John Dower's Take

Professor Susan Fernsebner currently has the Asian Civ II class working through John Dower's work War Without Mercy. The text, written in 1986, provides an interesting voice in the debate over America's war with Japan in the 1940s. Dower writes in order to establish the racial confrontations within the war. By the time this book had been published, Japan experienced a strong economic boom and began to rise in the budding global economy. As someone who grew up in the, what I will call, "Pokemon" era of Japanese-American relations, I am amazed at the types of racialization happening, not only on the American side of the conflict but also the Japanese. I frankly can not imagine a world where we tend to respect the Japanese for their strong sense of technological innovation, teens' obsession with manga and anime, and my own love of sushi/cherry blossoms. Even now as I write this I am listening to a Japanese cd put out in the early 1990s titled "Tokyo Body". So when Dower talked about the racial slurs, disregard, and overall dehumanization, I am taken aback and surprised. Do I know about the previous history of Japan in terms of such issues as the Rape of Nanjing, the Pacific Theatre etc.? Of course I do, but somehow the Japan of now does not have any connection (in my mind) to the Japan of just a few generations ago. I could not even explain how I make that arbitrary division.

There is a small book review taped inside the front cover of my used edition. It is by William B. Hauser, a history professor at Rochester-still teaches classes even now- and entitled "Racism's Role in World War II" he states that "In the European War there were good Germans and Nazis, just as there were good Italians and Fascists. Neither the American government, nor the American media, condemned all the citizens of our European opponents." Hauser claims that Dower's book won't necessarily change people's feelings towards the Japanese or the war but can at least "put them in a better historical perspective." Dower hits the mark with his analysis of the war, particular the forms in which each side represented their Other. This "Other" concept stems from the idea of an outside force that cannot be identified with yourself and often people equate the other with an unknown force, therefore extra worrisome.

Out of the sections I read tonight I began to consider what are the roles of those of us who pursue the study of Asian cultures and how careful we must be in representing who they are. I think in today's studies we are used to people not being considered being a monolith, but I wonder if we are merely deluding ourselves into believing we do not think like that. If perhaps, maybe, the underlying problems of racism are still prevalent but more sinister because of how benign we make it appear. In the second section of War Without Mercy, John Dower lays out the Western perspective on the developing war with Japan. I am struck by how much Japan attempted to copy the Western Imperialistic concepts so prevalent in the years prior to the Great War. The same wording, tone, reasoning, logic all of it points to a sort of mimicking of that distinctly Western flavor of control. But what happens when a country attempting to copy is viewed as a threat by the "masters" of imperialism. When the learner is finally on equal footing with the teacher, there is a massive problem. The West, although I think we can go the other way and turn the West into a sort of homogeneous group, certainly could not deal with non-whites taking on the global stage. Even now, this is still a problem as stronger global powers ultimately have the say so.

There was one particular incident that hit me the hardest in terms of the use of propaganda. Cartoons during World War II. Like any child, I watched the famous Bugs Bunny prank and fool all manner of potentially threatening people, yet never had I seen an episode as described in War Without Mercy, where this cartoon rabbit "Nips the Nips." As Dower starts to describe the episode and its place as anti-japanese propaganda, I decide to attempt to track it down and see for myself what he is talking about. I couldn't believe the types of things going on within the context of the short animation. The antagonist isn't what catches me, representing the current real threat as a caricature is nothing new, but rather it was the phrases being used, the images being evoked. "Here's your scrap metal" "Alright monkey face." So much for children cartoons. It's all very shocking. Yet, I have begun to wonder if that racialization was a required tool in order to garner public support for the war with Japan. Yes, they attacked Pearl Harbor, but how do you get a larger American Body who, perhaps at the time, couldn't tell you where Japan was located on a map? Then further have them so prejudice against Japanese that formerly "naturalized" Japanese citizens are considered wholly hopeless? It's a mess. Yet, I feel that demonizing your enemy, especially non-white is nothing new, and Dower makes a very similar claim in the fourth chapter of this section "Yellow, Red, and Black Men."

My next thought is how odd it is that we are able to just, as if a switch were flipped, turn Japan into our best friend and China into the enemy. One moment we consider Japanese to be all the same and Chinese to be independent and free thinking, then as soon as Communism takes off in China, we use Japan's proximity and our occupation to "buddy up" with our previous enemy. Bah so confusing! The nature of empire creates a bizarre set of questions that I don't think have a very simple answer.

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

Heck yeah, Tokyo Body!

I've pondered the same things too... I've noticed how we've suddenly flipped around our perceptions of Asian powers over the years. All of a sudden, I hear China talked about like Nazi Germany... hasn't Communism been active there for a while?