Lessons from Japan for the US occupation of Iraq

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Jumada' al-Akhirah 14, 1425 2004-08-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 6, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1425)

The US’s claim to be bringing freedom and progress to Iraq is often justified by comparisons with its administration of Japan at the end of the second world war. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ highlights parallels and differences between the two occupations.

Top American officials from President Bush down have consistently justified their destructive and disastrous occupation of Iraq by referring to the American occupation of Japan at the end of the second ‘world war'. Bush has claimed that the "substantial progress" the Americans were making in Iraq "has proceeded faster than similar efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II." The American corporate media, which play an important role in shaping how ordinary Americans perceive the occupation of Iraq, have generally parroted the official position, although independent analysts disagree about the wisdom of making such comparisons. John Dower, an awarding-winning historian of modern Japan, has noted that Bush's "murky use of history" obscures the reality that "almost everything that abetted stability and serious reform in postwar Japan is conspicuously absent in the case of Iraq," and likens Bush's "opportunistic use of history" to an old drunk leaning on a lamp-post, which "is being used for support rather than illumination." Given the current situation, it might prove useful to examine some parallels and contrasts between the two occupations.

One point that both water-muddying officials and clear-thinking academics seldom discuss is the colonial nature of war in the 20th century. In short, both ‘world wars' can be regarded as colonial wars, with most of the "world" being involved as colonial territories that were fought over by the major colonial powers. Those powers were initially led by Spain, which conquered and occupied most of what is now Central and South America, including the Caribbean, followed by Portugal with similar colonies in South America. Spain's early ascendancy was due in large part to its plunder of the wealth of Muslim Spain, with the year 1492 marking both the end of the destruction of the caliphate in Spain and the beginning of the destruction of indigenous societies in the Americas. Spanish colonialism gave way to its European rivals, led by Britain but also soon involving France, Holland, Italy and Germany. The Americans took over much of Spain's empire, and parts of the British empire. By the end of the 19th century much of the world had been carved up by these Euro-American colonial powers.

In the mid-19th century Japan was "opened" by the Americans, whose warships landed in Tokyo harbor with a demand that the ruling shoguns unlock Japanese trade for American capitalists. This led to the "Meiji restoration," in which the shoguns were displaced by a modernizing regime under the newly restored emperor. Japan quickly learned the rules of modern colonialism, and soon became a rival power to the Europeans and the Americans, threatening the already-claimed colonies in Southeast Asia and establishing new ones in China. Japan did what every colonial power of the 19th century did, what all "modern industrialized" nations did: invaded and plundered the resources of weaker countries. But a problem emerged. These resource-rich countries were already occupied by the Western powers, who were no doubt doubly incensed, not only because Japan was encroaching on the European and American colonial territories, but also because the "yellow-skinned" and "pagan" Japanese were neither white nor Christian; until then colonialism had been bound up with white supremacy and the mission to Christianize.

In contrast, aside from short-lived occupations in Iran and Kuwait, Iraq was never the sort of colonial power that Japan had become, rivalling the Western powers. In fact, it can be argued convincingly that Iraq, like most of the Muslim world, was on the other side of the colonial divide. Even the Kuwait conflict had remnants of colonialism. Part of Iraq's claim on Kuwait stemmed from Britain's carving out the sheikdom from Iraq's coastal and oil-rich regions in the early 20th century, and America's instigation of Saddam to invade Kuwait to redress Iraqi disputes with its neighbors in the late 20th century. The Iraqi regime did practise what might be termed "internal" colonialism against its Shi'ite and Kurdish populations, but this is practised by virtually every state in the world today with a racially, culturally, linguistically or religiously diverse populace, including many in America and Europe.

Before being occupied by America, both Japan and Iraq were thoroughly destroyed by ruthless and savage bombing campaigns, including the use of nuclear weapons. The most famous incidents of American destruction are, of course, the atom-bombs attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. This horrific new weapon, secretly developed for the purpose, destroyed 75 percent of Hiroshima and vaporized 125,000 people, mostly civilians. The target was chosen not for military reasons but, as Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb, put it, because Hiroshima was a "virgin target" and would provide an opportunity to make "bomb blast studies on virgin targets." With a similar motive, the atom-bomb dropped on Nagasaki destroyed about a third of the city, killing 75,000 people and injuring another 75,000, most of them civilians. These highly publicized attacks had caused as many as 350,000 Japanese deaths by 1950, including those who later died from injuries and radiation-poisoning.

The infamy of the atom-bomb attacks overshadowed the even larger scale of previous American destruction. Before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans had already destroyed 60 other Japanese cities. In March 1945, more than 300 American "Flying Fortress" B-29 bombers unloaded tons of napalm onto the center of Tokyo, setting the largely wooden city aflame and incinerating 100,000 people, again mostly civilians. Other major Japanese cities were also fire-bombed, causing an estimated 250,000 civilian deaths in Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokohama. By current estimates the Americans killed 3 million Japanese civilians and soldiers during their "total war" on Japan, which lasted roughly four years. An aide to General Douglas MacArthur, the "supreme commander" of Japan during the occupation, noted at the time that the fire-bombing of Japanese cities was "one of the most ruthless and barbarian killings of non-combatants in all history." American officials openly called for "extermination" of the Japanese, betraying the deepseated racism of American warmongering and colonialism. As Dower later put it, "With the fire bombings we crossed the line that we had said was clearly beyond the pale of civilization. The American reaction at the time was that they deserved it. There was almost a genocidal attitude on the part of the American military and it extended to the American public."

Racism and genocide also characterize the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. According to recent estimates, from the first American attack on Iraq in 1991 to the invasion last year and the current occupation, more than 500,000 Iraqis have died, either as a direct result of indiscriminate bombing raids and military attacks, or by economic sanctions and other forms of indirect aggression. Although atom bombs have not yet been used on Iraq (as far as is known), the use of depleted-uranium weapons by the Americans has created a radiation-polluted landscape, with many devastating effects (increased cancer rates, for instance). As many observers have pointed out, mass murder seems necessary prior to occupation. In both Japan and Iraq, one can argue that atrocious war crimes have been committed and wanton acts of terrorism and mass murder of civilians have been the deliberate and premeditated strategy of the US.

During the post-war American occupation of Japan, which lasted almost seven years, the Americans restructured virtually the entire society, from the government to the economy, including all educational and cultural institutions. The Japanese offered little or no resistance, and by most accounts not a single one of the 150,000 American soldiers in the occupying forces was attacked and killed by Japanese citizens. The lack of resistance has usually been explained as a combination of war-weariness – the Japanese had lived under military dictatorship for more than a decade – and the terror resulting from the atom-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which, according to recent accounts, were not necessary for military purposes, but instead were carried out for "psychological effect."

The American occupation of Japan was methodical and thorough, and it took advantage of several elements within Japanese civil society that were already geared toward modern capitalism and democracy. It was informed by the "new deal" liberalism that had prevailed in American society during the pre-war years, but which, paradoxically, was being rolled back there by the end of the war. In addition, and contrary to the predictions of many American social scientists, the Americans excused the emperor of Japan his role in Japan's colonial wars and militarism, and in fact used the emperor to smooth the transition to colonial rule. However, lesser members of the Japanese military government were not covered by any amnesty; there were war crimes tribunals, and executions of selected officials. The exoneration of the defeated nation's leader is not likely to occur in Iraq, and the Americans are sure to milk Saddam's trial for all it is worth before the presidential election in November.

In contrast to Japan, the American occupation of Iraq is chaotic and informed by unabashed corporate greed, with Bush assigning most reconstruction contracts to his cronies and their firms. In fact, as Dower has noted, referring to Bush's speech, "the one area in which U.S. policy in occupied Iraq has unquestionably ‘proceeded faster' than in Germany and Japan after World War II" has been the restructuring of the Iraqi economy, which is being accomplished "by promoting policies and priorities that were simply unthinkable" during the occupation of Japan. In Japan, the Americans largely promoted a liberal model of self-sufficiency under American tutelage. In Iraq, as Dower observes, "Reconstruction has been turned over to foreign corporations led by American firms, and sweeping ‘privatization' measures have been proposed that call for placing the entire economy — except for oil — up for sale. As announced in September, these measures would cap corporate taxes, slash tariffs and permit foreign companies to not only buy 100% of Iraqi firms but also immediately repatriate any profits. Even the conservative Economist magazine, which supports this extremist agenda, calls it a ‘yard sale.'"

Part of this corporate "yard sale" has involved turning over Iraqi education, both curriculum and infrastructure, to American corporations such as Bechtel, which are much more interested in fast profits than in real and lasting reforms. An American education official recently resigned his position in Iraq, saying that it is impossible to get any work done in such a climate of corruption and greed. In Japan, restructuring of education was carefully managed and involved Japanese as well as American officials and academics, and it was largely a public endeavor, not a private enterprise. However, while the methods differ, the goals seem to be the same. In Japan, the goal was to eliminate any sense of Japanese nationalism and identity, and to purge the school curriculum of those elements said to promote militarism. In Iraq (in fact throughout the Muslim world) the Americans have targeted Islam in a similar fashion, claiming that the Qur'an and other texts (the ahadith, mainly) teach "extremism" and "terrorism."

Strict censorship of all media characterizes both occupations. During their occupation of Japan, the Americans controlled newspapers, magazines, book publishing, television production and films. Several topics were completely prohibited, such as writings or pictures depicting the atom-bomb attacks. Any criticism of Japan's "two emperors" – the Japanese emperor Hirohito and the American general MacArthur – was completely forbidden, and likewise any criticism of the occupation authorities and their allies. The Americans have already shown that they are no different in their occupation of Iraq, replacing "Saddam TV" with "TV America," and closing down critical newspapers. We see a strange paradox, then and now: the discrepancy between democracy and censorship.

While the American occupation authorities in Japan circumscribed critical forms of media and public discussion, they also promoted forms of entertainment. New media created an "exciting and fun-loving" culture of licentiousness to counter what was then described as the stodgy conservatism of tradition, with a tawdry new culture emphasizing degeneracy and nihilism. Having emerged during the occupation, this new cultural trend left a sleazy legacy, including pornographic publications and nightclub-acts featuring naked women, unheard of in Japan before the occupation. It is too early to say how this aspect of American occupation will develop in Iraq, but there are already reports of wild nightclubs emerging in the "green zone" where the occupation authorities live, and the recent trial of an American woman soldier implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuses reveals a seedy and perverted under-culture in the American military that worries Iraqis.

Appropriating "exotic" women, by hook or by crook, has always been one of the most coveted symbols of war and colonial domination. The Japanese used foreign "comfort women" during their colonial wars, and during the American occupation they developed institutionalized forms of prostitution to serve the occupying American army. Because the Japanese authorities were so worried about their women being abused by the occupiers, they sponsored "comfort facilities" for the Americans where they could at least control which women would service American soldiers. Some women even volunteered their services, sacrificing their bodies for their country. Venereal disease was so rife in the early years of the occupation that the American authorities set up special centers to distribute condoms. If the American appetite for sexual licentiousness matches their appetite for burgers and beer, one shudders to think of how the occupying soldiers are being sated in Iraq. Although there have been some reports of prostitution in Baghdad, it is not clear how the Americans are being serviced in Iraq. Perhaps the availability of pornography and the presence of female soldiers helps. It is also possible that soldiers take "recreation and relaxation" leaves by visiting Dubai, which is notorious in the Gulf region as its "sin city," the streets of which are literally crawling with Russian and Chinese prostitutes. In any case, wherever the Americans reside, drunkenness and prostitution are sure to follow in some form or other.

So it is clear that Japan and Iraq were occupied by a highly militarized America that wrought utter destruction, paradoxically in the name of peace. However, it is noteworthy that Japan renounced colonialism and militarism, and has continued to present a peaceful and demilitarized option to other societies. With its national wealth freed from the slavery of militarism, Japan was able to become a prosperous industrial nation. Meanwhile, the Americans have turned war into a growth industry, and their entire economy depends on it. During the ‘cold war', when anti-militarism had taken hold locally in Japan, the Americans tried to persuade them to remilitarize and take part in the Korean War – which the Japanese, to their credit, refused to do. Hiroshima, the symbol of nuclear destruction, has become a major center of the global peace movement, with the devastated city center turned into Peace Memorial Park, where peace rallies are held every August on the anniversary of the American attack.

It is not likely, however, that a similar situation will emerge out of the American occupation of Iraq. The corrupt American occupation authority and its local proxies are incapable of any sort of meaningful restructuring, or even providing basic necessities, acting instead as a violent colonial army and in turn provoking a nationwide resistance movement. The militarism of Iraq was largely a result of American machinations, first against the Soviet Union's communism to the north, for which Saddam was installed as a local bulwark, and later against the Islamic Revolution in Iran, for which the Iraqi military was trained and funded lavishly by the Americans (using the moneys of Gulf oil sheikdoms that were deposited in Western banks, and still are). Recent reports that the Americans are now building massive military bases throughout Iraq suggest that the peace and demilitarisation option will not be offered to the people of Iraq. Indeed, as the rest of the world has mostly renounced war, the American military machine marches on largely unopposed.

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