Japan conquers in battle for orders

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Western countries often forget that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Army also attacked Malaya, the Philippines and Hong Kong. The US government was unambiguous in its response to the Japanese attack, but the leaders of the nationalist movements in South-East Asia had decidedly mixed feelings about their new masters. These feelings persist long after the end of the Japanese occupation.

Nationalists in Burma, Indonesia, Malaya and the Philippines rushed to collaborate with the Japanese, seeing them as allies in the struggle against colonialism. The Burmese national hero, Aung San, father of the recently released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, placed his Burma Independence Army at Japan's disposal. In Indonesia, Sukarno was released from detention to mobilise support for the Japanese.

These leaders were soon disillusioned by Japan's promise of "Asia for the Asians". By 1944 Aung San, for example, set about forming the Anti- Fascist People's Freedom League and actively sought co-operation with the British forces. Yet the nationalists were right in seeing the Japanese occupation as starting the process of decolonisation, because it destroyed for ever the authority of the European colonisers.

Unlike in China, there was little initial resistance to the Japanese in South-East Asia, apart from that put up by Communist forces.

The main victims were the Chinese Communities of South-East Asia, who were brutally treated. Women in some countries in the region, notably the Philippines, were forced to become "comfort women", or sex slaves for the occupying forces. Yet when the Japanese armies departed in defeat, they did not leave the same residue of bitterness felt in occupied Europe or China.

Japan was astute enough not to disturb traditional forms of rule. In Malaya, for example, the Japanese preserved the position of the royal families, while in Thailand they allowed a puppet government to do their dirty work, never declaring the country to be under Japanese rule.

There is still bitterness over Japan's failure to pay reparations or, until this week, even to apologise for its occupation of the region. Japan has indirectly paid its dues to the previously occupied countries, however, in the form of a number of large-scale aid projects.

Like the Germans in Europe, the Japanese have compensated for military defeat by throwing their energies into economic resurgence. Japanese consumer goods reign supreme in South-East Asian stores, and Japanese companies are among the biggest investors in the region. Although their investment in Asia is well ahead of the total put into Europe, it is way behind the amount poured into the US. Despite all the talk of focusing on South-East Asia, Japanese trade with the region is just over half the amount done with the US alone.

South-East Asian countries often complain that Japanese investors are unwilling to transfer technology. Japan, meanwhile, sees the emergence of ever-stronger economies in east Asia as threatening its competitive position in world markets. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has committed his country to a "Look East" policy, stressing the need to learn from Japanese, rather than Western examples, but even in Malaysia the course of economic relations has not been smooth. The joint project to develop Malaysia's first national car, the Proton Saga, has been bedevilled by a mass of disputes between the Malaysian and Japanese partners.

Culturally, however, the extent of Japanese influence on South-East Asia is often overlooked.

Japanese design, pop music, food fads and clothing have had a tremendous impact on the thinking of the younger generation since the 1970s.

Politically as well, Japan is far more active in this region than anywhere else in the world. Japanese diplomats played a key role in the recent release of Ms Suu Kyi in Burma, and Japan first broke its policy of not sending troops overseas by joining the UN mission in Cambodia.

It is clear that what the wartime leaders in Tokyo called the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" is still very much regarded as Japan's backyard, even though the Imperial Army has long gone.