Historical relations between Myanmar and Japan since the Pacific War

by Gota Seto


In this first in a series of blogs on the relations between Myanmar and Japan, I reflect on the two nations’ historical relations from the Pacific War to the end of the socialist period in 1988.


Although not widely recognized by people outside Myanmar and Japan, the two nations have maintained strong ties among Asian nations for much of the last 70 years and have significant shared history. The connectivity between these two Asian countries is often called by leaders as a “special relationship” or “historically friendly relationship.”

Onset of the "special relationship"


The “special relationship” between the two nations dates back to the Pacific War. Imperial Japan assisted young Burmese nationalists - most notably, the so-called “Thirty Comrades,” which would later become the nucleus of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). They were given military training by the Japanese army in the Japan-occupied island of Hainan, off the coast of South China. Most of the nationalist leaders in Myanmar were associated with the Japanese, including Aung Sun, the wartime commander of the army, Ne Win, and many other leaders of Myanmar’s independence government.


However, while Aung Sun and his comrades fought alongside Japan to expel the British in early 1942, disillusionment with the Japanese occupiers arose immediately. In 1944, they organized an Anti-Fascist Organization, and joined Western Allies’ forces to combat the Japanese army. Since gaining independence was a priority, the comrades were ready to utilize any foreign country’s assistance.


Postwar relationship with war reparations and ODA


After nearly a decade of no-interaction after the end of the Pacific War, bilateral and diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Japan resumed in 1954 with a focus on the economic relationship. Myanmar was the first recipient of Japan’s postwar reparations. Both countries signed a bilateral treaty which committed Japan to offering Myanmar war reparations of the equivalent of 250 million USD. From this time onwards, Japan emerged as a major economic and trading partner for Myanmar, leveraging the war reparations and massive official development assistance (ODA) to secure economic access to Myanmar. Even during the authoritarian regime under General Ne Win (1962-1988), Japan remained the most generous provider of ODA and rarely criticized Ne Win’s coercive way of ruling the country (see photo of Ne Win's visit to Japan Getty images).


Ne Win visiting Japan (Getty images https://www.gettyimages.com.au/photos/ne-win-burma)


In the 1950s, Myanmar was said to be one of the most promising countries in Southeast Asia in terms of economic prospects, but Ne Win’s rule brought economic stagnation and significant poverty to the country. Tokyo, however, continuously engaged in Myanmar, providing large allotments of ODA. In fact, the amounts of ODA increased dramatically in the 1980s, and Myanmar was always among the top ten of Japan’s ODA receiving countries between 1980 and 1988. Japan offered 1.87 billion USD in total to Myanmar between 1973 and 1988, more than two-thirds of all bilateral aid the country received. It is unlikely that the Ne Win regime could have survived a number of economic crises in the 1970s and 1980s without such massive assistance. Also, during his rule, only the Japanese ambassador among the entire diplomatic corps had continuous and direct access to the socialist leader.


Later in 2002, when Ne Win was placed under house arrest after an alleged coup attempt by his family, he sought help from the Japanese ambassador, showing the strong tie between Ne Win and Japan.

Perception of shared cultural values


Shared social and religious values between Myanmar and Japan should also be noted – during the socialist period, many Japanese diplomats, politicians, technicians, war veterans, and their families who visited Myanmar fell in love with the country. Government officials were also impressed by the perceived professionalism and honesty of civil servants in Myanmar, who were seen to use reparation and ODA funds conscientiously, unlike some other recipient countries. Seekins also describes the wave of Japanese ‘Burma lovers’ who visited Myanmar during the Than Shwe period. Additionally, although the schools of Buddhism are different, people in Myanmar were perceived by Japanese visitors to share Buddhist values and similar social ethics, such as respect for the elderly, strong family bonds, and a sense of mutual obligation. What moved the Japanese ‘Burma lovers’ was that while Japan had lost many of these traditional values with rapid modernization, Myanmar appeared to have preserved them.


The personal ties between national leaders of Myanmar and military officers of Japan, which originated in the early stage of the Pacific War, marked the beginning of a special bilateral relationship. Then, during the postwar period, the provision of Japanese war reparations and massive ODA, along with the frequent visits of many of pro-Myanmar Japanese officers had cemented the close ties between the two.


Gota Seto is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne


Image: getty images https://www.gettyimages.com.au/photos/ne-win-burma