John W. Dower’s 1986 book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, an investigation of the role of race in the Pacific theater of World War II, is notable for both its depth and its breadth. It is deep in that Dower’s research encompasses a tremendous array of primary and secondary sources, including many from both Japanese and American popular culture, and that Dower is thus able to present the ways in which Japanese and American citizens thought about each other in extraordinary detail. It is at the same time broad, however, in that Dower explains much more than the role of race in the war between Japan and the United States. He also describes the history of the war in the Pacific theater, the links between Japanese anti-Americanism, American anti-Japanism, and other racisms and nationalist ideologies, and the general role of racist dehumanization in warfare.
The structure of the book fits these dual functions of breadth and depth of information. It is divided into four parts. The first, “Enemies,” serves as an introduction to Dower’s conclusions regarding World War II and argues that the Pacific theater cannot be fully understood except as a race war. It is the most engaging part of the book because it consists wholly of new ideas, unlike later chapters, which often refer to and elaborate on ideas presented earlier. The second and third parts of the book, “The War in Western Eyes” and “The War in Japanese Eyes,” delve in more detail into the ways opponents viewed each other in popular culture, anthropology, politics, and religion. Finally, the epilogue deals with the end of the war, the postwar period, and the puzzle of “the peaceful nature of the Allied occupation of Japan, and the genuine goodwill that soon developed between the Japanese and the Americans in particular.”
Dower largely aims to link his broad and deep foci. He thus uses models of racism from anthropology and social psychology, such as the self/other dichotomy, to explain the behavior of antagonists in the Pacific, but also uses the history of the war to illustrate these general principles. Among Dower’s goals in writing the book, as he explains in his preface, were to understand the “dramatic transformation from bitter enmity to genuine cooperation” at the end of World War II and “to look at racism and war comparatively” as well as historically.
These motivations led to one of the great strengths of War Without Mercy: its compelling depiction of parallels and links between various forms of racism. Dower draws attention to the many havens of racism during World War II and emphasizes that Nazi Germany did not have a monopoly on hatred and xenophobia. In light of American racism during the same period, American opposition to Nazism was “hypocrisy,” asserts Dower, and both American racism against Asians and Japanese racism against Caucasians were motivated by fear of the other, real and perceived.
This theme of the universality of racism is one of a handful of central concepts that Dower returns to again and again. Another is that of a hierarchy of races, important to both Japanese and Americans. In dealing with this idea Dower writes comparatively, looking at the roots of this racist ideology in both Japanese historiography and American science, both natural and social. Americans and Japanese thought about this hierarchy rather differently, and Dower’s explanations of why form the most clever parts of his book.
Western ideas of a hierarchy of races, influenced by evolutionary biology and imperialism, described nonwhites as less human than whites. This was not a view that prevailed only among the uneducated or only among those working in certain sciences; it was just as common among the political leaders of the West. “Looking upon the Japanese as animals, or a different species of some sort,” writes Dower, “was common at official levels in Washington and London before Pearl Harbor.” Once the war began, this view made the Japanese clearly other and killing them was easily justified with “metaphors of the hunt, and of exterminating vermin.”
Japanese racism took a different bent. Rather than forming “a Japanese equivalent of white supremacism,” the Japanese worked to define what was unique about themselves; rather than focusing on the inhumanity of others, they focused on their own superhumanity. In a particularly clever paragraph explaining how unlikely Japanese belittling of Anglo-Americans was, Dower points out that the Japanese were literally raised on white supremacism, as “the half century or more during which the Japanese initially turned to the West for education coincided almost exactly with the period when scientific racism dominated the natural and social sciences in Europe and the United States.” It was in this environment that the Japanese turned not to modern science to explain their greatness, but to their own long mythohistory of supposed purity.
The ways in which peoples distinguish themselves from their enemies are of paramount concern to Dower, so this example of racial hierarchies illustrates his approach toward many issues. Equally notable, however, is Dower’s use of primary sources from the domain of popular culture in addition to military, political, journalistic, and academic documents. Dower includes in the center of his book, and refers to liberally in his text, 29 cartoons dealing with race and the war. The cartoons, published between 1941 and 1945, span the length of the war as well as the immediate prewar and postwar periods. 14 of them are Anglo-American and 15 are Japanese, and the collection as a whole depicts the degree to which Americans and Japanese truly dehumanized each other in a way that only primary sources can.
Dower’s use of pop-cultural sources is not limited to cartoons, though. His most salient other category of sources is songs, again both Japanese and Allied. He uses American songs to illustrate the difference between the treatments of the Japanese and the Germans in American culture; popular songs included “Mow the Japs Down!” and “We’re Gonna Find a Fellow Who Is Yellow and Beat Him Red, White, and Blue,” but Germans were not similarly the victims of racial slang.
Demonstrating his skill for describing contrast as well as similarity, Dower explains that Japanese songs were quite different, and emphasized nationalism rather than pure racism. They idealized the Japanese rather that demonizing their enemies, and in fact “rarely mention the enemy by name at all” until well into the 1940s. Their titles, in striking contrast to those of American pop songs, evoke images of purity, though national unity is of course a theme in both nations. Representative titles include “Flowers of Patriotism” and “Pure Snow.”
Dower’s sources also include those more traditional for political histories, such as government documents. He devotes an entire chapter to a 3127-page Japanese Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. This report was completed in 1943 “by approximately forty researchers associated with the Population and Race Section of the Research Bureau of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.” It was classified, had a print run of only a hundred copies, had little effect on the war, and was forgotten until 1981, but nonetheless reflects the Japanese government’s views on race and politics in unique detail. From this text Dower is able to draw a great deal of supporting evidence for his conclusions about the Japanese use of racial concepts.
The document supports, for instance, the claim that “assumptions of permanent hierarchy and inequality among peoples and nations… lay at the heart of what the Japanese really meant by slogans such as ‘Pan-Asianism’ and ‘co-prosperity.’” These slogans were used by the Japanese government during the war to recruit the help of other Asian nations, but these nations were intentionally dominated by the Japanese, and their citizens were frequently mistreated and subjected to inhumane working conditions in support of the Japanese war effort.
The conclusions drawn from this document are important, but not the high point of the book. As with any history of substantial length, some parts of War Without Mercy are more worth reading than others. The first three chapters, which lay out Dower’s claims and approach, are fantastic, dealing also with the subjects of propaganda and war crimes. The epilogue is fascinating as well.
The epilogue is indeed in many ways the grand finale of War Without Mercy, as it returns to the important question of how, given a climate of so much racism, the postwar period was so peaceful. Here Dower argues that the same racial stereotypes that led to massive slaughter were used to end this slaughter: “the image of the Japanese as lesser men,” for instance, continued to be part of American thought, but they became “men (and women) whom one could teach: good at imitation, good at learning—in short, good pupils.” Similarly, “the Japanese philosophy of ‘proper place’… facilitated the superficially drastic transition from leading race to defeated power.” Stereotypes, then, remained but hatred did not. And yet this did not vanish either; “the war hates and race hates did not go away; rather, they went elsewhere.” The nationalist ideologies and depictions of the enemy as an insane, anti-individualistic mob were transfered by the United States into the Cold War, and other stereotypes were transferred to China and other developing nations.
History is not as simple as this, though: opinions do not merely transfer from one object to another, leaving no trace behind. Dower, writing in 1986, concludes with observations concerning what many described as an economic war between Japan and the United States. His core observation here is the last great insight of War Without Mercy. “It is natural for the language of war to be applied to the battlefields of commerce.… The rhetoric of the present economic conflict, however, is historically specific: it is the rhetoric of World War Two.” This claim is backed up by several disturbing quotations from politicians both American and Japanese—quotations that seem all the more dangerous after Dower has imparted his wisdom about the roles of race and language in war.