There has been some commentary, both on well-known blogs and obscure ones on Robert Farley’s Diplomat article on Japan’s WWII Counter-Insurgency planning and implementation Farley discusses an article by retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Lieutenant General Noboru Yamaguchi and Farley suggests that
Long story short, the history of Japanese operations in China was more complicated in process, if not in effect, than the “Kill All, Loot All, Destroy All” that has come to characterize the war*.
*Standard caveat: I trust that readers are bright enough to understand that this does not constitute an apology for the Japanese Imperial Army.
As my co-blogger Jonathan Dresner points out, this caveat seems not to have worked, as the comments at the Diplomat are mostly from (presumably) Chinese who want to make it clear that the Japanese are eternally evil.
Having violated Internet protocol and actually read the article I can report that it is interesting in an odd way. Noboru calls what went on the China Incident, and points out, correctly enough, that this was not the a war Japan wanted or planned for. He is not defending Japanese aggression, however. He is mostly interested in laying out how the Japanese Army in North China tried to deal with Chinese insurgency in addition to all their other tasks it had. North China was considered to be a sideshow to the coming war with Russia and then a sideshow to the current war with the U.S., and so they were expected to defeat the Chinese Communists while also preparing troops for battle at Guadalcanal or maybe Siberia. The North China army was also expected to send resources (iron, coal, salt, and cotton) home, making it quite different from the situation of, say, the American army in Iraq, which is the main comparison of the volume. ((The whole point of the volume, based on an 2010 conference at Ohio State, is to provide American policymakers with ideas about how to deal with Hybrid Warfare, situations where you are dealing with both a formal army and an insurgency, Thus, one would be dealing with a threat that would ‘blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.))
That Japanese war aims were confused at best is not news, but Noboru is drawing from high-level Japanese documents and the Japanese scholarship that flows from them, things that have not been much used by Western or Chinese scholars. A lot of what he says will not be wildly shocking to anyone who has read Lincoln Li ((who he cites)) or Tim Brook ((who he does not)) The article gives a nice Japanese Army-centric view of dealing with Chinese insurgents.
Farley is looking at the Japanese experience in China as an example of counter-insurgency, and I guess you can take lessons from it for that purpose. Heck, the Americans in Vietnam took lessons from the suppression of the Jiangxi Soviet in the 1930’s. It may seem odd to be taking lessons from Chiang Kai-shek on fighting Communists, but the suppression of the Jiangxi Soviet was actually a success. It helps to split things up in order to make sense of them. The Japanese Empire was a failure, but that does not mean that parts of it are not things people interested in counter-insurgency can learn from.
More to the point for this blog, the Japanese experience in China was not all of a piece. When I was in grad school ((We spent a lot of time on the ‘Opposable Thumb — Fad or the Future’ question. (I was also the first history student to decide I needed an ‘electronic mail’ account despite not being a comp-sci student) ‘)) the whole war period was pretty much a black hole. Communists and Nationalists were fighting in 1936. Then stuff happens and they are fighting in 1946. The last couple of decades have seen a lot of scholarship on what happened in China during the war. Our view of the Japanese is still pretty primitive, however. Unless you are Konrad Lawson or some type of hyper-smart person like that you still see the Japanese invaders as evil people who came to China for the chance to twirl their moustaches and cackle as they killed Chinese. There were plenty of those, but allowing the overall evil of the Japanese presence to dominate everything that happened obscures history. Lots of Japanese sincerely wanted to help China even while serving the Japanese war effort. The modern attempt to make a radical distinction between Japan and China just does not work. Are Lu Xun, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek all collaborators? Were Japanese who thought they could get Chinese to contribute to their empire all idiots? They did it in Taiwan and to some extent in Manchuria. Wang Jing-wei may have been a traitor, but it is hard to say he was not also a figure in the history of Chinese nationalism. Bose’s Indian National Army contributed a lot of men to the Japanese war effort. ((One place where I disagree with Farley is when he cites Bayly and Harper to suggest that the Japanese occupation of S.E. Asia was completely infective. The Japanese made many errors, but Bayly and Harper seem, to me. to suggest that they got more buy-in than the standard popular interpretation would suggest )) The radical anti-Japanese view ignores even Chinese wartime propaganda which could be quite solicitous of the sufferings of ordinary Japanese. While we can’t ignore the evil the Japanese people did in China, we also don’t want to oversimplify things, and the article helps with this.