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The Pacific War

The Pacific War, 1931-1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan's Role in World War II (Saburo Ienaga)

"[General Akamatsu] ordered local inhabitants to turn over all food supplies to the army and commit suicide before U.S. troops landed. The obedient islanders, 329 all together, killed each other at the Onna River with razors, hatchets, and sickles."

It's bad enough when you read this stuff written by an American, but when it comes from a Japanese writer it's really unsettling. Saburo Ienaga was a high-school teacher during the war and a university professor afterward; he got into trouble with the authorities for trying to bring some balance to the high-school history texts in the 1950 and 1960s, when the Cold War and the end of the U.S. occupation allowed the schools to gloss Japan's role in World War II. I read this book when I was researching the Flying Tigers, but to sit down and read it on its own merits was a revelation. (Sorry about the cover! Obviously the publisher's design staff didn't take the time to read the book.)

Americans may be startled to pick up a 256-page book about the Pacific War and discover that Pearl Harbor isn't mentioned until page 135, more than halfway through. That's a consequence of Ienaga's belief that the war began with the Japanese army's 1931 coup in Manchuria, which led inevitably to war with China, which in turn led to the wider war that began in December 1941. Despite Japan's claims about liberating Asians from white colonialism, its purpose in going to war with the Americans, British, and Dutch was to obtain the raw materials with which to prosecute the war in China. That was one reason the Japanese treated the "liberated" people so badly--as badly as their treated their prisoners of war, which was as bad as anything east of the German death camps.

Part of the blame goes to the Japanese military tradition, in which the officers were an elite and the troops were conscripted from the younger sons of tenant farmers. Brutality was the norm, and the enlisted men who stayed in the army and became sergeants were precisely those who would most brutalize the next batch of recruits. Draftees were called issen gorin--roughly, "penny postcards," because that was the cost and the method of obtaining one. Why husband the life of a soldier when he could be replaced for a penny? Ienaga explains that the enlisted soldiers were the bottom of the food chain, that they had no on upon whom to vent their brutality in return. (He was wrong, of course: the Korean labor guards were lower, and the prisoners and captive peoples were lower still, and it was they who suffered the lash for every indignity visited upon the common soldiers.)

Yet the same army was notably humane during the Russo-Japanese War. Why the difference? The Imperial Japanese Army lost its humanity in China, where national pride became the ugliest kind of racism. "Chinka, Chinka, Chinka," as the translator renders a poem that appeared in Japanese schools in the 1930s: "they're ugly and they stinka." A grade-school boys would be told that his duty and his privilege when he grew up would be to kill "hundreds of Chinese." (Military training began in elementary school, and each middle school had a military cadre to lead the boys in drill.)

During World War II, it was fashionable in the U.S. to show General Tojo as the Japanese dictator, making a trio with Germany's Hitler and Italy's Mussolini. But of course that was very far from true, as even American propaganda recognized, since sometimes the emperor Hirohito filled the same role. Ienaga is especially good at explaining this mystery, in which a dictator could be imposed by a group of elder statesmen--and then deposed when his usefulness was over. Tojo ruled the government and the army, but he never managed to rule the navy--he didn't even learn about the defeat at Midway until a month after four aircraft carriers and a major portion of the navy's fighter planes had gone to the bottom.

In fact, the army and navy controlled the government (including Tojo), with occasional input from the emperor and the elder statesmen (basically, everyone who had ever served as prime minister). It was an intricate web, and often enough the real power was exercised not by the generals but by colonels and majors in the field. (One of these movers was Colonel Tsuji, whose story is told elsewhere on this website.)

Ienaga wasn't disloyal, nor was he one of those who curried favor with the Occupation by writing what the Americans wanted to hear. He savages the United States for using the atomic bomb on Japanese cities--an atrocity that he ranks with Germany's death camps and Japan's Rape of Nanjing. More sobering, in a book written in 1968, he accuses the U.S. of acting as the new Imperial Japanese Army. We were the brutal overlords in Vietnam, as Japan had been in China--while Japan itself played the ignominious role of the Manchukou puppet state of the 1930s and 1940s, dutifully supporting the aggressor. It is an uncomfortable comparison.

This is a valuable book, and one of only a half-dozen serious studies by Japanese scholars of World War II that are available in English. We didn't know our enemy in 1941; we hardly know him any better today.