A Savage History


In the 1920s, Japan’s economy was stagnating. For inspiration, nationalist leaders dusted off some ancient myths and began teaching the Japanese that they were a nation of gods and that Japan’s Imperial Family was the offspring of the sun goddess Amaterasu. They said Emperor Hirohito was the “Son of Heaven”—an omnipotent god destined to rule the whole world. “The nations of the world will come to look up to our Emperor as the Great Ruler of all nations,” the Tanaka Memorial of 1927 said.

The Tanaka Memorial (a document allegedly presented to Hirohito by Premier Baron Gi-ichi Tanaka) essentially became Japan’s foreign policy from 1927 until the end of World War II. Although the authenticity of the document is a matter of dispute, history shows that Japan followed the broad strokes of its strategy. It laid out detailed military plans for Japan to conquer the entire world starting with China: “With China’s entire resources at our disposal we shall conquer India, Central Asia and Europe. … A victorious Japan will place all the white races of the world under the rule of the Son of Heaven. … In order to conquer the world, we must first conquer China. If we succeed in conquering China, the rest of the Asiatic countries and the South Sea countries will fear us and surrender to us.”

A lot hinged on the conquest of China. Japan wanted this to inspire fear throughout Asia. So its invasion was ruthless beyond words.

In the Massacre of Nanjing, for example, Japanese troops murdered over 200,000 Chinese civilians. Mothers with infants, pregnant women, children and old men were tortured, bayonetted, beheaded, burned or buried alive. Many women and girls were gang-raped, mutilated and killed. Others were kept around as “comfort women”—sex slaves forced to serve Japanese soldiers. Unborn babies were routinely torn out from pregnant women and killed. Soldiers often gouged the eyes out of children and babies in front of their mothers before slaughtering both woman and child.

These weren’t soldiers running amok, ignoring orders. The crimes were well known to the military’s highest officers. The chief commander of the Nanjing invasion was Emperor Hirohito’s uncle. The evils were committed with the royal stamp of approval for the purpose of instilling fear in the nations.

Nanjing was not an isolated case of savagery. Japanese troops were similarly cruel in numerous other Chinese cities and also in Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries. A look further back into history shows that World War ii was not an anomalously aggressive epoch for the Japanese. There were also the invasions of Korea in the 1590s, the Battle of Ganghwa, the First Sino-Japanese War, the invasion of Taiwan, the Russo-Japanese War, and the list goes on.

During World War ii, the ruthlessness and tenacity of the Japanese was largely driven by their belief that Hirohito was a god destined to rule the world. The toxicity of this faith made many virtually incapable of surrendering—even in the face of insurmountable odds.

Although some Japanese were taken prisoner, the majority fought until they were killed or committed suicide. The fanatic commitment spread even to Japanese civilians. This was perhaps most evident when American troops moving onto Saipan in June 1944 saw mothers clutching infants flinging themselves off cliffs rather than risk being captured.

By war’s end, Japan had been fighting for 14 years. Almost 3 million Japanese were dead, with many more injured or gravely ill. The nation lay in ruins. But even then, nothing short of two atomic bombs was able to bring a halt to Japan’s perverse military fanaticism.

It was then, in the immediate aftermath of that gruesome history that U.S. officials drafted Japan’s constitution, most famous for Article 9.

“Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. [L]and, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” the article says.

This document, without the change of even a comma, has technically governed Japanese affairs in the decades since. To avoid stirring fears of a resurgence in the militarism that terrorized the world, postwar Tokyo has relied on Washington for security guarantees.

Now, however, 70 years have passed, and memories have dimmed.