France used to control Indochina, with the tricolor flag floating over Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, its principal colony in the Far East. Controlling a strategic location and with important production of rice, rubber, and coal, this colony was a tempting target for the expanding Japanese Empire, and when France lost the Battle of France to Germany in 1940, the Japanese were left with a golden opportunity to take advantage of the French situation of distress in Indochina. However, they did not do so through a full out conquest and occupation of Indochina, but rather through cooperation with the French, gaining basing rights, a friendly administration, and economic cooperation in exchange for leaving the French colony intact. Both sides however, were anxious to secure through own position in Indochina and to influence both the other and also the Indochinese people about their own rightful position and the unfortunate nature of the other - although in all cases, it had to be done without formally decrying their real target. This is the subject of Chizuru Namba's book Français et Japonais en Indochine (1940-1945) : Colonisation, propagande, et rivalité culturelle which is devoted to exploring this fascinating period in French and Japanese colonial history and the history of Indochina.
The first chapter, "Les relations entre le Japon et l'Indochine française" deals with the subject of the Japanese relationship to Vietnamese nationalists, receiving a mercurial reception in Japan. It also deals with Franco-Japanese cooperation to restrain just such a nationalist threat, emanating from Korea and Vietnam - a fascinating topic showing joint imperial assistance. It then continues with the Japanese occupation of Indochina and the diplomacy and issues surrounding this. followed by events during the war and finally the 9 March 1945 coup which put an end to French Indochina.
Chapter 2, "Les Français in Indochina", looks at the material conditions, thoughts, and loyalties of the French residents of Indochina. As compared to their compatriots in France, the French in Indochina enjoyed a very easy life, but a precarious one, being a tiny, privileged, minority in a sea of native people. Although they did suffer from certain shortages and rises in the cost of living, they were much more sheltered from this than the indigenous population. Not all were Pétanist and most were quite politically ambiguous or ambivalent, but many were enrolled in the Légion française des combattants et volontaires de la Révolution nationale to attempt to encourage loyalty to Vichy, and Gaulists were hunted down, and a tight supervision of society instigated. However, over time the explicitly pro-Vichy measures began to be toned down as the Axis began to lose the war. A unifying theme was the rejection of "assimilation" and a preferred new respect for Indochinese societies and culture, well in accordance with Vichy's policy.
"Rivalité et cohabitation au quotidien entre Français et Japonais" as Chapter 3 deals with the everyday encounters between the French and Japanese in Indochina, where the Japanese presence was alternatively perceived as overbearing or nonexistant. The French tried to avoid excessive Japanese presence in the country, but inevitably there was mingling between Indochina's inhabitants and the Japanese. There were many incidents between the French and the Japanese which both sides tried to resolve pacifically, but these often involved the native population, where both sides tried to gain their appreciation and support - the Japanese protecting their sympathizers, although not always universally endearing themselves, and the French trying to increase their popularity with the indigenous people. These locals suffered increasing economic hardships and damages from the war and were disappointed in the Japanese who had allied themselves with the French rather than liberating them.
Chapter 4, La propagande: enjeux et pratiques begins to dive into the main subject of the book, discussing the nature of propaganda in French Indochina. For France, this focused on stressing the similarities between the révolution nationale of Vichy, its conservative political ideology, and traditional East Asian moral doctrines, the idea of Indochina, French efforts to help the Indochinese, and the firm cooperation between the French and Japanese, doing so through the radio, press, posters, film, and information bureaus, all examined in their tour It wanted to avoid racial solidarity between the Japanese and Indochinese, to prevent the perception of France as decadent, ideas of Indochinese independence, and other things that would harm French prestige - doing so through the usage of censorship. The French focused on the Anglo-Saxons as the greatest enemy, while strictly preventing any anti-Japanese line, relying on an indirect war of propaganda for the hearts and minds of Indochinese. The Japanese had no access to their own newspapers in Indochina but did use the radio, although they too did not have their own radio station and used French radios. as well as movie theaters (generally these without much success), and they called for the solidarity of the Asian people and decried the Anglo-Saxon, as well as lauding the Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere and Asian morality compared to Western decadence. Like the French however, it never made direct accusations against their counterpart. Their most deadly insult of all was also the most subtle: to simply ignore the French and their presence, an obsolete thing bound to disappear. After the coup of March 9th, the Japanese and French were free to critique each other, doing so with gusto, with the Vietnamese and Vietnamese communist voices also increasingly joining the fray.
The 5th chapter "La politique culturelle française en Indochine" relates the subject of French efforts to win Indochinese sympathy and support in their cultural policy. This stressed the new regime's support for traditional values shared in both East and West, and focused on youth activities in sports and various associations to gain their loyalty. The union with France was emphasized, although not always in traditional ways of French strength - the Secours national was a donations campaign to donate to help the damaged French metropole, portraying France as in need - a dramatic reversal from previous periods. The French tried hard to promote an idea of Indochinese federalism, based on universities, sporting tours, student exchanges, a federal council, and expositions about Indochina. The French also tried to restore the prestige and authority of the Mandarins and notables of the former elite classes, focusing on traditional Chinese culture and an end to elections in the favor of the aristocracy. In literary terms, a rediscovery of traditional Vietnamese patriotism - but not nationalism - was encouraged. Conversely, in Cambodia and Laos, their modernization was encouraged. Joan of Arc was celebrated alongside the Trung sisters, to show the union of France and Vietnam. There was a natural downside to this: this focus on respect for local cultures naturally played into the hands of Japan's ideal on pan-Asian unity and patriotism could become nationalism very quickly indeed.
The final content chapter, "Tentative d'implantation de la culture japonaise et concurrence franco-japonaise" examines the other side, as the Japanese tried to play up their own culture - appealing both to the French and to the Indochinese. The Japanese sought to spread their culture and language in the South-East Asian countries, while respecting local cultures. The Japanese established cultural associations in Indochina, diffusing Japanese culture and language to the Indochinese and conducting research on Indochina. The Japanese created cultural exchanges with Japanese and French or seemingly much more rarely Indochinese specialists and personages visiting Indochina or Japan respectively, as well as the exchange of students and artists and Japanese expositions in Indochina. Indochina in effect acted as a stand-in for France in cultural relations with Japan, so long as France itself was cut off. There was a controversy on the Japanese side however: were their objectives to have themselves and their culture recognized as equal by the French, or rather to gain the sympathy of the Indochinese? The Japanese never managed to resolve this conundrum. They did however, establish many schools for their language, although this ran into difficulties of establishment and French organizational opposition.
The conclusion largely consists of a summary of the book's content.
A Fascinating Exploration of a Little-Known Subject
There has been an increasing amount of interest devoted to Vichy France and its colonies it would seem, above all else in Vichy sous les tropiques. This book involved its own section about Vietnam and the attempt by the French to attempt to leverage Vietnamese loyalty to the French colonial project and cement them to France during the war years. Some of this clearly shows through into Français et Japonais en Indochine, with french efforts to encourage scouting and education of young Vietnamese notables, and in the promotion of both local nationalism and the concept of an Indochina. But there is much else which is available to be discovered here. The author uses his comfortable ability to deal with both Japanese and French sources, and too Vietnamese ones, as well as keen sense of objectives and rationales.The fact that even radio sources, doubtless extremely difficult to access were used, speaks to the tremendous degree of research bound up in this project.
This can be seen on the French side with the identification of key trends such as the effort to promote an Indochinese identity, standing midway between local nationalism and a broader imperial identity, with continual emphasis of this policy - from an education strategy that promoted common Indochinese participation, to a tour indochinois, exchanges between students of the different colonies, and Indochinese expositions. Imperial solidarity with the Secours national, aiming to generate donations to help the suffering French of the metropole back in France, is also a theme which is well explored, and one which reversed previous representations of France as strong and powerful, and instead in this case made her a suffering creature for whom sympathy was to be encouraged.
The relationships between the Japanese and French are excellently analyzed as well, and includes some incisive observations, such as looking at the frustration on the part of some Japanese at their targeting of the French rather than the Indochinese natives. The interest of the Japanese as presenting themselves as the cultural equals of the French, and of the role that Indochina played in representing France when the motherland was cut off in cultural exchanges with Japan, is brilliantly explored.
Within the colony itself, Namba does a very good job of looking at the ways in which the French position and French mentalities varied over time, adjusting with the course of the war - and showing that the colony was very different than a simple bastion of Vichy thought, and that rather it evolved and demonstrated clear responsiveness to Gaullist appeals, with a steady reduction of Marshall Pétain's presence in public life after the course of the war began to turn against Vichy France, and that the attitude of the French residents of Indochina could be at times termed rather indifferent to the révolution nationale, a stark difference from the picture which is sometimes given of colonists who were eager for a reactionary government to settle old scores with the colonized - although doubtless, there really were plenty of those. In fact the extensive material which is dedicated within to the mindset and opinion of the broader mass of the French residents is in of itself a valuable work, one which is exceedingly interesting.
But What of the Effects?
Unfortunately the book neglects to write very much at all about what the actual impact was of this conflict of propaganda between the French, Japanese, and to a very limited extent, the Vietnamese Communist contribution. There is great effort which is taken to show that there was a fierce battle for the opinions of the Indochinese natives, and indeed even for the French as the Japanese attempted to convince them too that they were a civilized people equivalent in rank to the perceived majesties of French civilization, but there is painfully little which actually notes what the effects were of this propaganda. Are we to simply assume that there was nothing of note which transpired as a result of this? Vichy sous les tropiques, despite its shorter length dedicated to Indochina itself, laid out a clear result of French policy in Indochina - the strengthening of nationalist sentiments on the part of the masses of Indochina, in particular in Vietnam, the ironic result of French efforts to encourage patriotism as part of the révolution nationale. There is no real general conclusion which is drawn which is equivalent in Français et Japonais en Indochine: by contrast it is willing to simply recount what happened, and then to leave the reader without any broader analysis. It makes for a book which is much less ambitious than it could have been.
Furthermore, the book lacks for illustrations and documents, which in light of the excellent cover photo - Résultat de la Collaboration nippo-franco-indochinoise - is really quite sad, since there is surely some excellent material available.
Overall, this is an excellent book, the result of many years of well done research, and which sheds much light on a topic which otherwise is little covered. It shows a vigorous fight for influence, well explained and in depth, the means in which it was carried out, the various cultural connotations and beliefs - and prejudices - in play, objectives, and the context. For anybody interested in French Indochina's history, French colonialism, Japanese imperialism, the Second World War and the Pacific Theater, and a long host of other topics, it is a superb book and much to be recommended, tarnished only by the lack of ambition in drawing conclusions.
© 2019 Ryan C Thomas