The Role of Race in the Pacific War

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World War II was an important epoch in the history of the world. During this period, racial supremacy wars were evident, and played a major role in the war. The holocaust happened in Germany, as the Germans sought to eliminate the Jews. Although a catastrophic outcome ensued, it was the bombing of the two cities of Japan by the United States that shook the world. Nagasaki and Hiroshima cities greatly suffered at the hand of the Americans, who for the first time, tested nuclear weapons in combat. The culmination of these events was not due to a singular causation, but rather excited by gradual racial tensions between the Japanese and the Americans. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986) by John Dower traces the events that led to the catastrophes that resulted from the racial tensions and hatred.


When Japan joined the war, Allied nations did not think much of their new enemy. Essentially, Japan’s role in the war was seen as an unimportant, as their soldiers were believed to be inferior while their military strategies and weapons were seen as poor and infantile in the eyes of the Allies. However, during the Pearl Harbor battle, Japanese fighters triumphed, making the Allied forces, especially the United States lift their veil. This rude awakening led to the call of new strategies on the part of United States, upon the realization that they were up against a formidable enemy. Since the Japanese and the Americans were racially different, race became the fodder for propaganda. Dower reveals that race based propaganda became the new battle front between the allied forces and the Japanese people. Thus, the United States sought the help of political cartoons, propaganda films as well as psychological studies with the aim of defamiliarizing the Japanese people. Dower observes that the vile depiction of the Japanese people was calculated to inspire hatred in American people, and thus cultivate a burning desire to triumph against the enemy. More specifically, the Japanese people were depicted as disagreeable and unintelligent creatures. According to specific propaganda, the Japanese people were at times illustrated as apes, octopuses, giant rapists as well as vermin. Once the propaganda was sufficiently employed, the enemy was thus robbed of his human qualities, and thus making it easier to use extreme force against him, as one would do with animals.   

To analyze the war without bias, Dower dissects his book into two major sections. The initial sections tell of the war in the eyes of the westerners (Allied forces) while the other section tells of the war in the eyes of the Japanese. This is done so that the reader can get the two sides of the story. While the Allied forces had made anti-Asian propaganda successful, the Japanese were incapacitated in using the same method since they had collaborated with white nations, Germany and Italy. Thus, the Japanese sought to be subtler in their propaganda, to avoid shooting themselves on the foot. Essentially, the Japanese saw the importance of their insistence of them being a pure and better race rather than the demonization of the white race. In order to achieve this, the Japanese people used the metaphor of the rising sun to depict their pure, homogeneous race, fortified against the impurity of the British and Americans who were described as thugs in many of the Japanese newspapers and periodicals. Not only was this achieved, the Japanese also finally depicted the Anglo-Americans as animals by exaggerating their hairiness, high noses, as well as relatively longer arms.

Author’s Arguments

Dower posits that the pacific war between the Allied forces and the Japanese was savage in nature, leading to various atrocities and war crimes (73). His major arguments at this point is that the savage war was preceded by centralized propaganda. However, due to the continued aggression between the two rivals, the war thus excited the employment of intense propaganda by both sides. In this case, the war between the Anglo-Americans and the Japanese ceased to be only a mere war as the stereotypes began to steer it towards catastrophic ends.  Dower highlights how the propaganda paraphernalia excited racial hatred between the two rivals (74). Thus, the rivals were immersed in the glorification of themselves while the enemy was seen as inferior and needing to be dealt with.   

The depersonalization of the enemy has been greatly discoursed by Dower as a major reason of catalyzing the war. Dower reproduces the propaganda posters that were used to depict the nature of the Japanese in the eyes of the Anglo-Americans (185). According to the representations, the Japanese soldiers are seen as monkeys with helmets, swinging from tree to tree. There are also other savage vile depictions of the Japanese people by the Anglo-Americans, such as them being savage gorillas. The Japanese were also nicknamed as the Yellow Peril by the Anglo-Americans. Essentially, the Anglo-Americans sought to paint an image of a billion strong Asia trumping the white population in America, Australia and the Britain. These depictions were employed so as to serve a double purpose. Firstly, the depictions aimed to tell the Allied populations that their enemy would relentlessly pursue them to the ends of the world, and that the enemy would use any methods at his disposal to deal with his enemy (Allied populations). This would then evoke fear across the population, for they would be afraid of their elimination from the universe. Secondly, the propaganda would inspire the Allied populations into acting against the vile enemy. Since the enemy was inherently savage, he was thus incapable of reason, and needed to be eliminated using any methods available. The depersonalization of the Japanese masses thus became effective in the ensuing war, leading to the use of extreme methods and weaponry by the Anglo-Americans. There would be no problem using extreme weaponry and methods since the propaganda justified the need of using those weapons in the first place.

Dower reveals that the Japanese regarded themselves as the superior and leading race in the world (203). This was primarily achieved through the use of metaphors and code phrases which cemented Japan’s superiority. While their self-glorification was given first priority, the Japanese also used other forms of propaganda to alienate themselves from the rest of the world. In essence, demeaning phrases were deployed so as to demean the other races. Dower thus argues that the Japanese were also equally at fault in the pacific war, which had a tragic ending. In publications, the Japanese outlaid various characteristics of the Anglo-Americans, which were compared to those of animals. Thus, the Anglo-Americans were characterized as having strong body odor, thick fingers, and a lower brain-to-body-ratio. American and British leaders were also demonized in Japanese propaganda. The American president and the Britain prime minister were given devil-like features such as horns and claws. This showed that the two sides of the war were generally occupied with self-praise, at the expense of humanity. This greatly blinded the two rivals, leading to a senseless war. In the discourse of racism, Dower thus asserts that the Japanese, although they were greatly disadvantaged by the pacific war, cannot point fingers or assert their innocence. This is because they were also heavily engaged in playing the race card.

Reflections on the Book

Weiner asserts that race is a significant factor in human interactions (4). Although race definitions often occur from physical appearance differences between individuals such as color, Weiner argues that race is basically a social construct, and fluid in nature, whose contents are informed by historical and national backgrounds. Across centuries, the question of race has always occurred, leading to conflict. Essentially, some races often regard themselves as superior, while at the same time asserting that the rest are inferior. This problem re-occurred in the case of the pacific war between the Anglo-Americans and the Japanese people. At the advent of the war, Japan and America had taken sides on a war that was principally between the German and British Nations. However, as the severity of the war registered, the theme of the war between Japan and America morphed into racially inspired war. Thus, both the Japanese and the Americans fought for racial supremacy. On reflecting on Dower’s work, it becomes clearly evident that race blinded the two nations, leading to tragedies that could have been avoided. Dower protracts the consequences of racial supremacy, highlighting instances of self-glorification between the two rivals. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1993) is thus successful in showing the irrationality of race superiority.

Works Cited

Dower, John. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Pantheon, 1986.

Weiner, Michael. Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity. Routledge, 2009.

November 24, 2023

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