Written by Vladimir Moss



     After the Russo-Japanese War and especially after the First World War the Asian countries began to aspire to a higher place in the world. The Japanese in particular were growing in power and casting greedy eyes on China and the European colonies there… But the West continued to look down on all Asiatics out of clearly racist motives. This was evident at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, where the Japanese delegation, led by the former Prime Minister Saionji proposed that racial equality should be legally enshrined as one of the basic tenets of the newly formed League of Nations. How would the West respond?

     On February 9, writes Tooze, “the American legal expert David H. Miller recorded a frank exchange between Colonel House and Lord Balfour on the question of the upcoming Japanese motion. To pre-empt the Japanese, House sought to persuade Balfour to accept an amendment of the Covenant’s preamble that would include quotations taken from the Declaration of Independence to the effect that all men were created equal. ‘Colonel H’s view was that such a preamble, however little it squared with American practice, would appeal to American sentiment, and would make the rest of the formula more acceptable to American public opinion. Balfour’s response was striking. The claim that all men were created equal, Balfour objected, ‘was an eighteenth-century proposition which he did not believe was true.’ The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century had taught other lessons. It might be asserted that ‘in a certain sense… all men of a particular nation were created equal’. But to assert that ‘a man in Central Africa was equal to a European’ was, to Balfour, patent nonsense. To this remarkable broadside, House offered no immediate rebuttal. He was not about to disagree about Central Africa. But he pointed out that ‘he did not see how the policy toward the Japanese could be continued’. It could not be denied that they were a growing nation who had industriously exploited outlets in ‘any white country’, in Siberia and in Africa. Where were they to turn? ‘They had to go somewhere.’ Balfour did not question this fundamental premise of the age. Dynamic populations needed space to expand. Indeed, as a staunch advocate of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Balfour ‘had a great deal of sympathy’ for the Japanese predicament. But with Central Africa on his mind, he could not admit the general principle of equality. Other ways must be found of satisfying Japan’s legitimate interests. In any case, Balfour was clearly interpreting the proposal far more expansively than the Japanese ever intended it. The idea that Japan might be speaking on behalf of Africans would no doubt have caused indignation in Tokyo. What was at stake were European-Asian relations and specifically the right of Asians to join Europeans in the settlement of the remaining open territories of the world.

     “Blocked at the first attempt, the Japanese delegation could not settle for a simple rejection. At the end of March they presented a new, watered-down version of their proposal, eliminating any reference to race and demanding only non-discrimination on a national basis. But they now found themselves caught in the labyrinthine internal politics of the British Empire. It was the authority of the British delegates – Robert Cecil and Lord Balfour – that had blocked the first Japanese amendment. But, when pressed, the British insisted that it was not they but the Australians who were the real obstacle. This further raised the pressure on the Japanese delegation. How were they to explain to the Japanese public that a principle of such obvious importance had failed as a result of objections of a country as insignificant as Australia? But London stood by the White Dominions and on this occasion Wilson was only too happy to back Australia up. In light of attitudes in California on the Asian issue it was hugely convenient to let the British Empire provide the first line of resistance. There was no prospect whatsoever of Congress approving a Covenant that limited America’s right to restrict immigration.

, “The affair reached its discreditable climax on 11 April at the final meeting of the League of Nations Commission. The Japanese had now retreated to demanding nothing more than an amendment to the preamble, calling for the ‘just treatment of all nationals’. On this basis they could count on a clear majority in the Commission. As the French put it, they had not wish to cause embarrassment to London, but ‘it was impossible to vote for the rejection of an amendment, which embodied an indisputable principle of justice’. When the Japanese put the question, their opponents were so shamefaced that they asked that their No votes not be officially recorded. As Cecil’s notes reveal, only the notoriously anti-Semitic Polish delegate Roman Dmowski voted with the British, forcing Wilson to use his power as chairman to block the amendment by ruling that it required unanimity. Despite the clear majority in favour, the Japanese proposal was dropped. Whereas House was pleased to celebrate a demonstration of ‘Anglo-Saxon tenacity, with Britain and America alone against the majority, the affair clearly left a nasty taste in Cecil’s mouth.”[1]


     By comparison with the racist imperialists, the Communists were exemplary internationalists. As we have seen, the Comintern was founded in 1919 with the aim of spreading communism throughout the world. However, after their defeat at the hands of the Poles in 1920, the Bolsheviks’ hopes of conquest were redirected beyond Europe towards Asia – and especially towards China.

     China had moved firmly into the West’s, and especially America’s orbit in 1917, breaking diplomatic relations with Germany at the same time as the US. “Its citizens,” writes Tooze, “en route to the western front to serve as ‘coolie’ labour, were in danger from U-boats too – 543 drowned in the sinking of the SS Athos in February, 1917. The ensuing struggle between factions in Beijing over the terms of China’s entry into the war would mark a new phase in the country’s politicisation. While regional military factions contended for power in Beijing and pushed for China to join the war under the sponsorship of Japan, Sun Yat-Sen and the nationalist Kuomintang demanded an independent foreign policy, and withdrew to a base camp in the south. When China entered the war on 14th August 1917, the anniversary of the Boxer uprising, it was not a moment of celebration. But it did gain China a place at the Versailles Peace Conference and set the stage for the popular mobilisation that would follow on 4th May 1919. Mass indignation over the humiliating concessions that were granted to Japan at China’s expense at the Paris peace talks would mark the starting point of modern Chinese nationalism.”[2]

     For in clear violation of the principles of national self-determination, the Versailles Conference awarded Japan Germany’s former rights in Shantung (promised to Japan in 1917 by Britain and France), as well as many formerly German Pacific islands and a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations.

     The “May 4th Movement” of 1919 was a nation-wide student protest against these decisions that led, as J.M. Roberts writes, “to embrace others than students and to manifest itself in strikes and a boycott of Japanese goods. A movement which had begun with intellectuals and their pupils spread to include other city-dwellers, notably industrial workers and the new Chinese capitalists who had benefited from the war. It was the most important evidence yet seen of the mounting rejection of Europe by Asia.

     “For the first time, an industrial China entered the scene. China, like Japan, had enjoyed an economic boom during the war. Though a decline in European imports to China had been partly offset by increased Japanese and American sales, Chinese entrepreneurs in the ports had found it profitable to invest in production for the home market. The first important industrial areas outside Manchuria began to appear. They belonged to progressive capitalists who sympathized with revolutionary ideas all the more when the return of peace brought renewed western competition and evidence that China had not earned her liberation from tutelage to the foreigner. The workers, too, felt this resentment: their jobs were threatened. Many of them were first-generation town-dwellers, drawn into the new industrial areas from the countryside by the promise of employment. An uprooting from the tenacious soil of peasant tradition was even more important in China than in Europe a century before. Family and village ties were specially strong in China. The migrant to the town broke with patriarchal authority and the reciprocal obligations of the independent producing unit, the household: this was a further great weakening of the age-old structure which had survived the revolution and still tied China to the past. New material was thus made available for new ideological deployments.

     “The May 4th Movement first showed what could be made of such forces as these by creating the first broadly-based Chinese revolutionary coalition. Progressive western liberalism had not been enough; implicit in the movement’s success was the disappointment of the hopes of many of the cultural reformers. Capitalist western democracy had been shown up by the Chinese government’s helplessness in the face of Japan. Now, that government had another humiliation from its own subjects: the boycott and demonstration forced it to release the arrested students and dismiss its pro-Japanese ministers. But this was not the only important consequence of May 4th Movement. For all their limited political influence, reformers had for the first time, thanks to the students, broken through into the world of social action. This aroused enormous optimism and greater popular awareness than ever before. This is the case for saying that contemporary Chinese history begins positively in 1919 rather than 1911…

     “… Russia was very popular among Chinese students. It seemed the successors of the Tsar had driven out the old imperialist Adam, for one of the first acts of the Soviet government had been a formal renunciation of all extra-territorial rights and jurisdictions enjoyed by the Tsarist state. In the eyes of the nationalists, Russia, therefore, had clean hands. Moreover, her revolution – a revolution in a great peasant society – claimed to be built upon a doctrine whose applicability in China seemed especially plausible in the wake of the industrialization provoked by the war.”[3]

     Of course, the Soviets had made the concessions to China in a moment of weakness: in 1924, feeling stronger, they reasserted Russian rights over the Manchurian railway system. Nevertheless, before that, in November, 1922 the Comintern at its Fourth Congress had made an important change of policy: the foreign Communist Parties were to pursue the strategy of revolutionary defence, not striving to overthrow governments – at any rate immediately, but to cooperate with the most promising elements. In China’s case this meant the nationalists. “The central point of the new Comintern line,” writes Tooze, “was the need to draw the great mass of the rural population into national liberation struggles. The role of the Communist Party was to pressure the bourgeois-nationalist parties into adopting a revolutionary agrarian programme to appeal to the landless rural population. Crucially, on 12 January 1923 the Comintern directed the Chinese Communist Party that ‘The only serious national revolutionary group in China at present is the Kuomingtang.’ With these words the Comintern for better or worse made the choice that none of the other foreign power had been willing to make. It opted not just to acknowledge the significance of the Kuomingtang, but to assist it in making a full-scale national revolution. This was affirmed by official Soviet diplomacy only a few weeks later when the Soviet ambassador to China, Adolphe Joffe, abandoned Beijing to meet with Sun Yat-Sen in Shanghai, from where they issued a manifesto on future collaboration. In May this was followed by specific instructions designating the peasant problem as the central issue of the Chinese revolution. Along with their role in the cities, the Chinese comrades were enjoined to foment an agrarian revolt. This strategy was not to the taste of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party, who were urban intellectuals fixated on the modern, industrial working class. But it brought to the fore a new cohort of organizers, include the young Mao Zedong, himself a son of the peasantry…”[4]

     If Mao differed from Lenin in his reliance on the peasants rather than the workers, his basic philosophy was just as nihilist as his teacher’s. His biographers, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, write: “In the winter of 1917-18, still a student as he turned twenty-four, he wrote extensive commentaries on a book called A System of Ethics, by a minor late nineteenth-century German philosopher, Friedrich Paulsen. In these notes, Mao expressed the central elements in his own character, which stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.

     “Mao’s attitude to morality consisted of one core, the self, ‘I’, above everything else: ‘I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others… People like me want to… satisfy our hearts to the full, and in so doing we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.’

     “Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. ‘People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.’ ‘I am responsible only for the reality that I know,’ he wrote, ‘and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I don’t know about the past, I don’t know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self.’ He explicitly rejected any responsibility towards future generations. ‘Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don’t believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself… I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.’

     “Mao did not believe in anything unless he could benefit from it personally. A good name after death, he said, ‘cannot bring me any joy, because it belongs to the future and not to my own reality.’ ‘People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations.’ Mao did not care what he left behind.

     “He argued that conscience could go to hell if it was in conflict with his impulses:

     “‘These two should be one and the same. All our actions… are driven by impulse, and the conscience that is wise goes along with this in every instance. Sometimes… conscience restrains impulses such as over-eating or over-indulgence in sex. But conscience is only there to restrain, not oppose. And the restraint is for better completion of the impulse.’

     “As conscience always implies some concern for other people, and is not a corollary of hedonism, Mao was rejecting the concept. His view was: ‘I do not think these [commands like “do not kill”, “do not steal”, and “do not slander] have anything to do with conscience. I think they are only out of self-interest for self-preservation.’ All considerations must ‘be purely calculation for oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes, or for so-called feelings of responsibility…’

     “Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.

     “These attributes he held to be reserved for ‘Great Heroes’ – a group to which he appointed himself. For this elite, he said:

     “‘Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature… When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex-maniac on heat and prowling for a lover… there is no way to stop them.’

     “The other central element in his character which Mao spelt out now was the joy he took in upheaval and destruction. ‘Giant wars,’ he wrote, ‘will last as long as heaven and earth and will never become extinct… The ideal of a world of Great Equality and Harmony [da tong, Confucian ideal society] is mistaken.’ This was not just the prediction that a pessimist might make; it was Mao’s desideratum, which he asserted was what the population at large wished. ‘Long-lasting peace,’ he claimed, ‘is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace… When we look at history, we adore the times of [war] when dramas happened one after another… which make reading about them great fun. When we get to the periods of peace and prosperity, we are bored… Human nature loves sudden swift changes.’

     “Mao simply collapsed the distinction between reading about stirring events and actually living through cataclysm. He ignored the fact that, for the overwhelming majority, war meant misery.

     “He even articulated a cavalier attitude towards death: 

     “‘Human beings are endowed with the sense of curiosity. Why should we treat death differently? Don’t we want to experience strange things? Death is the strangest thing, which you will never experience if you go on living… Some are afraid of it because the change comes too drastically. But I think this is the most wonderful thing: where else in this world can we find such a fantastic and drastic change?’


     “Using a very royal ‘we’, Mao went on: ‘We love sailing on a sea of upheavals. To go from life to death is to experience the greatest upheaval. Isn’t it magnificent!’ This might at first seem surreal, but when later tens of millions of Chinese were starved to death under his rule, Mao told his inner ruling circle it did not matter if people died – and even that death was to be celebrated. As so often, he applied his attitude only to other people, not to himself. Throughout his own life he was obsessed with finding ways to thwart death, doing everything he could to perfect his security and enhance his medical care.

     “When he came to the question ‘How do we change?’, Mao laid the utmost emphasis on destruction: ‘the country must be… destroyed and then re-formed.’ He extended this line not just to China but to the whole world – and even the universe: ‘This applies to the country, to the nation, and to mankind… The destruction of the universe is the same… People like me long for its destruction, because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better!’”[5] 

     For the time being, however, Mao’s dreams of destruction would have to wait… In 1923 the Kuomintang under Sun Yat-Sen established itself in Canton. Their aim was to crush the warlords, throw out the foreign imperialist exploiters and unite the country. Sun was no communist, but he was prepared to work with the communists, and they were prepared to work with him, because his philosophy was collectivist and anti-western – “on no account,” he wrote, “must we give more liberty to the individual; let us secure liberty instead for the nation”. Moreover, he needed Moscow’s help in reorganizing his party on the Soviet model and in building up an army. And so in the summer of 1923, Sun sent his young brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-Shek, a soldier trained in Japan, to Moscow for further training. On his return Chiang organized an army of 85,000 men with 6000 officers trained at an academy in Canton.[6] Sun died in 1925, but in July, 1926 the new leader, Chiang, was able to lead his army in a successful campaign against the northern warlords. By early 1927 the entire Yangtze valley – Britain’s sphere of influence - had been conquered, and, as Roberts writes, “a semblance of unity had been restored to the country under the leadership of the KMT. Anti-imperialist feeling supported a successful boycott of British goods, which led the British government, alarmed by the evidence of growing Russian influence in China, to surrender its concessions at Hankow and Kiukiang. It had already promised to return Wei-hai-wei to China (1922), and the United States had renounced its share of the Boxer indemnity. Such successes added to signs that China was on the move at last…”[7]


     Japan was also on the move. In spite of a huge earthquake in September, 1923, which was followed by fires and massive disruption. “Because communications were cut,” writes Brendon, “the outside world was slow to grasp the scale of the Japanese tragedy: perhaps 140,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and devastation which was likened to that of Armageddon. As one witness wrote, ‘Imagine the Somme battle-fields and the ruins of Ypres on a gigantic but concentrated scale and you have a picture, though not even realistic enough, of Tokyo and the country around.’ At two billion dollars, the cost of renovation amounted to 40 per cent of the country’s gross national product. It not only wiped out the 400-million-dollar profit which Japan had made out of the First World War, it crippled the entire economy. In the words of an American authority, this was ‘the greatest financial catastrophe of the age’.

     “Foreign countries, particularly the United States, responded generously to the disaster, donating millions of dollars and enabling relief agencies like the Red Cross to deliver food, clothing, tents, medical supplies and other aid to the stricken cities. But this largesse did little more than point up the contrast between America’s wealth and Japan’s poverty. It was poverty so acute that the masses could seldom afford to eat more than rice and salt – Prince Saionji hailed it as a notable improvement when they wer able to augment this diet with bean paste (miso) and soy sauce. During the various economic crises of the 1920s, farmers – and agriculture employed half of Japan’s 60 million people – had no recourse but to sell their daughters into prostitution. Sometimes it seemed as though this were Japan’s most prosperous business: after the earthquake the brothel-keepers of Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district rebuilt their premises more quickly than anyone else – they could afford to pay the highest wages.

     “Admittedly Japan’s advance since the nominal restoration of power to the emperors in 1868 – the beginning of the Meiji (‘Enlightened Rule’) era – had been one of the most astonishing achievements of modern times.  Within the lifespan of Prince Saionji Japan had turned itself from a backward, isolated state into the greatest power in the Orient. It had defeated Russia, annexed Korea, Taiwan and other islands, and was casting avaricious glances towards China. Before 1853 any Japanese who built an ocean-going vessel was liable to the death penalty; by the 1920s Japan possessed the third largest shipping industry and navy, and the largest fishing fleet, in the world. Other manufacturing enterprises had also sprung from nothing, such as textiles. When the ailing Lord Northcliffe visited Tokyo in 1921 he noticed that all the weaving machinery had been made in Britain and that ‘it takes at least three days [for] Japs to do the work of one European’. Within a decade, the ‘rising giant of the East’ was poised to overtake John Bull’s massive production of cotton textiles and one Japanese did the work of 100 Britons thanks to the Toyaota automatic loom – when Platt Bros of Oldham bought the right to manufacture it in England they had to be taught how to do it by Toyota engineers. The Japanese themselves were always willing to imitate and improve on Western technology. Their success also resulted from the big business combines (zaibatsu) exploited to keep their wages and prices low. Routed by the trade mark ‘Made in Japan’, foreigners increasingly took refuge behind tariff barriers. When the global Depression led to even fiercer competition, the Japanese felt a strong temptation ‘to cast the samurai sword into the mercantile scales’ that seemed so unfairly weighted against them.

     “This aggressive policty was encouraged by further Japanese resentments towards the West. Like other other victors, France and Italy, Japan emerged from the First World War with the neuroses of a defeated nation. Denied its demands at Versailles, it was humiliated at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. By the terms of the agreement Japan was allowed fewer warships than America and Britain, who, as a subsequent Prime Minister Baron Hiranuma said, discarded their old alliance ‘just as she would a worn out sandal’. Two years later the United States prohibited Japanese immigration, at a stroke turning gratitude for American aid after the earthquake into bitterness. Nippon declared a national day of mourning and one man protested by committing suicide in front of the American embassy. Militarism, so unpopular after the war that (as in France) soldiers preferred to wear mufti, revived. Liberal internationalists like Saioniji found it increasingly difficult to maintain their predominance. Nationalist secret societies and blood brotherhoods proliferated, some of them engaging in political assassination. The outstanding proponent of the nationalist cause, Kita Ikki, declared that his country was entitled to seek equality with millionaire empires like Britain and huge landowners like Russia: ‘Japan with her scattered fringe of islands is one of the proletariat, and she has the right to declare war on the big monopoly powers.’

     “Kita’s radical rhetoric, which influenced men such as Prince Konoe, reinforced the traditional idea that it was Japan’s manifest destiny to bring ‘the eight corners of the world under one roof’ (hakko-ichui). At its most mistily magnanimous this was the aspiration to achieve universal brotherhood. Japanese were raught to regard themselves as the chosen people, the uniquely virtuous Yamato, the children of the sun. As a ‘messianic nation’ they were, to quote a Western observer, ‘charged with a divine mission to subjugate, pacify and civilize the world’. Or as a Japanese professor explained, ‘Nippon’s national flag is an ensign of “red heart” or fiery sincerity. It alludes to the heavenly mission of Japan to tranquillize the whole world.’ So high-minded notions of fraternity were imperceptibly transformed into self-serving ones of hegemony. Patriotic devotion tended to become imperialistic fanaticism. Major-General Nonaka expressed his country’s burgeoning ambitions graphically: ‘The ultimate conclusion of politics is the conquest of the world by one imperial power… The Japanese nation, in view of her glorious history and position, should brace herself to till her destined role.’ The inspiration and the focus of the national cult was, of course, the emperor himself, who was worshipped as a living god.

     “Actually Hirohito, ruling in his father’s stead, expressed some doubts about his divine ancestry. But Saionji assured him it was a useful myth. In particular, the belief that the 2,600-year-old dynasty had descended in direct lie of succession from the sun goddess as a social cement for a people still torn by ancient clan rivalries. The imperial indoctrination began at school, where children bowed towards the Son of Heaven’s picture and repeated that their dearest ambition was ‘To die for the Emperor’… Hirohito, a small, delicate, sensitive young man, intelligent but lacking in self-confidence, had been brought up to pay an even stricter regard to duty. Though short-sighted, he had been for a time denied spectacles in case they cast doubt on his divinity. He was so governed by protocol that almost any impromptu action was rebuked; later he was not even permitted to travel in the same railway carriage as his own children because there was no precedent for it…”[8]


     From the beginning of the 1930s there was a steady rise in international warfare. In Japan, external expansion was related to its rivalry with Britain, and to the Depression. “Certainly Japan, the newest industrial nation, was catching up with Britain, the oldest, at an extraordinary rate between the wars. The Land of the Rising Sun actually seemed capable of eclipsing the empire on which the sun never set. But the Far Eastern colossus was to be seriously hurt by the Depression. Accordingly Japan became the first major power during the 1930s to export its aggression.”[9] And so in 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria and then China. Antony Beevor writes: “Anti-western feeling grew in Japan with the effects of the Wall Street Crash and the world-wide depression. And an increasingly nationalistic officer class viewed Manchuria and China in a similar way to the Nazis’ designs on the Soviet Union: as a landmass and a population to be subjugated to feed the home islands of Japan…

     “In September 1931, the Japanese military created the Mukden Incident, in which they blew up a railway to justify their seizure of the whole of Manchuria. They hoped to turn the regime into a major food-producing region as their own domestic agriculture had declined disastrously. They called it Manchukukuo and set up a puppet regime, with the deposed [Qing] emperor Henry Pu Yi as figurehead. The civilian government in Tokyo, although despised by officers, felt obliged to support the army. And the League of Nations in Geneva refused Chinese calls for sanctions against Japan. Japanese colonists, mainly peasants, poured in to seize land for themselves with the government’s encouragement. It wanted ‘one million households’ established as colonial farmers over the next twenty years. Japan’s actions left it isolated diplomatically, but the country exulted in its triumph. This marked the start of a fateful progression, both in foreign expansion and in military influence over the government in Tokyo…”[10]

     As Maria Hsia Chang writes, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria “was conceived to be the beginning of what was disingenuously referred to as a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ that would ultimately encompass not just Japan, Korea, and Manchuria but all of China, Mongolia, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia, the Andaman Islands, India, New Zealand, and Australia…[11] In 1935, Japan occupied parts of Chahar and Hobei. Two years later, in 1937, a full-scale invasion of China began. In rapid succession, the vital regions of China from the industrialized northeast to the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai along the coast fell before the invading Japanese armies.”[12]

     “The ‘China incident’, as the Japanese continued to call it, was to take eight years’ fighting and inflict grave social and physical damage on China. It has been seen as the opening of the Second World War. At the end of 1937 the Chinese government removed itself for safety’s sake to Chungking in the far west while the Japanese occupied all the important northern and coastal areas…”[13] Nevertheless, Japan proved unable to deliver the knock-out blow upon either Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist or Mao’s communists. Moreover, by the end of 1941 the Japanese had suffered 185,000 dead.[14]


      The Japanese occupation of Manchuria placed an important part of the Russian emigration in great spiritual danger in what was in effect a militantly pagan country. In the autumn of 1940 the Japanese passed a new law forbidding foreigners to lead religious organizations. Metropolitan Sergius (Tikhomirov) was forced to retire. But in March, 1941 Protopriest Ioann (Ono) was consecrated by ROCOR bishops in Japan as Bishop Nicholas, the first Japanese Orthodox bishop. On his return, some parishioners rejected him. However, with the help of the retired Metropolitan Sergius, the believers were pacified.[15]

     In Harbin, in May, 1943, the Japanese placed a statue of their goddess Amateras, the supposed foundress of the imperial race, directly opposite the Orthodox cathedral of St. Nicholas, and demanded that Russians going to church in the cathedral should first make a “reverential bow” towards the goddess. They also required that on certain days Japanese temples should be venerated, while a statue of the goddess was to be put in Orthodox churches.

      The question of the admissibility of participating in such ritual venerations was discussed at the diocesan assemblies of the Harbin diocese on September 8 and October 2, 1943, in the presence of the hierarchs of the Harbin diocese: Metropolitan Meletius, Bishop Demetrius and Bishop Juvenal (Archbishop Nestor was not present). According to the witness of the secretary of the Episcopal conference, Fr. Leonid Upshinsky, “the session was stormy, since some objected that… Amateras was not a goddess but the Ancestress.” It was decided “to accept completely and direct to the authorities” the reports of Bishop Demetrius of Hailar and Professor K.I. Zaitsev (the future Archimandrite Constantine), which expressed the official view of the episcopate that participation in the ritual venerations was inadmissible.[16]

     However, on February 5, 1944 the congress of leaders of the Russian emigration in Manchuria met in Harbin. The congress opened with a moleben in the St. Nicholas cathedral, after which the participants went to the Japanese temple “Harbin-Jinjya”, where they carried out a veneration of the goddess Amateras. On February 12 the Harbin hierarchs responded with an archpastoral epistle, in which they said: “Since any kind of veneration of pagan divinities and temples is forbidden by the commandments of God…, Orthodox Christians, in obedience to the will of God and his Law, cannot and must not carry out this veneration, for such venerations contradict the basic theses of the Orthodox Faith.” Archbishop Nestor refused to sign this epistle. In March both vicars of the Harbin diocese, Bishop Demetrius and Bishop Juvenal, were summoned to the police, where they were closely interrogated about the circumstances of the illegal distribution of the archpastoral epistle and about the attitude of the flock to this question. On April 28 Metropolitan Meletius was subjected to interrogation. The conversation, which lasted for several hours, produced no result. Referring to his extreme exhaustion and illness, Vladyka Meletius asked that the conversation be continued on May 1. This again produced no result. Bishop Demetrius, who also took part, categorically and sharply protested against the venerations.

     On May 2, an Episcopal Convention took place (Archbishop Nestor, as usual, was not present), at which this position was confirmed. Several days later, Metropolitan Meletius presented the text of the Episcopal Convention to Mr. Kobayasi. Kobayasi demanded that he give a written promise not to raise the question of venerations until the end of the war. Metropolitan Meletius asked that the words “if there will be no compulsion to venerations” should be added to the text. Vladyka’s demand again elicited a quarrel. However, in the end Kobayasi gave in. On August 31 the Harbin archpastors sent a letter to Archbishop Nestor in which they appealed to him “to unite with us, return and may your voice sound out in defence of the purity of the Faith and zeal for its confession. Sign (better late than never) our Archpastoral Epistle and announce this publicly – in whatever way and place you can.” In reply, Vladyka Nestor wrote that he did not disagree with his brother archpastors about the inadmissibility of venerating the temples of Amateras.[17]

     Eventually the Japanese climbed down - through the courageous confession of Archimandrite Philaret (Voznesensky), the future first-hierarch of the ROCOR. The Japanese tortured him and almost tore out his eyes, but he suffered this patiently. “We have a red-hot electrical instrument here,” they said. “Everybody who has had it applied to them has agreed to our requests. And you will also agree.” The torturer brought the instrument forward. Fr. Philaret prayed to St. Nicholas: “Holy Hierarch Nicholas, help me, otherwise there may be a betrayal.” The torturer commenced his work. He stripped the confessor to his waist and started to burn his spine with the burning iron. Then a miracle took place. Fr. Philaret could smell his burning flesh, but felt no pain. He felt joyful in his soul. The torturer could not understand why he was silent, and did not cry out or writhe from the unbearable pain. Then he turned and looked at his face. Amazed, he waved his hand, muttered something in Japanese and fled, conquered by the superhuman power of the confessor’s endurance. Fr. Philaret was brought, almost dead, to his relatives. There he passed out. When he came to he said: “I was in hell itself.” Gradually his wounds healed.  The Japanese no longer tried to compel the Orthodox to worship their idol…[18]


     “In December 1938,” continues Chang, “Japanese soldiers under the command of General Matsui Iwane took the Nationalist capital of Nanjing and began ‘an orgy of cruelty seldom if ever matched in world history’. As recounted by Irish Chang in her pathbreaking book, ‘For months the streets of the city were heaped with corpses and reeked with the stench of rotting flesh… Tens of thousands of young men were… mowed down by machine guns, used for bayonet practice… and in decapitation contests,… or soaked with gasoline and burned alive… An estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were raped. Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, nail them alive to walls. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers… Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs, and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by German shepherds.’

     “By the time the mayhem was over, more than 200,000 Chinese civilians had been massacred. Some experts believe the figure to exceed 350,000, which would place the Rape of Nanjing in the ranks of the world’s worst instances of barbarism. In a matter of a few weeks, the death toll in Nanjing exceeded the number of civilian casualties of some European countries for the entire duration of World War II. The figure in the case of Britain was 61,000; for France, 108,000; Belgium, 101,000; and the Netherlands, 242,000. More Chinese were killed in Nanjing than the Japanese death toll of 210,000 from America’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

     “In all, in the eight years of China’s War of Resistance (Kangzhan) against Japan from 1937 to 1945, Japanese war casualties (dead, missing, captured, and wounded) numbered some 400,000 – one-fiftieth that of the Chinese. By the time Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 10, 1945, more than 10 million Chinese civilians and soldiers had lost their lives – the equivalent of the entire population of Greece or Belgium. Forty million Chinese were rendered homeless. Some estimates put the Chinese death roll at 20 million.”[19]

     Such cruelty was not channelled only against Chinese victims - the Japanese had refused to sign the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the people had been taught to hate foreigners in general. As Paul Ham writes, “more recent Japanese atrocities involved American soldiers: on the Bataan Death March, for example, 2330 American and 7000 Filipino prisoners died of starvation, sickness, torture and execution after General Douglas MacArthur’s forces surrendered to the Japanese in the Philippines on 9 April 1942. ‘To show mercy is to prolong the war,’ was how the Japan Times justified the general treatment of prisoners at the time…


     “A series of spectacular military triumphs had persuaded many ordinary Japanese of their sacred destiny – to rule the world. By 1945 this notion relied on a mystical faith in Japanese ‘spirit’, the residual delusion of four decades of unbeaten conquest. In 1894, the Meiji Emperor looked out from his headquarters in Hiroshima, the point of his troops’ embarkation and triumphal return, flushed with pride after victory in the first modern war with China. Greater laurels awaited the armies of Nippon: only the fall of Singapore in 1942 would imbue the Imperial name with greater reverence than Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1904-05…

     “Throughout Japan’s military expansion, the Imperial forces claimed to be acting in the Emperor’s name, or with the Emperor’s tacit approval. Since the 1920s, the Japanese people had been taught to believe in the policy of military expansion as the divine right of Nippon, an expression of the Imperial Will. In the 1930s, Tokyo’s newly minted propagandists dusted down the ancient idea of the Emperor’s divinity. The Essence of the Kokutai (the Imperial state), published in 1937 by the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education, described the Emperor as a deity in whom the blood of all Japan ran, back to Jimmu and the Sun Goddess. ‘Our country is a divine country’ stressed The Essence, ‘governed by an Emperor who is a deity incarnate.’ Belief in the Kokutai became orthodoxy.

     “Hirohito, accordingly, despite his diminutive appearance, shrill voice and spectacles, embodied the power of the sun, ‘the eternal essence of his subjects and the imperial land’. He existed at the heart of Japanese identity. The people worshipped him as Tenno Heiko, the ‘Son of Heaven’, and a divine monarch. Their adoration of the Emperor cannot be understated: killing or removing him dismembered the body and soul of the nation; the rough equivalent of the crucifixion of Christ.”[20 

    This pagan faith shows how superficial had been Japan’s westernization programme, assimilating the technological achievements of European civilization, but not its deeper beliefs. Except, that is, those beliefs linked to Europe’s recent return to paganism in the form of communism and fascism… And so, in imitation of the Gestapo and the KGB, “in the 1940s, ‘Thought Prosecutors’ roamed the cities under the control of the Justice Ministry, ferreting out ‘dangerous thinkers’ – pacifists, leftists, journalists and Koreans. Meanwhile, Special Higher Police (tokko ka), deployed under the Peace Preservation Law, monitored the mind as well as the voice of Japan. That meant throttling the expression of both. In 1944, a Mainichi reporter thoughtfully asked in an article, ‘Can Japan Defeat America with Bamboo Spears?’ A furious [Prime Minister] Tojo had the miscreant dispatched to China. Persistent dissidents were tortured. But few challenged the censorship laws. Between 1928 and 1945, only 5000 people were found guilty of violating the Peace Preservation Law. In 1934, the peak year, 14,822 were arrested and 1285, prosecuted; in 1943, those figures were 159 and 52 respectively…

     “By 1945, most Japanese had become compliant self-censurers who rallied around the war effort. State-approved intellectuals applauded the war as a sacred cause against ‘Anglo-Saxon exploitation’. Poets eagerly volunteered to recite their haiku in factories and at the front. Newspaper editors exulted in news of victory and distorted evidence of looming defeat…”[21]



April 3/16, 2019.



[1] Tooze, The Deluge, London: Penguin, 2014, pp. 324-326.

[2] Tooze, “265 Days that Shook the World”, Prospect, January, 2017, p. 26.

[3] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1992, pp. 734-735.

[4] Tooze, The Deluge, London: Penguin, 2015, pp. 420-421.

[5] Chang and Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, London: JonathanCape, 2005, pp. 13-15.

[6] Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 633.

[7] Roberts, op. cit., p. 738.

[8] Brendon, The Dark Valley, pp. 35-37.

[9] Breedon, op. cit., p. 173.

[10] Beevor, The Second World War, London: Phoenix, 2014, p. 8.

[11] In this “New Order in Asia”, writes Henry Kissinger, “Japan strove to organize its own anti-Westphalian sphere of influence – a ‘bloc of nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers,’ arranged hierarchically to ‘thereby enable all nations to find each its proper place in the world.’ In this new order, other Asian states’ sovereignty would be elided into a form of Japanese tutelage” (World Order, London: Penguin, 2015, p. 188). (V.M.)

[12] Chang, Return of the Dragon, Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2001, p. 80.

[13] J.M. Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1991, p. 742.

[14] Max Hastings, All Hell Let Loose, London: Harper, 2011, p. 191

[15] Monk Benjamin, Letopis’ Tserkovnykh Sobytij (Chronicle of Church Events), part 3, pp. 13-14, 19. Hieromonk Enoch quotes a friend: "Upon the enactment of the Religious Organizations Law in 1940 which gave the state full control over all religious bodies, the vast majority, if not all, of Orthodox Christians succumbed to state-mandated shinto worship. As far as I know, there was no notable attempt by any priests or lay people to resist state shinto. I only know of two "Christian" organizations (protestant) during WW II in Japan that fiercely resisted the evil of Shinto worship: Mino Mission and Orthodox Presbyterian Church Japan Mission. A small group of Roman Catholic college students refused to worship at Yasukuni shrine citing their religious belief. However, they were later reprimanded by their bishop and the Vatican intervened directly to approve Shinto worship among all Catholics. It is now known as The 1932 Sophia University Yasukuni Incident." (Facebook, November 30, 2016)

[16] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, p. 49.

[17] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, pp. 67-69.

[18] Protopriest Alexis Mikrikov, “Unia s MP privedet k dukhovnoj katastrofe” (The Unia with the MP will lead to a spiritual catastrophe),

[19] Chang, op. cit., pp. 80-81.

[20] Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki, London: Doubleday, 2011, pp. 12, 15-16, 17.

[21] Ham, op. cit., p. 20.

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