John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: World War II, Race, Popular Culture.

John Dower's War Without Mercy describes the ugly racial dimensions of the conflict in the Asian theater of World War II and their consequences on both military and reconstruction policy in the Pacific. "In the United States and Britain," Dower reminds us, "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 perceived 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." (8) Conservative readers, don't fret - Dower isn't making this argument to exonerate the Japanese for their own racism or war crimes -- after all, "atrocious behavior occurred on all sides in the Pacific War." (12-13) Rather, Dower is exploring the propaganda of the US-Japanese conflict to delineate the "patterns of a race war," the cultural mechanisms of "othering," and the portability of racial/racist stereotypes. For "as the war years themselves changed over into 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 accommodation as well." (13)

Dower begins by examining the propaganda churned out by both war machines (including a Frank Capra documentary, Know Your Enemy - Japan) and discovers two underlying patterns of stereotyping. "In everyday words," he writes, the "first kind of stereotyping could be summed up in the statement: you are the opposite of what you say you are and the opposite of us, not peaceful but warlike, not good but bad...In the second form of stereotyping, the formula ran more like this: you are what you say you are, but that itself is reprehensible." (30) In this case, American's commitment to individualism became rapacious self-interest in the eyes of Japan, while the Japanese commitment to collectivity became herd thinking to Americans.

Speaking of "the herd," much of Dower's book focuses on the public images of the Japanese in American culture during World War II. These images are easily summarized by the titles of Dower's chapters:

Dower also examines the manifestions of Americans in Japanese public culture and finds different cultural attitudes at work:

"Despite such differences, however," notes Dower, "the end results of racial thinking on both sides were virtually identical -- being hierarchy, arrogance, viciousness, atrocity, and death." (180) Indeed, Dower's argument is interesting not only for its descriptions of the racial ugliness that afflicted both sides, but what it meant for the conduct of the war. For example, both English and American military personnel suffered from a deficiency of imagination prior to Pearl Harbor, a deficiency resulting from their view of the Japanese as inferior. On the day before the Japanese sunk two British warships, a deck officer laughed off reports of the Japanese Navy nearby by proclaiming, "Oh, but they are Japanese. There's nothing to worry about." Another declared, "Those Japs can't fly. They can't see at night and they're not well trained." (101) Similarly, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, General Douglas MacArthur "was caught by surprise and refused to believe that the pilots could have been Japanese. He insisted they must have been white mercenaries." (105) "The factual trappings of such smug overconfidence are noteworthy," concludes Dower. "Prejudice masqueraded as fact." Once the war started, of course, the dehumanization of the enemy in the Pacific led to many notable atrocities on both sides of the conflict, from the infamous Bataan death march to the collection of noses, ears, teeth, and skulls by Allied soldiers, from the execution of three Doolittle Raid flyers to the slaughtering of surrendering Japanese at Bougainville. As Dower notes, these wartime atrocities spawned a vicious circle that, once publicized, led to more and more atrocities. Without the idea of a "good Japanese" to complement the "good German," Allied forces came to increasingly believe that "the only good Jap is a dead Jap." (78-79)

Finally, Dower's book powerfully and persuasively describes how the racial stereotypes that fueled the Pacific conflict did not disappear, but rather adapted to peacetime life. "To the victors, the simian became a pet, the child a pupil, the madman a patient. In Japan, purity was now identified with peaceful rather than martial pursuits...Victory confirmed the Allies' assumption of superiority, while the ideology of 'proper place' enabled the Japanese to adjust to being a good loser. Even the demonic Other, that most popular Japanese image of the American and British enemy, posed no obstacle to the transition from enmity, to amicable relations as Japan quickly moved under the U.S. military aegis; for the archetypal demon of Japanese folklore had always had two faces, being not only a destructive presence but also a potentially protective and tutelary being." (13)

In sum, Dower's amazing book tells us much not only about the anti-Japanese racism pervading WWII everywhere from Guadalcanal to Looney Tunes, but also about the durable, replicative, and adaptable patterns of racialized thinking that our nation has fallen into numerous times in our history when confronting the Other.

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