22 January 2019
Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese government, formally ending World War II. Credit:
Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese government, formally ending World War II. Credit:

What if Japan had been carved up after World War II?

On a recent visit to Hokkaido, I saw many exhibitions on the “final battles” of World War II, such the one for the Kuril Islands. The accounts reflect Japan’s own version of history.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but mull over this question: If Hokkaido had been occupied by the USSR, what will today’s geopolitical landscape look like?

This question is not purely hypothetical because the original postwar plan was not for the United States to occupy Japan alone. Similar to the arrangement for the defeated Germany, Japan was supposed to be carved up into several regions and managed by the victors.

Under this alternative plan, the USSR would take Northeast Japan and Hokkaido, while the United States, Britain, the Republic of China would occupy Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and other southern regions.

Tokyo, like Berlin, would be occupied and governed by the four countries together.

However, the plan didn’t materialize, largely because of the sudden death of the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945.

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, didn’t want the USSR to use Northeast Japan to its advantage and expand further in Asia.

But if the original scheme had been implemented, Japanese history would surely have been different. The country could have faced a long period of division, like the case with East and West Germany, or even the kind of confrontation seen between North and South Korea.

In order to develop Northern Japan and make it a springboard in Northeast Asia, the USSR might have cut back its support for communist China, delaying the start of China’s industrialization.

If North Korea and “North Japan” became the vassals of the USSR, they might have helped the USSR to counter balance China in the communist camp, and China could have become more isolated in diplomatic terms.

South Japan supported by the United States would lack the recognition of a unified Japan, and naturally would not have been able to reach out to China unilaterally. Thus, Japan’s motivation to provide ODA to China would have been lower, and Beijing might have found it more difficult to develop its economy.

If the Republic of China took over Shikoku as planned, it might have had another base in addition to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War, giving it more say in international dialogue.

The chance for North Japan to join the Korean war would have been high. Bound by the Peaceful Constitution, South Japan would have been absent from the war, and the communist camp would have had a higher possibility of winning.

If this led to a much weaker South Korea, or even the collapse of it, it would have been very hard for the United States to manage and balance the postwar international arena.

These are some imaginative cases; after all there is no “if” in history.

But it is important to understand that the absence of major threat from neighbors is one of the key factors behind China’s rapid rise over past decade.

If there was a “North Japan” that was uncooperative and unpredictable, the situation in the region would have been indeed very different.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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