atrocities. Had the Japanese truly sought to exterminate the Chinese, Taiwan would have been a good place to start, with its relatively small population and the islands relative vulnerability. The fact that the Japanese did not take this easy opportunity for brutality is telling.

What the Japanese perpetrated in China does not seem to meet the definition of genocide but instead seems more like “mass killing.” While highlighting the differences between the terms "mass killing" and "genocide" make strike some as needless hair-splitting, differentiating the two allows an observer to examine the underlying motives of the actions. Mikiso Hane offered many reasons why the Japanese Army was able to actually perform the grueling, grisly work of mass killing that furthered Japan’s strategic requirements. Hane argued that the actions of the Japanese in Manchuria could be explained by the brutality involved in the training of Japanese soldiers, feelings of racial superiority engendered by military success and brainwashing and mob psychology. There is no indication that the formal policy of the Japanese government or of the Army's high command was to systemically eliminate all Chinese from China. However, to attribute what occurred in Manchuria to “genocide” makes the action easier to dismiss as some uniquely pre-McArthur Japanese aberration. On the other hand, to attribute the Japanese actions to poor soldierly discipline, to contempt for the enemy or to mob psychology bring the circumstances of the actions of the Japanese uncomfortably close to familiar contemporary circumstances. There are numerous reports of modern, relatively well trained forces committing atrocities around the world even today. Often these atrocities can be blamed on soldiers essentially being “turned loose,” unconstrained by laws of war and soldierly discipline, in order to effect the larger policies of their governments. We should be thankful that the atrocities are relatively small because these modern day deployments are dwarfed by the size of the Japanese army in China.

"Mass killing" on the scale the Japanese perpetrated in China requires a mindset inured to killing other human beings in large numbers and in close quarters. The Nazis committed their genocide in camps, automating their killing so that a relatively small, hard core did the bulk of the killing. The Soviets starved the large majority of their victims, a method of homicide that made their mass killing distant and impersonal. The Japanese Army, once unfettered from discipline, engaged in killing their victims in a retail fashion. The Japanese martial culture trained their warriors from their youth to close with the enemy, and engage in mortal combat at arm’s length. Grossman notes in “On Killing” that humans have to be conditioned to kill, especially in close combat, when fear of injury and death is at the peak and threatens to overwhelm a soldier’s training, orders and desire. The Japanese martial culture provided the conditioning that the leadership was able to harness in pursuit of national aims.

The racism that Hine observed in the Japanese Army came from the fact that Japan was an unusually isolated society. Japan is an island with few natural harbors, all of which are defensible whose major regional rival, China, essentially gave up on sea borne exploration and conquest except for a brief period in the 15th Century. The Japanese had little contact with other societies, a condition that allowed the Japanese to concentrate and refine their elaborate rituals of manners. Their isolation and safety from invasion was seen as validation for their theology of superiority and unique favor with the Gods. When the Japanese were finally forced to deal with other societies that were clearly more advanced in technology with the coming of the American Fleet, the Japanese were able to study and adopt the most useful components of foreign technology without being subjugated by a foreign power. Hence, the Japanese were able to persist in their belief in their inherent superiority, a belief that they took with them into the interior of China. The rapidity of their victories was seen as yet more affirmation of their favor with the gods and superiority over other races.

The Japanese combined their feelings of racial superiority with a society built on the culture of politeness and affront. All Japanese from their youth were trained formally and informally in deference to their "superiors" and in contempt for their "inferiors." Elaborate rituals of politeness were demanded and affronts to the rituals were punished immediately and brutally often times with death. The Japanese were accustomed to kill as punishment. More important to the willingness to use brutality to enforce cultural mores was the willingness of those oppressed to accept stoically the brutality meted out by the ruling samurai class. People in such cultures accept irrational brutality if they themselves know that by enduring, they will eventually have the chance to visit brutality on others subordinate to them. The Chinese were the ready targets for this expression of brutality by the Japanese. A western analogy to this Japanese construct can be found among the Spartans of ancient Greece. The Spartans were ruled by a warrior class, and were contemptuous of other civilizations not as organized or as ruthless as they.

The Japanese saw other cultures that did not accept their peculiar vision of society as uncouth, barbarian, and unworthy of consideration. The Japanese used, and in fact still use, dehumanizing language to identify outsiders. The Japanese had the peculiar situation where they were strong enough to maintain separation from their neighbors, but had just enough contact to develop negative perceptions of those same neighbors. As Soderberg pointed out in Japanese Influences and Presences in Asia, “Racism tends normally to be directed against people who are in a minority, in close proximity and in sufficient numbers.” For the Japanese, the Chinese were this minority.

But even given all the factors that conspired to cause the atrocities in China, was there something unique about the Japanese wanting to kill as many of their enemy as possible? The answer to that is no. Americans in every war, from the Revolution to World War II have written memoirs attesting to their desire to "kill as many of the enemy as possible." Allied forces grimly but deliberately bombed civilian targets in pursuit of total war in World War II. There was nothing unique about Japanese desire to kill large numbers of their enemy. What distinguished the Japanese was their willingness though a confluence of circumstances, to kill large numbers of the enemy, even enemy civilians, in close personal contact.