This blog post was heavily inspired by Lxeon's post about Japanese culture and martial expressions. I recommend you check it read it if you haven't already: http://freddiesmodernkungfu.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/why-japan-wasis-overly-yangyo.html#comment-form
Lxeon's post is fascinating and the Japanese culture is a great topic to study for many reasons. I feel that before I really get into it, I should state that I am not trying to have a go at Japan. I am simply sharing with you my knowledge of Japan's involvement in the globalised world (mainly) in the 20th century because when there is knowledge, ignorance disappears. When you gain knowledge about a part of the whole, your overall knowledge of the whole is enhanced.
When Japan's feudal system disassembled in the late 1870s, Japan abandoned it's isolation policy and hired people from Western countries such as Britain, France, Germany and to a lesser extent America to come to Japan to accelerate the nations modernisation. The Japanese saw the political, economical and technological superiority the West had worked hard to build, and they wanted it. The diagram below illustrates the class structure of feudal Japan.
Japan first started to flex it's muscles on the international stage by invading Korea and the Northern region of China which was then known as Manchuria. To gain this land, Japan had to wage a war against Russia for the territory in 1905. Interestingly enough, Aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba took part in this war, before his spiritual enlightenment. The 1905 war resulted in Japan's victory. However, this didn't win over the Wests respect or even recognition as a nation.
Japan played a small part in fighting for the allied powers during World War One. Japanese delegates tried to play an active role in the reshaping of the world at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, however, they, as were the Chinese, were alienated and racially discriminated against by the western nations. This infuriated Japan. Japan was already a worldly, ambitious, aggressive and yang dominated nation, but the Wests arrogance and disrespect made it a hole lot worse.
When World War Two erupted 20 years later, countries all over the world sent the main bulk of their armies off to Europe to fight Hitlers Nazi empire. This left the Asia/Pacific region vulnerable, a fact that Japan capitalised on, invading China and killing 21 (approx) million people. Japan was a chain of over populated islands with little natural resources. To maintain it's growth, colonial expansion was considered the solution. America, the now 'giant of the West', saw this and thus decided to stop selling Its natural resources to Japan. This meant that Japan's colonial expansion would become unsustainable and the Japanese war machine would be incapacitated in 6 months. To avoid this, Japan went to take natural resources from those who had them. Thus Japan's expansion proceeded South, invading France's colonies Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The French couldn't defend their southeast Asian colonies as France had been defeated by Germany in 1940. The extent of Japan's power was evident in its invasion of Indonesia. Just like the French, the Dutch were incapacitated from effectively protecting their colonial property as they, like most European nations had been defeated by Nazi Germany. The island nation of Britain were a slight exception and did make notable efforts to protect their colonial interests such as Hong Kong (where Bruce Lee lived at the time as a young child), Malaysia and Singapore, but Japan's military mite could not be stopped. Most European nations focussed on their own survival first, their overseas possessions second. By 1941 the only nations in the Asia-Pacific region still standing against Japan were Australia and New Zealand. This is due to geographical isolation more than anything else. Australia and New Zealand's populations were too small to wage an all out war against Japan's Empire and the main bulk of their armies had been sent off to aid in the fight against Nazi Germany in defence of Britain, the mother country. The map below illustrates the extent of Japan's colonial expansion.
For the populations that fell under Japanese control, life became very hard. Bruce Lee was a child in this mess. Much of his hatred expressed in his movies towards the Japanese originated from this time. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, believed that Japan had become far too violent and Yang dominated at the time. He believed the Japan's militaristic government was distorting the meaning of Bushido. Later in Ueshiba's life, he stated: "There was nothing nobel about using the arts of war to seize the land of other domains out of sheer greed". By the 1940's, Japan had become a brutally aggressive nation. Often, allied soldiers were beheaded as punishment for surrendering. The World War 2 propaganda poster below describes how many people felt about Japan at the time.
Eventually Japan would surrender to the allied powers after being on the receiving end of the first and only two nuclear bombs to be used in a war. Many people put this down to the fact that they bombed Pearl Harbour four years earlier on December 7th 1941. While the Pearl Harbour attacks were a key part of the War that ultimately changed the tide now that the Americans would fight alongside the allied powers, it is very inaccurate to state that Pearl Harbour alone was why America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people forget, it was 4 YEARS OF WAR that got the Americans to make their history determining decision. To understand this more, we must dive deeper into the details of what the war was actually like and view it from the cultural perspectives of both sides.
Different cultural approaches to war can be seen in the technology used by both sides. The Japanese were strongly influenced by the cultural and philosophical codes that were followed by the Samurai of Japan's feudal era. Hence, the Samurai culture was demonstrated on multiple levels during World War 2. One of my favourite examples of this is seen in the main fighter aircrafts of both sides. Firstly, let's look at the Japanese Zero. I must stress the importance of how frugality, loyalty, martial skill and honour were evident in the design philosophies of these to aircraft.
The Japanese pilots themselves were immensely loyal to their social superiors and to most of all, to their Emperor Hirohito, who was treated as if he was a God. There are accounts of Japanese pilots who had crashed in the ocean and refused to be saved by American navel personnel because capture was too disgraceful to live with, thus many pulled the pins out of their grenades. There's even video footage of a pilot pulling out the pin with his teeth. Life was considered to be a temporary phenomenon anyway, like a bubble on the surface of the water according to Japanese Buddhism of the day. At least they would take their honour with them and prove to their God that they would never cooperate with the enemy under ANY circumstances. The one practical issue with this was that Japan ran out of highly trained pilots towards the end of the war, unlike the Americans who had pilots in the air for years. This is because the Americans were of the 'Live to fight another day!' philosophy. This is clearly seen in their own fighter aircraft design, the Wildcat.
The Wildcat was armed with two 12.7mm machine guns on each wing that were operated with an electronic firing system. Each gun had 450 rounds of ammunition per gun, which far out does the Zeros 60 rounds per gun. The Wildcats guns were far less accurate than the Zero, it would spread a cone of fire around the target in the hope that one bullet would hit it's target. This would have been considered wasteful by most military forces of the time, but America being the rich country it was had an unlimited supply of ammunition and military machinery and as such, frugality was not as important. Because the pilot was well protected and had a high supply of ammunition, military skill didn't have to be as sophisticated. The Americans interpretation of honour was different to the Japanese at the time. They put a much higher value on living and surviving because life is the most precious phenomenon known to man, in the common western mentality. Yes, life is temporary like a bubble on the surface of the water, but does that mean we should through it away just to avoid being taken prisoner when there may be a chance too see loved ones again? I think both there is truth to be found in both mentalities.
World War 2 ended when America dropped two atomic bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100.000 people in the process. Americas decision to do this was not made lightly and was done with great reluctance. In 1945, Japan was essentially a defeated nation. There was no way that they still could have won the war, but, despite receiving messages from America pleading for Japan to surrender, most of the Japanese leaders wanted to stand firm and fight until the final fight that they believed would happen on their home soil. If Japan was to lose a war for the first time in its history, then it would do so with honour (again, their common interpretation of honour at the time). Japan was preparing for an invasion from America and was going so far as to train school girls to stab Americans with with sharpened sticks. What America would have considered nonsensical stubbornness that would achieve nothing, Japan considered it honourable and dignified to fight until the very end. America counted it's casualties in recent strategic victories on islands such as Okinawa and Iwo Jima and predicted that if they were to physically invade Japan, approximately 1 million Americans would die in the proses. From Americas point of view, 1,000,000 more deaths wasn't worth just getting Japan to sign a piece of paper saying, 'Ok I surrender'. Again, from Americas perspective they were saving lives. The first Atomic bomb was dropped Hiroshima. Japan did not surrender. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Finally, Japan surrendered, brining World War 2 to an end and gave up it's colonial rule over Korea and China. No one at the time, not even the Americans new how destructive the atomic bombs would be because the technology had only just been invented.
In the coming years after the war, America felt bad about what happened to Japan and thus spent large amounts of money into helping Japan rebuild. Through this cooperative contact with the Americans, Japan adopted many Western cultural activities such as Baseball. This also presented many challenges for Japan's Martial Arts because the Americans saw them to be too warlike. This was the opposite for Ueshiba's art of peace Aikido, which began to flourish. This is however, a potential topic for another time. For a long time, many people didn't like the Japanese because of their brutal 'take no prisoners' attitude practised during the war'. Politically however, Japan gained a lot more respect from the Western side of the world. It can not be denied that the atomic bombs were the most horrible phenomena for Japan at the time. However, I think it was ultimately a good thing for the world in the long term. The world saw previously unimaginable destructive power of atomic weaponry and in every war since, not one nation haste utilised atomic weaponry due to the paradoxical phenomenon known as mutually assured destruction or "MAD" as historians call it for convenience. Not even a decade after the war, China resorted to communism and became the new perceived 'Threat to the free world' as America would have called it. Again, this is a potential post for another time. If you want to learn about the Second World War, I suggest watching the documentary series below...
Apocalypse - The Second World War:
Today, Japan has one of the strongest economies in the developed world. Japan became known for producing well respected technology products from companies such as a billion dollar electronic gaming company known as Nintendo, many cartoons popular in the west. Japanese car companies such as Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi (Mitsubishi also made the 'Zero' fighter aircraft) also make up a large part of the international car market. Even to disregard materialistic products, Japan has made great contributions to the world and I world be doing the nation injustice by not referring to them. The contributions I referring to are the Martial Arts and the practice of Zen. I'm sure there are more contributions that I don't even know about. Because of such practices in Japan, the people there have the highest life expectancies in the world.
I haven't had very much exposure to people from other countries or cultural backgrounds in person. A number of years ago however, a group of Japanese students came to my high school to experience school in another country and to strengthen relationships with my shire of which I reside and Toki City in Japan. They spent a short time with us and from my limited experience, they were some of the most respectable people I have ever met. Japan spread a lot of negativity around the world, but that was more than 50 years before I was born. I feel it is important to not see Japan as the nation as it was then. We should see it as the nation it is now. I appreciate what Japan has to teach in the Martial Arts that I find value in, just as I appreciate teachings from Korea and China. To me, the east is one hole that wouldn't be what it is without the interactions from each country that makes up that whole. This is how view everything in the Universe. I only break things down and enter the realms of dualism when I need to understand the big picture, and that is what the study of history essentially is.
If you want to learn more about Japan's rise to imperial supremacy and fall after years of brutal attrition, all in the first half to the 20th century, I suggest watching this documentary from my own personal studying experience.