After the end of the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, 28 senior Japanese political and military leaders were forced to stand trial at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Tribunal. The Soviet Union, which sent one judge to sit on the tribunal, had taken about 575,000 Japanese soldiers to its territories, mainly Siberia, for forced labor. France and the Netherlands continued their wars in Asia aimed at maintaining their colonies in the region. This chapter examines what happened in the years just after the guns fell silent.
Wars for re-colonization flare up in Southeast Asia
Around the time the Tribunal opened in May 1946 (the 21st year of the Showa Era), hostilities between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, intensified. That summer, the fighting developed into an all-out civil war that eventually left Mao standing as the leader of China.
Immediately after Japan surrendered, Chiang Kai-shek, in preparation for his showdown with the Communists, was anxious to take over the vast area the Imperial Japanese Army had occupied. On August 15, 1945, Chiang Kai-shek ordered Yasuji Okamura, the Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s China Expeditionary Army, to surrender to the Nationalist Army, saying, “Keep the soldiers’ equipment and maintain order where they were stationed.”
The order was intended to prevent the weapons of about one million Japanese soldiers from falling into the hands of Communist forces. As might be expected, the Communists also hoped to utilize the Japanese forces’ weapons and equipment. Luckily for the Communists, they managed to obtain a substantial portion of the Japanese forces’ weapons for themselves, enabling them to galvanize their military capacity.
In Shanxi Province, about 2,600 Japanese soldiers from the North China Area Army’s Number One Garrison fought fierce battles alongside Nationalist troops led by warlord Yen Hsi-shan (Yan Xishan) against the Communists for three and a half years. As the war situation took an unwelcome turn for the Nationalists, they started to recruit former Imperial Japanese Army officers. Based on Okamura’s advice on which officers were the most accomplished, the Nationalists reportedly recruited over 100 Japanese officers. At a tribunal convened in Shanghai, Okamura was acquitted and released. At that time, the Nationalists were on the verge of losing the fight against the Communists. “The Nationalists then came to take a more lenient policy toward Japanese war criminals for the campaign against the Communists,” said Professor Akira Ishii at Tokyo University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, where Japan’s surrender had created a power vacuum, new fights erupted between local indigenous leaders seeking independence and their former rulers—the Allied Powers that defeated Japan.
In Indochina, the Viet Minh, a national organization seeking independence for Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, started a major uprising across what is now Vietnam. Ho declared Vietnam’s independence on September 2, 1945, in front of about 500,000 people in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. France, which planned to take Indochina back again, started moves to establish control over South Vietnam with the help of British forces, but met stiff resistance from the Viet Minh. In July 1946, shortly after the Tokyo Tribunal started, French and Vietnamese representatives held talks in Paris but failed to reach an agreement. Relations deteriorated to the point that French and Vietnamese forces clashed in Hanoi in December, setting off the First Indochinese War (1946–54). Ho Chi Minh ordered all Vietnamese nationals to engage in total resistance against the French forces. In 1954, French rule officially came to an end with its shattering defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
In Indonesia, Sukarno, Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for Indonesian Independence, proclaimed the nation’s independence as the Republic of Indonesia at a ceremony on August 17, 1945. However, British and Dutch forces that landed in the latter half of September fought fierce battles in Surabaya in East Java against the Indonesian independence force. Shouting “independence or death,” the Indonesian soldiers continued their staunch resistance against the Dutch attempt to re-colonize the country. From late 1947, the Netherlands started to establish “autonomous regions,” de facto puppet states, in Indonesia hoping to make its quest to control Indonesia irreversible. The Sukarno administration was gradually reduced to a mere regional administration that governed only parts of Sumatra and Java. After the Sukarno administration was weakened by a communist coup, the Dutch forces occupied the Republic’s temporary capital of Jogyakarta and arrested Sukarno and other leaders.
In December 1948, after the sentences of the Tokyo Tribunal were handed down, the Netherlands was bogged down in a war against guerrilla fighters. After much arm-twisting by the international community, including the United States, the Dutch agreed to participate in the Round Table conference in The Hague and finally assented to Indonesia’s independence in December 1949. In August 2005, the 60th anniversary of Indonesia’s declaration of independence, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot visited Indonesia and said the larger scale deployment of military forces in 1947–49 had put the Netherlands “on the wrong side of history.”