How Japan rolled up colonialism in Asia

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Forward march Malayan soldiers defend their peninsula on 10 February 1942 before the Japanese completed their occupation and pushed the British out
Forward march Malayan soldiers defend their peninsula on 10 February 1942 before the Japanese completed their occupation and pushed the British out. Photo: AP

It was Japan’s spectacular victories against two major European countries that sparked revolutionary movements across Asia. In particular, two epic events created a domino effect that ensured the collapse of colonialism.

The first was the sinking of the Russian fleet by the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Tsushima at the dawn of the 20th century. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, the Japanese laid siege to Port Arthur, Russia’s only warm-water port in the Pacific. To relieve the siege, Tsar Nicolas II sent his Baltic Fleet comprising 27 warships.

Finding the Suez Canal blocked by Britain, the Russian fleet sailed 33,000 km around Africa to take on the Japanese fleet. On 26 May 1905, as the tired and inexperienced Russian fleet entered the narrow Tsushima Strait, between Japan and Korea, Admiral Togo Heihachiro launched a blistering attack on it with 37 torpedo boats and 21 destroyers. By the following morning, the Russians had lost 21 ships and 4,800 sailors; 5,917 surrendered to the Japanese.

The Japanese victory was seen as a turning point because, for the first time in modern history, an Asian nation had defeated a European power.

Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, said in 1924 in Kobe, Japan: “Since the day of Japan’s victory over Russia, the people of Asia have cherished the hope of shaking off the yoke of European oppression, a hope which has given rise to a series of independence movements — in Egypt, Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan and finally in India. Therefore, Japan’s defeat of Russia gave rise to a great hope for the independence of Asia.”

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s view, the Japanese victory lessened the feeling of inferiority besieging Asians. “A great European power had been defeated, thus Asia could still defeat Europe as it had done in the past,” he wrote in The Glimpses of World History (1934).

For a time when communications were slow and patchy, the news travelled like a tsunami to the Indian hinterlands. Decades before they would hear of Mohandas Gandhi, people in remote villages were excitedly talking about how Japan had humbled a ‘gora’ country.

Japan became a magnet for Indian freedom fighters. Large numbers of Indian students joined Japanese universities in order to be close to this new hub of Indian revolutionaries. Rashbehari Bose, who tried to incite a mutiny in the Indian Army during World War I, escaped to Japan after the attempt failed. Britain was Japan’s ally and the two countries had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, but Tokyo refused to hand over Indian revolutionaries to the British colonialists.

Bose married a Japanese woman, took Japanese citizenship and founded the Indian Independence League. In June 1942, at the Bangkok conference, Subhas Chandra Bose was asked to join the League and become its president. Bose took charge of the Indian National Army in September 1942.

Battle of Singapore
If the Battle of Tsushima was the spark that lit the flame of hope in Asia, it was the Battle of Singapore in 1942 that dropped the “atomic bomb of nationalism” in Asia. Located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore was considered an impregnable fortress designed to stop any attack on Britain’s Asian possessions. Garrisoned by 1 lakh British, Indian and Australian troops, it was Britain’s “Gibraltar in the Far East”.

After the Anglo-Japanese Alliance ended in 1923, the British War Office was confident it could deter the Japanese. Colin Smith writes in Singapore Burning (2006) that the Japanese were portrayed as “little yellow men”, comical figures who could not see well enough to shoot straight or fly modern aircraft with skill. In fact, some Australian officers expressed their disappointment they would not be meeting more worthy opponents.

On 8 December 1941, Japan called their bluff. Deploying the Asian equivalent of the blitzkrieg, Japan established overwhelming air and naval superiority over Malaya and Singapore within a week. As a battle-hardened force of 25,000 Japanese troops and 200 tanks scythed through the jungles of Malaya, down south, the Japanese Navy showed the British they could shoot — and shoot well. Two massive battleships — the Prince of Wales and Repulse — were sunk off the Malaya coast by precision air strikes with the loss of over 800 British sailors. (In fact, the funnels of the Prince of Wales still stand out of the waters at the mouth of Kuantan Bay.) Among the dead was Admiral Tom Phillips, their naval commander. Effectively, in one ruthless campaign, the Japanese ended British sea power in Asia.

The loss of these capital ships had a devastating impact on morale back home. The then British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wrote in his memoirs: “I put the telephone down. I was thankful to be alone. In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”

Shock and awe were in store aplenty for the British. On 15 February 1942, Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita asked Lieutenant General Arthur Percival of the British Army in Singapore, “Do you wish to surrender unconditionally?” Without wasting a second, Percival blurted out: “Yes we do.”

It was a brief exchange, but the surrender would prove to be a turning point in the history of the world. The myth of the invincibility of the West was punctured. For the British, the French and the Dutch, the fall of Singapore and the advance of the Japanese across the region destroyed the myth of imperial supremacy. The capitulation of so many British empire troops before a Japanese Army a fourth of that, showed doubting Asians that the British could be beaten.

Look who’s yellow
Chinese, Indians, Malays and Burmese had front seats to this British tragicomedy. They were witness to the cowardice and racism of British and Australian troops; and they were shocked by the uninspiring leadership of British officers who were more interested in manicuring their golf courses and munching on cucumber sandwiches than digging in for a fight. Coming less than two years after the Germans defeated the 3.38 lakh strong British Expeditionary Force in Boulogne and Calais in 1940, the rout in Singapore exposed the fragile foundations of the British empire.

NS Rajaram, a NASA mathematician and Indologist, remembers talking to Indian soldiers of the British imperial army. In an article for Folks magazine, he quotes one of them, now settled in Penang, Malaysia: “When the Japanese attacked, the British ran away. They were very clever. They had a wonderful life with bungalows and butlers and cooks and all that, but as soon as the Japanese came, they ran away. And once they got back to India, they sent Gurkhas, Sikhs, Marathas and other Indians to fight the Japanese. They knew it was too dangerous for them. That is how we got independence in Malaya.” Rajaram says not one of these World War II veterans remembers the British fighting the Japanese — only running away.

Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, corroborates that statement. In his memoirs, The Singapore Story (1998), Lee describes the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, which he had experienced as a youngster. “In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities, British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman’s superiority,” he writes.

“The Asiatics were supposed to panic when the firing started, yet they were the stoical ones who took the casualties and died without hysteria. It was the British civilian bosses who ducked under tables when the bombs and shells fell. It was the British civilians and bureaucrats in Penang who, on 16 December 1941, in the quiet of the night, fled the island for the ‘safety’ of Singapore, abandoning the Asiatics to their fate. The British had proved as frightened and at a loss as to what to do as the Asiatics, if not more so.”

According to War Office records released on the 50th anniversary of the fall of the fortress, members of Australia’s 8th Division were guilty of looting, rape, drunkenness, insubordination and even murder. One document says an entire battalion of Australian troops assigned to guard the coast had simply fled, allowing the Japanese to walk through the gap. “The Australians are known as daffodils: beautiful to look at, but yellow all through,” it says.

Road to perdition
Britain’s Asian nightmare was a long time coming. Declassified files from Britain’s Colonial Office show British administration of Asia in an unflattering light. One of the files contains the war diary of Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Layton, acting Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s Eastern Fleet. He wrote: “Man for man, our men were inferior to the Japanese in training and in the moral qualities of audacity, tenacity, discipline and devotion.”

In fact, the German blitzkrieg in France had revealed the sloth and corruption that flourished in the British Army. Theft of stores, fuel and even trucks by soldiers was common, writes military historian Max Hastings in Winston’s War (2010).

Churchill pressed his generals to overcome their fears of the enemy, but Hastings says, “A perception was growing that Britain was too yellow to fight.”

Things didn’t get any better when, in August 1941, Churchill sent his man, Alfred Duff Cooper, to Singapore to report on the preparations for the Japanese attack. In a letter to Churchill, he complained that the governor of the region, Shenton Thomas, had cancelled Cooper’s order that European women and children should be evacuated first from the area. Here is Thomas’ version of the row: “I stood for no racial discrimination. He (Cooper) said in council that he considered a European ought to get preference over an Asiatic.”

The scenes of exodus from Malaya were nothing less than disgraceful. While British families were evacuated, Asian families were left behind. No arrangements were made for their exit.

Surrender spectacle
Author James Leasor says in Singapore: The Battle that Changed the World (2001) that the British treated Asians to an “unprecedented exhibition of their own humiliation and ineptitude”.

“Never in all imperial history had such a spectacle been staged before nor watched by so vast and attentive an audience. Subject peoples had watched the British destroy their own myth. Now nationalism, which had been either nascent or non-existent, surged to maturity.

“If one Asiatic power could so humble the greatest imperial power in the world, then other countries suffering under imperial jackboots could rise and fight.”

The Japanese treated the surrender as a major spectacle. As the British and Australian pows were marched off, the Japanese guards told the locals: “Look at your proud masters now.”

The Australians, who had indulged in rioting and rape of Singapore civilians (the people they were supposed to protect), were treated most harshly.

Japan’s ‘atomic bomb’
On 9 February 1947, The New York Times published an editorial that said Japan had dropped an “atomic bomb of nationalism” in Asia. “When the Japanese came, they made three important changes. First, they exploded the myth of military and social invulnerability of the ‘pukkah sahibs’. They overwhelmed their military forces in short order and then subjected white prisoners to every form of indignity and encouraged former servants of the white man to do likewise.

“Second, they inaugurated a propaganda campaign that has been eagerly continued by nationalist leaders. Knowing the people could not read, the Japanese set up radio stations and established outdoor radio receiving units in practically every village. Thus millions who could not be reached through the eye were reached through the ear.

“That the colonial peoples of the Far East intend to have their freedom, and that they eventually will win it, there is little doubt. Their numbers are many times those of the white man. And for the first time in their history — thanks largely to the Japanese — they have modern arms with which to fight.

“Whatever the outcome of these present days of turmoil and transition, the Far East in all probability will never again be the happy hunting ground of European imperialists and the predatory white businessman.”

(This is the first article in the two-part series)

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1 COMMENT

  1. “the Far East in all probability will never again be the happy hunting ground of European imperialists and the predatory white businessman.” Sorry, but at least in India this has been happening over the past 40 years. Multinational agribusinesses pay off, dictate and control government agriculture policy.

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