ERC Project Overview

The Dissolution of the Japanese Empire and the Struggle for Legitimacy in Postwar East Asia is a major historical research project which will examine how East Asia redefined itself after World War II, with results that affect international relations in the region even today. We aim to understand how political and legal authority was established by different regimes in countries such as Japan, China, North and South Korea and Taiwan, as the area emerged from the shadow of Japanese Imperial rule after 1945.

The new identities and ideologies that emerged in East Asia after the fall of Japan’s Empire have rarely been studied. Now, as the region again becomes a major theatre in world politics, a new project aims to tell that history from the inside.

Cartoon produced as state propaganda in China during the 1950s. (Credit: Center for Research Libraries in Chicago)

The renovation of East Asia after the fall of the Japanese empire has mainly been written from a western perspective, owing to the preponderance of postwar American scholarship and its political dominance, but also the systematic declassification and easy access to government and private archival papers. Even with the economic rise and growing importance of contemporary China, the region’s understanding of its own past and its internal dynamics remain deeply rooted to the contours of the manner in which World War II ended. This narrative is linked to the process of how Japanese imperial rule was judged at the local level through war crimes trials and the pursuit of justice against imperial supporters. The search for war criminals, collaborators or suspected traitors offered a means to resolve the upturned former imperial hierarchies, dealing with grudges and finding justice for committed atrocities. Such moves demonstrated that the new authorities were “just,” a crucial element to bolster domestic and international mobilization campaigns for support. This new research makes clear that Japan’s sudden surrender in no way signified that the country would immediately disavow its extensive imperial ideology; such a move would require a long time to inculcate. As much as many who had been under the heel of Japanese oppression might have wished, in the immediate aftermath of World War II rare was the political body that had the luxury of seeking vengeance against the Japanese because neither the international circumstances nor the pending civil wars allowed attention to be diverted from the ultimate goal at hand, to gain support for the establishment of new governments.

The legal restructuring of East Asia and Japan’s relations with its neighbors played a vital function in redressing former imperial relations in the early Cold War. The legal investigations and trials were the very definition of international law, a relatively new concept itself, especially in East Asia. The systems adjudicated public guilt and delineated who was Japanese, Chinese, and Korean – a seemingly easy task rendered much more cumbersome because empire often blurred ethnic and national barriers that sprang back with force following Japan’s abrupt surrender. This five-year ERC research project is examining the history behind the establishment of international tribunals and pursuit of East Asian war criminals as a process designed to give weight to the neglected question of how newly enfranchised citizens of East Asia became acculturated to the idea of themselves as subjective political actors on an international stage and as the successors to the Japanese imperial sphere. The legacy of these issues weighs heavily even today because it provided a new vocabulary to East Asian polities to consider the manner in which Japanese imperialism would be replaced and adjudicated in the postwar.