World View: Japan’s Shinzo Abe Blames WW II on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act

This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Japan’s Shinzo Abe blames WW II on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff act
  • Brief generational history of Japan

Japan’s Shinzo Abe blames WW II on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff act

Shinzo Abe looks down during his speech on Friday (Getty)
Shinzo Abe looks down during his speech on Friday (Getty)

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe on Friday gave his long-awaited speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of VJ day, ending World War II. It was closely watched by Asian countries, especially Korea and China, to see if he would renew the apologies of his predecessors for Japan’s brutality during WW II, and particularly for Japan’s use of Korean and Chinese “comfort women.”

Abe did not apologize again, though he expressed profound grief. What was really interesting was the historical perspective of his speech, particularly his claim that Japan’s actions in World War II were triggered by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, the June 1930 law passed by Congress that erected enormous trade barriers and worsened the Great Depression.

I’ve said many times in the past that the Smoot-Hawley Act could be considered the beginning of World War II, so it’s interesting to me that Abe is implying the same thing.

In Friday’s speech, Abe said:

After World War I, which embroiled the world, the movement for self-determination gained momentum and put brakes on colonization that had been underway. It was a horrible war that claimed as many as ten million lives. With a strong desire for peace stirred in them, people founded the League of Nations and brought forth the General Treaty for Renunciation of War. There emerged in the international community a new tide of outlawing war itself.

At the beginning, Japan, too, kept steps with other nations. However, with the Great Depression setting in and the Western countries launching economic blocs by involving colonial economies, Japan’s economy suffered a major blow. In such circumstances, Japan’s sense of isolation deepened and it attempted to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force. Its domestic political system could not serve as a brake to stop such attempts. In this way, Japan lost sight of the overall trends in the world.

With the Manchurian Incident, followed by the withdrawal from the League of Nations, Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish after tremendous sacrifices. Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.

And, seventy years ago, Japan was defeated.

Abe left out many imperialistic acts that occurred earlier, such as annexing Korea and part of China in 1910.

The “major blow” that Japan’s economy suffered was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The Great Depression was hurting Japan just as much as it was hurting America but, in addition, Japan’s exports of its biggest cash crop, silk, to America were almost completely cut off.

The “Manchurian Incident” to which Abe refers, or “Mukden Incident,” occurred a year later. On September 18, 1931, an explosion destroyed a section of railway track owned by Japan in the city of Mukden in Manchuria. Japan blamed Chinese nationalists, though many believe that the Japanese military planted the bomb to provide a pretext. Either way, Japan invaded Manchuria.

Abe said that Japan had suffered enormously for its mistakes in WW II:

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.

More than 3 million of our compatriots lost their lives during the war: on the battlefields worrying about the future of their homeland and wishing for the happiness of their families; in remote foreign countries after the war, in extreme cold or heat, suffering from starvation and disease. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the air raids on Tokyo and other cities, and the ground battles in Okinawa, among others, took a heavy toll among ordinary citizens without mercy. …

Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering. History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone. Each and every one of them had his or her life, dream, and beloved family. When I squarely contemplate this obvious fact, even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief.

Having learned its lesson, according to Abe, Japan turned into a pacifist nation, and vowed to never let anything like that happen again. He said that it should not be necessary for future generations to continue to apologize:

In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed 80 per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were able to survive in a devastated land in sheer poverty after the war. The future they brought about is the one our current generation inherited and the one we will hand down to the next generation. Together with the tireless efforts of our predecessors, this has only been possible through the goodwill and assistance extended to us that transcended hatred by a truly large number of countries, such as the United States, Australia, and European nations, which Japan had fiercely fought against as enemies.

We must pass this down from generation to generation into the future. We have the great responsibility to take the lessons of history deeply into our hearts, to carve out a better future, and to make all possible efforts for the peace and prosperity of Asia and the world.

International Business Times and Dept. of State

Brief generational history of Japan

Japan was almost completely isolated for centuries, but in 1853, US Commander Matthew Perry brought four warships to Edo (Tokyo). There was a brief naval battle that the Americans won easily. In 1854, Japan signed a treaty with the US that opened up several Japanese ports in a limited way. In the next two years, Japan signed similar treaties with Great Britain, Russia and the Netherlands.

This humiliating defeat triggered a crisis civil war in Japan that was finally resolved in 1868, when the family that had ruled Japan since 1603 was overthrown. The new emperor took the name Meiji (“enlightened rule”), and the crisis war climax is known as the “Meiji Restoration.”

Generational Awakening eras, which begin around 15 years after the end of the preceding crisis war, are always a reaction to the crisis war by a rising post-war generation rebelling against their war survivor parents. (America’s last generational Awakening era was the 1960s-70s.)

Young people in the 1890s rebelled against the isolation of pre-war Japan, and also took note of the successful colonization of many countries by Britain, France, and other countries. Japan entered an imperialist era, and from 1894-1910, Japan engaged in a series of wars against China and Russia, resulting in one victory after another. In the treaties resulting from these wars, Japan was given Taiwan, Korea, and southern Manchuria, along with other territories. By the way, Japan was not considered to be an enemy of the West at this time, but was thought to be an advanced, “westernized” nation.

Japan became giddy with its military successes, and in the 1920s, turned into a completely militaristic state. There was censorship of the press, complete state control by the military, and open plans for military expansion into China and Russia. Japan felt insulted by America’s 1924 decision to block immigration by the Japanese, and then hurt by the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which devastated Japan’s economy and was considered almost an act of war. Japan went to war in Manchuria in 1931, and was at war continually until the end of World War II.

After surrendering, almost overnight, the Japanese people reverted to their old non-imperialistic selves they used to be before Commodore Perry’s visit. The country became strongly pacifist and disbanded its armed forces.

Today, Japan is torn between two generational crisis eras. One of them is World War II, which was a disaster for Imperialistic Japan; and the other is the civil war following Commodore Perry’s visit, which was a disaster for isolationist Japan.

Today, Japan is a pacifist nation, while China has become an Imperialist nation, and an existential threat to Japan. Japan has to struggle to find a way to reject both its isolationist past and its Imperialist past, and still be prepared for the inevitable war with China. The reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to permit “collective self-defense” is an important part of that struggle. And Friday’s speech is an attempt to describe, in words, a pathway between those two imperatives.

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Japan, Shinzo Abe, Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, Manchurian Inciden, Mukden Incident, Manchuria, Edo, Tokyo, Commander Matthew Perry, Meiji Restoration, Britain, France, Taiwan, Korea, Russia
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