Japanese Reflections on World War II and the American Occupation

Chandar Sundaram

Of all the home fronts of the major combatants of Second World War, only Japan’s remains largely off the radar, perhaps because of linguistic and cultural challenges, perhaps a tinge of ‘exotic stereotyping’, and the Japanese reluctance to fully come to grips with their wartime experience. Even today, seven decades after the end of the conflict, good, analytical, English-language works on the topic are rare. Unfortunately, the book under review is not one of them.

The mediocrity of the book is apparent very early, and continues unabated throughout. The title is misleading. The reader expects a wide ranging treatise on Japan’s experience of the Second World War and the American occupation as a whole. However, the book only deals with one prefecture’s experience. Therefore, a more accurate title would have been ‘Lost Voices of Oita Prefecture During World War II and the American Occupation’It is largely an oral history, assembling the testimonies of 43 – not 40, as the back blurb erroneously indicates – Japanese men and women from Oita who experienced the Second World War and the American occupation. These interviews were recorded during 2012–13, meaning that the interviewees were of advanced years. In their introduction, the authors state that they have employed two methodologies: Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss’ grounded theory, which is essentially an inductive process in which researchers first gather evidence on a certain topic, then construct a theory out of that evidence; and Alessandro Portelli’s thick dialogue interviewing technique, where ‘questions arise dialectically from the answers’, without the interference of the interviewer. (pp. 12-13). Problem is, the authors only do half the job: theory formulation has not been done, and questions are absent. The resulting book is a confused mishmash: it is neither an empirical history nor a straight memoir, which severely limits its use to scholars. What’s more, the interviewees testimonies – many of which the authors neglect to adequately source – have been taken at face value, without the nuanced and historical mediating that is essential when dealing with oral memories from seven decades ago.

Such historical nuance and context could have been provided by the following works, which the authors have not engaged with, or even mentioned: Michio Takeyama, The Scars of War: Tokyo during World War II, Writings of Takeyama Michio (ed. and trans. Richard H. Minear, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); David C. Earhart, Certain Victory: Images of World War II in the Japanese Media (Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 2008); Benjamin T. Uchiyama, Carnival war: A cultural history of wartime Japan, 1937–1945 (PhD diss.: University of Southern California, 2013); Samuel Hideo Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940–1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015); Frank Gibney (ed.), Sensō: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War, Letters to the Editor of the Asahi Shimbun (trans. Beth Cary, Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1995); and John Dower’s magisterial Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 1999). In addition to the last mentioned work, the chapters dealing with the American occupation could have profited from Geoffrey Best, Humanity in Warfare: The Modern History of the International Law of Armed Conflicts, (London: Methuen, 1983). Needless to say, the bibliography is deficient.

The book is marred by feeble analysis. In chapter 12, for example, the authors present potted biographies of Generals Anami and Umezu, Admiral Toyoda, and Foreign Minister Shigemitsu – all members of Emperor Hirohito’s Supreme War Council – on the sole grounds that they hailed from Oita Prefecture. The authors hail the fact that such powerful Japanese leaders came from such a small place as ‘a striking phenomenon’, but rather than analyzing whether other Japanese leaders came from ‘small places’, as assiduous historians would have done, they draw a glib hypothetical parallel with the United States. Indeed, how this chapter is relevant to the general theme of the book is unexplained by the authors. Besides, Oita, though small, was not insignificant: it is on the Kyushu coast, not far from Hiroshima, the Japanese wartime naval academy at Etajima, and the wartime anchorage of the powerful Japanese combined fleet. In their conclusion, Porter and Porter castigate Japanese hobby stores for stocking scale models of the Second World War Japanese warships and the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, while seemingly not realizing that hobby stores in the west do much the same thing, with their models of Spitfires, Mustangs, Superfortresses, and the USS Missouri. And why, in a book about Oita, are so many pages devoted to the battle of Okinawa, and to the memoir of the American Marine, E. B. Sledge?

The book is also execrably copy-edited. For example, there is nothing ‘cryptic’ about the diary of Oita’s elementary school principal. The entries reproduced on pages 127-28 are terse, but in no way mysterious. And, as any good English dictionary will show, you ‘clench’ your teeth, instead of ‘clinching’ them, as is mistakenly written (p. 119). The reference to an American fighter ‘jet’ is wrong (p. 97). As students of the Pacific War will know, jet fighters were not part of the American arsenal at that time. Other anachronisms concern place names. During the Second World War, ‘Indonesia’ (p. 67) was the Dutch East Indies, ‘Malaysia’ (p. 37) was Malaya, and ‘Busan’ (p. 213) was Pusan. And why does ‘Hungary’ appear in the title of chapter 15, when even a schoolchild could have understood that what was meant was ‘hungry’? Such mistakes should not appear in the publication of a university press. The maps (p. 16) are poor. One has been downloaded from Wikipedia, and the other, showing key locations in Oita during the war, is hard to read, and does not show details such as road and rail networks, military installations, and factories.

To conclude, this is a rather inferior product, which does not justify its expensive price tag. This is a pity, because the interview excerpts are generally poignant and moving. Had the authors reproduced the interviews in full, with an extensive historical introduction, and detailed explanatory notes, the results would have been much better. The memories of the interviewees are ill-served by this book.