Us and Others

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

by John W. Dower
Pantheon, 399 pp., $22.50

The Japanese emperor Hirohito visited Europe twice. The first time, in 1921, he recalled some years ago as the “happiest time of my life.” He played golf with the Prince of Wales and developed a taste for English-style breakfast. Exactly fifty years later, on his second visit, he was greeted with considerably less warmth. The British satirical magazine Private Eye came out with a cover reading “Nasty Nip in the Air.” Demonstrators in Holland and Britain denounced the gentle marine biologist and Disneyland enthusiast as a war criminal.

It was telling that the war crime most often if not exclusively talked about was the brutal treatment of POWs and European civilians in concentration camps in former Dutch and British colonies. Who remembers now that most common soldiers killed in Burma, apart from the Japanese themselves, were Indians, or that the main victims of the Burma–Siam “railroad of death” were Southeast Asians (all most people know about this particular episode is the heroic behavior of Alec Guinness and William Holden).

It was perhaps even more telling that, as a famous Dutch author and former inmate of a Japanese camp pointed out, the humiliation most often cited by exvictims was the compulsion to bow not only in the general direction of Tokyo, where the emperor lived, but to every Japanese soldier. There was evidently something deeply offensive to European sensibilities about having to bow to Asian masters. It was like a transgression of some profound taboo. The illusion of European supremacy, upon which imperial power depended, was ritually expunged.

Japanese humiliation of Europeans, Australians, and Americans—whites, in short—was of course deliberate. It was partly a matter of kicking the giant when he was down, a kind of revenge for having been treated like sometimes comical, sometimes dangerous, but never serious dwarfs for so long; partly a calculated effort to look masterful in the eyes of other Asians, or perhaps a Japanese attempt to convince themselves that their unfamiliar power was real, like big-game hunters wanting to be photographed with one foot on their prey.

This racial aspect of the war in Asia is remembered with bitterness by many Westerners, and with a mixture of shock, pity, and Schadenfreude by Southeast Asians, but funnily enough it is hardly remembered in Japan. As was the case in much wartime Japanese propaganda, the emphasis in the collective Japanese memory is on Japanese suffering and heroism. The enemy does not really count. When Japanese atrocities are discussed at all (usually by leftists), they concern China and Korea, but not Western POWs. And in fact the treatment of white prisoners was much less horrendous in scale than the atrocities visited upon the Chinese.

Racism, particularly when it concerns white discrimination against nonwhites, has become a Western, and for obvious reasons especially an American, obsession. When Japanese talk about racial discrimination, it is usually about the American treatment of blacks or Japanese-Americans (the theme of a national best seller and TV soap opera). What one …

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