The Pacific War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Ienaga Sabur is a distinguished liberal historian and Professor Emeritus of the Tokyo University of Education. His long list of publications in Japanese intellectual history includes studies of Ueki Emori, a key figure in the People’s Rights Movement of the 1880’s, and Minobe Tatsukichi, the leading prewar authority on constitutional law at Tokyo Imperial University. Minobe was attacked in 1935 for his liberal but influential interpretation of the role of the emperor in the state. Frank Baldwin’s lucid translation of Ienaga’s 1968 work, Taiheiy sens, provides the English reader with an important critical account of the Pacific war told from the standpoint of Japanese liberalism. It is much more than a military history; Ienaga paints with a broad brush, placing militarism in the context of political, intellectual, and social history.

Ienaga divides his work into two parts. In Part One he deals with the historical roots of authoritarian thought and militarism in Japan. He argues that the failure to develop critical thinking and a spirit of democracy led to unquestioning acceptance of aggressive imperalism in Korea, Manchuria, and China. In Part Two he looks at Japanese aggression from 1931 to Hiroshima. Most Japanese studies of the war begin with the China campaign of July, 1937, and Western accounts often take Pearl Harbor as the beginning of World War II, but Ienaga sees the Manchurian Incident of 1931 as the first stage of an unbroken history of militarism. The 1930’s were a decade of growing conservatism at home and adventurism abroad. He clarifies this approach in a brief historiographical essay following the text, describing “Changing Japanese Views of the War.”

According to Ienaga, the roots of World War II go far deeper than the usual analysis of diplomatic, economic, and political tensions that arose in the 1930’s. As far back as the 1880’s, the Meiji government restricted textbooks that did not stress nationalistic themes, and by 1904 the Ministry of Education was writing texts for elementary education. After the victory over Russia in 1905, the curriculum was modified to stress ethics and military training. Although higher education was relatively untouched, generations of Japanese school children were indoctrinated with Emperor-centered patriotism and mass conformity. When expansionist ideas came to the fore after 1931, few dared to challenge them.

Other Meiji legacies contributed to militarism. Victories over China and Russia enhanced the idea of using force in Asia, and direct control of Korea in 1910 led Japan to an ever expanding involvement on the continent. Even during the internationalist decade of the 1920’s, Ienaga argues, political and economic concessions in China were pursued, although by diplomatic means. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 was a step towards democratic institutions, but it gave a central role to the Emperor and was deliberately ambiguous about control of the military.

On September 18, 1931, the military revealed how independent it had become. A group of younger officers in the Kwantung Army, with the tacit support of the general staff in Tokyo, staged an incident at Mukden that provided a justification for invasion and seizure of all Manchuria. Once the puppet state of Manchukuo was established on March 1, 1932, its retention became a fundamental concern of military strategy and led to further expansion. The military, because of their narrow professional training, saw no options other than force. Contempt for China blinded all but a few to a new and powerful force: Chinese nationalism. Arrogance and chauvinism prevented the Japanese from aligning with Chiang Kai-shek against his natural enemies, the Communists. Ienaga, noting that the Communist Eighth Route Army was surprisingly democratic for a military organization, sees Japan’s failure to subdue China in terms of “the democracy of China versus the militaristic absolutism of Japan.” While not denying the Communist success in mobilizing the peasantry against Japan, it is difficult to share Ienaga’s idealistic view of Communist democracy.

Aggression in China after fighting broke out in July, 1937, led to the Pacific war. Although quick to seize China’s ports, cities, and railways, victory eluded the Japanese army as Chiang defiantly withdrew to Chungking and the Communists organized behind Japanese lines. Ienaga suggests that the involvement in China was due to the strong anti-Communist policy of Japanese leaders. This was only part of the complex and poorly thought out Japanese policy. Ironically, Japanese militarism in China greatly aided the Communists in the long run. Mao captured the banner of Chinese nationalism as he vigorously opposed Japan, in contrast to Chiang Kai-shek. The military could neither win the war in China nor afford to retreat. Gradually American concern and economic sanctions increased until Japan faced two unpleasant options in 1941: humiliating withdrawal from China or a war with the West. Ienaga shows how, paradoxically, Japan dared throw down the gauntlet at Pearl Harbor: Japan went to war because its resources were insufficient. Control of the press and free discussion destroyed the chance of exploring other options. The military, despite strong misgivings on the part of the Navy, went to war with poor prospects of victory, blinded by their own propaganda.

The war in...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. September 17, 1978, p. E4.

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, September 18, 1978, p. B11.

History: Reviews of New Books. VI, September, 1978, p. 190.

Newsweek. XCII, August 7, 1978, p. 78.

West Coast Review of Books. IV, November, 1978, p. 46.