132. Preponderance of the great
The Asian conflict during the Second World War remains “the forgotten war”; for many years the veterans of that conflict complained that it was treated as such, now they are mostly dead. The conflict with Japan remains secondary to the telling of the Second World War because it does not fit with the mythology of the wider conflict: the democratic European Allies struggling against the wicked, authoritarian Germans and Italians to prevent genocide and stop Europe from being dominated by racialised regimes. Yet, of course, the war in Asia contradicts this picture.
Britain was fighting in Asia, not for liberation, but to reclaim her lost imperial possessions, such as Singapore, and to protect her prized possession of India. In this vein, Churchill spoke of the British Empire lasting for “1,000 years”, a millennial aspiration that echoed Hitler’s dream of a 1,000-year Reich. As for the Americans, the war with Japan was much more of a final racial reckoning, a reckoning long coming. Japan had long been tagged as a threat to American interests in the region. The racialised propaganda used to depict the Japanese easily matched anything the Germans put out regarding the Jews—with the Japanese portrayed as inhuman, bandy-legged, and short-sighted monsters. For the Allies, the inhumanity of the Japanese was quite literal.
The war in Asia is the forgotten conflict because it was a racial conflict between white European countries and the Japanese for the imperial possession of Asia. It is not in keeping with the story of the war in Western Europe, a war presented as being a victory for self-determination, democracy, and a non-racialised conception of politics. The war in Asia concluded with the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. These events, literal holocausts, interfere with the simple moral story of the war: we fought it to stop Hitler from killing the Jews and other racial groups. Yet if the Japanese had not capitulated after the bombings, the Allies would have continued atom attacks; essentially, given the indiscriminate nature of the bombs, a project of extermination against the Japanese as a people.
In recent years the Asian conflict has seen more screen time, notably with films by the rightist director Clint Eastwood; yet, even so, the war remains obscure—it does not fit with the wider story of “why we fight”. Ironically, the war in Asia really was the war for Americans. America has always been about pushing westward, and it was long-predicted that her future would lie in conquering China—the most distant Western frontier. Indeed, American missionaries had a very intimate relation with the Chinese people; a people in conflict with the Japanese. Even America’s Western cities—like San Francisco and Seattle—testify to a hybrid of Asia and Europe; these are the places where fashionable exponents of Zen Buddhism, such as Alan Watts, could be found in the 1960s.
Today, the radical right adores Japanese animation, anime—probably because it has very clean lines, a pagan (even Gnostic) sensibility, and, above, all a certain innocence lacking in more ideological Hollywood products. The more bashful and autistic seek waifus—a compliant Asian wife—and this desire, a cliché almost, of the western man seeking the obedient Asian woman, has grown up over the 20th century as feminism debased European women; though I understand that many Asian women, once married, decide they want handbag…now! The harridan is not confined to European womanhood.
For a time, in the 1980s, there was great alarm at the rise of Japan; she was, so films of the time said, going to come back and revenge herself—commercially—on the Americans. It did not happen; the Japanese had long been broken inside, the atom bomb was a falling sun on the land of the rising sun—a symbolic destruction of her power. Yet, in the simmering concern over China in the last four years, we see a revival of the sense that the destiny of America still lies in the West—the farthest West, the East.