Racism in the Pacific War

Quoting from ‘Battle: A history of combat and culture’, by John A. Lynn, ‘during the Pacific War, both Americans and Japanese could not understand each other’s values and behaviours, to the point each thought the other less than human; being not just enemies, but almost a separate species’. Lynn suggests that the Pacific War was a race war, ‘powered by mutual hatreds and stereotyping’. He quotes historian Allan Nevis in is 1946 essay, ‘How we felt about the war’, when he says that, “Probably in all our history, no foe has been so detested as were the Japanese;” the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atrocities committed against American prisoners of war in the Philippines being cited as the reason for this attitude. 

The American media stoked this racial flame, using the language of hate, referring to the Japanese as ‘Them (sic) yellow monkeys’, whilst political cartoons portrayed the Japanese as buck-toothed, bespectacled monkeys wearing Japanese uniforms. Even Warner Bros got in on this stereotyping act, with our lovable rabbit, Bugs Bunny calling one Japanese soldier ‘monkey-face’, as he hands out grenades disguised as ice lollies. (See at Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxtlcrIkIbI). 

In 1943 a propaganda film was produced called ‘Know your enemy: Japan’, which further demonised the Japanese. This can be watched on both Youtube and Netflix.

In an attempt to protect the Chinese population of America, Life magazine produced a guide on ‘How to tell Japs from Chinese’. However, this racism did not suggest the Japanese were inferior fighters, as in 1942 the soldier’s magazine Yank described them as being ‘a born jungle and night fighter’; an illusion of invincibility that was not shattered until the Battle of Midway, (June 1942).

I attribute the disaster at Pearl Harbor on this racism; because pre-war intelligence regarding the ability of Japanese aviators and aircraft designers was ignored, even when this came from Americans fighting with the Chinese ‘Flying Tigers’. The Japanese were deemed unable to be aviators because of the way they were carried as babies. Clearly there was no study into this, and the reports of the ability of the Mitsubishi Zero were said to be ‘exaggerated’. America learned different on the morning of December 7th 1941.

However, this racism, combined with the hatred caused by the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor led to a brutal conflict in the Pacific. For example, during the battle of Tarawa, Marines were said to have shouted, “No prisoners” as their battle cry, and during the battle for Saipan 97% of the Japanese garrison died.

Being fed stories of rape, torture and executions by their government, thousands of civilians also killed themselves during the American invasion of the home islands. Terrified mothers killed themselves and their children, one being filmed by a U.S. combat cameraman on Saipan.  The mother looked at him, before throwing herself off of a cliff whilst clutching her baby. Such was the terror that the Japanese government had induced in the population.  (When interviewed, the cameraman speculated that she may have thought the camera he was using, to which he had fitted a stock to make it easier to control, was a weapon).

On the Japanese side, they also harboured racist attitudes towards the Americans, who they saw as a lazy consumer driven race.  In a similar manner to which the Americans characterised the Japanese in cartoons, the Japanese also characterised Americans and westerners, often drawn as sub-humans with animal rear ends.

Ironically, the Japanese sought to establish a bond with the other Asiatic peoples, albeit seeing themselves as superior to them all, believing themselves to be a specially blessed people, with a great role to play.

This attitude was brutally demonstrated by the casual violence towards the conquered peoples of Asia. For example, during the Sino-Japanese war Chinese civilians were mercilessly treated, including being used in medical experiments, in a similar manner to which the Nazis treated Jewish prisoners.  The Rape of Nanking, (1937-38) being another example of Japanese atrocity on a race they perceived as being sub-human.  Here an estimated 300,000 people were brutally murdered by the Japanese occupiers, depending on which figures you read.  Along with the Chinese, there are many stories about how the Japanese treated the conquered Korean nation; one example being the amount of Korean women who were kidnapped and forced to work as ‘comfort girls’ in Japanese military brothels.

However, this racism was not only the domain of the Americans and Japanese; for example,  Australian General Sir Thomas Blamy is quoted as having told the New York Times that, “We are not dealing with humans as we know them, but something primitive”, he continued that, “Our troops regard them as vermin”. Renowned War Correspondent Ernie Pyle, having transferred from the European theatre to the Pacific observed that, “The Japanese were looked upon as something sub-human and repulsive”.

This attitude led to atrocities perpetrated by the Americans too; with many cases being reported of Japanese soldiers and labourers being shot whilst surrendering. I would argue however that given the occurrences of Japanese troops hiding grenades whilst surrendering, that this was a prudent survival strategy.  Even so, there are several cases where Americans took to wearing scalps, teeth and ears as grisly souvenirs.

As such, what I have read about the war in the Pacific seems to concur with a pamphlet given to Japanese troops, that declared the war was, ‘a struggle between races’.  I find it interesting that this institutionalised racism so quickly appears to have died down after the Second World War; with Japan being home to many Allied servicemen by the Korean war, just five years later. 

The transition here I suspect would be something worthy of study in itself.