The Power of Propaganda and the Japanese Empire

Economist Kurt Schuler has a fascinating post on the various currencies that were used in mainland East Asia during World War II over at the Free Banking group blog.

Unfortunately, there are three paragraphs in the post that attempt to take libertarians to task for daring to challenge both the narrative of the state and the narrative of the nation regarding that horrific reminder of humanity’s shortcomings. He is writing of the certainty of the US’s moral clarity when it came to fighting Japan (the post was published around Pearl Harbor remembrance day):

The 1940 U.S embargo of certain materials frequently used for military purposes was intended to pressure Japan to stop its campaign of invasion and murder in China. The embargo was a peaceful response to violent actions. Japan could have stopped; it would have been the libertarian thing to do. For libertarians to claim that the embargo was a provocation is like saying that it is a provocation to refuse to sell bullets to a killer.

Then, in December 1941, came not just the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but an attack on the whole of Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, what is now Malaysia (British colonies), Indonesia (a Dutch colony), the Philippines (scheduled under American law to become independent in 1945), Thailand (independent). In 1942 there followed the invasion of Burma, a bit of India, and a few of the Aleutian Islands, plus the bombing of Darwin, Australia.

With that history in mind, how can anybody think that the United States could have made a durable peace with Japan? It would have lasted as long as would have been to Japan’s military advantage, no longer. Japan was hell-bent on conquest. Nothing since its emergence as a major international power suggested a limit to its ambitions. It only ceded in the face of superior force. Even as Allied forces retook territory, Japanese fanaticism was such that the government did not surrender until after the U.S. military dropped two atomic bombs. To ignore the long pattern of Japanese aggression as quite a few libertarians are wont to do is not just historically ignorant but dangerous, because it closes its eyes to the hard truth that some enemies are so implacable that the only choice is between fighting them and being subjugated by them. It took a prolonged U.S. military occupation to turn Japan from the aggressor it was to the peaceful country it has become. (source)

This is an unfortunate mischaracterization of what went on in World War 2, but it also does a fairly good job of demolishing some of the arguments that libertarians have come up with in regards to this debate. You see, the issue of World War 2 is one that is usually foisted upon libertarians as an example of the benevolence of the State: Washington crushed two powerful, evil war machines in one fell swoop and then stood up to a third evil empire for forty years.

Libertarians often get confronted with this interpretation of history and they get bothered by it. This argument gets under their skin. They often make up excuses for Japan’s actions, or they avoid dealing with what actually happened in the time period. This response is also unfortunate because the general principles of libertarianism – individual freedom, strong property rights, internationalism – explain the events of World War 2 well, but only once the facts are looked at clearly and thoroughly. The power of propaganda is immense. The fact that so many people believe that the United States was the good guy in the war against Japan is astounding, and I think the heavy weight that is placed upon the shoulders of those who dare to defy the standard account of the US’s war with Japan flusters the seeker of truth.

Even though libertarians get hot-headed on this issue and stumble, thus making Schuler right in a sense, his argument is absolutely wrong. What follows is an attempt to calm things down, and to explain why Schuler is wrong and what libertarians need to get right.

Tokyo did not want to expand beyond a certain point, due to the ideological consensus of the governing party at the time. The narrative of the governing party was that great civilizations had natural territories over which they naturally lorded. For the Japanese, this natural territory (which was, of course, entirely arbitrary and ahistorical) was called, amongst other things, the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It included the Korean peninsula, Manchuria, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, coastal China, Mongolia, Malaysia (including Singapore and Brunei), and a separatist region in India known as Azad Hind. Any territory beyond these lands were inhabited by – again according to the ideology of the dominant political party at the time – peoples who did not conform to the standards set by the Japanese people (and those ranked directly beneath them; the ones I just mentioned). These foreign peoples were treated accordingly, especially in Melanesia.

What this suggests is that, contra Schuler, the Japanese were not “hell-bent on conquest.” Rather they simply wanted to carve out a territorial space that has obvious parallels with the German conception of Lebensraum. This is not a coincidence, by the way, for the ideologies of the dominant parties in Germany and Japan were cut from the same racist cloth.

Hawaii might have been a target for the Japanese military eventually, due to the large number of people living there with Japanese ancestry, but even this is stretching the limits of generosity. Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry considered themselves to be Hawaiians, or Americans, before Japanese (this probably due to the fact that the Japanese government sent some of its citizens over to Hawaii by force, but that is another story for another day; hopefully you can see why loyalty to Hawaii and the US was a given to people of Japanese ancestry on the islands). A Japanese invasion of the US mainland is simply an incredibly silly notion, which is why I think Dr Schuler relies upon the irrefutable fact of Japanese lust for conquest. Can you not see where propaganda is at work here?

Now, obviously the Japanese were warmongering at the time. There is no doubt about this. However, it hardly follows that the Japanese were a threat to the American republic.

For instance, look at what the Japanese military ended up attacking:

  • European and American colonies (which were burdens rather than boons for both the colonized and the colonizing)
  • Thailand, a kingdom with a long history of playing foreign powers off on each other
  • and parts of China (which could hardly lay claim to much of its territory anyway)

If I’m not mistaken, Europe and the United States are thousands of miles away from Japan, and yet they had militaries occupying foreign lands in East Asia. Again, Japan was certainly an aggressive state in the early 20th century, but it seems extremely unfair to ignore the military occupation – by Western states – of Asian lands and the Jim Crow-esque political regimes that they enacted and enforced. Notice, too, that the military incursions of the Japanese Empire do not stray too far from the official ideology of the governing political party. This is also true of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was also true of Soviet Russia, but for different reasons. The Soviets engaged in worldwide imperial ambitions (“spreading the revolution”) after solidifying their rule at home, and this imperialism was part and parcel of the dominant ideology of Leninism. I am digressing.

Japan did declare war on the US, so I think Washington’s war was just, but it hardly follows that Japan was “hell-bent on conquest,” or that its military would have invaded the United States, or that Tokyo’s decision not to curl up in the fetus position and simply accept US economic warfare was “unlibertarian.” Suppose Japan had conquered the US. What would its armies have uncovered?

Think of it this way: What incentive would Japan have to conquer the United States? Where were the plans to do so? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at Japan’s war on the US as part of its broader effort at creating and maintaining its hold over the territory it deemed to be the natural lord over? Why waste so many resources invading and occupying a territory dominated by people who were part of another race (as per the prevailing ideology of Tokyo at the time)? Oh, that’s right: Because Japan was “hell-bent on conquest.”

Propaganda is very powerful, but it’s also important not to label everything you disagree with as propaganda. That makes you sound like a crackpot. For instance, I don’t think anything Dr Schuler argues is driven by pure propaganda. Such an insinuation on my part would simply be garbage, and (rightly) treated as such in the public sphere. However, the notion that the US military stopped a war machine “hell-bent on conquest” is a product of propaganda. This notion is strengthened by personal and cultural narratives, and in time it takes on a life form of its own.

One last thing: Dr Schuler argues that the embargo Washington placed on Tokyo “was a peaceful response to violent actions,” but surely you can see how that policy was actually a violent response to violent actions. Whether that violence to counter other violence was a good thing or not is a question that cannot be answered in this already-too-long post.

(One more last thing: Here is an excellent essay on ideology in developing states that might be worth checking out; it doesn’t deal directly with the Japanese Empire but does deal with some of the concepts [especially nationalisms] that confront us when thinking about the rise of the Japanese Empire.)

17 thoughts on “The Power of Propaganda and the Japanese Empire

  1. Interesting post. I think you make a good case that Japan was hell bent on conquering not the entire globe but just: “For the Japanese, this natural territory (which was, of course, entirely arbitrary and ahistorical) was called, amongst other things, the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It included the Korean peninsula, Manchuria, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, coastal China, Mongolia, Malaysia (including Singapore and Brunei), and a separatist region in India known as Azad Hind.”

    You’re not happy with the narrative that “Washington crushed two powerful, evil war machines in one fell swoop and then stood up to a third evil empire for forty years.” Does the fact that Japan only wanted to conquer 1/3 of the globe instead of the entire globe really change that narrative?

    I’m not sure I really understand what you’re saying about Japanese racism at the time but if I do I’m going to have to disagree. My understanding of your argument is that the Japanese had 3 tiers of ‘races’: Japanese, the inhabitants of their natural territory defined above, everyone else. My minor quibble is scepticism that coastal Chinese count as tier 2 but other Chinese as tier 3; Azad Hind Indians are tier 2, other Indians tier 3 et cetera.

    My major quibble is that the incredible brutality exhibited against the inhabitants of their natural territory suggests a 2 tiered racism and that there was no area safe from conquest because the inhabitants were the wrong race. Could you elaborate on your arguments about the nature of racism in the ideology of the dominant party at the time?

    • Good questions as usual Dr A, but the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere did not seek to encompass 1/3 of the globe. It probably did not seek to encompass 1/6 of the globe. One of the major tasks of libertarians is to simply explain to people how the facts that they have at their disposal often have an exaggerated sense of importance to them (that is to say: they are false).

      With that being said, I would drop the ‘evil’ the in the standard narrative that is often recited to embarrass libertarians (and others who doubt the benevolence of US hegemony).

      Look at it this way: The Japanese set out to establish colonies that would enforce a two-tiered, Jim Crow-esque system of justice. They set out to do this by invading colonies that already had systems of two-tiered justice in place.

      How was Japanese colonialism any worse than British, or Dutch, or French, or American, or Manchurian, or Han colonialism? Those who believe the standard line about a war of good versus evil never answer this question. They don’t even consider it. I don’t think enough libertarians consider it, either.

      Suppose, for example, that the Japanese had won World War 2, and thus kept the Philippines as a colonial possession. What do you think would be the standard narrative of the American presence on the islands? There would (justly) be accounts of “incredible brutality” and fallacies regarding New Deal America’s lust for conquest.

      My minor quibble is scepticism that coastal Chinese count as tier 2 but other Chinese as tier 3; Azad Hind Indians are tier 2, other Indians tier 3 et cetera.

      Your understanding is a little bit right and a little bit wrong, mostly owing to my failure to elaborate upon Japanese racism. The Japanese in power believed that there were more than just three tiers of races, but for their current military purposes, there were only the three aforementioned categories. The prevailing opinion of nationalists was (and is) that there are cultural cores throughout the world and then are peripheries (I am borrowing from world systems theory to make this point, but hopefully you get the gist of it).

      If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Racial ideology is now viewed as quackery by the scientific community for a reason.

      As far as picking and choosing different races within India and China, the Japanese were actually following the logic of the nationalists fairly well. This is because there is no such thing as an ethnic Indian or an ethnic Chinese. Indian and Chinese are labels indicating citizenship in those respective countries, although when the terms get transplanted into other, non-Asian contexts (such as Western) these labels can take on an ethnic identifier (even though these Western labels are completely wrong).

      In the Japanese context, the people of Azad Hind fit the racist narrative of Japan’s dominant ideology quite well, as they have physical features that are much more closely related to Indonesians or Burmese than, say, Dravidians or Kannadigas. Remember: India is a massive multi-ethnic democracy spread across the whole of South Asia, and Azad Hind was located on the Indo-Burmese border.

      Likewise, there are many different ethnic groups in China, rather than a single Chinese ethnicity. I dealt with the complexities of Chinese identity and ethnicity in “China and the Future of Nationalism.” For whatever reason (probably economic, but justified as something else), the Japanese labeled certain ethnic groups as ‘worthy’ and other groups as ‘not worthy’. Think about how American propaganda at the time would explain to US citizens the differences between a Chinese and Japanese person. The way the Japanese government explained to Japanese citizens the differences between a Manchurian and a Han was probably very similar.

      My major quibble is that the incredible brutality exhibited against the inhabitants of their natural territory suggests a 2 tiered racism and that there was no area safe from conquest because the inhabitants were the wrong race.

      I can see where this comes from, but I would argue that the wartime atrocities occurred because Japan was at war rather than because Tokyo wanted to adhere to ideology.

      All of the ethnic and racial theories we’ve been discussing serve, I think, to bolster the importance of legal and moral systems that emphasizes the individual as the paramount unit of society.

  2. Thanks for your explication, it clarified things considerably. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about Japanese brutality during the world war 2 period. I think there’s more than just ‘the winner writing the history’. The Chinese & Koreans certainly don’t buy into an equivalency between the Allies and the Japanese.

    • Ah thank you for your alarming honesty, Terry. Is something wrong? Did you bet money on the Broncos?

      I don’t think we disagree on anything. I am perfectly fine with condemning Japanese brutality during the war. Many people misconstrue the libertarian argument on this issue and like to pretend that libertarians do support the brutality because they don’t rah-rah Washington’s war effort in the Pacific, or they question it.

      However, not supporting the American war effort in the Pacific does not equal support for Japanese brutality. Libertarians get very flustered when confronted with this fallacy and often say stupid things.

      The Koreans and the Chinese would definitely argue that Japanese brutality was worse than Western brutality, but that’s because neither of these countries was colonized by Western powers. If you ask the Indonesians, or the Filipinos, or the Vietnamese, or the Indians, whether Western colonialism was equivalent to Japanese colonialism, you will get a very different answer from the ones found in Korea and China.

      This is so because Western powers actually occupied those countries and imposed brutal, Jim Crow-esque laws upon the populaces there. I did a research paper on Dutch colonialism in Java and if you think the Dutch methods weren’t as equally brutal as the Japanese methods in Korea or Manchuria I can direct you to some good historical research that says otherwise. I know the American occupation of the Philippines was extremely bloody, and British and French rule in their respective Asian colonies was often administered with an iron fist, too.

    • Luckily I was playing my favorite mmorpg instead of watching football. I take it that Denver lost?

      “I did a research paper on Dutch colonialism in Java and if you think the Dutch methods weren’t as equally brutal as the Japanese methods in Korea or Manchuria I can direct you to some good historical research that says otherwise.”

      I’d like to see them for completely unrelated reasons. Email them to me when you get a chance. No rush though.

    • You play mmorpg’s?! I thought you were colleagues with Dr J (who is older than chess).

      I’ll get you something soon, but for some reason I have been busier than I’ve meant to be lately. The standard English language account of the history of modern Java (I can’t speak for all of Indonesia) is British historian Peter Carey’s magnum opus, The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785-1855. I’ll get you more details in a few.

  3. I’m older than dirt but not chess 🙂 Let me put it this way, I started playing dungeons and dragons in 1978. I not only delayed my dissertation by a year or so, I took 5 other PhD students down with me. Mmorpg’s are just a good way to make up for difficulties in getting together a group for table-top gaming. The internet saved my gaming life.

    Thanks for the Carey link.

  4. There is no question that the invasions of other countries of Japan was caused by pinheaded, megalomaniacal, suicidal military types, a ala Hitler, who claimed that without the illegal conquest of other countries and stealing of their resources, Japan could not survive. The big lie to that is demonstrated by the fact that after the war when Japan was pushed back into its original boundaries and deprived of all its conquests (and its military morons), it, a la Germany, became the dominant, thriving country in its region. Is there any doubt that it, like Germany, could not have achieved that without military invasions, murders and massive destruction of other peoples countries?

    • Is there any doubt that it, like Germany, could not have achieved that without military invasions, murders and massive destruction of other peoples countries?

      Not in my mind Observer.

      Unfortunately, our task is made all the more difficult because the nationalist position seems to come naturally to a great many people.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  5. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But now we know there were other factors besides the drubbing of the Japanese in the Mongolia incident of 1939 by the soviet army that drove them south. The Soviet spy and agent of influence in the FDR administration, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, was doing the bidding for Stalin and the Soviets, a traitor in the FDR administration. This is now discussed in two recent books, including Operation Snow by John Koster (2012) dedicated completely to this subject. To protect the Soviet Union from attack and divert the Japanese attack against the U.S. , instead, Harry Dexter White pushed the Japanese into a corner: Japan, deficient and desperately needing raw materials and oil, resources crucial to its survival, was deliberately blocked access to them by the FDR administration “war hawks,” led by Harry Dexter White. In 1941 deprived of oil and vital resources, Japan was forced to go to war and manipulated to attack, not the Soviet Union but the U.S., preventing the USSR from being invaded and crushed on two fronts.

    The Koster book is momentous and together with M.Stanton Evan’s and Herbert Romerstein’s book, Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government (2012) fills a serious gap in historical knowledge that needed filling as to the events leading to World War II and the Cold War. I think this side of the story needs to be told.
    Dr. Miguel A. Faria

    • Thanks for your thoughts Dr Faria.

      White’s spying for Moscow is now well-documented, so I don’t doubt that aspect of your argument. My contention with the thesis you put forth is that the act of spying itself is overrated. That is to say, I think spying gets far too much credit for affecting historical outcomes.

      White may have been working for Moscow, but FDR was not an idiot. Does this make sense?

      Another way to look at my counter-argument would be to think about the way that Washington bled the Soviets in Eastern Europe prior to its entry into the war. The logic behind this thesis is that Washington waited to enter the war because it wanted the Soviets and the Nazis to beat each other up (“bleed”) as much as possible before the US joined the war effort. Washington thought this policy was best because it understood that Stalin was just as bad a guy as Hitler (if not worse). Just as FDR was not an idiot, so too was Stalin not a fool. It has been argued that Washington’s policy of bleeding the two powers gave rise to a level of animosity between Washington and Moscow that could have never been reached through ideology alone.

      This theory (put forth by the professor who oversaw my Honors thesis), which I find very convincing, suggests that Moscow did not have much of an influence in how Washington undertook foreign policy.

    • Hi Brandon! You have developed some very persuasive arguments! I strongly recommend you read the book, Stalin’s Secret Agents, I reviewed above. Stalin was no fool and he ran circles around FDR, who allowed himself to be fooled, using Harry Hopkins and Alger HIss. Winston Churchill knew better but was ignored by FDR.

      It is gratifying to learn there are still young men, such as yourself, so knowledgeable on any aspect of history (e.g., World War II) but I advise you don’t neglect the history of the Cold War and collectivism, in any of its incarnations, whether fascism, socialism, or communism. Fascism was soundly defeated, but collectivism, particularly in the form of social democracy (socialism), is thriving ideologically and in practice under the “liberal democracies” in Europe and even here in the United States — despite the collapse of the Soviet bear and communism in 1991.

      I also invite you to visit and sign up my website at and read my collection of articles on Stalin and communism. Post any comments that strike your fancy. I plan next to read your thesis. Excellent discussion here, Brandon, and thank you for allowing me to participate! Dr. Miguel Faria

      Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Associate Editor-in-Chief and a World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI;; Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine; Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; 2002-05); Realclearhistory Author (2012-present); Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002); Editor Emeritus; Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995), Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997), and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002).

  6. Re: “Economic warfare.” You can’t justify militarily attacking another nation because they refuse to sell you a commodity.

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