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“Reaping the Consequences: The Politics of Hate and Atrocity in the Pacific War”

Written by: Luke Matthews

The key belligerents of the Pacific War, the United States and the Empire of Japan, engaged in a mutually constitutive identity construction that branded “the other” as savage and necessarily killable. This was based on conceptions of racial and civilizational hierarchy, with each side contending that the other was its direct antithesis. During the war, both governments consciously sought to entrench dehumanisation of the other among its citizens. The effects of this strategy are now well-acknowledged with widespread cases of Japanese cruelty, American bombing, and atrocities that amount to genocide. Many such atrocities had their roots in identity formation. This shows how identity and nationalism collide when the state is pushed to its extremes during wartime, and how the descent into unbridled hatred of the enemy brutalises the conflict on both sides. 

Before the Empire of Japan had entered a new state of war with China, in effect beginning the Second World War in the Asia-Pacific, the newly entrenched military regime began implementing the teachings of Ishiwari Kanji in schools. Kanji believed that the Japanese Yamato race was the natural peak of a global hierarchy of races. What complicated the matter, however, was the belligerence and expansion of the Western world, which sought the exploitation of other races to feed its slovenly existence. According to Kanji, the West was synthesised, in historical terms, by the United States; the ultimate challenger of the natural supremacy of the Yamato race. In a History written in blood and iron, Kanji, in the 1920s, presaged a “Final War”: a state of war so legendary that it would enter humanity into a new paradigm of harmony, structured according to an eternal racial hierarchy. In this theory, Kanji held that the critical step to be taken by the military was to enter a state of war with China in Manchuria. Whilst giving Japan a necessary industrial base far-enough inland to insulate it from Western air attack, this would, crucially, imbue the Japanese people with a wartime mentality – a necessary precondition for victory in the final war. Whilst this hardening on the “national will” would breed a sufficiently steadfast population in times of war, it would also work to erase the already increasing influence of the West in Japan at the time (as seen in the popularity of Hollywood and more progressive ideologies tied to Marxism).  

The Japanese state used the occasion of war to enforce a wide range of norms on the Japanese public, which included the humiliation of any form of surrender under the terms of “bushido”, and common rumours that U.S. Marines had to murder their own parents in order to pass their training. The Japanese authorities also worked to suppress news of their own atrocities, whilst presenting those of the United States as systemised and particularly pernicious. A key example of this is the torture of Japanese soldiers and the unrestrained violence of terror bombing against civilian Japanese populations. With time, many in Japan came to see U.S. citizens and soldiers as homogenous in their greed and individualistic excess, not to mention their hatred for the Japanese. An example of such depictions can be seen in a famous cartoon by artist Ono Saseo that appeared in Japan in January 1942. It depicts a demonic Roosevelt (a common representation of an American in Japan) sitting atop Lady Liberty, with an anti-war sailor, a chained figure of military action, a striking worker, and a Jew inflating an American flag with profits. This contains five key representations of America in Japanese war-time propaganda, evoking notions of greed, contradiction, manipulation, weakness, and evil. Sadly, whilst much of Japanese wartime propaganda was fabricated by the authorities in order to raise morale in the face of an American advance, often the atrocities that would be reported were true, stressing the interconnected nature of this identity and enemy building.

Even before Pearl Harbour, the prevalence of anti-Japanese hatred was well known in the U.S. In the past, this had taken the form of notions of the “Yellow Peril” as well as strict controls to the settling of “oriental” populations in America. Pearl Harbour brought these beliefs to the fore of political discourse, and even state-sanctioned broadcasts. Pearl Harbour was the ultimate “stab in the back”, committed by a regime that many in the U.S. already frowned upon due to its well-known use of atrocities in China. At home, this led to the policy of internment , where Japanese citizens were rounded up and placed in concentration camps during a period of the war. Whilst the U.S. government ultimately stepped in to defend in part the rights of its own citizens of Japanese descent as it disbanded the camps before the end of the war, far less humanity was shown to those who actually lived in Japan. A good example of this distinction can be found in the beginning of Frank Capra’s film “Know Your Enemy: Japan,” where civilised and assimilated U.S. citizens of Japanese descent are contrasted with the barbarous, warlike and fundamentally unknowable population of the Empire of Japan. In terms of identity formation and cultivating a hatred for the Japanese, the U.S. War Department and Pentagon were clear with their aims; throughout the war, they cancelled the production of films that depicted the Japanese people as oppressed under a military regime, as authorities believed this would provoke American sympathy for the plight of the Japanese civilian population. It is a very telling reality that in U.S. culture during the time, there was no equivalent to the “good German”. It is also very revealing to analyse opinion polls at the time, in which about 10-15% of Americans supported the complete annihilation of the Japanese people. Also, in a 1943 poll by the U.S. army, 50% of American G.I.s believed they would have to kill every Japanese person on earth until the war could finally be over; a testament to the pervasiveness of conceptions of a homogenous, warlike people.

A depiction of Japanese atrocities in the Philippines and German atrocities in Czechoslovakia in a Washington Post cartoon published on July 1 1942 is very telling. A mass of Japan, represented by the ape (the common depiction of Japanese people by Americans during the war) is seen imitating the crimes of Hitler, who remains a human being despite his own cruelty. Such depictions of the Japanese as a homogenous and hated enemy brings serious questions to the fore. Both Japan and Germany were enemies of the United States, why then, was one afforded the “right” of being human and not the other?

Following the constructions of such stark identities, the Pacific War was the harbinger of a stream of wartime atrocities. A key one among them was the common practice of “no quarter” (not accepting any enemy prisoners). This was met with many instances of torture carried out in a systemic manner. Primary accounts emphasised the hatred that soldiers had for each other as far more prevalent than in the European and African theatres. On the American side, the racialised form of this hatred became evident with the common practice of mutilating the corpses of Japanese war dead, taking teeth, ears, bones, scalps and skulls as mementos. This became so widespread, that marines arriving in Hawaii from the Pacific front were forced to declare that they were not carrying any such “memorabilia”. It also found its place in the cover of a Fortune 500 issue, where a blonde American woman is writing for her G.I. boyfriend in the Pacific, who had just sent the Japanese skull placed on her desk. The end of such forms of identity construction was stark: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the Japanese were a homogenous horde of barbarians, why stop at the battlefront or military-industrial complex?

Such was the material consequence of the identities formed during this period, as identity was weaponized to annihilate an enemy seen as inhuman and irredeemable.


Featured Image: Work of a U.S. Air Force Airman taken as part of their duties. Wikimedia Commons.

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