Japan through Vietnamese Eyes (1905-1945)

By May-Van, Tran | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Japan through Vietnamese Eyes (1905-1945)


May-Van, Tran, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Vietnamese resistance to French rule dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, but the first decade of the twentieth century heralded a new chapter in the long history of anti-colonialism in Vietnam. It began with the fervent reformist efforts of a group of nationalist scholars trained and brought up in traditional ways, whose Movement for Modernisation (Phong Trao Duy Tan) was greatly influenced by the rise of Japan in the eastern hemisphere, especially following Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). Japan became a source of inspiration and began to be perceived as a model, a stimulant and even as a possible saviour of Vietnam.

This article concentrates on two significant periods in Vietnam's history, the years 1905-1910 and 1940-45, when Japan played a considerable part, directly and indirectly, in shaping political and social developments within Vietnam. During the earlier period Vietnamese leaders eagerly looked toward Japan, another Asian nation, for both practical help and guidance in their pursuit of national recovery. During the later period, that of the Second World War, the Vietnamese actually lived under Japanese diplomatic and military authorities, alongside their French colonial masters. In this unique and awkward situation the Japanese were ironically allies of the French, in contradiction to their declared role as "liberators". This article aims to link the two periods in order to provide an insight into the Vietnamese nationalists' encounter with Japan and the Japanese, and the adverse impact of this experience on Vietnam's immediate postwar situation in relation to their aspiration for independence.

Historical Background

In the second half of the nineteenth century France established control over Vietnam by treaties signed in 1862 and 1874 with the Nguyen Court under Emperor Tu Duc (r. 1847-83). The Patenotre treaty of 1884 marked the end of Vietnamese independence. As a consequence, "the entire Vietnamese executive machinery became no more than puppets dangling from the strings of foreign puppeteers",(1) while the implementation of a ruthless taxation policy had a devastating effect on the peasant economy. There were numerous episodes of resistance to French domination and France's record of suppressing Vietnamese rebellions was possibly unrivalled in terms of the number of people executed or sent into exile.

The Vietnamese-French encounter was more than a military clash. It was also a cultural clash, for many Vietnamese shared with conservative Chinese the idea that there was nothing to be learned from the non-Sinic world. When a Siamese envoy to the court of Emperor Tu Duc urged on him the wisdom of emulating the West and sending students overseas, the emperor is said to have replied: "We are of Chinese background so why do we have to bother about learning from the barbarians?"(2) One of the first people to press the Nguyen Court to follow the Japanese path by copying the West was Nguyen Truong To (1835-71).(3) To was particularly impressed by the way Japan had pursued internal reform by sending students abroad to bring back Western learning. Through a series of memorials and petitions sent to the emperor he called relentlessly for the modernisation of Vietnam, but the Nguyen Court was unresponsive.(4)

Among Asian countries, China received the most attention because of its long historical and cultural connection with, and its close proximity to, Vietnam. There was, for example, military cooperation between southern China and Vietnam in the struggle against French domination. In addition, many Vietnamese nationalists took refuge in China while awaiting the opportunity to return to their homeland, thus strengthening the bonds between the two countries. China's Self-Strengthening Movement in the late nineteenth century, a response to the mounting influence of the West, was a tremendous source of inspiration for Vietnamese intellectuals, despite its limited success.

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