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Japan Reading: War Without Mercy
  War Without Mercy
by John W. Dower
1986, 398 pages

"Race and Power in the Pacific War"

Drawing from cartoons, propoganda films, movies, articles, speeches - a broad range of popular documents, Dower examines the means by which war between nations, and indeed races was encouraged during World War II. Often we consider the Nazis as the primary locus of race-issues during that time. But within Asia and between Asia and the rest of the world there was a complex interplay of some old and some timeless hatreds, fears and tropes, traces of which are still evident today.

(2002 June: reading in progress)

When the struggle in Asia is taken into consideration, it becomes apparents that neither anti-Semitism nor white supremacism in its wider manifestations suffices to illuminate the full impact of racism during World War Two. In the United States and Britain, the Japanese were more hated than the Germans before as well as after Pearl Harbor. On this, there was no dispute among contemporary observers. They were percieved as a race apart, even a species apart - and an overpoweringly monolithic one at that. There was no Japanese counterpart to the "good German" in the popular consciousness of the Western Allies. At the same time, the Japanese themselves dwelled at inordinate length on their own racial and cultural superiority, and like their adversaries, who practiced discrimination while proclaiming they were "fighting for democracy," they too became entangled in a web of contradictions: creating new colonial hierarchies while preaching liberation; singing the glories of their unique Imperial Way while professing to support a broad and all-embracing Pan-Asianism.

The racist code words and imagery that accompanied the war in Asia were often exceedingly graphic and contemptuous. The Western Allies, for example, persisted in their notion of the "subhuman" nature of the Japanese, routinely turning to images of apes and vermin to convey this. With more tempered disdain, they portrayed the Japanese as inherently inferior men and women who had to be understood in terms of primitivism, childishness, and collective mental and emotional deficiency. Cartoonists, songwriters, filmmakers, war correspondents, and the mass media in general all seized on these images - and so did the social scientists and Asia experts who ventured to analyze the Japanese "national character" during the war. At a very early stage in the conflict, when the purportedly inferior Japanese swept through colonial Asia like a whirlwind and took several hundred thousand Allied prisoners, another stereotype took hold: the Japanese superman, possessed of uncanny discipline and fighting skills. Subhuman, inhuman, lesser human, superhuman - all that was lacking in the perception of the Japanese enemy was a human like oneself. An endless stream of evidence ranging from atrocities to suicidal tactics could be cited, moreover, to substantiate the belief that the Japanese were a uniquely contemptible and formidable foe who deserved no mercy and virtually demanded extermination.

The formulaic expressions and graphical visual images which the Japanese relied on to distinguish themselves from others were, on the surface, quite different. Their leaders and ideologues constantly affirmed their unique "purity" as a race and culture, and turned the war itself - and eventually mass death - into an act of individual and collective purification. Americans and Europeans existed in the wartime Japanese imagination as vivid mosnters, devils and demons; and one had only to point to the bombing of Japanese cities (or the lynching of blacks in America) to demonstrate the aptness of this metaphor. In explaining their destiny as the "leading race," the Japanese also fell back upon theories of "proper place" which had long been used to legitimize inequitable relationships within Japan itself.

These dominant perceptions of the enemy on both the Allied and Japanese sides, intriguing in themselves, become even more interesting when it is recognized that they all existed independently of the conflict in Asia.


As the war years themselves changed over into an era of peace between Japan and the Allied powers, the shrill racial rhetoric of the early 1940s revealed itself to be surprisingly adaptable. Idioms that formerly had denoted the unbridgeable gap between oneself and the enemy proved capable of serving the goals of accomodation as well...

(pages 8-10)

Links (June 2002)

A loaner from the FCCJ library.

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