The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

War Without Mercy

  • WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR by John W. Dower. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, xii, 399 pp., illustrated, $22.50, ISBN 0-394-50030-X.

Reviewed by Jack Wikoff

Following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people reacted violently with fear and anger at the suddenly ominous power of the Japanese nation. The forms this rage took in the portrayal of the enemy in political cartoons, propaganda films, popular songs, and psychological studies often presented the Japanese variously as apes, bats, octopuses, vermin, giants, rapists, midgets and children. Paralleling this we find that the Japanese, in their crusade to drive the Anglo-Americans from the Pacific, portrayed the enemy as demons, cannibalistic ogres, gangsters, Napoleonic megalomaniacs, and even dandruff.

The changing perceptions of the Allied and Japanese protagonists of the Pacific theatre of World War II are the subject of John W. Dower’s superbly researched and documented book. Divided equally into discussions of the propaganda methods and perceptions of both sides, War Without Mercy also contains a section of illustrations with fourteen American and British and fifteen Japanese political cartoons.

It is Dower’s central premise that racial fear and hatred were major factors that determined how both sides, Japanese and Anglo-American, precieved and dealt with the respective enemy, the “inferior other.” Dower makes this clear in a telling passage of the introductory section:

In this milieu of historical forgetfulness, selective reporting centralized propaganda, and a truly savage war, atrocities and war crimes played a major role in the propagation of racial and cultural stereotypes. The stereotypes preceded the atrocities, however, and had led an independent existance apart from any specific event. [p .73]

In the section entitled “the War in Western Eyes” the author surveys in great detail the development of stereotypical images of the Japanese, especially in American sources. the Japanese were often repersented in a depersonalized manner as the “Jap hordes” although the wartime population of Japan was only 73 million. Behind such a characterization was the nightmare fantasy of the “Yellow Peril” fostered in part by the “Fu Manchu” novels of Rohmer. Real or not, the fear that the billion-strong masses of the Orient would pour into Australia, New Zealand and the western United States was foremost in Anglo-American minds. Japanese propagandists themselves made use of this in a leaflet which depicted a teeter-totter with figures representing seven Asian nations weighing down one end while Roosevelt and Churchill are seen flying off the other end. The caption reads “Greater East Asian War: One Billion Asians against Anglo-Americans” (illustrated on p. 248 of Propaganda:The Art of Persuasion: World War II, by Anthony Rhodes, NY: Chelsea House, 1976).

Prior to Pearl Harbor and the extraordinary military success of Japan in 1942, notably the seizure of Singapore from the complacent British, the Anglo-Americans had failed to take the Japanese seriously. They rated the Japanese as poor and unintelligent fighters, incapable of flying advanced aircraft, unable to build quality battleships, and incapable of the invention of new weapons or methods of battle. In the months following the outbreak of war, the Allies swung to the opposite view, exaggerating the fanaticism, willingness to die, and mysterious, “occult,” Oriental qualities of the Japanese soldier. This shift can be seen through the large number of portrayals of Japanese as apes. In a January

1942 issue of Punch, monkeys with helmets and machine guns are drawn swinging through vines, underlined with a quotation from Kipling’s Jungle Book (War Without Mercy, p. 183). By 1943 the Japanese were increasingly represented in cartoons as gigantic, savage gorillas (pp.184,187). Six months after the April 18, 1942 Doolittle-led B-25 raid on Tokyo, three captured airmen were tried and executed. The American people reacted in a paroxysm of anger and one especially graphic and now famous cartoon depicted an apelike subhuman labeled “Tojo” crouching with blood-dripping mouth and hands over a body labeled “Murdered American Airmen” (illustration on p. 45 of Faces of the Enemy: Reflection of the Hostile Imagination, by Sam Keen. San Francisco: Harper & Row., Pub.,1986.)

Yet another extraordinary representation of the enemy as an animal may be found on the December 12, 1942 cover of Colliers, painted by Arthur Szyk, which depicts a Japanese Officer as an huge bat with fangs and pointed ears carrying a bomb inscribed with skull and crossbones. This creature wears a plumed cap and full dress uniform with swastika-emblazoned epaulets. The swastikas no doubt were meant to reveal that the “Japs” were able students of the “Nazis.”

The author of War Without Mercy devotes one chapter, “Primitives, Children, Madmen,” to both popular and high-brow psychiatric analyses of the Japanese character. A study by Geoffrey Gorer, the English social anthropologist, entitled “Themes in Japanese Culture” was recapitulated in Time magazine under the title “Why are Japs Japs?” Other articles in American publications were given such titles as “Jap Cruelty Traced to Childhood,” “Jap Bullies,” and “How to Tell Japs from Chinese.

Popular American songs proclaimed “There'll Be No Adolf Hitler nor Yellow Japs to Fear,” “Until That Rising Sun Is Down,” and “We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap.”

Part III of War Without Mercy is titled “The War in Japanese Eyes” and begins:

During the war, the Japanese routinely referred to themselves as the leading race (shido minzoku) of the world. Like their American and Commonwealth adversaries, they called on a variety of metaphors, images, code phrases, and concepts to affirm their superiority - ranging from expressions that demeaned non-Japanese to elaborate affirmations of their own unique qualities. [p. 203]

Dower analyzes in great detail the Japanese view of themselves as a race and nation, more homogeneous, pure, and separate than others. That the “Rising Sun” was used as a symbol of a purifying force can be seen from a cartoon, reproduced in War Without Mercy, from the January 1942 issue of the Japanese periodical Manga. As described by Dower:

The purifying sun of Japanese glory dispels the “ABCD” powers. America and Britain are thugs (the crown of Jewish — “J” — plutocracy is falling from America’s head). China is a sprawling figure with Chiang Kai-shek’s face — and a stubby tail, a bestial mark often attached to the Nationalist Chinese. All that remains of the Dutch is a wooden shoe. (p. 192)

The alliance with Germany and Italy made a propaganda campaign of overt anti-white racism somewhat impractical. Furthermore, Japan’s history of rapid and often enthusiastic Westernization while resisting colonialization by western powers largely precluded such a propaganda approach. Nevertheless, the Japanese were not above making comparisons of the Japanese and European races.

An argument was offered in another popular book on racial issues that was also published in Tokyo in 1944. Readers of A History of Changing Theories about the Japanese by Kiyono Kenji were again reminded of … physical features which on the contrary placed the Europeans closer to the monkeys and other animals than the Japanese; Kiyono offered this … list: “high” noses, hairiness, relatively long arms, lower brain-to-body-weight ratio, thick fingers, and strong body odor of the sort associated with the generative function in certain animals. (p. 219)

Although the Japanese leaders proclaimed a desire for the attainment of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere uniting the nations of the region, it was clear that Tokyo was to be the dominant economic and military center. A disparaging view of other Asians is seen in the portrayals of them as darker-skinned “natives,” “half-naked and implicitly half-civilized.”

The most common device used to portray Europeans in Japanese cartoons of the era is that of the demon. Thus we see the Amerian president and British prime minister drawn with horns and claws. Another cartoon from Manga depicts a head of rice bristling with bayonet blades reminiscent of samurai swords, impaling three American flyers falling from a burning bomber. The flyers are drawn with long pointed noses, skinny bodies, and tails.

The Japanese people were urged by their leaders to work for the good of the group; the nation was more important than the selfish desires of the individual, a theme illustrated by a cartoon of a Japanese woman purging her head of “Anglo-Americanism,” the dandruff “being combed out is identified as extravagance, selfishness, hedonism, liberalism, materialism, money worship, individualism, and Anglo-American ideas” (p.191).

In 1981 the discovery of a volume of war-time documents in a used-book store in Tokyo 1ed to the unearthing of the full six-volume, 3,127-page report, completed July 1, 1943, entitled Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato [Japanese] Race Nucleus, in the archives of the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare. This unusual and valuable document is the subject of one excellent chapter. Dower elucidates the Japanese equivalent of “blood and soil” and hierarchic patterns of thinking, but only lightly touches on the similarities between National Socialist and Japanese racial, economic, and political theories. One of the few failings of War Without Mercy concerns the author’s occasional superficial remarks about Japan’s National Socialist ally. Dower is properly skeptical of the flood of atrocity stories which attributed nearly every conceivable brutality to the Japanese, but accepts uncritically all the cliches and myths about alleged German atrocities that were the staples of Allied propaganda. Particularly telling is the following paragraph:

Apart from the genocide of the Jews, racism remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two. We can gain an impression of its importance, however, by asking a simple question: when and where did race play a significant role in the war? The query may seem to border on the simplistic, but it turns out to have no simple answer — not even for the Holocaust. As has become more widely acknowledged in recent years, the destruction of European Jewry itself was neither an isolated event nor a peculiarly Nazi atrocity. The German extermination campaign was not limited to Jews but extended to other “undesirable” peoples as well. At the same time there occurred a “hidden Holocaust” — that is, a conveniently forgotten one — in which the annihilation of the Jews was actively supported by French and Dutch citizens, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Latvians. It is now also well documented that anti-Semitism in the United States and Great Britain prevented both countries from doing as much as they could have to publicize these genocidal policies or to mount a serious rescue campaign. (p. 4)

Dower acknowledges that the fighting in the Pacific was especially brutal with each side frequently killing captured enemy soldiers rather than taking prisoners, and that the collecting of body parts of enemy dead for mementos was commonplace. He also discusses the cruel Japanese treatment of whites and Asians in concentration camps and the United States' internment of 110,000 Japanese/American citizens.

We are told in a footnote (page 357) that the above-mentioned Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race As Nucleus contains several hundred pages on Nazi racial policies and “the Jewish problem.” Yet, other than providing two illustrations (pages 192 and 194) of Japanese cartoons which include anti-Jewish caricatures, Dower does not touch on the Japanese attitude to the Jews. A discussion of Japanese anti-Jewish and pro-Muslim policies and a more even-handed comparison of the brutal Pacific battles and those of the Eastern Front would have been welcome.

Also, a somewhat larger sampling of political cartoons would have been helpful to convey the wide variety of images and metaphors used in propaganda of the era.

Overall, War Without Mercy is a thoroughly documented work and breaks much ground in the study of the propaganda of the war in the Pacific. It is to be hoped that in the future many of the World War II Japanese writings about the West cited by Dower will be available in English translation. This can only assist in building greater understanding between East and West and may help to prevent future conflicts.