Ghosts of Pearl Harbor

Visions of Infamy: The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans that Led to Pearl Harbor

by William H. Honan
St. Martin’s, 346 pp., $22.95

Pearl Harbor Ghosts: A Journey to Hawaii Then and Now

by Thurston Clarke
Morrow, 411 pp., $22.00

A Time For War: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor

by Robert Smith Thompson
Prentice Hall, 449 pp., $24.95

An Enemy Among Friends

by Kiyoaki Murata
Kodansha, 241 pp., $19.95

Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into World War II

by James Rusbridger, by Eric Nave
Summit, 302 pp., $19.95

Why,” so an essay with the intriguing working title “The Japs—A Habit of Mind” begins, “do so many Americans, after witnessing the devastation and the futility of war, continue to think of Japan and the Japanese in terms of war? Why have so many Japanese a similar mental attitude toward the United States? Is this mutually apprehensive habit of mind, to whatever understandable origins it may be due, justified today?”

The essay was written for Asia magazine by Franklin D. Roosevelt, former assistant secretary of the navy, in 1923—eight years before the Japanese took over Manchuria, fourteen years before the invasion of China, and eighteen years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a sad fact that Roosevelt’s question has lost none of its pertinence even now. For once again, it is said that the US and Japan are on a collision course—a collision not just of economic interests, but of values, cultures, in some cases even of racial sensibilities.

If the reaction of a famous Japanese novelist upon hearing the morning news on December 8, 1941, did not exactly answer the question, it at least illustrated the problem. The news, so Dazai Osamu noted in his diary,

entered my pitch-dark room like a shaft of light. The announcement was joyfully repeated twice. As I listened, I felt I had become a new man, as though a flower petal stirred in my breast, cooled by the sacred breath of a deity. After this morning Japan had become a new country too….

It is remarkable how hostile one can feel towards people whose eyes and hair are of a different color. I want to beat them to death. This feels quite different from fighting against China. The very idea of those insensitive American savages treading on our beautiful Japanese soil is unbearable… Oh, beautiful Japanese soldiers, please go ahead and smash them!

To Dazai, who was not some third-rate nationalist hack, but one of the great writers of modern Japan, Pearl Harbor came as a relief. The war in China, brutal and apparently endless, was an embarrassment; the waragainst the “Anglo-Saxon oppressors,” the “Anglo-American devils,” was a righteous explosion of pent-up feelings of inferiority and frustration, the revenge for countless slights and humiliations, imagined or real, personal or national, or, as was usual, a combination of both. The news of great victories, wrote the historian Hayashi Fusao, whose opinions were as candid as they were chauvinistic, “changed our feeling of tension into one of liberation, our sense of fear into one of superiority, joy and pride.”

This sort of thing had its counterpart on the other side of the Pacific. It can be found in such American reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor as the one, expressed by the commander of an air-field on the scene: “To think that this bunch of little yellow bastards could do this to us when we all knew that the United States was superior to Japan!”

This …

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Letters

White Noise April 9, 1992