Throughout history, racism has been present in different societies. In times of war, individuals of a certain race may opt to separate themselves with the goal of asserting dominance in their society. John W. Dower’s book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, published by Pantheon books in New York in 1986, explores the arguments made by both the United States and Japan regarding this topic. These arguments reveal similarities in their belief in racial superiority while also highlighting contrasting views on the war. The first section of the book, titled “Part I: Enemies,” encompasses chapters one to three.
Part I of the text provides an overview of the concept of a race war, which arose during World War II due to issues surrounding race. Author Dower points out that, besides the genocide of the Jews, racism was largely overlooked in discussions of World War Two. (page 4) He narrows his focus to the conflicts between Americans and Japanese. The first chapter briefly examines the stereotypes each country held about the other, such as the Western Allies viewing the Japanese as “subhuman” and the Japanese seeing Americans as “demons and monsters”. (pages 9-10) Dower also mentions the similarities in both American and Japanese racism, suggesting that deceptive propaganda often portrays enemy atrocities as unique to one side. (page 12) Chapter 2 delves into Frank Capra’s controversial set of 7 documentaries entitled Why We Fight, originally intended as orientation material for new soldiers in America. The film Know Your Enemy-Japan generated the most controversy.
The film, interestingly, was not released until three years later due to the government’s disapproval of its portrayal of the Japanese. The government wished to prevent the public from perceiving the Japanese as “free thinking,” as it would elicit excessive sympathy for them (page 19). Instead, the government aimed to depict the Japanese as obedient. However, upon viewing these films, the Japanese began scrutinizing Western and American history in a similar manner as Americans examined Japanese history, perceiving it as a record of destructive values, exploitative practices, and brutal wars (page 24). Dower suggests that both the Japanese and Americans portrayed their enemies as polar opposites in order to promote propaganda. In Chapter 3, the final section of Part I, Dower addresses why the Japanese were regarded as worse than the Germans. He points out that Americans only saw the Japanese as “Japs,” while they differentiated between “Nazi or German” when referring to Germans, implying the belief in some good Germans. Dower also mentions the bombings during the war and the divergent views held by the American public regarding them.
Pearl Harbor was perceived by the Japanese as a symbol of betrayal towards the U.S. According to Dower, the fact that there was a direct assault on the American people by the Japanese is what caused the distinct attitudes towards them compared to the Germans. Dower highlights how the Americans did not view their own actions negatively, even though they also launched bombings similar to the ones carried out by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. For Americans, this was a means to impede the spread of communism, while for the Japanese it was an endeavor to advance nationalism and gain independence.
Part II of the book, titled “The War in the Western Eyes,” encompasses chapters 4-7. In this section, the author highlights the dehumanization of the Japanese people as portrayed by American propaganda. The author argues that the propaganda directly portrayed the Japanese as subhuman, almost like animals. Numerous instances of this dehumanization are provided by Dower, such as when Marines would inform sailors that “Fighting the Japs was like fighting a wild animal… The Japs take all kinds of chances, they love to die” (Page 89). Interestingly, Dower points out that the perspective of the United States and Britain towards their Japanese opponents shifted towards viewing them as angry and dangerous superhumans.
In Part II, there is a thought-provoking segment in chapter 6 where Dower introduces studies conducted by psychologists and other scientists that suggest the Japanese are mentally inferior to Americans. According to Dower, by 1944, numerous social and behavioral scientists were focusing on Japan and they collectively agreed that understanding Japanese behavior required considering the concept of immaturity. (Page 131) Towards the end of Part II, Dower makes a reference to the history of racism in America in a chapter titled “Yellow, Red, and Black Men.” This chapter discusses the various groups that the United States oppressed based on their skin color. Dower connects this racial theme from chapter 6 to the different races oppressed by the United States. Through Part II, Dower highlights the hypocrisy of the United States and challenges their self-perceived notion of being “perfect.”
Dower’s changes in Part III focus on the distinction between Japanese racism and American racism. Chapter 8 highlights the belief in Japanese racism that is based on genetics rather than race. Japanese people considered themselves to be historically and genetically purer than others, due to the divine origins of the Yamato race (Page 215). In Chapter 9, Dower introduces the concept of “the insider and outsider” in Japanese culture (Page 234). According to Dower, outsiders can possess skills that benefit the community or skills that may seem harmful or evil. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), Christianity was seen as a Barbarian sect by the Japanese (Page 239). The Japanese viewed Western civilization as barbaric during this time. Interestingly, Dower suggests that the United States was depicted as an “Oni” – a demonic character in Japanese culture.
Dower argues that Japan used these characters to express the belief that “the mission of the Yamato race was to prevent the human race from becoming devilish.”
The last chapter of Part III, chapter 10, explores a document called the Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. This chapter’s main point is that all races in the world are inherently distinct, and it is Japan’s duty to govern and subjugate these races.
The concluding section of the book, Part IV, comprises only one chapter.
In this chapter, Dower (Page 317) discusses the death tolls of the war and reflects on how the deep-rooted hatred between the two races could disappear relatively quickly. He suggests that this may be because many of the stereotypes were not true and some were modified to fit the situation. An example he uses is the Japanese reversing their portrayal of the United States as a “oni” or outsider, making them the good version. He concludes that World War Two in Asia provides a graver understanding of our past and present.
Dower (Page 179) found this book very insightful as it contradicts many history books by not sugar-coating the United States’ role in the war. He makes a powerful point that racism is often associated with white supremacism, but as someone from another country, I can see that skin color is not the only factor in racism.
Sometimes your social status in society can be determined by your ancestral background. It intrigued me to learn from this book that Japanese people were actually racist towards their own people, which I had little knowledge of before. This surprised me because in previous history classes, I was under the impression that the conflict during World War II was solely between “The Japs” and the United States. I wasn’t aware that there were also internal social and racial conflicts within Japan during that time. Chapter 2 of War Without Mercy provided interesting examples of propaganda flyers that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
I was appalled when I examined the pictures in today’s society. Nowadays, people in America are easily offended by even small things, so it’s difficult to believe that this type of Propaganda was once considered acceptable. This raises the question of why the United States thought it was okay to mock Japan so harshly. Dowers explanation is clear: Americans viewed Japan’s downfall as a means to combat communism. It was disturbing to discover that the United States somewhat created Documentaries to gain support for the “War against Communism”.
The government’s request for the documentaries was to intentionally cultivate a lack of empathy towards the Japanese. It was likely easier to achieve this in the 1940s as compared to now when we have easy access to the internet and can form our own opinions about who we consider as enemies and allies. Part II of the book is my favorite because it showcases Dower’s attempt to depict the United States’ efforts to rationalize racism. The extensive measures taken by the United States to prove the Japanese race’s inferiority are truly disorienting.
The text highlights that in addition to making assertions about the Japanese’s inferiority, they sought backing from psychologists, sociologists, and others to validate the concept of a “superior race,” specifically whites. This indicates that despite being one country, the United States is internally fragmented. I found it refreshing when Japan occasionally acknowledged this reality. It implies that not only was the United States hypocritical but also somewhat deluded if it denied any shared characteristics with Japan.
John Dower’s book explores race and racial tension during the war between the United States and Japan. He raises questions about America’s true motivations in the Pacific War. Were they focused on proving white superiority or genuinely trying to halt the spread of communism for the American people? The book illuminates the ambiguous aspects of the war, offering a fresh perspective.