(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Dower’s collection of essays covers many topics; because they do not present a unified argument, the reader may want to read or consult some but not all of them. The subjects of the essays are the wartime origins of Japan’s successful economy; Japanese cinema as a propaganda vehicle during World War II; Japan’s attempt to develop an atomic bomb; dissident thought in Japan during the war; the postwar occupation of Japan by the United States (1945-1952); Shigeru Yoshida, twice prime minister during the postwar period; racism in World War II; and Japanese-American relations.

The most original and provocative essay is “The Useful War,” first published in Daedalusmagazine (summer, 1990). The essay locates World War II in the context of twentieth century Japanese and Asian history. Dower argues that many institutions responsible for Japan’s dominant position in today’s global economy had their origins in the rapid military industrialization of the 1930’s, and not in the postoccupation period, as many have assumed.

Dower presents World War II in Asia not as a clash of cultures but as a clash of interests. “Culture was not the critical issue; power, wealth, and security were.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 (which Dower calls “audacious” and “successful”), was a single event in a chain of earlier events, part of an extended period of struggle for national interests and economic development.

American and British historians tend to treat the 1930’s as a decade of relative “peace,” contrasting it to World War II and the violent attacks against England and the United States in 1940 and 1941. For many countries in Asia, however, the dividing line between war and peace has to be drawn much earlier, if at all. The Japanese historian Fusao Hayashi has written that World War II was the last stage of a hundred-year war against the Western presence in Asia.

Japan had been at war long before Pearl Harbor. It had had an expeditionary force in China ever since 1931. Both Korea and Formosa (present-day Taiwan) had been Japanese colonies since the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1930’s, the Japanese government became increasingly militarized, and this coincided with a successful push for economic and industrial development. According to Dower, it is incorrect to refer to the Japanese economic “miracle” of the 1960’s as an event without precedent. The notion “belongs to mythology rather than serious history”; there was an economic “miracle” that was just as important in the 1930’s. In Asian terms, Japan was not a late bloomer.

The period between 1930 and 1945 was a time of growth for Japan, with profound changes in the structure of capital and labor. It was not a time of economic depression. In the late 1930’s, Dower points out, the United States was still attempting to regain the production level of 1929, but Japan’s average annual growth was 5 percent throughout the 1930’s. Mobilization of the U.S. economy for World War II helped pull America out of the Depression, but Japan had had a comparable mobilization of its economy a decade earlier. The government made direct investments in industry.

Growth was particularly rapid in metals, chemicals, and engineering. . . . By 1937, Japan was constructing most of its own plants, including many kinds of machine tools and scientific instruments, and was largely self-sufficient in basic chemical products. Dower’s conclusion is that on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan had one of the most rapidly growing economies of the world.

Dower sketches in the pre-1945 history of some of the postwar Japanese corporate giants, demonstrating that most of them were prospering in the 1930’s. In this part of his study he follows work done by the economists G. C. Allen, Hugh Patrick, Henry Rosovsky, and Takafusa Nakamura. Of the eleven major auto manufacturers in postwar Japan, ten came out of the war years. Only Honda was a pure product of the postsurrender period. Three of the other ten firms—Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu—prospered as the primary producers of trucks for the military after legislation passed in 1936 drove Ford and General Motors out of the Japanese market....

(The entire section is 1724 words.)