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Home » Archives » August 2005 » The US View of Japanese During WWII

The US View of Japanese During WWII

Friday, August 12, 2005 Posted: 09:10 PM JST [SLIDE SHOW]

Photos of Japan by Kjeld DuitsJapan and Germany were both mortal enemies of the United States during WWII. Yet these two nations were viewed completely differently in the US. The fight against Germany became a fight against Hitler and Nazism. It was not a fight against the Germans, but against a corrupt party and regime. The fight against the Japanese however bore a strong color of racism.

in July 1942 the American Office of Public Opinion Research conducted a poll to discover how the two countries were viewed by Americans. Respondents were asked to pick as many descriptive terms as they liked to describe the national characters of Japan and Germany. The responses were revealing.

For the Germans, the top five terms were "warlike" (67%), "hard-working" (62%), "cruel" (57%), "treacherous" (42%), "intelligent" (41%). The top five images of the Japanese were "treacherous" (73%), "sly" (63%), "cruel" (56%), "warlike" (46%), "hard-working" (39%).

Wartime Americans clearly bore extremely negative images towards the Japanese. Respondents choose only only one positive term (hard-working) to describe the Japanese, and ranked it fifth. Germans however were described by two positive terms (hard-working and intelligent). These ranked second and fifth.

During the war the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) frequently asked Americans about German and Japanese "warlikeness". Some 41-57% of the respondents answered that the Japanese "always want to go to war". For the Germans this figure was only 21-39%.

This negative view was especially evident in American wartime propaganda. C.R. Coppes and G.D. Black wrote that Americans "did not define their European, and white, adversaries in racial terms. Although most Americans found Nazism abhorrent, they still made distinctions between Nazis and good Germans. Europeans retained scope for individual action, even resistance to their totalitarian governments - a notion all but absent from ideas regarding the Japanese monolith."

This is clearly visible in wartime US propaganda posters. The Japanese in these posters are described in strongly negative racial images. The only exceptions are informative posters about for example Japanese military garb. When it comes to posters related to Germany, the images strongly show that the fight is against Hitler and his Nazi party.

In cartoons Germans were represented by a caricaturized Hitler. Japanese were drawn like a chimpanzee. The Historian John Dower wrote about this:

"German atrocities were known and condemned from an early date, but in keeping with their practice of distinguishing between good and bad Germans, Allied critics tended to describe these as "Nazi" crimes rather than behavior rooted in German culture or personality structure. This may have been an enlightened attitude, but it was not a consistent one, for in the Asian theater enemy brutality was almost always presented as being simply 'Japanese.'"

In his paper "Between VE Day and VJ Day: A Contrast in American Perceptions of World War II" Daizaburo Yui asks: "Why did many Americans during the war bear such monolithically negative images towards the Japanese?"

He has several explanations:

"First, for American soldiers, fighting in the Pacific was felt to be far more severe and bitter because of the tropical climate and jungles than the European theatre, where climate and topography were familiar to most Americans.

Second, it is also decisive that such fanatical fighting tactics by Japanese soldiers as the refusal to surrender or suicidal attacks, indoctrinated by ultra-militaristic leaders during the war, made many Americans feel that the Japanese were strange or uncivilized.

As Ernie Pyle explained, this sense of strangeness or disdain towards the Japanese was mingled with racial prejudice towards Asians. "In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here (the Pacific) I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman or repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice."

As is often mentioned, the Allied POWs were treated far more badly in the Pacific than in Europe. As a result, 27 per cent of American and British POWs died at the hands of the Japanese, while of the American and British prisoners of war captured by Germany and Italy, only 4 per cent died."

This is however only one side of the story. John Dower brought this into stark focus: "The distinction between the war in the West and the war in Asia and the Pacific is in itself simplistic, however, for it obscures the fact that the Germans were engaged in several separate wars - on the eastern front, on the western front, and against the Jews - and their greatest and most systematic violence was directed against peoples whom most English and Americans also looked down upon, or simply were unable to identify with strongly. Foremost among these were the eastern Europeans, the Slavs, and the Jews - all of whom, along with Asians, were the target of America's own severe immigration restrictions dating back to the 1920s."

As a result it was especially people of Japanese ancestry who were interned during the war years. All in all more than 120,000 people. This went as far as US agents kidnapping many thousands of people of Japanese ancestry from Central and South American countries and interning them in the US. After the war they were thrown out of the country because they had no "valid papers". It was a terrible violation of human rights by a country that insisted that it was fighting for free speech and freedom. Very few people from Germany and Italy faced such compulsory internment.

Earl Warren, California's attorney general, explained why this incarceration should be targeted particularly at Japanese and Japanese Americans:

"We believe that [when] we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them, and we believe that we can, in dealing with the Germans and Italians, arrive at some fairly sound conclusions because of our knowledge of the way they live in the community and have lived for many years. But when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound."

But many of these Japanese immigrants had lived in the United States for over 30 or 40 years and were American citizens by birth when the Pacific War broke out. His judgment and that of many of his countrymen was based on racial prejudice against the Japanese.

Unfortunately, some of these negative images still influence the present. During memorial services for the end of WWII in Europe both representatives of allied countries and their former enemies participated. They have bridged the pain and differences of the war years. This was not the case for memorial services for the war in the Pacific. Except for a memorial in Okinawa, the former enemies remembered the end of WWII without inviting their adversaries.

This is not only sad, it is dangerous. It is high time we get over events that happened more than half a century ago. We must find ways to reach out to each other and create understanding.

Keywords: opinion_item photo_essay

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2 comments so far post your own

1 | At 10:24pm on Aug 29 2005, Jim Hebert wrote:
I have been reading your posts on Japan's WW2 experiences for some time. I would like you to consider the differences in "culture" between Europeans and Japanese to understand how our peoples perceive each other.

American's first direct experience with Japanese military tradition was in the Phillipeans, specificaly the Batan death march.

Please consider this experience in contrast with a story that was told to me by an American soldier who fought in Europe. He told me of the time he was captured by a German patrol while fighting on the front lines in France. He was lead back to the German positions where he met the commander of the German unit. He knew the German officer! He and the German officer had worked together on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company befor the war. In the end the German officer surrendered to my friend and my friend arranged safe passage for the Germans through the American lines.

Also, please consider that the royal family in England are in fact Germans. During WW1 they changed the dynasty name from Gotha to Windsor because it was an embarasment when Gotha bombers were dropping their bombs on London.

You see, many Americans and English (Anglo/Saxons) are of German decent. Anglia and Saxony are two regions in Germany.

Try to imagine how Japanese culture would be today in Kubli Kahn's invasion had succeeded. If there had been no "Kamakazi" to save Japan. How might the history of Japan been different than it was? What would Japanese armies have done differently in China and Korea if there were close family relationships between your peoples?
2 | At 03:42am on Sep 04 2005, Sydney Fisher wrote:
Perhaps my own views of Japanese during and since WWII were and are in the vast minority.

Pearl Harbor came when I was roughly 10 1/2 years old. A short time later (probably weeks or months) I dreamed that I was in my back yard playing with a Japanese boy. He was as friendly and jolly as one could imagine as we laughed and joked.

Since then I could not hate Japanese people. I hated the governemt, the soldiers, etc. for starting the war, and the atrocities I heard of, but not the common Japanese. I was sure there were plenty of Japanese boys and girls like the boy in my dream.

Instead, I wanted to meet a Japanese, and did meet a Japanese American employee of a neighbor. I found her to be very pleasant. I still enjoy meeting Japanese and have a good Japanese friend, although we have not seen each other in several years.

Toward the end of the war I couldn't imagine why the "Japs" refused to surrender. When I heard of the atomic bomb, all I could say was "Maybe now this darn war will end." I wish it could have ended quickly without the a-bomb, and still agonize over whether that could have been possible.
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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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