End of Empire100 days in 1945 that changed Asia and the world.

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  • From colonial elite to defeated national: the first 100 days

    Lori Watt

    On 15 August 1945, TANAKA Masashi, a 30-year-old lecturer in public health at Keijō Imperial University in Seoul, found himself contemplating the fate of his nation. His postwar life followed a trajectory similar to that of many other Japanese colonial elites. Upon defeat, he fell from the top of the colonial hierarchy to a position near the bottom of a different world – the anxious object of Allied military occupation in territory formerly controlled by the Japanese state. Back in post-imperial Japan, after mandatory repatriation, he mourned the loss of his vibrant academic community and his separation from the place he considered home.

    Tanaka's private diary, kept from July 1945 to February 1946, provides a front-row seat to the collapse of the Japanese colony and the impact of the American arrival in Korea. It shows how the events of the first hundred days after the war, in Seoul at least, contributed to the abrupt transformation of East Asia from one of empires and colonies into one of nation-states.

    After defeat, Tanaka evaluated and then promptly jettisoned the colonial project. In his years at the university, as is evident in his diary and demonstrated by joint publications, he had worked closely with Korean colleagues and students. That did not prevent him from confronting the failure of the Japanese colonial state. On 8 September 1945, Tanaka reflected that, compared to the colonial policies of other empires around the world, Japanese rule was not cruel. Even so, noted Tanaka, Japanese rulers were neither adored nor respected. They had not gained the people’s confidence, perhaps because they did not have enough national virtue to rule. Tanaka, for one, was willing to put colonialism in the past tense.

    Defeat forced Tanaka to rethink who the Japanese were in the world. He began this process on the afternoon of 15 August 1945, after his neighbors and he, like people back in the home islands, had gathered around their radios to hear the emperor's radio broadcast of surrender. On that day, Tanaka wrote that the time had come for the Japanese to recast themselves, not as magnificent Japanese nationals (daikokumin), but rather as humble Japanese. He predicted that the process might take generations, but would ultimately succeed. During the months spent in post-colonial Seoul, he contemplated the question of the new position in the world of the Japanese, in his words ‘a defeated people.’

    The 8 September arrival of the Americans, in the form of Lieutenant General John Hodge's XXIV Corps, accelerated Tanaka's focus on himself as a Japanese national. Tanaka seemed to take comfort in describing, often with amusement, the Americans he encountered in Seoul – drunken soldiers, purposeful souvenir hunters, and the MP who, when tired of standing during his patrol an intersection in Seoul, sat on his helmet instead. The reorientation of the sex market, away from colonial elites like himself and towards the Americans, prompted a sober reflection on what it meant to be Japanese. On 29 September, Tanaka puzzled over why Japanese rather than Korean women appeared to be fraternizing with the Americans; did they, as Tanaka noted that others had suggested, have more prostitutional tendencies all along? In an encounter that shows how gender takes on new meaning in changing contexts, Tanaka's witnessing of ‘his nation's’ women fraternizing with American soldiers raised his national consciousness in ways that he had not been forced to confront before.

    As narrated in his diary, Tanaka left behind a world defined by Japanese-Korean colonial interaction and entered into one in which the American presence prompted more attention to his national identity. Tanaka’s personal journey corresponded to wider changes, including the American impulse to match people to their appropriate nation-state. A person's citizenship subsequently came to trump all other affinities. The American-facilitated overlaying of the nation-state on extant colonial formations, as for example the one lived and recorded by Tanaka, resulted in the redefinition and transfer of millions of people throughout Asia and the establishment of authoritarian states. The first hundred days saw the unleashing of the national in the context of the colonial in ways that shaped Asia across the rest of the twentieth century. (See also Tanaka 1961.)

    Lori Watt is Associate Professor of History, Washington University of Saint Louis 




    0909.24Pages from Tanaka Masashi’s diary





    0816.4Some Soviet divisions entered Korea from the north; most arrived via Manchuria

    0812.7Soviet soldiers displaying captured Japanese flags, August 1945

    0908.2American forces enter southern Korea. The faces of those in the assembled crowd seem to reveal worry as much as celebration.

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    • StanC

      A welcome scratching of the surface of the end of Japanese
      domination of Korea.