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

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  • Analytic Introduction

    0813.3Hirohito performing imperial duties (associated press)



    12Official poster for the 1940 Summer Olympics, scheduled to be held in Tokyo but cancelled in 1938 due to the Sino-Japanese War





    0.7Kwantung Cavalry enters Manchuria, 1931



    0.6Ma Hung-kuei, a Chinese warlord who fought bitterly against the KMT before becoming one of Chiang's powerful allies


    12Muhamad Saman (1836 – 21 January 1891), better known as Teungku Chik di Tiro (Cik di Tiro), was an Acehnese guerrilla fighter. By day he would study Islam and by night he would join his fellows in fighting against Dutch colonials. After several years as a teacher, di Tiro went on the hajj to Mecca. There, he met several Islamic leaders and other revolutionaries from Sumatra, Java, and Borneo; through discussions on imperialism and colonialism, di Tiro became more interested in fighting against the Dutch. On 6 November 1973 he was declared a National Hero of Indonesia.



    4A young Nanking man about to be beheaded by a Japanese soldier, apparently after refusing to assist Japanese troops hunting for women

    4.5Also from the Nanking massacre











    Japanese_soldiers_cross_Khalkhyn_Gol_river_1939Japanese soldiers trying to cross the Khalkyn Gol River, 1939 ...







    1018.4Chinese Sherman tank, among the first of many



    Japanese expansion through 1941Japanese expansion through 1941 (click to enlarge)






    Tojo HidekiTōjō Hideki

    7An iconic World War II image – the exploding of the USS Shaw during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Courtesy of U.S. National Archives)






     singapore capitulationThe British in Singapore capitulated on 15 February 1942, only weeks after Japan began its Malaya campaign


     24Wang Ching Wei and his 'masters', two unnamed Japanese generals

    1002.3Manila Parliament Building, February 1945

    1002.4Manila Parliament Building, April 1945


    10When Australian forces captured Samboja, 38 miles from Balikpapan, Borneo, in July 1945, they found most people in a semi-starved condition. A patrol is shown passing a native who had squatted in the same position for hours as he was too weak to walk. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, 0188802)




    Malaya Peoples Anti Japanese Army badge




    Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945






    0811.5A joint Soviet-Mongolian force took Manchuria by storm in August 1945


    The second world war began in Asia, with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937; it ended there with Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945. Nowhere in Asia, however, did the end of the war mean the end of conflict. Political and social battles emerged and re-emerged on local, regional and international fronts. The nature and trajectory of these struggles, some of which persisted for decades, were profoundly influenced by the political and military circumstances of the 100 days that followed the Japanese surrender. August 15th marked the end of the Japanese empire but events of the subsequent 100 days foreshadowed the demise of other empires and set into motion developments that transformed the post-war world.

    The war in Asia

    In 1937, Japan was the only truly sovereign power in Asia. It had three kinds of international identity. First, it was a modern power, the partner of comparable Western powers in directing and regulating world affairs. Two decades earlier, it had joined the Allies in fighting Germany in the First World War and had been rewarded with a share of the former German colonies and a permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations. Its position in this global elite became fraught because of its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and it had temporarily withdrawn from the League. But the other powers soon accepted Japanese hegemony in Manchuria as a fait accompli and in 1936 Japan was selected to host the 1940 Olympic Games. Second, Japan was a colonial power. Since opening to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, it had established colonial rule over neighbouring regions – Okinawa, Sakhalin, Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria – basing both its imperialist rationale and its colonial practice on what it interpreted as Western models. After 1932, its efforts to expand its control and influence in China proper were increasingly aggressive. Third, Japan was a beacon for Asian societies by virtue of its successful modernization and its position in world affairs. Especially after victory in the Russo–Japanese War (1904–05), Japan stood for the potential for Asian societies to resist the West and to achieve modernity and prosperity by their own efforts.

    Japan’s great neighbour, China, was led by the Kuomintang (KMT) government of Chiang Kai-shek. The KMT had subdued many of the country’s warlords in bitter struggles during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, this corrupt and authoritarian government faced a continuing military challenge from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Tse-tung. From 1931, moreover, it lost region after region to Japanese influence and control. Manchuria fell to Japanese domination in 1931 and nearby Jehol in 1933. The Kwantung Army, a Japanese force, sponsored the creation of a nominally independent state in Manchuria in 1932, calling it Manchukuo. The Japanese government under Inukai Tsuyoshi was reluctant to recognize Manchukuo, but right-wing and militarist forces became increasingly powerful in the government. Following Prime Minister Inukai’s assassination in May 1932, his successors recognized Manchukuo and approved the Kwantung Army’s actions. Japanese forces gradually came to dominate northern China and obtained footholds further south. In addition, in northern China and Inner Mongolia, the Japanese army created client administrations that gave local leaders some role in government while excluding KMT influence.

    Southeast Asia was largely under colonial rule: the United States in the Philippines, France in Indochina, Britain in Burma and Malaya, the Netherlands in the Indonesian archipelago and a tiny Portuguese enclave in East Timor. Formally independent Siam had lost most of its outlying territories to Britain and France decades earlier and had been forced to make far-reaching economic concessions to Western businesses as well. Both Burma and the Philippines had a high degree of internal autonomy, whereas Indochina, Malaya and Indonesia remained under authoritarian colonial regimes. Vietnamese and Indonesian nationalist movements had been active since early in the 20th century but the French and Dutch authorities had repressed them. Japanese individuals were prominent in Southeast Asian societies and economies.

    In July 1937, Japanese troops stationed at the Japanese legation in the former Chinese capital of Peiping (Peking) clashed with Chinese government forces at Marco Polo Bridge south of the city. A trivial pretext of searching for a missing Japanese soldier caused this clash. Similar incidents in the past had led to the piecemeal expansion of Japanese control. On this occasion, however, Chinese troops fiercely resisted the Japanese attack. This vigorous response was a result of the rising anti-Japanese nationalism among Chinese coupled with the fact that Chiang Kai-shek had been persuaded in the end of 1936 to reach an accommodation with the CCP and join forces with them against further Japanese aggression. Chinese forces not only resisted in the north but also attacked Japanese positions in China’s commercial capital, Shanghai. In November 1937, after three months of heavy fighting, Japanese forces finally conquered the city. They then fought their way towards the capital, Nanking.

    When that city fell in December 1937, Japanese troops massacred tens of thousands of people. The victims included both Chinese civilians and soldiers of the Chinese army who might have expected to be taken prisoner. Estimates of the number of those killed range from 40,000 to 300,000. There was also widespread rape, torture and looting. Until this point, Japanese military authorities had hoped to bring the conflict to a negotiated resolution. The massacre, however, strengthened Chiang’s resolve not to negotiate and the conflict developed into a bitter war of attrition in which Japanese planes bombed Chinese cities and Japanese troops fought against both the KMT and the CCP. All sides used scorched earth tactics and intimidation against civilians, and the accumulated death toll among Chinese civilians has been estimated at 20 million. In 1938, for instance, 800,000 civilians perished when Chiang Kai-shek ordered the destruction of the Yellow River’s dikes to stop the Japanese advance. By 1940, Japanese forces controlled much of the North China Plain, the lower valley of the Yangtze River and all of the key ports along China’s southern coast, but it was unable to make headway in the interior; the KMT government had retreated to Chungking. From there it strengthened its control in the northwest (Sinkiang) and benefited from trade with and assistance from the Soviets. In early September 1940, Japan expanded the war by occupying northern French Indochina in order to cut an important supply line to Chinese forces in the interior.

    This Japanese action in Southeast Asia was also the consequence of important military and political changes in the Northeast Asia. Japanese military interests in Mongolia and Siberia clashed with Soviet interests. If Japan had succeeded in controlling these northern regions, not only would it have limited Soviet influence further south, but also it would have gained access to Siberian resources for the growing war in China. The climax of the conflict was the Nomonhan War (also known as the Battles of Khalkh River), which broke out on the border between Manchukuo and the Mongolian People’s Republic in May 1939. The Soviet–Mongolian force defeated the Japanese–Manchukuo army, which reportedly lost 45,000 dead and wounded. The conflict ended with Japan and the Soviet Union concluding a non-aggression pact in April 1941. This little-known war had a huge influence on later events; it marked not only Japan’s first major defeat in its military history but also a turning point in Japanese strategy. With its defeat in the war, the Japanese government gave up the idea of striking north, the strategy favoured by the army, and shifted to support the navy’s plans to expand into Southeast Asia. By this time, few voices in Tokyo openly opposed this expansionist policy, a strategy that also had the support of Emperor Hirohito.

    Since the early 1930s, Japan’s expansion in China had perturbed the United States, which was keen to keep the Open Door Policy of equal access to the Chinese market and had sympathy towards Chinese territorial integrity. Moreover, the Japanese attack on Nanking in late 1937 challenged the U.S. presence in the region, an American gunboat anchored in the Yangtze River outside Nanking being fired on and sunk by the Japanese. American properties in the city were looted by the invading Japanese and an American diplomat in Nanking was humiliated by a Japanese soldier. By 1939, U.S. policy turned decisively against Japan and in favour of the embattled Chinese government. The United States terminated its 1911 commercial treaty with Japan and began supplying equipment to China under generous Lend-Lease arrangements.

    In 1940, the American authorities began to restrict Japanese access to strategic imports and commenced clandestine military support for the Chinese. In response, in September 1940 Japan formed an alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (the Tripartite Pact, informally known as the Axis). In October 1940, the U.S. banned all exports of scrap iron, steel and copper to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, thereby cutting Japan off from its main source of iron and copper. Then, in July 1941, after Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina with the acquiescence of Axis-aligned French colonial authorities, President Franklin D. Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the United States, banned oil exports to Japan and closed the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, demanding that Japan withdraw fully from China and Indochina.

    In October 1941 General Tōjō Hideki became Japanese prime minister. Faced with a choice between a humiliating withdrawal and escalation of the conflict, unsurprisingly he agreed to a daring, desperate plan to seize the oil-producing regions of Southeast Asia and to disable U.S. military capacity long enough to consolidate control of the region and negotiate a settlement. On 8 December 1941 (7 December in the U.S.), Japanese forces simultaneously attacked British positions in Malaya and Hong Kong and U.S. positions in the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii (the naval base at Pearl Harbor). In a spectacularly successful military campaign, Japanese forces had conquered all of Southeast Asia by mid-1942. The attack left in place the non-aggression pact signed with the Soviet Union in April 1941; although the two powers remained rivals for hegemony in Northeast Asia, this pact enabled them to concentrate their forces against respectively the U.S. in the Pacific and Nazi Germany in Europe.

    Japanese occupation transformed Southeast Asia politically and economically. Japan’s rapid military victories humiliated the Western colonial powers. Japan had previously assailed the myth of unqualified Western superiority with its victory in the Russo–Japanese War, and this effect was now reinforced by the victories of 1941–42. Colonial armies surrendered and disappeared into prisoner-of-war camps, while colonial officials were removed from office and dispatched to internment camps. Colonial languages were banned in public and intense propaganda campaigns stressed Japan’s claimed role as the leader and liberator of Asia. Southeast Asians, once accustomed to the grandiose pomposity of Western colonial administrators, now saw propaganda posters that mocked Western leaders as dithering incompetents. In both its achievements and its rhetoric, Japan encouraged colonized Asian peoples to believe they could achieve great things by their own efforts. The occupation played a major role in restoring Southeast Asians’ confidence in their own potential. Japanese policies also directly developed Southeast Asian capacities. Local people filled posts vacated by colonial officials and the Japanese military recruited Southeast Asians into new armed forces.

    In 1943, Japan began to promote independence and nationalism in Southeast Asia as part of its war-fighting strategy. Japanese authorities conferred formal independence on Burma and the Philippines, the two former colonies that had been furthest advanced along the path to self-rule. Neither state, however, was truly independent but rather had to accept Japanese instructions in any matter relating to war policy and foreign relations as well as economic relations with Japan. In March 1945, due to fears a Free French takeover in Indochina following the liberation of France, a Japanese coup de force led to similar ‘independent’ states being created in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Preparations also began for a similar state in Indonesia. This strategy built on earlier policies in China, where Japanese military forces had sought to strength en support amongst Mongols by conferring autonomy on Mongol regions that had been forcibly included in Chinese provinces. It also reflected the Japanese strategy of seeking local allies who would agree broadly with its anti-Western and anti-communist rhetoric. Japan’s greatest coup in this strategy had been to recruit Wang Ching-wei, a former KMT leader and political rival of Chiang Kai-shek, to head what was called the Reorganized National Government of China. Based in Nanking from 1940, this government delivered military support to Japan against the KMT and CCP, as well as providing civil administration in Japanese-dominated regions.

    At the same time, the occupation was economically catastrophic for South east Asia. In the Philippines, much destruction was caused by bombing and shelling. Manila was terribly devastated in February–March 1945 in a battle between U.S. and Japanese troops. Japanese occupation, moreover, cut the region off from its established markets and suppliers in the West. Southeast Asian rubber, sugar, coffee, tea, teak and a host of other products could be no longer sold to the West, nor could Western industrial goods be imported. However, operating under wartime demands, the Japanese economy could neither absorb Southeast Asia’s products nor supply its needs. Living conditions thus declined across the region, especially after U.S. submarine operations in the South China Sea began to destroy Japanese shipping. By the end of the war, there was a critical shortage of cloth and metal goods throughout the region. Local military authorities introduced policies of economic self-sufficiency, requiring each region to produce all its own food and other needs. The policy made no allowance for local conditions such as drought or population numbers and it was disastrous in northern Vietnam and Java, where hundreds of thousands of people – probably well over a million in each case perished in famines.

    Japanese occupation prompted local resistance. In Malaya, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) drew primarily on Chinese and communist antagonism towards Japan. The Left was also behind the Hukbalahap (Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, National Anti-Japanese Army) in the Philippines and the Viet Minh in Vietnam. Despite its communist linkages, the Viet Minh, starting in mid1945, received advice and logistical support from U.S. Special Forces who shared its enmity towards Japan and among key staff antagonism towards French colonialism. The Burma National Army under General Aung San, although sponsored by Japan as the armed forces of the client state of Burma, deserted to the Allied side in March 1945. Repression of these movements and of other manifestations of resistance was in the hands of the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai, and its lesser-known naval counterpart, the Tokkeitai.

    Japan’s advance in Southeast Asia and the Pacific had come to a halt by mid-1942. Thereafter, British forces faced the Japanese in a long, skirmish-ridden stalemate along the border between India and Burma until launching a counter-attack in late 1944 that led to the British recapture of the capital, Rangoon, in April 1945. American and Australian forces in the Pacific and New Guinea were able to push Japanese forces back from mid-1942, recovering island after island. With the capture of Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas in July–August 1944, the U.S. forces were able to send B-29 bombers against the Japanese mainland. The fire-bombing of Japanese cities commenced in March 1945 with an attack on Tokyo that killed 80,000 to 100,000 people. The bombing continued over following months, claiming an estimated 330,000 lives. In China, by contrast, Japanese forces held their ground and even gained territory in Operation Ichi-go in April–December 1944. The war theatre in central and southern China as well as in Southeast Asia, however, drew forces and military equipment from Manchukuo and northern China, leaving the north poorly defended.

    By mid-1945, an Allied victory appeared inevitable, although Allied planners worried about potentially huge casualties in landing on and subduing the Japanese home islands. Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, moreover, Western concerns about rising Soviet power meant that the U.S. government no longer wished that the Soviet Union adhere to its earlier commitment to abrogate its non-aggression pact with Japan and to join the Pacific War within three months of the German surrender. The leaders of China, Britain and the United States thus issued a declaration at Potsdam on 26 July insisting on Japan’s unconditional surrender and foreshadowing the military occupation of Japan, the trial of war criminals and the stripping from Japan of control of all its former colonies and outlying territories. When Japan ignored this ultimatum, desire to end the war quickly and to forestall a major Soviet role combined to underpin the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August. Also on the 9th, a devastating Soviet attack on Manchukuo was quickly followed by the invasion of Japan’s northern islands. Both the bombs and the Japanese government’s own fear of possible occupation by the Soviet Union precipitated Japan’s unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945.

    This book seeks to encapsulate the changes that took place in Asia during the hundred days that followed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the historical context of Japanese imperialism laid over a deeper history of Western colonialism, radical transformation was probably inevitable. From the distant perspective of 2015, it is easy to imagine that the course of events was driven by historical necessity. At the time, however, the region seemed to most people to be faced with a vast range of possibilities, amongst them the restoration of colonialism, the triumph of communism, a victory by local national forces, and an imminent Japanese resurgence. By tracing events from day to day over one hundred days, we seek to illuminate a sense of the uncertainty and lack of information that both leading players and ordinary people experienced during this time.

    Note on spelling

    As well as mapping events across the region as they occurred, this book seeks to evoke some of the atmosphere of the time. We have thus chosen to use the spelling of Asian personal and place names as they generally appeared in newspaper reports in 1945. This means that we have ignored the important spelling reforms that took place in Indonesia in 1947 and 1972, as well as changes in the preferred romanization of names in all languages.


    0810.12Emperor Go-Daigo brought the Imperial House and the nobility it represented back into power, albeit only for three years, 1333–1336.


      161943 Poster proclaiming that Japan would lead oppressed peoples on the road to independence. In the view of many whose experience under European colonial powers was problematic, Japan made a strong case.




    0.5Japanese soldiers raise toast: Success in Manchuria! (1931)

    3Inukai Tsuyoshi was an important supporter of Sun Yatsen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, even offering him refuge in Japan at one stage. Despite growing differences in later years between them, Inukai maintained close personal ties with many leading Chinese politicians. However, he also criticized Japan’s signing in 1930 of the London Naval Treaty, which reduced military spending, and supported the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Nonetheless, his attempts as prime minister to rein in the military led to his assassination. This effectively marked the end of civilian control over Japanese government decisions until after 1945




    3.5After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, Chaing kai-shek calls on all Chinese to unify in order to fight against the Japanese




    4.6Suicide vest: Chinese soldier in the Battle of Taierzhuang, preparing to attack the Japanese

     5.5Chemical warfare in Shanghai, 1937








    Mongolian and Soviet soldiers push Japanese back 1939...  and Mongolian and Soviet soldiers pushing them back, Nomonhon War 1939













    6Japan’s ambassador to Germany, Kurusu Saburō, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler after the signing of the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. He later became notorious as the Japanese diplomat negotiating an improvement in U.S.–Japanese relations even as Japan was secretly preparing the attack on Pearl Harbor







    21The Japanese charge toward Singapore...


    23...and Saigon

    0817.28... as things in Europe were, at the least, uncertain. Two years earlier, Marshall Philippe Pétain,  Chief of State of Vichy France, had already met his new boss on 24 October 1940




    9A leaflet from 1943 urges Filipinos to strive for independence

    President Franklin D Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan


     20Hua Junwu,’Bumper Harvest’ The sack is labelled ‘rice', illustrating the extent to which the famine was man-made. First published in JFRB 3 November 1944



    0925.2Aung San with his wife and two-year-old Suu-Kyi

    kempeitai in indonesiaKempeitai in Indonesia (possibly from a television re-enactment)



    11A Japanese man amid the rubble and scorched wreckage that once was his home in Yokohama








    Robert Cribb, Professor of History,
    Australian National University


    Li Narangoa, Professor of History,
    Australian National University

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