Imperial Japan's Forever War, 1895-1945 - Prof. Paul Barclay (Lafayette College)

Imperial Japan's Forever War, 1895-1945

Paul Barclay
Professor and Head, Department of History, Lafayette College 

Author of Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s “Savage Border,” 1874-1945. University of California Press and general editor of the East Asia Image Collection

05/01/2022 - WED 16:30- Zoom Link


Between 1894 and 1936, Imperial Japan fought several “small wars” against Tonghak Rebels, Taiwanese millenarians, Korean Righteous Armies, Germans in Shandong, Taiwan Indigenous Peoples, and “bandits” in Manchuria. Authoritative accounts of Japanese history ignore these wars, or sanitize them as “seizures,” “cessions,” or occasions for diplomatic maneuvers. The consigning the empire’s “small wars” to footnotes (at best) has in turn promoted a view that Japanese history consists of alternating periods of “peacetime” (constitutionalism) and “wartime” (militarism), in accord with the canons of liberal political theory. However, the co-existence of “small wars” with imperial Japan’s iconic wars indicates that Japan was a nation at war from 1894 through 1945. Therefore, the concept “Forever War” recommends itself for thinking about militarism and democracy as complementary formations, rather than as opposed forces. The Forever-War approach emphasizes lines of continuity that connect “limited wars” (that mobilized relatively few Japanese soldiers and civilians, but were nonetheless catastrophic for the colonized and occupied populations on the ground) with “total wars” (that mobilized the whole Japanese nation against the Qing, imperial Russia, nationalist China, and the United States). The steady if unspectacular operations of Forever War-- armed occupations, settler colonialism, military honor-conferral events, and annual ceremonies at Yasukuni Shrine--continued with little interruption even during Japan’s golden age of democracy and pacifism in the 1920s. This article argues that Forever War laid the infrastructural groundwork for “total war” in China from 1937 onwards, while it produced a nation of decorated, honored, and mourned veterans, in whose names the existing empire was defended at all costs against the United States in the 1940s. In Forever War—whether in imperial Japan or elsewhere--soldiering and military service become ends in themselves, and “supporting the troops” becomes part of unthinking, common sense.