Japan’s Sudden and Brutal Occupation of Southeast Asia

Why did Japan invade so many countries and territories in Asia and the South Pacific during the Second World War? What were they trying to achieve and how did they go about trying to achieve it?

Imperialism Japan-Style

Japan’s imperial efforts and ambitions in Asia have their roots in the country’s colonialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was an expansion of the Meiji restoration. The Meiji period (8 September 1868 – 30 July 1912) was characterised by extensive modernisation, rapid industrialisation and self-reliance.

On the surface, Japanese colonialism during World War Two can be divided into two types: anti-nationalistic, as in Taiwan and Korea; and nationalistic, as in Manchuria and Southeast Asia. The former is a spread of empire, with the goal of Japanese prosperity, while the latter is more tactical and short-term, with the goal of securing resources and defeating the Allied forces, which also had colonial interests in Asia.

Western countries with Asian colonial interests included the United States, Britain, France and the Netherlands. The Soviet Union also had territory in Manchuria.

The Rhetoric of ‘Co-prosperity and Coexistence’ with Southeast Asia

japanese occupation

Propaganda poster for the Co-Prosperity Sphere featuring different Asian ethnicities.

Japan fanned the flames of nationalism in Thailand, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies in the hopes that waning European colonial power would facilitate Japanese expansion.

One tactic was to adopt a pan-Asian rhetoric of ‘co-prosperity and coexistence’, which defined Japan’s wartime propaganda and political language in Southeast Asia. Japan stressed a ‘universal Asian brotherhood’ claiming it would help colonised lands shake off European control while taking on a role of regional leadership.

How a Nation Bereft of Resources Fights a World War

The real purpose of colonisation was to secure resources. In the case of Japan — a regional, industrialised power with a lack of natural resources — this meant imperialism. Already involved in major imperial projects in Korea and China, Japan was stretched. Yet it could not pass up what it saw as a golden opportunity to seize more. With Europe otherwise engaged, it moved swiftly into SE Asia, expanding its military territory while fuelling industrial growth and modernisation at home.

A Rampage Fuelled by Ignorance and Dogma

japanese occupation southeast asia

Poster for a ‘Japan-Philippine friendship event’. Credit: manilenya222.wordpress.com

According to Historian Nicholas Tarling, an expert on Southeast Asian Studies, upon witnessing Japanese military actions in Southeast Asia, Europeans were ‘horrified by its violence, baffled by its determination, impressed by its dedication.’

Scholars have noted that while Japan could not compete with the Allies in terms of the amount or quality of military equipment, it could draw on ‘spiritual strength’ and an extreme commodification of its soldiery. As Japan expanded its military for an ever-more massive war effort, it drew increasingly on the less educated and economically deprived for its officer class. These newer officers were perhaps more susceptible to extreme nationalism and emperor worship and arguably less disciplined.

One may wonder how documented brutalities of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines like mass beheadings, sex slavery and bayonetting babies could coincide with ‘Japan-Philippine friendship events’, featuring free entertainment and medical care. Yet wars and occupations involve many facets and factors.

At home the Japanese populace was being told their country was co-operating with South East Asian countries in order to help foster their independence. But the Japanese military was not expected to hold the native populations, who they saw as denigrated by years of Chinese and Western colonisation, in high regard.

The Co-Prosperity Sphere Was Code for Japanese Empire

Racialist thinking and pragmatic, but headlong exploitation of resources meant that Japan treated Southeast Asia as a disposable commodity. Territory was also important in terms of military strategy, but people were undervalued. If they co-operated they would at best be tolerated. If not, they would be harshly dealt with.

japanese occupation of southeast asia

Victims of the occupation: Bodies of women and children in the Battle of Manila, 1945. Credit:
National Archives and Records Administration

Though short-lived (roughly 1941–45, differing according to country), Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia promised mutuality, friendship, autonomy, cooperation and co-prosperity, but delivered a brutality and exploitation that even surpassed European colonisation. ‘Asia for the Asians’ propaganda was nothing more than that — and the result was simply a continuation of ruthless colonial rule.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.