War Without Mercy

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Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.


In the struggle that has come down to us as the Second World War, the role of race played a very significant role as a potent motivator and justifier of any number of ghastly deeds. While the Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy is one of the more well-known examples in Europe, the role and degree that race played in the Far Eastern war was just as destructive. In his book War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John W. Dower argues that the “race card” was held and played by Americans and Japanese in a brand of violence that was almost primitive in its ferocity and that the seeds of this racial conflict lay in the racial stereotypes and the views of manifest destiny held by the respective parties.

For the Japanese, the concept of purity was an essential cultural icon: purity of mind, motive, and action. One of the most enduring ways to express purity was through sacrifice. While all races were capable of purity and sacrifice, the Japanese saw themselves as endowed with particular gifts in this regard that placed them above all other peoples. When Japan was opened to the West after 1853, this relationship between purity and sacrifice--as well as the preeminence of Japan--took on a much greater weight as Japanese leaders used this traditional value system to enjoin the masses to embrace sacrifice for the advancement of Japan, since this was their ultimate destiny. While common Japanese folk were not unresponsive to this co-opting of a traditional value system, their élan rarely matched the intensity of their leaders’ exhortations to embrace a strict regime of behavior that rejected individualism and endorsed communal benefit.

Whether the source of the Japanese militarism was (a) the self-serving dogma taking root among the general population, (b) domestic economic/population pressure that grew too great, or (c) a series of Western slights that were grossly incompatible with Japanese cultural ideals, the answer is beyond the scope of Dower's narrative. However, at some point, the Japanese began to look beyond their shores for an imperial future.

The Japanese Empire--called the Co-prosperity Sphere--was a peculiar blend of mercantilism and anti-Western imperialism. Invoking the spirit of Pan Asianism, the Japanese called on the yellow and brown races to throw off the shackles of the Western imperial powers and join them in forming a purely Asian association. Within this bloc, subject peoples and nations would labor in tasks suitable to their eugenic aptitudes. Japan--via direct imperial authority and expatriated Japanese--would hold the preeminent position by virtue of their gift for purity, sacrifice, and destiny.

The practical effect of the Japanese focus on Pan Asianism was the projection of Japanese dominance. Japanese authority was autocratically applied in every nation under Japanese authority. This authority unflinchingly slaughtered legions of subject peoples, secure in the justification that since only the Japanese could embrace purity, these subject races were less than pure; this condition made these subject people less-than-human obstacles to the vital new world order the Japanese were striving to create. The urgency of this crusade and the relation of sacrifice to purity would engender the suicidal fighting habits of the Japanese military, particularly in the later stages of the war.

But to adherents of the Japanese manifest destiny, the greatest obstacle of all was the Western axes of Great Britain and the United States. Both nations were seen as ponderous relics of a passing age, whose addiction to capitalism and individualism--as well as their tradition of imperialism--made them appear morally corrupt, even as the Japanese admired their industrial might. Thus, Westerners on the whole were found wanting in terms of purity, but dangerous in terms of industrial might. This made them a threat to the Co-prosperity Sphere that would have to be marginalized if the Japanese were to take their rightful place as masters of the Western Pacific Rim.

U.S. interests in the West Pacific went back to the last decades of the 19th century, when a new thirst for overseas markets and imperial possessions had gripped the Americans. Beginning in the early days of U.S. imperialism, a quiet concern had taken root in U.S. foreign affairs that came to be called the Yellow Peril. This concept, first applied to the Chinese, argued that America might be conquered if all of the vast yellow and brown peoples of the Western Pacific could be unified under a single authority and armed with modern weapons. Initially, Japan seemed like a long shot to serve as this single authority. The Japanese had a reputation as a race that was unskilled, physically weak, and unable to build a culture of their own. But in late 1941 this would all change.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor opened a rush to reevaluate U.S. understanding of the Japanese. Clearly, the Americans thought, here was the personification of the Yellow Peril: an aggressive industrialized state seeking an empire to directly threaten the United states. But the reevaluation went much farther than that.

In describing the Japanese psyche, U.S. experts stated that due to long isolation, a suppression of individualism, and harsh child-rearing practices, the Japanese were prone to feelings of inferiority and anger. The experts also believed that the Japanese had serious anal/phallic fixations that fostered a childish/adolescent mentality that was emotionally immature. This then explained the tribal character of Japanese society, as well as its lack of adherence to Western international practices and its unquenchable thirst for economic and territorial domination.

This vision of immaturity and tribal conduct led to a popular U.S. perception of the Japanese as primitive. Harsh racial bigotry found this view a ready point of departure for images of the Japanese as simian brutes who could only recognize coercion. For many Americans, this view was all too believable, and it encouraged and enabled them to believe that the Japanese could only be beaten through genocide. Degrees of this mentality justified the Americans’ use of their most terrible weapons to kill as many Japanese as possible, for if they were not defeated in this fashion, the threat of Yellow Peril might resurface within a generation.

To hate is one thing, to fight is another. When these two imperatives coincide, the results can be frighteningly vicious. During the Pacific phase of the Second World War, the Japanese and Americans were locked in a struggle in which the former sought their rightful place as a superpower while the latter sought to destroy the Yellow Peril. To this was added racial hatred, as the Americans saw the Japanese as primitive simians who could only be curbed with violence, and the Japanese saw the Americans as a tainted race that must be marginalized. Thus both sides found themselves in a position in which they had to fight and couldn't lose. From this desperation came the kamikaze and the fire-bombing of Tokyo.


Dower's approach of bringing the role of race into the consideration of the Second World War is quite refreshing. Most racial considerations of the war focus on the eugenics of the Nazis; but Dower sees this factor has having a great influence on the Pacific war. Whereas most histories feature descriptions of the Japanese motivation to gain economic dominance on the west rim of the Pacific, Dower concentrates on what caused this motivation. He then cross-reverences this Japanese ethnocentrism with America's tradition of racism leaving his readers to conclude that America and Japan were more alike then they were different. One cannot help but wonder if this similarity contributed to the brutal nature of the wartime message the two nations presented to their respective populations; for only by manufacturing a difference between the two cultures could the violent acts of the war be justified.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

Dower attempts to answer the question of why the war in the Pacific theater was so much more brutal than that in Europe? His answer: racism. He uncovers the roots of that racism in America’s past and tirelessly analyzes wartime propaganda that supported/spread the racism across the Western world. What makes this work so interesting is his examination of this wartime racism from a Japanese perspective. American racism and the means by which Americans justify and encourage racism are fairly well known to American historians (rooted in colonialism, Native Americans, African Americans, etc.) but the reasons why the Japanese felt racially superior are lesser known- this makes up half of Dower’s extensively researched work. Americans were fighting to exterminate the Japanese vermin who were racially inferior, often likened to monkeys. The Japanese were fighting to maintain their historically supported purity, morality and hierarchy (values they believed the Americans sorely lacked). The Japanese saw Americans as demons or monsters. Both sides used their uncanny ability to dehumanize the other to justify their savagery toward them in battle. Dower also examines how easily these symbols or stereotypes were adapted to support postwar peace- the reason he argues that Japan and America both were able to set aside the atrocities committed during the war and work together in relative harmony following the Allies’ victory.

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