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The Pacific War

Pacific War, 1931-1945

Generally speaking, any book about the Pacific War will always get my attention. So when I came across Saburo Ienaga's book The Pacific War: World War II and the Japanese, 1931 - 1945, at a local library sale a while back, the cover alone was worth the sole dollar bill I had to fork over for it. It is a first American edition in near mint condition, selling for about $20 online, so it was a sweet deal.

I had seen Ienaga's book listed in bibliographies of other books I have read, and it has been on my reading list for quite a while. A new paperback edition was published by Random House in 1979 and has had several printings. It sells for around $12 online.

The book is an English translation from the original Japanese version. Other books translated from Japanese I have read have been a bit bumpy - kind of like the English voice overs in old Japanese movies (like Godzilla, circa 1954). Something seemed to be out of sync. In Ienaga's book, the translation is done well. I did not experience any problems.

The Japanese historian Saburo Ienaga spent most of his life challenging his government's censorship of academic textbooks. His motivation was to educate the Japanese people about his country's wartime atrocities. As a young high school teacher, he was part of the system used to indoctrinate young minds with wartime propaganda and foster students' motivation to fight for and follow blindly a divine emperor. Back then, the militaristic government's controls over education made him fearful of expressing dissent.

After the war, the education ministry disapproved a high school textbook he had written because it included vivid accounts of Japanese wartime atrocities: the 1937 Nanking massacre, the army's germ warfare unit (Unit 731) and its inhumane experiments on Chinese prisoners, the forced suicides of Okinawan citizens by the military, and the use of Korean women as sex-slaves for Japanese troops. The government felt his book was too critical of Japanese actions in World War II, and that it did not accurately portray the wartime government's actions and principles.

This episode was the start of a 32-year battle in and out of the courts between Ienaga and the government over whose version of the World War II attrocities was correct and whether the government's censorship policy was appropriate. More than anything else, Ienaga was seeking a moral victory. He won very little else out of all the court cases. He was, however, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and 2001. Today the Japanese government favors a view of its history that is less critical of its past, a development which Ienaga, who died in 2002, would be very unhappy with.

His book is a fascinating look at World War II from the Japanese perspective and a vivid narrative of life in a state-controlled society. For them, World War II began with the Japanese army's 1931 takeover in Manchuria. (In fact, the attack on Pearl Harbor is not mentioned in Ienaga's book until page 135.) Ienaga maintains that Japan's primary concern was the Chinese communists. They could foment trouble within the Korean and Chinese working classes, which could negatively affect the flow of food, raw and manufactured materials, and cheap labor to the homeland from these Far East acquisitions. This in turn could ignite unrest at home and impede Japan's gears of war. If this happened, the militarists could lose control of the government. The militarists did not fear America and the other western powers as much. It was always felt they would sue for peace after Japan secured its initial conquests in the Pacific.

Of particular interest is Ienaga's analysis of the Japanese wartime education system. Children were taught to hate the Chinese and Korean foreigners through memorization of racist poems. "Chinka, Chinka, Chinka, they're ugly and they stinka" is one such verse used to instill hatred for these people. In addition, young boys learned that when they became old enough to join the army it was their duty kill these inferior people. Unfortunately, this type of cruel behavior was used on other people from other cultures throughout the Pacific, as well. This state-sanctioned brutality was also responsible for the kamikaze pilots, the killing of wounded Japanese soldiers by their peers, the "Rape of Nanking," and the Bataan Death March. Ienaga also excoriates the Americans for their inhumanity in the use of atomic bombs and in the fire-bombing of Tokyo.