Waseda Business School Professor Koji Aiba earned his MBA from Harvard Business School before becoming a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. Although he is an expert in the field of business administration, his eyes were opened to historical truths seven years ago and he has since written a series of historical books. Toshio Motoya spoke with Aiba about the United States under the new Joe Biden administration, China’s confrontation with the U.S., and the futures of both countries.
respectable country in the world
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. Although your field of expertise is business administration, you began publishing the History not Written in Textbooks series of Kindle eBooks on Amazon four years ago. I also invited you here today because you have frequently attended my Shoheijuku academy meetings.
(A) Thank you for having me. I started my business career at a financial institution, just like yourself. I moved into consulting before striking out on my own, and now I also teach at a university. Growing up, I shared the same masochistic view of history that many people have been instilled with. Seven years ago I realized how bizarre this is, and I became obsessed with studying history. I have even written books about history. I certainly agree with your statement that learning the truth leads one to a conservative viewpoint.
(M) You know a great deal about history, so I hope you will share lots of information with us today. Looking back at World War II, I believe the Japanese army did not invade Southeast Asia – it drove out the Western powers that had invaded these nations and worked to free them. In particular, the Malayan campaign right after the Pearl Harbor attack was a great victory in which the Japanese army took Singapore after just two months.
(A) I agree that the Malayan campaign was a fantastic maneuver. However, some careless actions were taken as well. I lived in Singapore in the early 1960s from the age of seven to 11 because my father was sent there while working at The Bank of Tokyo. I keenly sensed that the overseas Chinese community in Singapore bore a major grudge against Japanese people. I went to my friend’s house one day when I was in elementary school. His mother told me, “You can stay today, but please don’t come again.” She felt that way because of the 1942 Sook Ching purge instigated by Masanobu Tsuji of the Imperial Japanese Army, in which many Chinese people were killed. The Japanese army rounded up Chinese and interrogated them in the early days of its occupation of Singapore. Those deemed as hostile were executed without trial. Unlike the Nanjing Massacre, for which there is a great deal of counterevidence, it is clear that the Japanese army did carry out a massacre in Singapore; research on this purge has produced a list of the victims and there are also many witnesses to what happened. Tomoyuki Yamashita had already been executed in Singapore, so officers who were ordered to carry out the purge by Tsuji were executed as war criminals.
(M) The Sook Ching purge is not spoken of much in Japan. Wars are truly tragic and should be avoided, but at times they are necessary. However, many tragic things do occur on the battlefield in that case. I think we should consider who has war responsibility separately from criminal deeds committed on the field of battle. It is problematic that only people from defeated countries are executed for war crimes.
(A) I agree entirely.
(M) We must pass down these historical truths to future generations. That is why I have continually made efforts to express my beliefs.
(A) I think so, too, which is why I wrote a book in 2017. I read one of your books at that time and was astounded to learn that you were already doing what I strove to accomplish.
(M) Every year I compile my monthly essays from Apple Town, this magazine, as a book entitled Theoretical Modern History. Of course we cannot erase what happened in the past, but we must refer to past mistakes to do the right thing in the future. That’s why history is so important. I did not major in history, but I have studied it on my own and share my thoughts in these essays.
(A) I began studying the Chinese language 10 years ago. Reading Chinese history made me realize that it is entirely different from what I previously knew. In fact, studying the histories of Korea, Taiwan, the United States, and other countries has taught me that everything I thought was wrong.
(M) All nations educate their people about history in ways that portray that country positively. They also promote these histories to external parties. I think the sole exception is Japan, where a self-tormenting historical view is widely accepted. Yet this view is incorrect. What did the Western powers do in the New World, Africa, and Asia? There is no way to describe these actions as anything but invasions. How many people did China kill in its Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution? Times change, and I don’t think it makes sense to unconditionally condemn the past according to contemporary standards. But if nothing else, Japan’s history contains nothing like these events.
(A) Japan is entirely different. I don’t think you’ll find a country as respectable as Japan anywhere else in the world.
(M) China has used its enormous population of 1.4 billion people to acquire economic strength, which it is turning into military power. Its ambitions for marine expansion are clear. Japan must have a plan to prevent invasion. Diplomacy is a fight founded on power. Peace is nothing more than a fantasy if it is not backed by military strength. Japan does not teach this theory of power in its educational system; students merely learn that Japan did bad things in World War II. We must educate them about world history in more depth.
(A) It is true that students learn nothing but ideals that are divorced from reality. However, I feel like China has its eyes on Taiwan right now, rather than the Senkaku Islands.
(M) I think Taiwan is first on its list, then it will aim for the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa, and the Japanese mainland. Having a single government rule 1.4 billion people is a historic experiment that has never been attempted before. The Soviet Union broke apart from internal strife, but China is keeping its country together with an iron first. It is extremely difficult to predict what will happen if China becomes more powerful. It is fully possible that China could end up ruling the world.
(A) In my opinion, China will suffer an economic collapse in the not-too-distant future. American sanctions have dealt China a serious blow. My guess is there is already a movement in China to remove Xi Jinping. China has continued investing almost half its GDP since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Local governments are anxiously trying to figure out how to handle massive amounts of debt. State-run businesses have started failing. Chinese citizens do not truly trust their government, and I think wealthy people will take their assets and run very soon.
(M) Still, the people in power are quite strong, and I doubt the government will collapse. In some ways, the common people are only obeying because the country is affluent. It would be dangerous if economic growth stalled, and citizens could no longer expect greater wealth in the future. Chinese people living abroad have built a global network that is tremendously powerful.
(A) It’s true that scale confers massive power. China is also in an unfavorable position because the U.S. has shifted to a hardline stance that many other countries are starting to emulate. Australia was at one point quite friendly with China, but it’s switched to a different policy and is in pointed opposition with China now that Chinese bribes and pork-barrel politics have come to light. This mood has also spread to the United Kingdom. President Donald Trump started taking drastic measures against China. Joe Biden was previously regarded as pro-Chinese, but we do not yet know what the Biden administration will do or what his staff members think.
(M) As of now the Biden government is dealing quite harshly with China. It is strongly criticizing China for its human rights violations in the Uyghur region in particular, which I think is largely aimed at earning popular support. It was thought that Biden will not run again due to his advanced age, but it seems to me like he is gradually thinking about a second term.
(A) I am apprehensive because we no longer know who is actually in power in the White House. There have been cases of spokespeople saying the White House disagrees with Biden’s statements. Perhaps the true authority is held by Vice President Kamala Harris or even a person outside the White House. The background to this includes the leftward shift in the Democratic Party, with complicity among most American media outlets and Big Tech IT companies like Amazon and Apple.
(M) Conservatives are at a disadvantage for that reason.
(A) Yes, the Republican Party has been driven into a corner. People began bashing Trump because he was the first postwar American president who wasn’t controlled by Wall Street money. All American presidents, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, have been influenced by the people who fund their campaigns. Trump was the exception. That’s why he was the target of a general offensive for three years about his ties to Russia and was attacked for many other reasons.
(M) I see, so that’s one factor in the anti-Trump movement. I don’t think he’s given up on running again. No extremist movements have been seen since Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6. Maybe that’s because Trump has changed to a tack of striving to win the next election. Republican governments have historically been better for Japan than Democratic ones. There is a precedent for serving two non-consecutive terms. Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the U.S. I definitely hope Trump will become president once again.
(A) Me, too. Trump’s way of speaking is calmer lately, although the content is mostly the same.
(A) I hope Biden will stick to this hardline attitude against China. Japan will be in a difficult position if China and the U.S. are not in opposition.
(M) Just like the Japanese economy grew rapidly during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, Japan will benefit if the Sino-American cold war continues. However, I don’t wish for one of these countries to gain total supremacy. The U.S. treats Japan favorably in light of China.
(A) Still, I predict that China will collapse due to economic issues, and it frightens me to think of how this will impact the global economy and the refugees that will result.
(M) Certainly no one knows what will happen in the future ? there has never been a country with 1.4 billion people in human history.
(A) I wonder what changes will occur in my lifetime. Will Japanese people wake up to the fact that our view of history is wrong? I feel like this won’t happen unless some major incident takes place.
(M) What could that be?
(A) An emergency in Taiwan seems the most likely possibility.
(M) Japanese people may not become disillusioned even if Taiwan came under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. I think it would have to be an event that causes an even bigger shock, like a Chinese armed invasion of the Senkaku Islands or Okinawa. I believe Japan should first think about how to protect Taiwan. After all, China’s final objective is Japan. After Taiwan, its next targets may be Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.
(A) We must somehow maintain the present circumstances in Taiwan, and make many Japanese people understand the importance of what is occurring in Taiwan.
(M) Yes. Japan remains safe thanks to the oceans that surround our country. I think the Maritime Self-Defense Forces’ deep-sea submarines and torpedoes, made with the top technologies in the world, are the most essential means of self-defense. An enemy couldn’t force to Japan to succumb using only aerial bombing and missile attacks. It would have to wage a land campaign. China couldn’t do that as long as Japan has control of the sea thanks to these submarines.
(A) Wouldn’t Japan have to surrender to a nuclear missile attack?
(M) The Japan-U.S. Security prevents the haphazard use of nuclear weapons against Japan. I think it’s more likely that an enemy would use conventional weapons or guerilla warfare.
(A) My mother was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped, and my father is a survivor of the Special Attack Units. He flew on a Suisei aircraft. After hearing about their experiences, it’s hard to imagine that Japan would be drawn into a battle with modern technologies.
(M) Of course we must do everything we can to avoid armed conflict, but we must also consider the worst-case scenario. It’s wrong that our schools teach that Japan could not be involved in a military conflict.
(A) The most difficult thing would be to change our educational system and media.
(M) For example, think of the Hibiya riots right after the Russo-Japanese War. The media inflamed the people to protest against the peace treaty for the Russo-Japanese War, which was less beneficial to Japan than the First Sino-Japanese War. The media has caused a great deal of harm. We need an institution that monitors the media.
(A) Traditional media outlets like TV channels and newspapers are rapidly losing their influence. Online media like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are influencing politics. Accordingly, accurate information is suppressed on these services and fake information is rampant. That’s why attempts are underway to establish laws regulating social media.
(M) Social media is highly influential today, but the traditional media still has clout too. What the media says tends to become the accepted public opinion.
(A) That’s certainly true. For instance, the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 set off the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. One theory says Floyd died because he overdosed on fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic developed for use as a painkiller, not because he was suffocated by the police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck. Despite this, TV programs and other media outlets all reported that Floyd was strangled to death by the policeman. This has totally slanted the public opinion. The media’s prejudices make it impossible to comprehend the truth.
(M) The news greatly affects how people think.
(A) If you want to know what’s happening in the U.S., you have to directly read the American news. The Japanese media merely covers what CNN and other left-wing media outlets say. Conservative news, such as Fox News, has an entirely different tone.
(M) Most Japanese people are not exposed to Fox News, which is pro-Trump. I think the next election will once again come down to Trump or Biden, but what are your thoughts?
(A) I think it’s possible that Biden will make repeated mistakes and end up stepping down, leaving Harris as president.
(M) If that happens, it’s extremely unclear whether the Democratic Party will win again or if the Republican Party will regain power. Is it likely that Biden and the Democratic government will pander to China, which is gradually becoming a hegemon?
(A) I don’t think so. Right now the Democrats and Republicans are united in their opposition to China. The U.S. has no intention of losing its position as the world’s leader.
(M) Still, what would happen if China’s economic power surpassed the U.S.?
(A) As I mentioned before, I don’t believe that China could become an economic superpower that exceeds the U.S. We can’t even believe China’s statistics. I’ve heard from Chinese people that these figures are already inflated by 30%.
(M) From Japan’s standpoint, it would be good if China’s economy failed, and it split apart and democratized like the Soviet Union. However, China is making full use of IT to govern its people in a strong-armed fashion. Surveillance cameras are installed everywhere in the Uyghur region and facial recognition is used to monitor what people are doing. Over one million people are being held in internment camps as a type of preventative detention.
(A) China also promoted the use of smartphone payments so the government can keep an eye on all transactions by citizens. Now that cash is falling out of favor, it’s easy for them to stop payments by people who oppose the government. Rather than aiding democracy, IT is becoming an advantageous tool for authoritarians.
(M) While it is quite challenging to predict the future, I think the Sino-American cold war will continue for some time. What should be Japan’s main priority going forward?
(A) Fundamentally, I think Japan has no choice but to remain close to the U.S. I do hope that grave economic issues will arise in China and bring about political change. I find it terrifying that Japanese young people don’t feel a strong sense of danger about China today. I wish for them to be enlightened about this.
(M) I think the key is to what degree the U.S. can maintain its current power. The U.S. has 300 million people compared to China’s 1.4 billion. China continues growing by transforming the economic strength of its population into military power. China is putting military pressure on Taiwan on Japan, so naturally Japan should be wary of China and make itself ready. We can only depend on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty as long as the U.S. is absolutely superior to China. I feel we must also consider a scenario in with the U.S. loses power.
(A) I concur.
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(A) I’m constantly telling my students that they lack an international perspective. Although they are exposed to international students from overseas, Japanese students adhere too closely to the common understanding of Japanese society.
(M) They need to be more adventurous.
(A) They don’t even study abroad. I guess they feel too comfortable in Japan. To me they lack a spirit of wanting to take on new challenges, although they do seem content.
(M) You can’t handle new situations unless you have a range of experience to draw on. We need to create an environment in which people want to try new things. Thank you for our interesting discussion today.
(A) Thank you.
Born in the City of Kobe in 1954. Graduated from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law in 1976 and started working at the Taiyo-Kobe Bank (currently Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation). Aiba earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1982 and got a job at Boston Consulting Group that year. He became a partner in 1991. He was an assistant professor at Osaka International University and has been a professor at Waseda Business School since 2002. His many published works include GLOBIS Business Strategy (DIAMOND,Inc.) and the five-volume History not Written in Textbooks series (Amazon Kindle books).