The Pacific War

by Saburo Ienaga

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

Saburo Ienaga’s The Pacific War reads less like a historical monograph and more like an interpretive essay. Written just some twenty years in the aftermath of the Second World War, Ienaga’s book was intended by the author to serve as a warning to the younger generation about the perils and tragedy of war at a time when conventional mid-century literature was trying to justify the Japan’s foreign policy and decision to enter the war. As such, Ienaga structures his book in two parts so as to better emphasize the problems associated with Japanese governance and ideology that had committed the country to the war effort in the first place.

The first half of the book, entitled “Why Was the War Not Prevented?,” seeks to describe the political and ideological underpinnings of Japanese state from the Meiji era until Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and the outbreak of war. Ienaga cites many different reasons for why there was not a strong public impulse in opposition to military engagement in East Asia. Meiji-era isolationism, combined with the near-independent power of the Japanese military, greatly impeded the growth of democratic institutions in Japan complementary to those that could be found in the Western world. Strict government control over access to information, censorship, and an educational system which indoctrinated citizens with patriotic values all served to create a docile population incapable of expressing anything other than the most orthodox, state-centric points of view. When Stalin joined the Allies in the fight against Nazi Germany, Japanese leaders felt the need to protect their borders from the spread of Communism, which had already made impressive inroads into the Chinese state. Furthermore, since the 1930s, Japan had been systematically colonizing Manchuria and other parts of mainland China, and the desire to maintain control over Manchukuo and to keep troops stationed in the region served as another political incentive for entry into the war. Throughout the book’s first half, Ienaga details both the government’s rationality for entering the war as well as the reasons behind the public’s inability to protest it.

In the second half, Ienaga takes a closer look at the conduct of Japanese troops themselves during the Pacific War in East Asia. This part of the book reads much like a social history and is concerned primarily with examining the effects of war trauma and atrocity on the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and South and Southeast Asians. Ienaga provides due coverage to all of the most familiar aspects of the war in the eastern theatre. For example, in his ninth chapter, “The Horrors of War,” Ienaga details the all-too-familiar and extraordinarily tragic Rape of Nanking. In 1937, members of the Japanese Imperial Army, most of whom were civilian draftees, massacred the population of Nanking in one of the most brutal manifestations of wartime violence experienced by Asia. Anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 people were killed in the event, most of whom were noncombatants. Their homes and other personal belongings were looted, and their bodies were dumped into mass graves. Ienaga uses the story of Nanking, well-known to most, along with countless other depictions of the depravities carried out by the Japanese army in the second half of his book in order to highlight the arbitrary and brutal nature of global war and to dissuade future generations from taking an overly nonchalant perspective regarding it.

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