Japan from the inside out

Eastwood’s Iwo Jima: A new view of the Japanese, or an exception to the rule?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 26, 2007

George Will’s latest column is ostensibly about Clint Eastwood’s film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which is one of the five nominees for Best Picture in the upcoming Academy Awards. (Here’s a trailer.)

Will spends more time, however, on American attitudes toward the Japanese, both during the war and after it.

…Attitudes about the Japanese were especially harsh during the war and have been less softened by time…In 1943, the Navy’s representative on the committee considering what should be done with a defeated Japan recommended genocide — “the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race.”

Stephen Hunter, movie critic for The Washington Post, says that of the more than 600 English-language movies made about World War II since 1940, only four — most notably “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) — “have even acknowledged the humanity” of Japanese soldiers.

Read any article about the Japanese today in any mass media newspaper or magazine, and it’s soon apparent that the approach of many in the West toward the Japanese nation and its people hasn’t changed a whit. The demonization is no longer overt, but it is still the baseline assumption. That most definitely includes Westerners who have lived and worked in Japan for years, from the garden variety English teacher to the people who staff the English-language newspapers in Japan. Their patronizing smugness is sometimes so thick you can cut it with a knife.


Hunter can think of only four war movies that acknowledge the humanity of the Japanese. I’d be hard-pressed to think of very many more articles I’ve seen in the Western mass media that come close to giving Japan the even-handed respect any nation should receive. For those of you without direct experience of Japan, it is no exaggeration to say that anything you read about this country in the Western press contains–at a minimum–one severe distortion or error. Often the entire premise of the piece is skewed. And this is for a country whose behavior since the end of the war has been close to impeccable, particularly when compared to any other country you’d care to mention.

I’ve written about this before, particularly in the About page above, and it’s one of the reasons I have this site.

I’m glad George Will noticed, but it remains to be seen if there will be much of an improvement soon, even if Eastman’s movie does win the Best Picture Oscar.

Update and Endnote: Will describes the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, as a “cosmopolitan warrior”.
Here’s a column by Hirokaki Sato in today’s Japan Times titled, Eastwood Didn’t Idealize Kuribayashi.

And the following is a reproduction of a post regarding another article about Kuribayashi I wrote last summer for another website:

Tadamichi Kuribayashi was a descendant of samurai, yet disliked much of Japanese military culture. He graduated near the top of his class at Japan’s leading military academy, yet enjoyed Shakespeare, spoke fluent English, and almost chose journalism as his career rather than the army.

A cultured man, he spent three years in the United States as a deputy military attaché, developing an admiration for the country and becoming friends with many Americans. Kuribayashi spent the summer of 1929 driving through the Midwest in a Chevrolet, sketching the people and places he saw.

As was the case with many other Japanese familiar with the United States at the time, Kuribayashi thought it was folly for Japan to go to war with the country:

“The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight,” Kuribayashi wrote in a letter home…According to colleague Army Capt. Kikuzo Musashino, “The general spoke about his years in America, saying they had enormous industrial resources. He said: ‘When war comes, they can convert all that ability into military use. The people who planned this war in Japan know absolutely nothing about this. Whatever way you look at this war, we can’t win.’ ”

His grandson said he was sidelined for promotion during the war because “he didn’t fit in with military thinking (and) had friends in America and respected the country.”

Yet, Kuribayashi was selected with the hopeless task of defending Iwo Jima, a strategically and psychologically important objective, against the American invasion.

He defended Iwo Jima so well that in five weeks of fighting, one-third of all the American Marines who died in World War II were killed on the island. When the fighting was over, U.S. troops called him, “The best damn general on this stinking island.”

The story of Kuribayashi and his defense of Iwo Jima is told in this excellent article by David McNeill in the Japan Times. Registration is required, but the article is so good, unregistered readers might consider signing up for this piece alone.

35 Responses to “Eastwood’s Iwo Jima: A new view of the Japanese, or an exception to the rule?”

  1. madne0 said

    A “middle of the road” has to be found in the case of General Kuribayashi. Yes, he was indeed a excellent General. Yes, he did get rid of the ridiculous (and useless) “Banzai” charges the japanese army was so found of. But have you read the book “Sorties into Hell”? It describes the horrible torture American marines were subjected too by Japanese soldiers in Iwo Jima. And it weren’t isolated cases. Torture, cannibalism, rape…you name the horrible deed, it happened. And Kuribayashi was the man in charge. Hard to believe he didn’t know what was happening.
    Let us also not forget the Japanese empire was responsible for tremendous acts of terror and murder. The rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the vivisections of prisoners, chemical and biological warfare in China…sure, the Nazis were worse, but that’s not much of a consolation.

  2. GI Korea said

    I just saw a segment on the news where the entertainment reporter talked about Letters from Iwo Jima’s chance of winning an Oscar. I couldn’t believe this, but she said the movie didn’t stand a chance to win because it is in Japanese and subtitled. She then ended by saying who wants to watch a subtitled movie?

    I don’t see what subtitles has to do with what is determined to be the best movie. It seems ignorant to me to assume that only English language movies are worthy of being the best movie of the year.

  3. James A said

    He probably knew what was happening Madne, and it probably sickened him as well. He was definitely a gentleman soldier in an army full of brutes.

    The Japanese have been held account many times for what they did commit during the war, but what about other armies who have committed equally excreable crimes? The US Army and Marines haven’t exactly been boy scouts in Iraq. The Koreans, who so love to call Japan to account for their war, committed their own atrocities during Vietnam that would have made the Nanking ravagers and Waffen SS grin. The Chinese under Mao themselves not only did horrible things to their own people during the Cultural Revolution, but also during the conquest of Tibet and the battles with India during the 60’s. And let’s not even get into what the Soviets did during their slash and burn run across Eastern Europe from 1944 to 1945.

    The problem is, everyone’s shit stinks. And when I see someone calling for an apology from someone else due to some action in the past, I just shake my head, roll my eyes, and move on. Most other people those those respective countries have, yet the governments of most states of course, want to keep these open wounds festering so they can use them as cheap leverage in their political pissing matches. That’s why despite the US and Japan being close military allies, the US media still seems more than willing to paint a picture of Japanese being the fanatical militarists of the 1930’s. It just shows that in many ways, alliances are a temporal thing. Hell, people would be surprised to learn that during World War I the US trusted the French more than the British.

  4. GI Korea said

    I seriously hope you are not trying to compare the very small amount of crimes committed in Iraq by US soldiers to atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. Having served in Iraq I can say that the US military has been Boy Scouts in Iraq when compared to other major wars. The few guys that have committed crimes have been tried and sent to jail if found guilty. In other cases like LT Pantano’s case he was falsely accused and the truth came out during his trial though the NY Times had already condemned him as a war criminal before his trial.

    It is bad enough that in Korea people expect the 40,000 US servicemembers, contractors, and family members to commit no crimes. What 40,000 person city in the US or Korea for that matter has no crime? It is especially foolish to expect with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers rotating through a war zone for no crimes to occur. Crimes will occur, what matters is how you deal with them.

  5. tomojiro said


    You are wrong about raping and Cannibalism. I think that happened in other part of the Ogasaware Islands.

    Chi-Chi jima is the island where cannibalism occured.

    I don’t say that the battle on Iwo was clean. It was horrible on both side.

    I don’t know whether you can understand Japanese, but there is a very good documentary about the battle of Iwo Jima.

  6. James said

    First, it’s too naive to assume that those atrocities were one-sided. It seems that people are beginning to rethink such an stereotypical idea after 60 years from WWII. Eastwood’s movie might have provided momentum to such a change.

    Thanks for the great post, Ampontan.

  7. madne0 said

    tomojiro: you are right. It was indeed in Chichi Jima that those events took place. Sorry about my mistake.

  8. lirelou said

    James A.

    “The US Army and Marines haven’t exactly been boy scouts in Iraq. The Koreans, who so love to call Japan to account for their war, committed their own atrocities during Vietnam that would have made the Nanking ravagers and Waffen SS grin.”

    You’re shooting blanks if you think that even the real (and very few) massacres committed by American troops compare to the Japanese Army’s conduct in WWII. As for the Koreans, please give me a date, time, and place of one well documented Korean massacre in Vietnam. Understand that the present Vietnamese government has never levelled any specific charges, and that the defunct RVN government’s investigations of alleged Vietnamese atrocities (made by several Assemblymen) fell apart upon investigation.

    I have no problem with humanizing the Japanese, because they were human. So were the SS Camp guards. But you will find nothng in either U.S. or ROK military conduct in any conflict that even faintly resembles the Japanese imperial army or the Germans of WWII.

  9. Aceface said

    “Understand that the present Vietnamese government has never levelled any specific charges”
    Vietnam realized they wouldn’t gain a thing from U.S and South Korea nor Singapore,by claiming war crimes,So they come to Japan for “the foreign aid”
    Hanoi had been demanding alot in the 80’s and 90’s to the U.S and Singapore and Japan for either directly harm Vietnam or indirectly got profit from them.There are some description in
    “Brother Enemy”By Nayan Chanda with Hanoi’s challenge to get war reparation from Richard Holbrook and Lee kuan Yew wrote the same attempt in his autobiography.Foreign Minister Nakayama Tarou had resisted this claim for Tokyo had already paid war compensation to Saigon in the 50’s.Vietnam recieved a lot from Japan for the past wrong doing.
    There is a claim one million starved to death during Japanese occupation.A vague claim as there is no backup evidence.But that was the basis of Japan’s war reparation to RVN in the 50’s.

    “either U.S. or ROK military conduct in any conflict that even faintly resembles the Japanese imperial army”
    There are tons of pictures and descriptions in war memorial museum in Hanoi devoted to war crimes on American and it’s allies just in case you may not know.
    Every one here mentioning Vietnam thing for not they are interest in Vietnam’s suffering but to challenging Korean(or American)moral high ground,I guess.

    The reason why Vietnamese don’t have their “Iris Chang” yet,is probably there are too many big shots from Saigon era dominating Vietnamese diaspora community.

    I disagree with you comparing ordinary Japanese soldier to SS guards,Lirelou.

  10. James A said

    Go ahead and keep denying American atrocities guys. As long as they keep piling up, it’ll be harder for everyone else to ignore.

  11. Genie said

    lirelou, if you can read Korean, I recommend you to read this article.
    “죽이는 이야기- 한국사회 건설의 기초, 한국전쟁에서의 학살(1)”

  12. lirelou said

    Aceface, I’ve been to the war museum in Hanoi twice, and I have not seen “tons of photos” on atrocities, though I am sure that they have their fair share. James A: Rogue american troops commit the occasional atrocity, in one case raping a 14 year old girl and murdering her (11) family members, and they get tried in a court of law (as the My Lai perpetrators did). This EQUALS the conduct of the present Vietnamese government when its troops held the city of Hue for four months in 1968, and systematically exterminated between 3,000 and 5,000 people, to include whole families. These weren’t combat deaths (of which there were many, given the “collateral damage”) but those assembled based upon lists and marched away to execution points. Yes, the facts in both cases are so clearly identical.

    Genie, thanks for the link. I’ll get some help with it.

  13. Aceface said


    Then you are right on this one.Because I’ve only “read” about it and went to the travelling exhibit by the Japanese civic groups using some of the materials from the museum in Hanoi.
    Never been to the actual place,which I should have written in the previous post.
    Thanks for the info.

    And I agree with you about the comparison of Hue massacre(read from the journalist report named ex-Saigon correspondent Komori Yoshihisa of whom WaPo reffered as “Thought Police of Japan”!)and the rogue American soldier in Iraq.

    The case in point I think is that some monopolize the narrative while others do not have the access to it or dammed by the world for trying to reach out for it(with case of Japan and Germany understandable reason,of course).

  14. old jap said

    then, you all guys, do you think that US’s “March 10, 1945, indiscreminate bombing over Tokyo” killed more thatn 100,00 civilians one night ” and famous ” nuke on Hirosima and Nagasaki” also killed 200,000 at one time can be justified?

  15. lirelou said

    Damned right it can. The U.S. was building up the largest Armada in history to take the Japanese home islands by storm. As the movie itself makes clear, this was going to be no picnic. The Japanese were going to fight for every inch. Casualties were estimated at 1 million which, if Okinawa was a guide, would mean 100,000 killed and 900,000 seriously maimed. And that was just Americans. Understand that while the great majority of WWII U.S. casualties were suffered in Europe, that was only because it received the great majority of U.S. Forces. Until the defeat of Germany, only 10% of the U.S. war effort was in the Pacific. Yet, ratio-wise, soldiers in the Pacific had a six times higher chance of being killed, precisely because the Japanese Army fought as hard as it did with a “no-surrender” policy. Your numbers of Horishima and Nagasaki can be challenged, but are irrelevant. Until Japan’s will to fight was broken, U.S. commanders had a higher duty to their own men than they did to any Japanese, military or civilian.

    God bless the crew of the Enola Gay! In the end, they probably saved more Japanese lives as they did American. Bear in mind that up until Pearl Harbor, the focus of U.S. interest was the war in Europe. It is conceivable that, absent Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, the U.S. could have entered the war in Europe and totally ignored Japan, leaving that matter to the Brits, French, Dutch, Chinese and Soviets (who would undoubtedly occupied all the Japanese Islands).

  16. Genie said


  17. lirelou said

    The greater traqgedy is: yes. Note that it took two bombs before the Emperor was able to overrule the military.

  18. lirelou said

    Genie, a link for you. Scroll on down to Z Lee’s comment, citing some of the studies that were done. Granted, this is copied from an old blog, but it rings true to my six months experience working on a daily basis with the 9th ROK Division in Khanh Hoa province in 1968. Korean troops were far mor disciplined than the U.S. troops of the period.

  19. T_K said

    Even if it took two a-bombs, the question was whether it was necessary to drop them where thousands of civilians would die. If, as apologists claim, they were purely a demonstration of power, they would’ve been dropped on purely military targets. Demoralizing the population was irrelevant, since Imperial Japan was no democracy. The most obvious choice is to see the atomic strikes partly as an act of vengeance.

  20. lirelou said

    T_K, I’m sure that the thought “payback is a bitch” was on many minds, particularly among those fighting the Japanese, but this would have been in retrospect, as the great majority of Americans had no idea of what these bombs could do. As for military targets, it is my understanding that there were military targets in both cities, mixed in with civilian neighborhoods. Certainly some of the eyewitness accounts I’ve read were from Japanese military personnel. But neither city was a hub of military industry, which would have been more heavily protected (and perhaps another consideration for choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But the essential equation of the moment was: potentially tens of thousands of dead Japanese civilians on one side of the scale, versus a probable hundred thousand American dead and up to nine hundred thousand Americans seriously maimed for life on the other. Every day the war dragged on added to the butcher’s bill. The first duty of any government is to its own citizens.

  21. Overthinker said

    Well, the whole point about ‘strategic’ bombing was that it wasn’t necessarily aimed at direct military targets, but those that powered the military machine: factories. And the main reason LeMay gave for firebombing the Tokyo shitamachi was the large number of tiny factories that supplied parts to the larger concerns. Dehousing workers was also a major factor in bombing residential areas. The idea was to strike not just at the front of the war machine, but to dig out its very roots. Civilian targets were military targets to LeMay (who, btw, was given a medal by the Japanese government after the war).

    Demoralising the populace was always an important aspect of the air war against Japan: the hundreds of different types of leaflets dropped were one angle, the relentless bombardment of almost every major city was another (one of the reasons directly stated in US Army records for bombing Sendai, for example, was the psychological impact). True, it was no democracy, but there was always the possibility of rebellion – and, far more to the point, increased worker absenteeism and reduced productivity overall.

    There is no firm agreement on what casualty predictions were and what Truman was told, but a million is definitely on the high side. Richard Frank’s “Downfall” goes into this issue in some detail.

    By the middle of 1945, Japanese air defences were almost negligible – what few planes remained were being saved for the invasion of the homeland. No significant purely military targets remained unscathed. Improved radar meant that after the summer target directives began to shift to transport (railways, tunnels, bridges) more than previously, though some cities still remained on the list.

    There will always be debate about the precise role the bombs played in ending the war. Some people say Japan would have surrendered soon after the Russians invaded, to try and prevent a Soviet occupation if nothing else. However the fact remains that not only did the surrender come after the two bombs, but, notably, it was them that the Emperor referred to in his surrender speech when he painted Japan’s surrender as the moral high road: a surrender to save greater, global, disaster – surrender with honour.

  22. ponta said

    “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of march 9-10 than went up in vapour in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

    Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at the time……I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal….every soldier thinks something of the moral aspect of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let bother that you, you’re not a good soldier.”

    Curtis LeMay, Mission with LeMay:My story, New York 1965, p. 387

    Mirror for Americans, Japan by Helen Mears

    p69 On February 8 (1944),Frank Kluchhorn wrote from New York Guniea:
    Japs are not only unwilling, but are unable to fight for their out lying possessions, while in the South Pacific, it is almost certain that the Japs can be punctured in almost any direction…..
    On April 3, 1944, the Times reported that we had blockaded at least hundred thousand Japanese troops in the South and Southwest Pacific who “face the hopeless future of fighting until ammunition gives out or of fleeting deeper into the jungles to die by starvation or disease.”On April 11, General Rowell was quoted as saying that “the Japanese are getting so hard to find, it is becoming a matter of distress for our front line commanders.”On February 29, 1944, Secretary of the navy Knox announced that American submarines had sunk almost half of the Japanese shipping. …..A headline in the New York Times on May 14, 1944, we had “mastery of he Pacific.”By August, 1944, we were all set for the mop-up……
    By August, 1944, we had already been bombing objectives in the Japanese home islands for some time. By December, we were running raids into the home islands regularly for or five times a week. Lieutenant General George C. Kenney announced that the Japanese Air Force had lost ten thousand planes to us since September 1, and “is broken and is no longer a threat.” A censor objected to the General’s answering the question as to whether “dangerous air opposition” would develop over the home islands, And the General ignored the cesor and said flatly ,”I think the Japanese Air Force is no longer a threat.”The General added that even if we gave the Japanese the planes, they didn’t have the pilots to fly the or the mechanics to maintain them……
    In March, 1945,however, despite the evidence that Japan’s aggressive power was destroyed, we began our saturation firebomb raid with a mass attack on Tokyo, and by July we had reduced the Japanese Air Force and navy to such a state of impotence that General LeMay, “in a gesture of contempt for the enemy war leaders and their ability to defend japan, ” dropped leaflets on eleven Japanese cities, explaining that “within a few days” each of these cities would be bombed……

    p72 Beginning with the March raid on Tokyo, our military forces were chiefly waging war not against the Japanese military, but against the masses of Japanese people…….According to New York Times military expert. W,H. Lawrenc……the March 9 raid against Tokyo …..was a “big gamble.”……Mr.Lawrence goes on to say that the gamble here was in the possible unfavorable reaction of the American public against this sort of terrorist war.

    …..According to Mr Lawrence’s account, incendiary attacks “burned out 158 square miles of Japanese urban industrial areas and left homeless or dead an estimate 8,500,000 persons,”Of the March 12 raid, a Times correspondent wrote, “The heart of Tokyo is gone, Ashes and still flaming ruins cover the ground where large industry, small industry, and homes stood twenty^four hours ago in fifteen square miles of the center of japan’s capital….about the only part of the city not in a primary target area was the fringe backing into the surrounding hills, the better residential sections,”of the May 28 raid on Yokohama a correspondent wrote;”The city’s teeming throngs…had to run for their lives …..but there was no place of safty. The entire city was the target……

    p74….We reached the point where we could tell the Japs that we were coming to burn down specific cities and then we could go and do it without encountering any increase in the expected opposition……

    p74 The cost to us for this operation was eleven planes.

  23. ponta said

    Prompt and Utter Destruction:
    by J. Samuel Walker

    p4 He[Truman} declared that the two available atomic bombs should be dropped on Japanese cities because “an invasion would cost at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone “The president added that “a quarter of a million of the flower of young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities. Truman’s statement brought the meeting to a close; none of the cabinet members or military officials present expressed a dissenting view……

    p5 The meeting described never took place. The quotation are authentic, but the context is not. With the exception of two notations from Truman’s diary, the the statement quoted were made after the war to explain why the bomb was dropped. Those statements and many others expressing the same views created a widely held myth about the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan—-the belief that Truman had to choose between, on the one hand, authorizing attacks on Japanese cities with atomic bombs, or, on the other hand ordering an invasion.

    p5In fact, however, Truman never face a categorical choice between the bomb and an invasion that would cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. The prevailing perception about the alternative available to the president, which has become an article of faith among so many Americans, vastly oversimplifies the situation the summer of 1945 as the Truman administration weighed its option for bringing the Pacific war to an end .The historical evidence makes clear that the popular view about the use of the bomb is a mythological construct for the following reason:(1)there were other options available for ending the war within a reasonably short time without the bomb and without invasion;(2)Truman and his key advisers believed that Japan was so weak that the war could end before an invasion began, that is, they did not regard an invasion inevitable;(3)even in the worst case ,if an invasion of Japan proved to be necessary, military planners in the summers of 1945 projected the number of the lives lost at far fewer than the hundreds of thousands that Truman and his advisers claimed after the war.

  24. Overthinker said

    Some interesting quotes.
    “Mr.Lawrence goes on to say that the gamble here was in the possible unfavorable reaction of the American public against this sort of terrorist war.”
    More to the point, the main gamble was that the new tactic of night-time, low-flying, poorly-defended mass carpet bombing would produce results. LeMay was put in charge of the XXI Bomber Command after Heywood Hansell’s daylight, high-altitude bombing had proven less than ideal. With little way to really judge the impact of the bombing on Japan’s economy, Arnold’s philosophy was basically “drop more bombs.”

    Also we need to remember that the main reason the March 10 Tokyo Air Raid was so devastating was the strong wind that whipped the individual fires into a hellish inferno.

    An interesting article in Time from August 1945 about LeMay and the bombing campaign at,9171,792251,00.html.

  25. ponta said

    page 295 Racing the enemy Hasegawa

    “Would Japan have surrendered before November 1 on the basis of the atomic bomb alone, without the Soviet entry into the war?
    The two bombs alone would most likely not have prompted the Japanese to surrender, so long as they still had hope hat Moscow would mediate peace…..Anami’s warning that the United States might have 100 atomic bombs and that the next target might be Tokyo had no discernible impact on he debate. Even after Nagasaki bomb, Japan would most likely have still waited for Moscow’s answer to the Konoe mission……
    {Frank] emphasizes especially the importance of Hirohito’s statement….
    The Imperial Rescript on August 15 does refer to the use of the “cruel new bomb. as one of the reasons for the termination of the war, with no mention of Soviet entry into the war. …..In contemporary records from August 6 to August 15 two sources (the imperial Rescript on August 15 and Suzuki’s statement at the August 13 cabinet meeting) refer only to the impact of the atomic bomb, three sources only to Soviet entry(Konoe on August 9. Suzuki’s statement to his doctor on August 13, and the Imperial rescript to Soldiers and Officers on August 17), and seven sources both to the atomic boom and Soviet Involvement. Contemporary evidence does not support Frank’s contention.”

    But that is not the point.

    There is no question that Japanese leaders were idiot not ending the war earlier. And Japanese troop did atrocious acts during the war. But when we are talking about the legitimacy of air raids and atomic bombs, we shold note it was civillians who were killed unlike the batttle of Iwojima, and the point is “was it necessary and proportional”

    As for the air raids, I don’t think it was proportional. It was not just strong wind and wooden houses that spread fire. Downtown areas where there were little factories were targeted.
    And the argument from collateral damage does not hold if it was not proportional.

    As for hiroshima, there was not even a leaflet warning the civilians. And I don’t think it was necessary. I think the main consideration was to end the war before the Soviet could stake a claim for the joint cccupation of Japan.

    The arguments I often heard in favor the allies can be used to justify any killing of civilians in any war.
    (1)Your leaders were irrational. Your troop did atrocious things.
    (2)To end the war earlier,to save more people.
    (1) is irrelavant when it comes to killing civillians.
    (2) is okay as long as it is necessary and proportional, and it is reall true account of possible casuality.

    So far Japan has not used history card against any countries;and Japan should not.
    But I think we should all know that there are darks side of the story on both sides.

  26. Overthinker said

    I try to avoid ‘judging’ history as much as possible. Was carpet bombing a ‘legitimate’ response? Who is to judge ‘proportional’? Cynically, you could say that the US won, so it got to judge. Playing the blame game doesn’t seem to serve much point – it’s not as if the US can, for example, un-nuke Hiroshima.

    The argument LeMay et al advanced to justify killing civilians was twofold: they were part of the war machine by providing labour for weapons etc, and the idea that in the event of an invasion civilians would be fighting as well, even if it was only with bamboo spears. LeMay famously said “there are no civilians in Japan.”

    The question I am interested in is not do WE think it was, but did the people who did it think so, and why? Why were these tactics used, and what did people think of them in the day?

    Rather than comparing the US-vs-Japan in terms of Iwo-vs-Tokyo, perhaps it would be better to compare Allies-vs-Japan and figure in Chinese civilian deaths, if the key issue is civilian deaths. If country C is whupped by Country J and COuntry C’s friend then pummels Country J….is that a legitimate way to frame the question?

  27. ponta said

    To some extent I agree.
    Playing the blaming game does not make sense after the peace treaty and several apologies.
    But I think we can evaluate historical events without politicizing it.

    Who is to judge “proportional”? I think anybody who examined the event can judge it. For instance, McNamara judged it was unproportional.

    People who attacked civilians have a lot to say to rationalize it but it does not mean their claim is consistent with the facts. Interestingly in case of LeMay, he admitted he had been tried as a war criminal if had lost the war.

    The comparison between the way Japan attacked China and the way the allies attacked Japan is a legitimate question. The point is one wrong does not make the other right. It would be an interesting question why the allies who blamed Japan for attacking Chinese civilians by air bombs decided to carry out more devastating attack on Japanese civilians.
    In the end, And it will turn out that the both sides had dark parts of the story.
    I think “War without mercy” by Dower is a relatively fair account of both sides.

  28. Overthinker said

    Two quick points:
    1, While technically anyone may of course judge as they like, that does not mean all judgements are equal. They will range from off-the-cuff opinion to considered reasoning based on (say) the philosophy of war as espoused by various sages throughout the ages. In other words, we need to judge the judgements of others.

    2, With regard to China, do we limit the comparison merely to the methods (aerial bombing) or is it better to compare civilian death with civilian death, by any means? Since it is not the fact of the bombing per se but the many deaths of civilians that is the contentious issue, I would argue that civilian deaths vs civilian deaths is the measure to use. That is one way to judge ‘proportionate’ perhaps.

    The Japanese air attacks on China were indeed condemned. At first. Until the general whose name begins with C and I can’t quite remember offhand but he was the Western military advisor to China did his level best to persuade the American high command that aerial bombing of Japan would be very destructive. The 1923 Kanto Quake also showed how flammable Japanese cities were. It would be interesting to find some diaries or something that showed how senior US personnel slowly rationalised the idea. The only thing I can think of is the Stimpson diaries, but I have only seen the last years of the war for that.

  29. ponta said

    As for !) I agree. And some interpretations are better than others just like any evaluation of an interpretation.
    As for 2) it depends on what you want to compare. Why the hell was it that Japanese troop killed civilians with a bayonet without checking sufficiently if they are really soldiers disguised as civilians? why was it that the US headquarter chose the entire city rather than military targets, knowing the result that women and children would be killed?—-these are interesting questions and the comparison would be also interesting.

    As for air bombing, I think we should note it is also called carpet bombing. Bombs were dropped like a carpet. I heard the story about Tokyo air raid from several survivors. As far as they remember, incendiaries are dropped at random.

    As for the discourse on the events during WWⅡ, I would like to point out one thing:I have the feeling that there is unspoken assumption;When Japanese give an explanation, people tend to think that is the denial of the guilt. When the allies’s side give explanations why the killing of civilians took place, people tend to think that is justification.
    Since the allies were the victor, so far there was little discussion on the wrongs the allies committed. When somebody points out the wrongs on the allies’s side, he/she
    will be accused of red-herring, even in the case where he/she admitted Japanese troops atrocity was horrible.
    I don’t claim since there is only victors justice, and it is unfair, Japanese troops were innocent; that is as illogical as false—Japanese troops committed atrocity and it is clear from the war tribunal in Japan, in China, etc. But I think it is time to shed light on the wrongs on the allies side, in particular when they want to keep accusing Japan for the apologies for acts during WWⅡ and , saying they were insincere.(Again as I said on another blog, I have an US representative Honda in mind.)

  30. Overthinker said

    “And some interpretations are better than others just like any evaluation of an interpretation.”
    Precisely. Which is why we need to stop parroting Japan was Bad/the US was Bad and see exactly why people make these claims.

    “Why the hell was it that Japanese troop killed civilians with a bayonet without checking sufficiently if they are really soldiers disguised as civilians?”
    This is pure speculation, but I would suggest that the soldiers dwelt in a climate of fear and high stress, and some of them were genuinely afraid that if they took the time for a proper check, the “farmer” would whip out a gun or knife and shoot them. I believe I have heard of similar incidents happening in Vietnam.

    “When Japanese give an explanation, people tend to think that is the denial of the guilt. When the allies’s side give explanations why the killing of civilians took place, people tend to think that is justification.”
    Complete agreement. This is one of the things that makes it hard to talk about. If, for example, I say something like “LeMay chose to bomb shitamachi areas as they were full of shitauke (下請け) factories, and thus a crucial link in the Japanese war machine,” then that can be read as trying to apologise for his bombing of civilians. It’s not, of course (well, sometimes I can be tempted to say radical things just to get a reaction. But this is not one of those times.). That MAY be LeMay trying to justify it to himself and his fellow soldiers, but I cannot judge his sincerity just on that. There are records of the US Army that I have seen that are actually pretty clear-cut on the idea that they wanted the Japanese civilians to be very very unhappy: the bombing of Okayama, for example, elicited the statement that if the future of the war was looking grey for Japan, this should help make it even darker.

    “why was it that the US headquarter chose the entire city rather than military targets, knowing the result that women and children would be killed?”
    I have a slight problem with the black-white division of attacks as ‘military target’ or ‘civilian target’ as it simply isn’t that simple. Strategic bombing does target areas that are not directly military in nature. Essentially, they work out what they need to destroy to stop the enemy army, and try and destroy it. And that does often include workers in metal or munitions or ball-bearings factories, workers in railroad repair yards and ports, and so on. Unfortunate, but they were in fact contributing to the fight, so in that respect were seen as a legitimate target. The truly innocent – those who had nothing to do with the war effort, the children especially – are the true civilian victims.

    With regard to the Tokyo Air Raid (or any other really), it wasn’t at random as such: an area was designated as the bombing field, and the lead aircraft dropped incendiaries to mark out the rough borders. Then bombing was concentrated in that area, in waves. Smaller cities had a central target area. Tokyo’s bombing was thus concentrated on the shitamachi, the Americans hoping this would knock out the side-supply factories, rather than the uptown areas. Notably, they did not bomb the Palace (you’d think that would be a prime target, but they feared reprisals against POWs), or even the Diet.

    (Actually, talking of apologists and guilt, etc, it has often struck me as odd that Japanese rightists like to try and minimise Japan’s aggressiveness – wouldn’t they want to strut about proclaiming how DEADLY Japan can be, how much you don’t want to muck about with Japan ‘coz if you do, you get whomped real good? I probably would, if I was a rightist. It is suggestive, actually, especially when read with the various proclamations of the time that the war was for the good of Asia, that Japan was the good guys fighting the oppressive whities [Kobayashi Yoshinori’s Sensouron etc]: I often wonder how sincere those claims actually were, and after reading a reasonable amount of prewar newspapers, especially concerning Manchuria and China, I certainly would say that unless the Japanese press wouldn’t even admit it to itself, there was a very real desire for a peaceful, economically-driven, imperial expansion. I guess my question can be rephrased as: Does the Japanese uyoku see Japan at heart as a peaceful nation, or the samurai-ideal warrior nation? [leaving aside any complications from melding the two…])

    Honda is way out of his element. Aside from some POWs, Japan made Americans into sex slaves.

  31. ponta said

    I am glad we are getting closer.
    Some minor points.

    As for the target of atomic bombs.
    ” the Secretary expressed the conclusion, on which there was general agreement, that we could not give the Japanese any warning, that we could not concentrate on a civilian area, but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many Japanese as possible. At the suggestion of Dr. Conant the Secretary agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.”

    As for the Tokyo air raid, it seems clear from the testimonies that it was not just small factories that were targeted whatever the top dog’s intention.
    And one might wonder if people knew what and how much the factories in the downtown produced.

    Overthinker wrote

    ” Aside from some POWs, Japan made Americans into sex slaves.”

    Sorry I didn’t understand this part.

  32. Overthinker said

    Overthinker wrote
    ” Aside from some POWs, Japan made Americans into sex slaves.”
    Sorry I didn’t understand this part.

    Ooops. I meant “Japan DID NOT make Americans into sex slaves.”

    As regards the A-Bombs, this is not something I have looked into in any detail, but the quote above does show at least an official reluctance to avoid purely civilian areas – note too, the emphasis on “worker housing” (and, one assumes, by extension the workers living in them). This is pretty typical target selection rhetoric for strategic bombing: factories, workers, psychological impact.

    For the Tokyo air raid, I have gone by the official Mission Logs and their statement of target directive, plus quotes by LeMay. I do not know what testimonies you refer to (Japanese on the ground? US airmen?), and so cannot comment meaningfully on that.

  33. Bender said


    I think you are aware that basically, claims that the allies (US, UK) also commited atrocities in WWII are not well taken. Even the use of A-bombs is, amongst the mainstream American perception of history, considered to have been a must, or even “good”- not just for US soldiers, but for the Japanese people as well. Yes, there are some western historians and such that admit that all sides lost their sense of morality and respect for humanity during WWII, but it’s still a minority view.

    In Japan, there seems to be an consensus that the indiscriminatory bombing of cities was an atrocity, especially the dropping of the A-bomb. But I want to make notice to you that, like many arguments going on in Japan, it is hardly accepted outside of Japan, and you’ll really have to struggle to make your point.

    But at the same time, it’s almost certain that American leaders and the military regards the use of such tactics will not be justified in any present or future wars, so I don’t think it’s a far-fetch trying.

  34. ponta said

    The quote shows it was not proportional. Considering the US’s knowledge of the devastating state of Japan
    at the time, it is safe to say it was not necessary.
    (From their view point, it might be thought to be necessary to counter Soviet ,it does not means it was justified. )

    As for the testimonies on Tokyo air-raids, I mean the testimonies by Japanese on the ground. I think you can confirm it : You can still hear the story from Japanese survivors over 70 years old.

  35. ponta said

    “But I want to make notice to you that, like many arguments going on in Japan, it is hardly accepted outside of Japan, and you’ll really have to struggle to make your point.”

    I am well aware of that. In scholar’s level, they tend to accept the atrocity was committed on both sides;they can discuss in a cool headed way. In general opinions among public, “Japan the evil who tried to conquer the world and the ally the savor who tried to save the world” is the common conception. Japan committed atrocity for sure, but that is the only one side of the story.
    Initially I didn’t really care how non-Japanese evaluate the incident during World war Ⅱ. When some Japanese person brought up the topic concerning this issue , I rather stopped it, saying let’s leave history to historians.
    China wants to paint Japan as evil as possible; she has a political agenda. Now it seems CCP is controlling it in the low level. Korea won’t change in the near future. That is okay
    But when the US congress is planning to pass the resolution to make Japan make further apologize after several apologies, saying they were not sincere, that has made me want to say, “hey,hey, Amrerica-san, what are you talking about?” I think the resolution , if passed, will ignite the strong dissatisfaction and regret toward the U.S.among pro-American Japanese.

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