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JAPAN: ECHOES OF WORLD WAR II : World View : Japan's New Sphere of Power : Its World War II failure to unite 'all corners of the Earth' has been supplanted by industrial clout.

August 01, 1995|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifty years ago, the first atomic bombs fell on Japan, ending World War II and rolling up the khaki-clad legions of Japanese troops who had imposed a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" from the Aleutians to the islands off Australia to the frontiers of India.

But today the Japanese are back on the march, and a new co-prosperity sphere has emerged. Built by corporate cadres in dark suits, their loyalty shifted from the country to the company, it dwarfs anything imagined by wartime leaders.

In the old sphere, Gen. Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister, talked of Japan and its Asian partners seeking prosperity through each other's success, uprooting Western colonialism and "drawing all corners of the Earth under one roof."

What happened, in fact, was that Japan continued to rule its own colonies while launching an expansionist war in China and seizing Southeast Asia for its natural resources. Ultimately the strategy failed, but Japanese ambitions stopped only briefly with the end of the war.

In the new industrial sphere of the postwar years, Japan's factories overseas spurred much of the growth of developing Asia. Its machinery and components industrialized the continent and institutionalized Japanese trade surpluses. The infrastructure of trade--ports, railways, highways--was built with Japanese foreign aid, the largest in the world. And Japanese capital outflows, also the world's largest, provided the wherewithal to bring it all together.

"Just as the world cannot do without Saudi Arabia's oil, the world cannot do without Japan's capital," said Kim Ki Hwan, a lawyer and former presidential economic adviser in South Korea.

"[Imperial] Japan wanted to bring 'all corners of the earth under one roof' politically and economically, and they failed in that goal. But they have achieved it economically," he added.

"Half of the prosperity of Southeast Asia is the achievement of Japan," agreed Hisahiko Okazaki, formerly Japan's ambassador to Thailand.

Indeed, with Japanese industries holding a lock on the world leadership in technology and capital, the rest of Asia cannot do without Japan, Lee Kun Hee, chairman of the Samsung Group of South Korea, told a seminar in Tokyo in May.

Neither the old nor the new co-prosperity sphere, however, is a single-faceted phenomenon. Despite wartime atrocities and aggression, Asian memories of the old Japan run the gamut. Nor are the views of the new Japan any more unified.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad praises Japanese business people who started investing in Malaysia in the late 1960s "even in the face of poor investment conditions." Ultimately, he told the Tokyo seminar, they "created wealth in Malaysia that now returns to Japan" through Malaysia's imports from the island nation.

"Clearly, enriching your trading partners enriches you," Mahathir said.

Japan was the first Asian nation to take on 20th-Century Western powers in war and the first to transform itself into an industrial powerhouse in peace, showing its neighbors that an Asian country could "make it," the Malaysian leader added.

Between 71% and 95% of the population in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia holds "positive feelings" toward Japan today, according to an opinion poll conducted by the Gallup organization, the Yomiuri newspaper of Japan and the Chosun Daily News of South Korea.

But in South Korea, which endured a harsh 35-year colonial rule under Japan, and in China, where 21 million Chinese (according to the Beijing government, although the number has been declared high by other authorities) died fighting the Japanese between 1937 and 1945, majorities continue to hold what the poll politely called "negative feelings" toward Japan. Impolitely, the emotions are bitterness and hatred.

In Hong Kong, "the Japanese were never popular. They are not popular now," said James D. McGregor, a retired Hong Kong government official who is now a member of the British colony's Legislative Council. "Nobody believes the Japanese would do anything except for themselves."

Yet the Japanese contribution to banking, insurance, real estate, construction and distribution in Hong Kong is "very substantial," McGregor added. "We respect them and use their services."

Today, in the Philippines, where the Japanese killed 1 million people--mostly civilians--"there's no rancor. There's no hatred--although maybe a flash of resentment now and then among the older people," said Maximo Soliven, publisher and editorial chairman of the Philippine Star, who himself fought the Japanese as a teen-age guerrilla.

"The same can be said for the other Southeast Asian nations," he added.

Said Okazaki, the retired Japanese diplomat: "It may or may not be a coincidence but, generally, we Japanese are now doing well in business in the places we occupied in the war."

Liked or disliked, the Japanese became acquainted with the local people, "making it easier to do business together," Okazaki said.

Korea and Taiwan

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