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Book Review: Japan At War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

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It was not too long ago that I reviewed a book of oral history about wartime China called Echoes of Chongqing by Danke Li. The book focused only on women and their stories, and while there were certainly enough merits for me to recommend the book to anyone interested in this subject matter, my criticism was that 1) by having only women, the book suffered from a certain isolation and one-sidedness. Also 2) the voices, after a while, all sounded the same. The book also suffered from too much academic in that there were moments of nebulous platitudes inserted within that added nothing, save for sounding kind of preachy.

Contrast that with Japan At War: An Oral History, and one will see the difference between a book that is merely good to one that is great. In Japan At War, there is no one-sidedness (with exception for being all told from the Japanese point of view, but that is the very point to the book), but it does not suffer from the weaknesses found in Li’s book because there are so many individuals interviewed, and each of them brings a different perspective. For example, there are many soldiers that still deny that the Rape of Nanking ever took place (or at least believe that the numbers of 300,000 killed are highly exaggerated) to those soldiers who admit it fully — they say they witnessed it, and they say they participated in it. Some feel intense remorse and others do not.

There are also interviews with women, men who worked in the navy, Koreans, Okinawans, those survivors of the atomic blasts, as well as various battles throughout the Pacific. This edition happens to be the fifteenth printed edition, and it covers from the early battles in China, the opinions the Japanese had about China’s internal war between the Nationals and Communists, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and eventually Japan’s surrender. Reactions to America’s involvement are mixed. For example, many Japanese were eager to begin the war with America and even happy about the event at Pearl Harbor. Others, however, claim to have known they would lose all along and even believed what they were fighting was a “stupid war.”

Japan At War is an important book because not only is it thorough (finishing at nearly 500 pages and yet it never bores or gets repetitive) but also because too many books are written by Westerners and one cannot get an accurate portrayal of the war without hearing the enemy’s side. Americans are not shy about portraying the Japanese as cruel and merciless, and while many certainly have the right to do so, not all members of the Imperial Japanese Army subscribed to such cruelty. Some solders were even Communists in disguise, and many of them do comment more on the kindness the Americans brought them, rather than pain and destruction (despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Yet, this book does contain some bitter feelings towards Americans as well, where some refer to any Westerners as “foreign devils” for example.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that those interviewees that lean more towards the arts (such as writers, photographers, and even Akira Kurosawa’s scriptwriter) have more interesting observations. They will often speak more in depth about a feeling they had, or something they noticed, as opposed to those with more linear thinking minds, who often would just detail the major plot points that occurred during their war, because that is just what this book presents. Each individual endured his/her own war, be it nurses, children, soldiers, pilots, etc.

Oral histories present the past in such a way that allows readers to hear it first hand, but also to read within what is being said. While some might claim to not have participated in the slaughter of Chinese civilians, for example, one cannot be entirely sure the interviewee is telling the complete truth, and even more so, that one’s memory is fully accurate. Thus, the many interviewed within this collection offer a detailed and thorough portrait of the thoughts that went on within Japanese minds, both during the actual war and upon their reflections afterwards.

Readers will also learn of the pride that went into such a war, in that, many Japanese believed it was better to die than ever surrender. Also, those that did not suffer as many losses as some other families often felt oddly cheated — that their loved ones had not died in honor. Not all believe this, of course, but certainly some came from families that subscribed to such extreme patriotism. It is also interesting to note that it was inconceivable for the Emperor to ever make a mistake, so whenever a battle had been taking place, and information had been reported incorrectly, members of the Thought Police did whatever they could to cover it up. No one would ever speak about any error reaching the public, even if aware of it.

Here’s one of the observations made by one of the interviewees, a poet named Suzuki Murio. He states: “The military is an amalgamation of human beings. Some you can get along with, others you can’t. There are a lot of backstabbers. Sincere men attract sincere men. Easygoing men seem to get together. Birds of a feather.”

Japan At War presents the interviewees as individuals, not mere talking heads pontificating about nationalism or Communism or whichever ism serves them. They’re not presented as stereotypes as one would see in a Spielberg or Eastwood film, but as real people each with a history to share in the way they remember or as they choose to. This is a great slice of history and a great read.

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