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The Dissolution of the Japanese Empire and the Struggle for Legitimacy in Postwar East Asia, 1945-1965

Pu Yi on trial

Former Qing "last" Emperor Pu Yi testifying at a Chinese Communist Court in 1956

A major historical research project which will examine how East Asia redefined itself after World War II, with results that affect international relations in the region even today, and aims to understand how political and legal authority was established by different regimes in countries such as China, Korea and Taiwan, as the area emerged from the shadow of Japanese Imperial rule after 1945.

The transformation of East Asia after the fall of the Japanese empire has mainly been written from a western perspective, owing to the preponderance of postwar American scholarship and the nation’s political dominance but also the systematic declassification and easy access to government and private archival papers. Recently the tide has begun to shift and declassification moves have become more standard in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and even mainland China which has recently opened many Ministry of Foreign Affairs records up to 1965. Although often too expensive to acquire abroad, these same countries continually publish selected volumes of key archives to consult in their university and national libraries. As such, avenues for re-interpreting the early Cold War from a multitude of non-western viewpoints can already be seen in the ground-breaking scholarship of Kawashima Shin and Hattori Ryuji in Japan, Xu Yuming and Lo Jiujung in Taiwan, along with Niu Jun and Shen Zhihua in China to add to our growing understanding of the alliances and policies liberated East Asian entities engaged in to regain authority and power after the retreat of the Japanese empire. This new research makes clear that Japan’s sudden surrender in no way signified that the country would immediately disavow its extensive imperial ideology; such a move would require a long time to inculcate. As US historian Marc Gallicchio has highlighted, “Tokyo’s announced intention to surrender did not produce an end to hostilities in Asia. Instead it signaled the beginning of a period of transition from war to peace.”

"The transformation of East Asia after the fall of the Japanese empire has mainly been written from a western perspective."

As much as many who had been under the heel of Japanese oppression might have wished, in the immediate aftermath of World War II rare was the political body that had the luxury of seeking vengeance against the Japanese because neither the international circumstances nor the pending civil wars allowed attention to be diverted from the ultimate goal at hand, to gain support for the establishment of new governments. This era was a critical turning point in China and Korea where communist forces quickly carved out new spheres of influence to struggle against what was believed to be the imposition of a new imperial power – the United States. In Taiwan the pageantry and ceremony of the legal process provided a platform for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) from which it could demonstrate that it was legally administering Taiwan under the banner of international law along the lines drawn by the Cairo Declaration of 1943. Pursuing war criminals, collaborators or suspected traitors offered a means to resolve the upturned former imperial hierarchies, dealing with grudges and finding justice to atone for committed atrocities. These moves demonstrated that the new authorities were “just,” a crucial element to bolster domestic and international backing.

The legal restructuring of East Asia and Japan’s relations with its neighbors in East Asia played a vital function in redressing colonial and imperial power domains in the early Cold War. But realpolitik also played a role. In short, even after Japan’s imperial surrender the Chinese Nationalists needed their former enemy’s technological and military support to bolster their own future, as did the British and to some extent the French, bogged down against Vietminh nationalists in Indochina. In Taiwan and South Korea the issues of who was a war criminal and who was a collaborator or traitor were even trickier to tackle given the longue durée of the Japanese imperial reign and large military conscription projects. Throughout the 1950s the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and the USSR made constant reference to the possible rise of militaristic Japan. The status quo at the dawn after surrender was far from stable even though the long awaited goal to defeat Japan had finally been realized.

This £1.2 million five-year ERC project aims to understand how political rule and legal authority were redrafted in postwar East Asia. The narrative will shed light on a historical transformation that continues to have deep resonance in the contemporary world in the form of East Asia’s regional alliances and Japan’s relations with its closest neighbors – North and South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Even with the economic rise and growing dominance of contemporary China, the region’s understanding of its own past and its relations within the region remain deeply rooted to the contours of the manner in which World War II ended and the process of how Japanese imperial rule was judged at the local level through war crimes trials and the pursuit of justice against imperial supporters. Historian of China Peter Zarrow emphasizes that legal trials often serve as “political rituals” and provide the populace with a series of “solemn and repetitive practices that connect leaders and communities with larger, higher forces, be these God or gods, transcendental movements of history, the fate of the nation, the future of the people, or whatever.”  These processes assist in how we form our understanding of the dissolution of the Japanese empire and how traditional leadership struggled with nascent nationalist forces in many realms to affirm themselves in a bid to control the future of East Asia. The arrests, investigations, and trials were the very tools of international law, a relatively new concept especially in this region. The systems adjudicated public guilt and delineated who was Japanese, Chinese, and Korean – a seemingly simple task rendered politically cumbersome, given that empire often blurred ethnic and national barriers that quickly sprang forth following Japan’s sudden surrender.

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