Comment: Remembering Pearl Harbor often forgets Pacific’s past

The Dec. 7 attack followed years of colonialism by Japan and the U.S. in Hawai’i and the Philippines.

By Eri Kitada / Special To The Washington Post

This Dec. 7 marks 80 years since Japan declared war on the United States and Great Britain after attacking the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, bringing the Asia-Pacific region into World War II. In the United States, we often remember this event as a juncture in a conflict between two great powers, the United States and Japan. The attack on Americans justified full mobilization for war and, eventually in 1945, dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the war.

But, significantly, the targets of Japan’s surprise strike were not the mainlands of the two nations, but their colonies in the region: British Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, the American Philippines, Guam and Hawai’i.

(Native Hawaiian includes an ‘okina in “Hawaii.” This was the common spelling before Hawaiian statehood, and it has recently become more common as a recognition of their sovereignty.)

For decades in the early 20th century, the United States and Japan, latecomers to modern empire, competed over natural resources and territories in the Asia-Pacific region, along with British and other European empires. In the process, they each subjugated people deemed by both as “racially inferior,” established regimes of colonial rule and put down liberation struggles.

Japan’s attacks of December 1941, therefore, need to be understood as a dramatic moment in this imperial rivalry. Remembering World War II as an imperial war requires widening our view from the usual nation frameworks to reckon with the damage done to the colonized victims of the attacks and the war. This also asks us to recognize the larger consequences of both U.S. and Japanese colonization in the region, which include racial, cultural, economic and political inequalities that endured long after World War II came to an end. Nowhere was the damage to colonized people and the legacy of imperial clashes more visible than in the Philippines.

Early in the morning on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy Air Service bombed the U.S. naval base at the harbor of Hawai’i. But the Japanese empire’s attack on the United States was not limited to Hawai’i. In the hours that followed, the Japanese navy raided U.S. bases in the Philippines, which had turned from a Spanish colony into a U.S. colony when the United States vanquished the Spanish in 1898 and then quashed a Filipino rebellion during the subsequent Philippine-American War.

What followed reflected the complexity of U.S.-Japanese imperial competition in the early 20th century. For its part, the United States attempted to erase its own bloody seizing of the Philippines, claiming a mission of “benevolent assimilation” of the Filipinos to U.S. standards, establishing English-language public schools, rewriting property laws and empowering a Christian Filipino elite in the territory. Simultaneously, to promote its own rising imperial power, Japan promoted settler colonialism among its citizens, which sent Japanese people out across the Asia-Pacific region to settle in resource- and land-rich areas. Thousands of Japanese settlers arrived on Philippine shores during U.S. rule. They established families, schools and communities — with some marrying local Filipino women — working key jobs in construction and agriculture and enriching the U.S. empire with their labor, while also fulfilling the aims of the Japanese empire.

Filipinos, Americans and Japanese residents all coexisted under U.S. imperial rule for almost four decades, but the commencement of the U.S.-Japanese war upended life in the colony, bringing persecution, destruction and death.

Following the attacks on Dec. 8, 1941, local time (the Philippines is 18 hours ahead of Hawai’i, thus these strikes are recorded as occurring on Dec. 8), Filipinos and Americans immediately imprisoned the longtime Japanese residents of the Philippines. In contrast to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of February 1942 that incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps in the United States, these retaliatory acts of persecution were unlikely to have been part of a formal policy undertaken in an organized manner. But testimonies of the survivors demonstrate that such Japanese internment also happened in the Philippines.

In late December 1941, thousands of Japanese military forces launched a full invasion of the Philippines and liberated the interned Japanese, who fervently supported their intervention. After six months of brutal combat, in May 1942, Japan fully occupied the Philippines. The joint forces of the United States and the Philippines had resisted the Japanese encroachment, but they surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese military forced about the 80,000 prisoners of war in Bataan to walk 65 miles north to a prisoner camp. This “death march,” remembered for its horrors, in fact killed nine times as many Filipino troops as Americans.

Japanese rule of the Philippines lasted three years until Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return in late 1944. During those years of occupation and U.S. re-invasion, Filipinos and Japanese immigrants were drawn into the deadly combat of the war. Japanese male immigrants, including fathers and sons from interracial Japanese Filipino families, were conscripted in the Japanese military, while Filipino men and some mixed-race sons of Japanese Filipino families fought in the American Philippine force. War efforts also mobilized women, who served as nurses and members of local women’s associations; on both sides.

In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Philippine forces returned to Davao and Baguio, well-known Japanese settlements, pushing back Japanese soldiers and residents. The Japanese civilian death rate in these areas exceeded 50 percent. This high death toll, along with war mobilization and displacement, destroyed the communities that Japanese immigrants had built over the past half-century. After the war, the Allied powers repatriated former Japanese residents of the Philippines to Japan, ending the local Japanese communities there. Meanwhile, many Filipino mothers and mixed-race children remained in the Philippines.

The bloody fighting in the Philippines during the war resulted in the deaths of at least 25,000 Americans and 500,000 Japanese; most of them military personnel. Overshadowing those figures, 1 million Filipinos, most of them civilians, also died.

The battle in the Philippines, although frequently forgotten in the United States when we “remember Pearl Harbor,” started as part of that day’s attack and became a consequential theater of war for those who lived there.

In many ways, the war did not end for those inhabitants of the doubly occupied, doubly colonized Philippines. The entangled history of the two empires of the United States and Japan has long cast a shadow over former Japanese settlers, Japanese Filipino families and Filipinos. The Japanese government, which once promoted and benefited from Japanese settlers in the Philippines, erased their history from Japanese textbooks and national memory in postwar Japan, silencing their particular experiences of immigration and war. Further, the Japanese government continuously refuses the demand by children of Japanese Filipino families to be recognized as Japanese nationals.

Meanwhile, the United States has also failed to reckon with its imperial history. Many Filipino women and men served both their country and the United States. But the U.S. government did not recognize the contribution of Filipino veterans until 1990, when it finally accepted their naturalization, and a very few surviving veterans received the Congressional Gold Medal in early 2017 from President Barack Obama. But more can be done. Despite gaining formal independence after the war, the Philippines remains bound to the United States, linked by enduring economic, cultural, military and migration ties, something Filipino activists have pointed out.

The experiences of peoples marginalized in the dominant memories of World War II show that this day of remembrance is tied to the shared histories of U.S. and Japanese colonialism; with all their repression, exploitation and racism. That is why it is so critical to listen to the voices of those whose lives were shaped by these histories: Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Japanese Filipinos, who have continued to fight for recognition and liberation.

Eri Kitada is a doctoral candidate at the department of history, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, who specializes in gender/sexuality, race and colonialism in the United States and Asia-Pacific region

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