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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?”1

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.”2

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 quotation is from Thurston Clarke’s Pearl Harbor Ghosts, an account of American attitudes toward Japanese aggression, then and now. The book’s central idea is that “there is no greater disgrace than to be defeated by an opponent you have previously denigrated.” He believes that Americans, blinded by racial and cultural prejudice, would not recognize the Japanese threat, but were obsessed instead by treacherous aliens in the US. “Blinded” is apt: folk opinion actually had it that slant-eyed people couldn’t shoot straight—just as many Japanese believed that large-nosed white men couldn’t see properly.

Clarke’s criticism of the American refusal to take Japan seriously would perhaps have been even more convincing had he bothered to spell Japanese names correctly. And his musings about current American attitudes toward Japanese economic expansion are rather woolly. Still, his main idea strikes me as a sound one. A wounded sense of superiority must account for the overblown rhetoric coming from, among others, Gerald A. Glaubitz, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. When it was suggested that Japanese veterans should be invited to attend this year’s commemoration of the attack and offer their apologies, Glaubitz was outraged: “Would you expect the Jews to invite the Nazis to an event where they were talking about the Holocaust?” I don’t think even Dazai Osamu had a Holocaust in mind, when the petal fluttered in his breast on that fateful morning fifty years ago.

But then we are not dealing with history so much here, as with legend; the legend, on the one hand, of a desperate nation tossing its last card on the table in a heroic struggle for survival against Anglo-Saxon hegemony, and on the other, of the greatest nation on earth being ambushed by a treacherous foe. Clarke gives interesting examples of postwar American myth-making. It seems that even men who witnessed the attack have trouble distinguishing what they actually saw from movie versions of the same. It is also remarkable how many witnesses claim to have seen the faces of Japanese pilots as they swooped down to bomb and strafe, usually baring their teeth in devilish grins, “with the square goggles over the slant eyes,” sometimes even waving to the intended victims of their treachery. For one veteran, Richard I. Fiske, a marine bugler on the battleship West Virginia, the vision was so powerful that he dreamed of it for years. As he told The New York Times: “I can still see that smile.”

Now, it is possible that some people actually observed the pilots of low-flying aircraft, but the grins and the waves, not to mention the slant eyes, are just a bit too much. They smack of myth, rather like the stories of Palestinians dancing on rooftops as Scuds flew over Jerusalem, or of Hitler eating his carpet, or Japanese soldiers having the hearts and livers of executed POWs for lunch.

Much is made in America of the sneakiness of the Japanese attack. To be sure, declaring war after the first blow had been struck was not a gentlemanly thing to have done, but worse things happened in those days. We also tend to forget that when the Japanese used the same tactic in 1904 to destroy the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, their audacity was widely admired, even in America. Again Clarke is on the right track, I think, when he explains the sense of outrage in terms of American myth. He makes the interesting point that Westerns might have had an influence: “The Indians too were seen as treacherous and sneaky, having no regard for human life or the ‘rules’ of war. They too layin wait behind pink desert ridges, ready to ambush white men.” The problem with stressing the horrors of Pearl Harbor, rather than, say, the mass murders in China, is that it makes it easier for Japanese apologists to point at Hiroshima and claim it was many times worse.

Clarke is also right, I believe, to connect the continuing desire for conspiracy theories (Roosevelt invited the attack, Churchill knew all about it, etc.) to injured pride. Underneath the Roosevelt-provoked-Pearl-Harbor-to-get-into-the-war theory, he writes, was “a desperate need to explain what happened at Pearl Harbor without conceding victory to Japanese arms or defeat to American errors and overconfidence.”

There is, however, more to it than that. For the conspiracy theorists include men of very different stripes. There are, as Clarke says, people who begrudge the Japanese what was after all an extraordinary military feat. Just how extraordinary it was can be surmised from the reactions of men who had been warned, had read secret Japanese codes, saw the planes coming, and still couldn’t believe that such an operation was possible. “Ridiculous,” is what Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department, is supposed to have said after being informed that the Japanese had launched their attack. Then there are the isolationists who hated Roosevelt. And there are former intelligence agents, who can only explain the incompetence and pig-headed politicking of their superiors in terms of a conspiracy. Finally, there are perhaps the greatest conspiracy theorists of all, the Japanese themselves.

Not all Japanese of course. There are many who think the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of folly, the epitome of militarist stupidity. The historian Ienaga Saburo, among others, has pointed out that just as the Americans underestimated the Japanese, the Japanese showed little respect for the Americans: How could those ice-cream-fed, jazz-loving, flabby democrats possibly have the guts to stand up to the iron will and fighting spirit of his imperial majesty’s forces? (One man who never fell for this line was Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the planner and commander of the Pearl Harbor raid.) A literary critic, Matsumoto Kenichi, recently compared Japan in 1941 to Iraq in 1991. He wrote in a Tokyo newspaper that “Japan and Iraq went to war for virtually identical reasons”—expansionism in the guise of liberation. But being a good Japanese liberal, he added, somewhat incongruously, that Japanese government support for the multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein showed that Japanese conservatives had “learned little from Japan’s own descent into barbarism just fifty years ago.”

But still, many Japanese believe that Japan had no choice but to fight. The reasoning is more or less as follows: Japan had legitimate special interests in Korea and China, which were never recognized by the arrogant Western powers whose own domination of Asian empires continued to be beyond dispute. It was perfectly understandable that Japan should wish not only to secure its economic interests in East Asia, but also to protect itself from Western imperialism and Chinese and Soviet communism, with force if need be. Far from being an ignoble exercise, Japanese self-defense was at the same time an attempt to liberate Asia and instill much needed discipline in decadent old China.

These aims were, however, thwarted by Anglo-Saxon discrimination at naval conferences and other international gatherings. Not only did the Western powers refuse to endorse the Japanese demand for racial equality at Versailles and the League of Nations, but the US openly supported Chinese resistance against Japan. As a result Japanese troops got bogged down in what is usually termed “the Chinese quagmire.” Then, when the Americans decided to withhold vital raw materials and supplies from Japan, the Japanese had to secure them from Southeast Asia. When this, too, was resisted by the “ADB” (American, Dutch, British) powers, and when the Americans insisted on complete Japanese withdrawal from China, Japan, which had never wished for anything but peace, was forced to go to war for its national survival. Most likely, Roosevelt deliberately trapped the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, but even if he did not, it’s quite clear that the Pacific War was the final showdown, which the US had wanted at least since the beginning of the century, and perhaps from as long ago as 1853, when Commodore Perry’s naval ships first arrived to force open the Japanese door.

  1. 1

    This passage is quoted by William H. Honan in Visions of Infamy.

  2. 2

    Hayashi Fusao, Daitowa Senso Koteiron (“A Positive Evaluation of the Great East Asian War”) (Miki Shobo, 1984).

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