Race, Racism and Ethnic Prejudice in the Fifteen-Year War in Asia and the Pacific

By Calvin W. Lew

15 March 2010

            Race, racism, and ethnic prejudice were not the primary factors, but definitely major factors in the outbreak and conduct of the Fifteen Year War in Asia and the Pacific.  The various geo-political causes for the outbreak of the War have been widely examined in traditional studies since the time of the War itself.  In recent decades, historical explorations have shown that race was a contributing factor in creating a world atmosphere where the outbreak of war would occur.  And, race was definitely a factor in the conduct of the war itself, not just between Asians and the Euro-Americans, but between the Asians themselves.

            Attitudes about race and ethnic prejudice among the Euro-American powers helped to create the geo-political climate that led to war.  And, once that war began and was unavoidable, these attitudes definitely shaped the conflict.  These prejudices were factors in the conduct of the war from the Japanese viewpoint as well, in Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors, and its own colonial territories.  Even the United States, the country that was supposedly leading the way in the rhetoric of racial equality and individual liberty, had racial views of Japan, Asians, and its own ethnic minorities at home.

            The outbreak of the war had historical factors dating back much further than the Mukden Incident of September 18, 1931, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, or the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.  In the colonial era of empires, clear inequalities existed as the Euro-American powers established spheres of influence, dictated trade policies, colonized, or semi-colonized most of the nations in Asia including China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia.  There were racial inequalities not only on a nation-to-nation basis, but also on an individual basis in the imperial colonies and within the supposedly sovereign Asian nations regarding treatment of indigenous Asians and those of “pure European descent” (Horne).

            Japan’s attempt to break from this international system began and resulted from the time that it was first “opened” to the West with the coming of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s kurobane (“black ships”) sailing right into Edo Bay in July 1853.  This triggered a series of events that brought about an internal debate in Japan that resulted in the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the establishment of the Meiji Restoration (January 3, 1868) that modernized Japan (to avoid the same fate as her neighbor, China) (Fujitani 1.6.10).

From the time of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and the First World War, Japan seemingly achieved racial equality on a nation-to-nation basis as it emerged as a modern, military, imperial power in its own right.  An Asian power defeated a “European” power on land and sea, extraterritoriality in Japan was abolished, tariff autonomy was regained, and Japan was part of the victorious Allies (Fujitani 1.11.10).

Racial inequalities proved to still exist in the world when the Allies showed that they were not quite ready for Japan’s racial equality proposal at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.  This was also evidenced by the relationship between Asians and Euro-Americans throughout the empires and the world.  Besides the Japanese, other Asians experienced discrimination and differential treatment throughout the Euro-American empires and territories.  Chinese experienced Chinese Exclusion laws in the United States and even local Chinese were treated as lower-class citizens in their native Hong Kong territory of the British Empire.  Americans condescendingly viewed Filipinos as “our little brown brothers” who had to be taken care of.  Even the Indians, long-time subjects of the British Empire, or Eurasians with European blood were mistreated because they were not of strict “pure European descent.”  The racial and class situation in British Hong Kong was analogous to apartheid South Africa, and the Jim Crow experiences of African-Americans (Horne).

During the pre-war, early-war, and in some places even during the war periods, these racial attitudes about Asians in the British Empire and other Euro-American empires helped to create sympathy for Japan and her “cause.”  In defeating Russia, regaining its own sovereignty, achieving imperial equivalency with the European powers, and asking for racial equality, Japan represented to other Asian nations and people of color the world over that it was possible to come out from the oppressive yoke of the European imperialists.

The idea of Pan-Asianism developed where Asians should be “united” against the unfair Europeans and that it should be “Asia for the Asiatics.”  During the pre-war period, many prominent Chinese and other Asians from all over Asia went to Japan to study.  Japan was viewed as the de facto leader of Asia that other Asian countries should emulate (Horne).

Japan’s version of this concept was its大東亜共栄圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  At its creation initiated by Prime Minister 近衞 麿 Fumimaro Konoe, the propaganda mirrored the Pan-Asian ethos.  But, promulgated by the military, it became more of a propaganda tool defending Japan’s imperial intentions in China and Manchukuo.  From Japan’s view, their actions and philosophies were justified.  Empire was the means of achieving world racial equality (Duus).  Korea and Manchuria were viewed as “lines of sovereignty” and “lines of advantage” as buffer zones against China and Russia, especially after the experiences of the 1894-95 and 1904-05 wars (Fujitani 1.11.10).  Pre-July 7, 1937 and pre-December 7, 1941, Japan’s relations with her neighbors soured, especially with China, but sympathies remained.

Perhaps Japan’s imperialist designs on Greater Asia were racially motivated.  The Allies’ un-acceptance of racial equality at Versailles showed that Japan was not quite equal.  She did not have enough “might” to be “right.”  Although Japan pushed for racial equality among Asians and non-Asians, she herself viewed other Asians as her inferiors as evidenced by the Japanese treatment of Japan’s own ethnic minorities, the Okinawans, the Taiwanese, Koreans, the Chinese at the Rape of Nanjing, and the Filipinos.  Post-1937 and 1941, it was clear that Japan’s own racial attitudes possibly contributed to the war’s outbreak and definitely the war’s conduct.  Despite the Japanese Empire’s cruelty, it is interesting that post-Nanjing Massacre, the Chinese in Japanese-occupied British Hong Kong may have sympathized with the Japanese invaders rather than with their British overlords (Horne).

In the conduct of the war between Japan and its major antagonist the United States, race was definitely a factor.  This has its roots in the relationship between Japan and the United States before and leading up to Pearl Harbor.  Because of the racist views of each other, this caused mistrust, misunderstandings, and the eventual breakdown of diplomacy.

Before the American part of the war, the American view of the Japanese in particular was blatantly prejudiced.  There were Japanese exclusion laws, particularly in the Western states, and the American view of the Axis powers were not equal.  The Germans were not viewed as inherently evil and the dispute was an internal “family fight,” not a conflict with an outside “other.”  There was no German equivalent of the “Yellow Peril,” the “Huns” war propaganda aside (Dower 258-259).

Those in Japan that have lived and studied in America, like some diplomats and some members of the Japanese Imperial Navy, better understood America and opposed any possible future conflict.  But, the rest of the Army, military, and government viewed Americans as lazy, complacent, and ambivalent.  These attitudes had an effect on the factors that led to a failure in diplomacy (Kase).

Once “total war” began, the conflict, its conduct, actions, and strategies were in large part driven by race.  Japanese-Americans were suspected and censored in Hawaii, and interned on the mainland while German-Americans were not.  Even in films depicting the war, the Japanese race as a whole was portrayed negatively, as in 1945’s “First Yank into Tokyo.”  Generally, in films and public opinion, the German people were not evil, just the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazis, and Hitler.  In images, Hitler was the personification of the evil of Germany while the Japanese race itself was compared with rats to be exterminated or monkeys (Cook, Dower). 

These attitudes may have affected tactics in the conduct of the war itself.  While the United States condemned Britain for bombing the German city of Dresden which had little military value, the U.S. firebombed civilians in Tokyo at a stage so late in the war that it probably would not have affected the outcome.  Did the Americans place differing values on the civilian lives of Japanese versus Germans?

Japanese propaganda during the war that American troops would “rape the women” and “run them over with tanks” affected the actions of Japanese military and civilians in Saipan, Okinawa, and other Pacific Islands (Miyagi, Kinji).  Instead of utilizing and trusting the civilians to fight the American enemy, the Army often used brutal oppression and murder to attempt to control the local population (Allen).  And, the civilians, certain that capture by the Americans would mean certain rape, death, and dishonor, were “forced” to commit “mass suicides” (Miyagi, Kinji).

This propaganda also exemplifies the attitudes and relationship of Japan and its people to its colonial and minority subjects in especially Korea and Okinawa.  There were racial and prejudicial policies of “differential inclusion” which on principle proclaimed that Okinawans, Taiwanese, and Koreans were equal subjects and citizens of Japan, but in practice, treatment and inclusion were differential (Allen, Chou, Cook).

During the total war, Japan had a labor shortage and recruited or coerced Koreans to serve.  In name, they were told they were equal members of the Empire, but in practice they were treated as lesser members and even enslaved.  Kasayama Yoshikichi as a Korean Guard resented his oppressive, Japanese overseers, but was equally cruel to the captured prisoners (Kasayama).  Ahn Juretsu was forced to labor as a virtual slave on the airfields (Ahn).  And, Shin Bok Su, a resident of Hiroshima was denied war compensation because of her ethnicity (Shin).

In Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea, efforts were made to prohibit or discourage the local language and require the learning and usage of standard Japanese language.  In Okinawa, speaking Okinawan was punishable by death and efforts to require Japanese language were less than completely successful in Taiwan and Korea (Chou).

The “Kominka Movements” to integrate Taiwan and Korea into the Japanese Empire, society, and culture perhaps had more practical motives rather than sincere acceptance of these peoples as racially or politically “Japanese.”  Although the rhetoric and propaganda claimed them to be equal, loyal subjects of the Emperor, these movements were perhaps attempts to control the colonial subjects to better utilize them.  Besides the language, Taiwanese and Koreans were persuaded to convert to the Shinto religion (with very little lasting success), change their names to Japanese names (which often had roots in their original names), and serve in the Japanese military in one capacity or another (Chou).

Racial prejudice in military recruitment may have potentially had the most impact in the conduct and outcome of the war.  Even those in Korea and Taiwan that wanted to serve in the Japanese military had to prove their loyalty, “Japanese-ness,” and pass strict loyalty and language requirements.  And, even if accepted, they were relegated to prison guards, transport, and other rear-guard duties.  Conscription wasn’t even implemented in Taiwan or Korea until 1944 and 1945 (Chou).

This may have been a factor if one looks at the Japanese labor and troop shortage during the war and the respective populations of the countries.  In 1940, Japan proper had a population of about 73.1 million, Korea 24.3 million, and Formosa (Taiwan) 5.7 million.  If Japan trusted its colonial subjects and treated them better (like perhaps the way the British should have treated the Indians and Chinese in Hong Kong), this would have signified a potential personnel increase of 41 percent.  Whether this would have affected the ultimate outcome is debatable, but it definitely could have been a factor (Horne).

Because of the racism that existed in both countries and empires before and during the war, this affected the change in racial policies and attitudes in the United States.  This was relevant in the relationship of the United States to its minorities, especially African-Americans.  Although slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and practices existed throughout the American South.  In oft-quoted anecdotes, African-Americans were often treated better in Asia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany than they were at home.  Before the war, African-Americans often sympathized with the Japanese and even thought that Japanese and Africans could be of the same race.  These attitudes were greatly due to their treatment by the Whites in America (Horne).
            For purposes of propaganda, taking the moral high-ground, world public opinion, and morale, the United States began the long process of integrating African-Americans and Asian-Americans into its armed forces as segregated units.  These soldiers then fought for the “idea” of freedom, while their compatriots were still suffering prejudice at home.

In the supposed “post-racial” world where a Harvard-educated African-American can become the President of the United States, a Nisei Japanese-American born on December 7, 1924 in Honolulu can become a United States Senator, and where Arab-Americans and Muslims are viewed with suspicion, the subjects of race and prejudice leading up to, during, and after the Fifteen Year Asia and Pacific War are very relevant.  Individual and national decisions and geo-political realities of the era may have caused the outbreak of the war, but racial attitudes and prejudices were major factors of the conduct and outcome of the war.  Whether it is the treatment of British prisoners, Asians seeking individual, political, and national equality, the sufferings of Asian subjects of the Japanese Empire, and military tactics, race was a factor.  These echoes of the past still resonate today in Japan as a current debate rages on whether to allow a bill in the Diet to grant tax-paying permanent foreign residents of Korean descent the right to vote in local elections.

Works Cited

Allen, Matthew.  “Wolves at the Back Door: Remembering the Kumejima Massacres.”  Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power.  Eds. Laura Hein and Mark Selden.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Ahn Juretsu.  “Forced Labor.”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Chou Wan-you.  “The Kominka Movement in Taiwan and Korea: Comparisons and Interpretations.”  Japanese Wartime Empire, The, 1931-1945.  Eds. Duus, et. al.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Dower, John W.  Japan in War & Peace: Selected Essays.  New York: New Press, 1993.

Duus, Peter.  “Empire and War.”  Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. 2, Part 2, Second Edition.  Eds. Wm. Theodore De Bary, et. al.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

First Yank into Tokyo.  Prod. Jack J. Gross.  Dir. Gordon Douglas.  Perf. Tom Neal, Barbara Hale, Marc Cramer, and Richard Loo.  Videocassette.  RKO Radio Pictures, 1945.

Fujitani Takashi.  “Lecture Outlines 1-2.10”  HIEA 113: The Fifteen Year War in Asia and the Pacific.  La Jolla: University of California San Diego, 2010.

Horne, Gerald.  Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire.  New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Kasayama Yoshikichi.  “Korean Guard.”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Kase Toshikazu.  “Failure of Diplomacy, A.”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Kinji Shigeaki “Now They Call It ‘Group Suicide.’”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Miyagi Kikuko.  “Student Nurses of the Lily Corps.”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.

Shin Bok Su.  “A Korean in Hiroshima.”  Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook.  Japan at War: An Oral History.  New York: The New Press, 1992.