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 often hears from Japanese is that “we are a homogenous country and so we have no experience of racism.” It is significant that Japanese who have expressed themselves on this topic, such as the anthropologist Wagatsuma Hiroshi, either were trained or lived in America.

Racism is the subject of Dower’s book. He has looked at common and not-so-common attitudes toward the enemy; at the historical background of such attitudes and how they affected the behavior of the Western allies on one side and the Japanese on the other. He argues that “in the course of the war in Asia, racism, dehumanization, technological change, and exterminationist policies became interlocked in unprecedented ways.”

“Unprecedented” is a dangerous word to use. But Dower has dug up an impressive list of examples to prove his case. There is plenty of evidence of racist attitudes among both Americans (it is Americans who naturally most concern him) and Japanese. Science and mythology were both harnessed to prove the superiority of Us against the Other. The cartoon image of Us in the United States was white, strong, and Christian. The Others were treacherous, infantile, bucktoothed, savage little yellow monkeys who could not fly or shoot straight because of their congenital myopia (they all wore glasses). Us to the Japanese meant the pure-blooded, sincere, vigorous Yamato race. The Others were effete, decadent, unwashed, barbaric, arrogant white demons who did not shoot straight because they couldn’t look past their high-bridged noses.

The scientific proof for the superiority of Us on both sides was, according to Dower, remarkably similar. Spanish conquistadors, empire builders, carriers of The White Man’s Burden, killers of American Indians and Filipino “googoos,” all believed in the innate superiority of the white Christian. This belief was given pseudoscientific support during the nineteenth century by social Darwinist theories on the survival of the fittest races. Dower quotes Theodore Roosevelt spouting such then fashionable nonsense as “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.” He also quotes Admiral William Halsey, “the fightingest Admiral” of the Pacific, saying that “the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race…was a question of which race was to survive, and white civilization was at stake.” In these stereotypical views, “gooks” were at best little childlike brothers to be protected, or savage yellow hordes as imagined by Sax Rohmer or cartoonists for Leatherneck, the magazine of the Marines.


The Japanese, rather belatedly, when most intelligent Westerners were having their doubts about it, took up social Darwinism to prove their racial superiority to other Asians. Nazi ideas on Blut und Boden were also freely borrowed by Japanese ideologues. And then there was the more “traditional” Japanese mumbo jumbo, like the myth of a unique nation descended from the gods and so forth, to strengthen the national identity in a confusing and confused modern world. Because Germany and Japan, for historical and perhaps geographical reasons, were confused more than most countries by the modern world, I am not convinced by Dower’s thesis that “the most meaningful level of comparison is not between ‘Nazism’ and ‘Japanism,’ but between the hierarchic patterns of thinking that governed the world-views of Europeans, Americans and Japanese alike.” Germany and Japan were more obsessed with their “proper place” in the order of nations than most, precisely because they were so unsure of it. Japan was not much helped by the superior attitudes of more secure powers like Britain and America, but that is not to say that Japanese fascists were preoccupied by more or less similar concerns as Franklin Roosevelt or even Admiral Halsey, his bellicose rhetoric notwithstanding.

Although Dower is careful to point out that the “race war” was only one aspect of the Asian conflict, one is left with the impression after reading this book that racism was a primary cause of the war and that both sides were more or less equally responsible for its brutality. Not only does Dower argue that “the allied struggle against Japan exposed the racist underpinnings of the European and American colonial structure” (which is to a large extent true), but by linking the Indian wars and the conquest of the Philippines to the Pacific war, he suggests that the latter was simply an extension of the former. The Philippine conquest was justified by social Darwinist theories (already contested by many at the time) and the Japanese conquest of European and American colonies challenged the “entire mystique of white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested”: ergo, racists fought racists and both sides were as much to blame.

Was it quite so simple? Dower does not mention that, as far as the only important American colony, the Philippines, was concerned, independence had already been negotiated. And while it is true that the Western powers did not tolerate Japan’s military challenge to their own colonies, the reason for this was hardly racial. Power struggles between European nations were as old as empire building itself. Moreover, Japan’s own version of empire building, in Korea and Formosa, was tolerated by the Western powers. Not only that, but the first Japanese challenge of “white supremacy,” namely the 1904 attack on Russia, was widely admired in the West.

Were the terrible firebombings of Japanese cities, culminating in the two big ones on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result of American racism? This is widely believed by a growing number of Japanese writers justifying Japan’s wartime role. A curious book appeared in Japanese bookstores last year, entitled The Parachute in the Sky over Hiroshima, written by a former United Nations official named Kouchi Akira. Kouchi argues that the nuclear attack was essentially a racist revenge of a “white” nation against the Japanese for being uppity. Unlike many books about the bomb, this one does at least deal with the history that led up to the event. But it is an odd view of history. The Japanese invasion of China is only mentioned to make the point that Westerners are too crude to understand the subtleties of it. Nazi Germany is brought in to explain the nature of typical Western racism. Kouchi then equates the persecution of the Jews with American policies toward Japan. Since 1905, he says, the US waited for an opportunity to go to war against Japan, and the final punishment was the bomb, “with the basic aim of killing anybody, as long as they were Japanese.”

Dower’s language is less emotional, but he comes to a similar conclusion. After extensively quoting the likes of Admiral Halsey (“Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs”) and Major General Curtis LeMay (“scorched and boiled and baked to death”), he writes the following sentence:


As the war neared its violent end, President Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb while at Potsdam and immediately decided to use it against Japan. This was regrettable but necessary, he wrote in a makeshift diary he was keeping at the time, because the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.”

This is disingenuous. To be sure, Halsey and LeMay, who masterminded the incinerating of Tokyo, were not gentlemen with delicate manners. Successful military leaders rarely are. They certainly had little time for the Japanese. One can also debate ceaselessly the moral implications of terror bombing. The fact is, however, that saturation bombing of civilian targets first took place in Europe. Hamburg was the first victim of man-made firestorms, not Tokyo. The nuclear bomb was originally devised for German targets. Few people in occupied Europe would have cared one bit if, say, Bremen had been bombed instead of Hiroshima. But fortunately for the Germans the successful test of the bomb came too late, so the Japanese got it in the neck, after much debate, and not as the result of an impulsive, racist decision by Truman, as Dower implies.

There is no doubt that much wartime rhetoric in the United States was racist. But this was more the result of war—and the “dastardly” attack on Pearl Harbor—than the cause of it. The way Dower handles his admirably researched material overstates, to use a popular neocon expression, the moral equivalence of both sides. It is as if one were to prove in today’s world that the US is as dangerous and aggressive a nation as the Soviet Union by quoting maladroit jokes by Ronald Reagan, speeches by Jerry Falwell, and scenes from Rambo. Certainly all these things tell us something about popular culture in America, but it would be simplistic to say that they directly account for US foreign policy—even though the link might exist somewhere in the President’s own mind. Unfortunately, however, this is precisely what many people do, especially intellectuals in Europe and Japan. The fact that Dower argues that anti-Japanese racism was simply transformed after the war into anticommunist demonology would suggest that he is one of those people. The Other simply changed faces. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that this was so, what, then, does race have to do with it?

Is racism really a useful concept for analyzing the undoubtedly dangerous Us and Other perceptions in mass societies? Many of the Japanese atrocities in China were a direct result of the very same dehumanizing process which Dower says affected American behavior. Japanese soldiers, through all kinds of propaganda, were actively encouraged to regard the Chinese as Untermenschen. Can one call this racism, though? If not, then what? Was it racism that made the war so savage? Was the savagery really so unprecedented?

To make his case, Dower points out the differences between American attitudes to Germans and Japanese during the war. Japanese-Americans were interned. German-Americans were not. People commonly made a distinction between good Germans and Nazis. The anti-Japanese tone was generally more hysterical than the anti-German propaganda. All this is true, but there are logical reasons that Dower does not take into account. Japanese-Americans, being relatively recent immigrants, still lived in highly visible, culturally distinct communities. To intern German-Americans would have been absurd, for their only links with Germany were family names and often not even that—besides, was one to intern the Tannenbaums with the Schulzes? “Good” Germans were acknowledged simply because there were more of them. A good chunk of the German intelligentsia moved to America, and the entire Western world was flooded with German refugees—not, alas, very welcome refugees, but they were certainly not Nazis.

By contrast hardly one Japanese writer or artist left his country. Plenty of Japanese detested their military regime, but, a few heroic exceptions apart, most preferred to keep quiet. The exceptions were certainly not known to the American public. The reasons why Japanese atrocities provoked more hysteria in America than Nazi crimes were, as Dower rightly points out, the brutal treatment of POWs but also the fact that many Americans felt more sentimental about the Chinese than about the Jews. What light does this throw on racism? Finally, if anti-German feelings did not reach a hysterical pitch in World War II, the same cannot be said of the previous world war, especially in Europe. British Jews of German ancestry were frequently forced to Anglicize their names in order to get a decent job.

It is a pity that Dower does not compare the two world wars, for if he had, he might not have used the word “unprecedented” so easily. For it was in 1914 that dehumanization and technological change became truly interlocked. Paul Fussell, in his excellent book The Great War and Modern Memory, writes that “what we can call gross dichotomizing is a persisting imaginative habit of modern times, traceable, it would seem, to the actualities of the Great War. ‘We’ are all here on this side; ‘the enemy’ is over there. ‘We’ are individuals with names and personal identities; ‘he’ is a mere collective entity. We are visible; he is invisible. We are normal; he is grotesque.” The other world, that of the Germans, wrote a British soldier quoted by Fussell, “was peopled by men whose way of thinking was totally and absolutely distinct from our own.”

Could it not be that mass wars need mass propaganda, which naturally makes the most of the difference between Us and Other; and if this involves crude color prejudice, so be it. This is a sad reflection on humanity, but it does not prove that the Pacific war was fought for racist motives. Just as the fact that Lyndon Johnson asked his troops to bring back some coonskin does not mean that the Vietnam War, however misguided, was primarily a racist one. Racist wars do exist, of course, but one must make a clear distinction between, say, the Nazi war against the Jews and the American conflict with Japan. Jews were killed because they were Jews. Japanese got killed because they were part of a nation bent on military conquest.

Race probably had little to do with this military conquest either. The racist rhetoric was largely for Japanese consumption, or used to justify military acts perpetrated for much less ideological motives, like securing natural resources. Race does have much to do with the incessant Japanese search for a modern national identity. In one of his most interesting chapters Dower points out how Japanese race theorists of the 1940s distinguished between the biological sense of race (jinshu) and a more cultural concept (minzoku). It was like the German distinction between Rasse and Volk. The Japanese saw—and largely still see—themselves as a Volk, but a Volk with pure blood. Dower makes the point, however, that “biology was not destiny, but a common genetic heritage [which] could contribute immensely to forging the bonds of spiritual consciousness and cultural identity that were so crucial to the survival of the collectivity.” As he rightly puts it, “Blood mattered psychologically.” The Japanese problem is that there is little room in the modern world for a pure-blooded Volk. So membership in the international community, with its many concomitant responsibilities, does not come easily to Japan. For one thing, the völkisch frame of mind is not conducive to seeing the point of view of the Other.

This is one reason why the Japanese—with much help from America—have developed a political and economic system which is fundamentally at odds with the rest of the noncommunist world. Nobody, including the considerable number of Japanese who are aware of this, knows what to do about it. Unfortunately, America’s own racial problems, which I think are reflected in Dower’s book, can also be an obstacle to thinking rationally about the Other.

The American problem is that so many races and cultures are expected to wear the same moral hat. Everybody in the country can and should be an American. To suggest otherwise is quickly perceived as a form of racism or ethnocentricity. This idealistic striving for common values inside America is often transferred to the greater world outside. To point out fundamental differences, particularly ones that are opposed to the current moral shibboleths in America, in other cultures, especially nonwhite cultures, upsets American idealism. There are only two possible answers to such reported differences: either the foreign culture must be immoral, or the reporter is wrong and thus racist.

Dower demonstrates convincingly how national character studies of varying sophistication were vulgarized in wartime propaganda. Ideas by such social scientists as Ruth Benedict, Geoffrey Gorer, and John Embree ended up as crude caricatures in the popular press. But Dower goes further to suggest that Embree and others were wrong to emphasize the pathological aspects of modern Japanese behavior. By linking their research to the cartoons in Leatherneck he gives the impression that they were, perhaps unconsciously, racist themselves.

Something similar is often at work, I believe, in the present debate on US–Japan relations. To suggest that the enormous trade deficit with Japan is owing to other factors than the Japanese capacity for hard work, the much vaunted social harmony, or American laziness and lack of inclination to learn Japanese, is to provoke accusations of ethnocentricity, if not racism. A good example was a piece on Japanese economic policies written last year by the late Theodore White, quoted in Dower’s book as a typical example of current use of war rhetoric. And war rhetoric, as his book tries to make clear, was racist. Indeed, White’s article was widely attacked for being racist.

But was It? His tone was certainly emotional and thus perhaps ill-judged. But the actual words he used revealed the background to his outburst. Recalling his presence on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered, he wrote: “I bristled at the sight of them. I had seen the Japanese blast and flame Chungqing, the city I had lived in years before, then bring their planes down to machine-gun people in the streets.” This is not the voice of a white supremacist but, if anything, of a Chinese nationalist. Inappropriate perhaps for a piece on the trade problem, but surely not racist. The rest of the article contains some factual errors, but is on the whole a coherently argued analysis of the dangers inherent in the Japanese trading system.

The term “racist,” like “fascist,” has lost much of its meaning through too much and imprecise use. Dower’s book, though useful as a picture of the stupidity that human conflict can unleash, would have been stronger had he been less inclined to find a racial explanation for almost anything. At the very least racism should have been more clearly defined. Understanding is the only way to break down the barrier between Us and Other; racism is one thing holding this up, but misplaced racial guilt is surely another.

This Issue

August 14, 1986