Japan and Vietnam's Caodaists: A Wartime Relationship (1939-45)

By My-Van, Tran | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Japan and Vietnam's Caodaists: A Wartime Relationship (1939-45)


My-Van, Tran, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The period surrounding World War Two initiated a new chapter in Vietnamese history with Japan playing a considerable part, directly and indirectly, in shaping political, economic and social developments within Vietnam. This paper describes the relationship which the Caodaists, members of a religious and political group in Cochinchina which was one of Vietnam's leading nationalist organizations, forged with the Japanese in their pursuit of independence from the French. It focuses on the issue of good faith and the sense of collaboration on the part of the Caodaists towards the Japanese throughout the period of Japan's expansion and occupation in Southeast Asia. In the past decade there have been several studies of the Pacific War years relating to Japan's overall policies and military activities towards Indochina, based on Japanese language sources.(1) However, Japanese policy towards religion in Vietnam has received little attention. The purpose of this paper is to bring to the fore a broader and deeper picture of Japanese impact on the Caodaists.

Background: Prewar Relations

Vietnam's initial encounters with Japan date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Japanese merchants, seamen and pirates frequented the Vietnamese coasts. At that time Vietnam was a divided country ruled by two lords: the Trinh in the North and the Nguyen in the South. Both carried out trade with foreigners to enhance their power.(2) Apparently, the Southern Lord allowed the Japanese to choose a suitable area to set up their town alongside the Chinese. Thus the famous town known as Faifo (Hoi An) was developed. The Japanese bought up some 20 acres of land and constructed commercial establishments and farming streets together with a bridge and a temple adorned with bells and 10 Buddhas. There was even some correspondence between the Shogun rulers and the Vietnamese lords. Japanese trading activities seem to have been at their peak during the early decades of the seventeenth century when Hoi An city was referred to by Westemers as the "Japanese City". The first Japanese mayor of Hoi An, Furamoto Yashishiro, was a merchant and a ship owner. His successor was a man named Simonosera.(3)

Japanese relationships with Vietnam came to a halt when the Tokugawa government adopted a policy of isolation. By the late seventeenth century there were only four or five Japanese families left in Hoi An, and the Chinese had moved in to take over activities and areas once dominated by the Japanese.

Vietnam reentered the Japanese consciousness when Japan was pressed to open its door to the West during the late nineteenth century. That Vietnam was under French rule and China and France were embroiled in war over Vietnam concerned some Japanese philanthropists.(4) However, this type of political interest soon declined and "Japanese interest in Indochina seemed to exist only in the economic fields".(5)

Japan's dramatic victory in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) became a source of inspiration to Vietnam's nationalists. It also instilled confidence in them regarding the might of the Asian race. They perceived Japan as a possible saviour for Vietnam in their desire to bring down a colonial administration which had been imposed on them starting in 1862. Two persons who played a leading role in seeking Japan's guidance, support, especially military assistance in ousting the French were Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) and Prince Cuong De (1882-1953). "We believed if we asked Japan for help it would be readily given for the reason that the Japanese and the Vietnamese share the same culture and are of the Asian race."(6) Both men visited Japan in 1905 and were highly impressed with its might. Having seen the fruits of the Meiji restoration, Chau in particular promoted sending students to Japan to study as a prelude to having "both their mind and vision transformed".(7) Through contact with Chinese nationalists and revolutionaries, notably Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, Kang Yu Wei and Sun Yat-sen who were living in Japan at that time, both Chau and Cuong De managed to develop connections with certain prominent Japanese liberals and politicians, including Okuma Shigenobu, Miyazaki Torazo and Inukai Tsuyoshi, who they hoped would assist them in their endeavour.

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