Japan Heads for Disaster

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 12 July 1933

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 5, 1932-33, New York 1972, p. 287-294]
Keywords : Imperialism, Japan

I. The Myth of Invincibility[edit source]

The ruling classes of Japan are in a situation that undoubtedly makes their heads spin. They have sought a way out of unheard-of internal difficulties through a policy of foreign conquests and the threat or use of force. And everywhere they have succeeded. International treaties have been cynically violated. Under the guise of an independent state being founded, an enormous country [Manchuria] has been annexed. The League of Nations piles up reports, of use to no one. America maintains a cautious silence. The Soviet Union steers toward concessions. It seems, really, as if Japan were invincible and its masters destined to rule not only over the continent of Asia, but over all the world. But is this so?

Less than four decades ago the little island nation defeated the Chinese giant both on land and sea. The whole world was startled. Fourteen days after the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the famous German geographer Richthofen wrote that Japan had won "equality" and had risen to the rank of a great power. Ten years later came an even greater miracle: Japan roundly defeated czarist Russia. Not many had foreseen such an outcome, the Russian revolutionaries being foremost among those who had; but who at that time paid any heed to what they said? The prestige of the island empire rose all the higher in proportion to the unexpectedness of its victories in the eyes of civilized humanity β€” victories over two neighbors whose combined populations outnumbered Japan's ten times over.

The participation of Japan in the world war amounted to no more than grandiose police operations, carried out in the Far East and partly in the Mediterranean. But its very presence in fee victors' camp, wife fee ample booty feat feat entailed, was bound to increase still further the feelings of national pride within Japan's ruling classes. The "twenty-one demands" imposed on China at the beginning of the war β€” just fifteen years after Japan itself had broken free of humiliating treaties β€” bared the fangs of Japanese imperialism for all to see.

General Tanaka's Memorial of 1927 set forth a finished program in which national ambitions escalated into the most giddy-headed form of megalomania. An astounding document! Official disclaimers do not weaken its compelling power by one iota: that kind of document cannot be forged. At any rate, Japanese foreign policy in the past two years has served as irrefutable proof of the authenticity of the document

The conquest of Manchuria was carried out by relatively insignificant forces β€” backed up with air support and bombing; in several quick steps, the Japanese concentrated some four or five divisions in Manchuria, hardly more than fifty thousand men. The operation resembled war games more than actual war. All the greater the "honor" therefrom for the general staff in Tokyo!

Nevertheless, Japan's military invincibility is a pious myth which, though it has certainly paid real dividends, must in the final analysis be shattered against reality. Up to now Japan has not once had occasion to test her strength against the advanced nations. Japan's successes, however brilliant in themselves, have stemmed from the superiority of backwardness over still-greater backwardness. The principle of relativity holds sway in military affairs as in all others. There was a time when the empire of the czars, too, seemed to sail along from one success to another; out of a backwoods principality, Muscovy, it was transformed into one of the world's mightiest states, stretching across two continents, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The czar's armies, too, were described as invincible in all the schoolbooks. The truth was, however, that old Russia, with its base in a peasantry that was still half-serf, had only won real, lasting victories over barbarian tribes in Central Asia and the Caucasus and over internally decomposing states, such as Poland under its feudal nobility (the Szlachta) or Turkey under the sultans. In general, from the beginning of the French Revolution, the czarist army was the embodiment of crumbling, ponderous impotence. It is true that between 1907 and 1914 the army and navy were significantly reformed and strengthened, with the energetic assistance of the patriotic state Dumas. But the test of the world war brought bitter disillusionment: the Russian army enjoyed tactical successes only so long as it had to deal with the centrifugal forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire; but on the broader scale of the war as a whole, the army again showed its complete insufficiency.

The coefficients indicating the relative strengths of armies must be determined in each particular case, not on the basis of some unchanging qualities of "the race," but rather from a combination of living social and historical factors: the condition of a country's natural resources; the level of its economic development; the relations between its classes; and the inner qualities of the army itself β€” the human material from which its soldiers are drawn, its officer corps, its arms and equipment, its command staff. If for convenience we express this in the language of figures β€” only by way of illustration of course, with no pretense at accurate measurement β€” we can say that, in fighting qualities, the Russian army of 1914 was to the Russian army of 1904-5, as three to one, at least But this did not prevent it from being β€” in relation to the German army β€” approximately, as one to three. In the same way, if the Japanese army was two or three times better than the czarist army at the beginning of the century, that does not prevent it from being as many times inferior today to the armed forces of the advanced countries.

Since the time of the war with Russia, Japan has undeniably made sufficient economic and cultural progress to keep its armaments on a level with world technology. Yet taken in isolation this criterion is extremely deceptive. The real military capability of an army is determined not by the weapons shown on parades, nor by those stored in the arsenals, but by those implicit in the productive power of the country's industry. Japanese industry had an extraordinary growth during the war years only to fall back drastically thereafter, with the onset of the postwar crises. Japanese militarism is trying to live off the illusions of the wartime period of boom, ignoring the dislocations in the economy, and devouring half of the national budget The relations, on the one hand, between Japanese militarism and the national economy and, on the other, between Japanese industry and that of its potential enemies, provide exceptionally important indices, if not completely decisive ones, as regards the prospects for the various sides in a future war. And for Japan, these indices are extremely unfavorable

According to General Tanaka's Memorial β€” and also by the logic of the situation β€” two wars are on the agenda for the empire of the mikado: one against the Soviet Union and one against the United States. The arena of one would be the mightiest of continents; of the other, the widest of oceans. Both wars presuppose operations over vast distances and consequently for long periods of time. But the more protracted the war, the greater the advantage of an armed people over a standing army, of industry as a whole over arsenals and munitions plants, of fundamental cultural and economic realities over strategic combinations.

The per capita national income of Japan is only 175 yen [$35 gold at par], several times lower than the European, leaving aside the American altogether; and it is at least one-third lower than that of the USSR. Japanese industry is mainly light industry, in other words, backward: textile workers constitute over 51 percent of the total number of workers, while metallurgy and machine building together constitute only 19 percent. The United States consumes 572 pounds of steel per person. The West European countries, 245 pounds; the Soviet Union over 77 pounds; Japan less than 63 pounds. And modern war is waged with metal. It may be granted that Manchuria opens up big prospects for Japanese industry. But big prospects require large amounts of capital and long periods of time. And we are speaking in terms of what exists today and what cannot be radically altered in the next few years.

Moreover, it is men and not machines that fight wars. All the facts indicate that matters are no better for Japan where human resources are concerned than in relation to inanimate materials.

Having been copied in every respect from the old Prussian model, the Japanese army contains, in exaggerated form, all the internal defects of the Hohenzollern army without having any of its virtues. Bismarck himself once said that you could copy the Prussian military regulations but you couldn't fake a Prussian lieutenant. It's even more difficult to fake a Prussian soldier.

Militarism, too, must pay a certain price as a result of the extremely low standard of living of the mass of the people. Japan is the land of tuberculosis and all sorts of diseases from malnutrition. The mortality rate is higher there than in any other advanced country and, moreover, keeps climbing from year to year. Modern warfare requires more than just a readiness to die by the droves; it requires first of all individual stamina, physical skill, and steady nerves. The qualities that brought the Japanese victory over the Chinese and Russians were the virtues of old Japan: a modern, centralized organization transformed feudal submissiveness into military discipline. Such qualities as individual initiative, resourcefulness, and the ability to make decisions on one's own authority are lacking in the Japanese army, and it has nowhere to obtain them. The military-feudal regime never could have promoted the development of personality. Neither the oppressed and impoverished village nor Japanese industry, primarily textile, with its preponderance of female and child labor, is capable of turning out qualified soldiers who can come up to the level of modern technology. A major war will inevitably show this to be true.

The intent of this brief analysis is least of all to suggest to anyone that a war with Japan would be easy or that it would not be advisable to come to an agreement with Japan. We consider the extremely pacific β€” and often apparently too conciliatory β€” policy of the Soviet government toward Japan to be basically correct But the question of war or peace depends, by the very nature of things, on two sides, not just one. A policy directed toward peace must be based on a realistic appraisal of forces, just as a warlike policy must be. And in that regard, the hypnotic idea of Japan's supposed invincibility has already become an extremely dangerous factor in international relations. In like manner, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the inflated self-assurance of the Petersburg camarilla led to a military confrontation. The mood among the Japanese ruling circles is strikingly reminiscent of the mood among the czarist bureaucracy on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War.

II. War and Revolution[edit source]

The Japanese epoch of transformations, which opened in 1868 β€” shortly after the epoch of reforms in Russia and the Civil War in the United States β€” constituted a reflex action on the part of the ruling classes expressing the instinct of self-preservation β€” it was not a "bourgeois revolution," as some historians say, but a bureaucratic attempt to buy off such a revolution. Even late-developing Russia, which traversed the same historic course as the West in a much shorter length of time, needed three centuries to get from the liquidation of feudal isolation under Ivan the Terrible, through the Westernizing of Peter the Great, to the first liberal reforms of Alexander II. The so-called Meiji Restoration incorporated in a matter of a few decades the basic features of those three major eras in Russia's development. At such a forced pace, there could be no question of a smooth and even cultural development in all fields. Racing to achieve practical results with modern technology β€” especially military technology β€” Japan remained ideologically in the depths of the Middle Ages. The hasty mixture of Edison with Confucius has left its mark on all of Japanese culture.

The rather frequently encountered assertions that the Japanese are "by nature" only capable of imitation and not of independent creation are not even worthy of refuting. Every developing nation, like every young craftsman, writer, or artist, begins by imitating: it is a form of schooling. Still and all, at least for the present, an imitative empiricism does characterize every sphere of intellectual life in Japan. The strength of its statesmen lies in a cynical realism, coupled with an extraordinary poverty of generalized ideas. But here too lies their weakness: any conception of the laws governing the development of modern nations, including their own, remains completely foreign to them. Tanaka's programmatic document is most astounding in its combination of shrewd insight into the empirical aspects of a problem and blindness in regard to the historical perspective. Tanaka takes the imaginary "testament" of the Emperor Meiji as the basis for a "sacred program" of conquests and goes on to conceive of the future development of mankind in terms of a widening spiral of Japanese annexations. In striving for the same goals, General Arakiutilizes the moral principles of Shintoism, the religion of the mikado. If people of such intellectual make-up are capable, under certain circumstances, of achieving extraordinary successes, they are no less capable of plunging their country into a disaster of immense proportions.

Not one of the modern nation-states arrived at its present form without a revolution, even a series of them. By contrast, present-day Japan has behind it neither a religious reformation nor an era of enlightenment, nor a bourgeois revolution, nor a real school of democracy. Up to a certain point, military dictatorship provided youthful Japanese capitalism with great advantages, ensuring unity in foreign policy and ruthless discipline at home. But now the persistence of powerful feudal features has become a terrible brake on the country's development.

The feudal bondage of the peasantry has not only been preserved intact; it has monstrously increased under pressure from the demands of the market and the state treasury. Tenant farmers pay landlords about 3/4 billion yen [$150 million gold at par] annually. For a proper assessment of this sum it is enough to recall that the Russian peasantry, two and a half times more numerous, paid their landlords less than half a million rubles [$250 million gold at par] β€” and that tribute was enough to nettle the Russian muzhik into making an agrarian revolution of enormous scope.

The customs of serfdom have been carried over from agriculture into industry, with its workday of eleven or twelve hours, its workers' barracks, its miserable wages, and the slave-like dependence of worker on employer. Despite the presence of electric power and the airplane, social relations are shot through with the spirit of medievalism. Suffice it to say that the caste of pariahs still exists in Japan today.

By virtue of historical circumstances the Japanese bourgeoisie entered a phase of aggressive expansion before having cut the Gordian knot of medieval serfdom. Here lies Japan's greatest danger: the structure of militarism has been erected over a social volcano.

In the fall of czarism β€” and the mikado's advisers ought to study carefully how that came about β€” the oppressed nationalities played an enormous role, constituting as they did some 53 percent of the population of the old Russian empire. The homogeneity of the mother country might be Japan's greatest advantage if its industry and army were not dependent upon Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria. Counting Manchuria, there are now almost 50 million oppressed Koreans and Chinese as against 65 million Japanese. This mighty reserve of revolution will become especially dangerous for the regime in time of war.

The tenant farmers' strikes, agrarian terrorism, efforts by peasants to join forces with the workers β€” these are unmistakable signs of coming revolution. There is no lack of other symptoms β€” perhaps less striking, but nonetheless convincing. There is discontent among the intelligentsia, from whose ranks the officers and government officials are recruited. Illegal organizations have their branches in all the schools and universities. The bourgeoisie is furious with the military men, upon whom it is, however, completely dependent The generals snarl at their capitalist allies. Everyone is dissatisfied with everyone else.

The professional officers, descendants or imitators of the samurai, seek ties with the rebellious peasantry, using demagogic slogans in the spirit of German National Socialism. But such ties are artificial and cannot last The samurai want to turn backward. The peasants look forward to an agrarian transformation. In the event of a major war the professional officers would be swamped by a mass of reserve officers and others hastily trained from among the intelligentsia: this is where the revolutionary leaders of the peasantry and of the army itself will come from. What has been said about the ground forces is applicable to the navy as well, but to an even greater degree. Inside the steel hulls of those military vessels, feudal survivals acquire an exceptionally explosive force. It is enough to recall the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the German revolution of 1918!

To sum up. Japan is weaker economically than any of its potential adversaries in a major war. Japanese industry is incapable of supplying an army of several million with weapons and materiel over a period of many years. The Japanese financial system, unable to support the burden of militarism even in peacetime, would collapse completely at the very beginning of a major war. The Japanese soldier, on the whole, does not meet the needs of modern technology and modern war. The population is deeply hostile to the regime. The aims of conquest would be insufficient for bringing together a divided nation. With mobilization, hundreds of thousands of real or potential revolutionaries would pour into the army. Korea, Manchuria, and, at their backs, China, would reveal in action their undying hatred for the Japanese yoke. The social fabric of the country has worn thin; the fastenings are coming loose. In the steel corset of military dictatorship official Japan still looks imposing, but war would quickly and ruthlessly sweep away such myths and illusions.

We have said nothing about how the qualities of the Red Army stand up in comparison: that would have to be the subject of a separate discussion. But even if one were to make an obvious distortion in favor of Japan and postulate an equality in material resources on both sides, the profound difference in the morale factor would still remain. History tells us that military defeats give rise to revolution; but it also teaches us that victorious revolutions, having awakened the people and toughened their spirit, imparts to them tremendous dynamism and energy on the field of battle.

In the interests of both peoples, and of civilization as a whole, let us hope that the Japanese militarists do not tempt fate.