Over the years I have managed to read quite a few books on the history of the Second World War. Virtually every one of them focused on the war in Europe. The closest I’ve come to war in the Pacific was by way of biographies of people involved in the Pacific front, or books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which had a significant impact on the Pacific front.
That changed recently when I read John Toland’s Pulitzer prize-winning1 history The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. I’ve had a fascination with Japanese culture ever since reading James Clavell’s Shōgun–quite possible the single best example of worldbuilding that I’ve ever encountered. Indeed, the fascination may have started even earlier than that, with the later chapters of Will Durant’s Our Oriental Heritage, the first volume of his Story of Civilization.
Cultural differences between “east” and “west” permeated The Rising Sun. Much of it is from the Japanese point of view, and the huge cultural differences in all aspects of life and thought gave it a unique feeling, one that differed from any of the books I’ve read on the war in Europe.
One of the the things I found interesting was that despite such large cultural differences from the United States, the early Japanese emulation of American democracy and capitalism led to some eerily similar results. For instance, while reading about the attempted insurrection (gekokujo) in 1936, I couldn’t help but think of a similar attempted insurrection in the U.S. in 1865–one that took the life of Abraham Lincoln, while attempting to take the lives of other high cabinet officials.
The culture of the Japanese military was another fascinating area. It was especially interesting to read what Japanese soliders and sailors thought of their American counterparts, both directly and through the veil of propaganda.
The outlook of soliders on both sides showed dramatic cultural differences. Suicide was a perfectly acceptable cultural norm in Japan, in both attack and surrender. It is hard to imagine American soldiers considering this option in either case.
Lessons in military tactics
Naval battles played a huge role in the Pacific war on both sides. I came away from the book more curious than ever about things like naval tactics (there are desciptions of large ships zigzgging to avoid torpedoes); naval formations (why do the ships form up as they do?); and the role of each ship in its formation.
The aresenal of democracy
The book describes the battles fought, largely from the Japanese viewpoint. It covers the political and military aspects of Japan during the war. One thing that fascinates me is how quickly the U.S. was able to ramp up production after Pearl Harbor. I’d definitely be interested in books on the technical aspects of how that was done. It has to combine not just a massive economy, but technical power and ability, to say nothing of project management skill. The U.S. didn’t just rebuild its navy to fight in the Pacific. It built aircraft and naval vessels for both the Pacific and Europe. It provided military arms, ammunition, supplies. It did this while developing the atomic bomb in secert. It seems an incredible feat.
The atomic bomb
The book described Hirshima and Nagasaki from both sides. The descriptions of those who witnessed the bomb from the ground and scenes that followed were almost unimaginable. But one thing that really stood out was a small detail that my writer’s brain immediately hooked. The clock tower at Hiroshima University survived the blast, but the clock–like all clocks in the city–was frozen at 8:15 am. Except, the clock tower clock had actually stopped at that time two days before the bomb was dropped on the city. It is one of those odd coincidences of history (like Adams and Jefferson both dying on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) that almost defies belief. My writer brain whispers to me: was a time-traveler from the future trying to warn people?
Public war and secret war
Toland had access to a wealth of sources for this book. Like many books about war written in their aftermath, two stories emerge: the public war and the secret war. What the Japanese people were being told was far different from the information that the Japanese military and political leaders had. Propaganda is a part of just about any conflict, but it was interesting to see the damaging effect that propaganda had as the war progressed. The government had been touting successes and then had to annouce a surrender, which seemed incongruous to the information they had been putting out. That in turn led to attempts to “change the Emperor’s mind” regarding his decision to surrender. People believed he’d been mislead when in reality, the military leaders knew the facts and had mislead the people about them.
Seeing a war fought at the highest military levels looks far different than at the lowest ranks, and the access to the documents that Toland had made this clear.
There really wasn’t a dull part of this history. Indeed, I finished it with a short list of additional books to follow-up on later on. But, having read about the decline of the Japanese empire, I figured I needed to balance that with the decline of the German empire, and I started reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich shortly after finished The Rising Sun.
Written on March 15, 2022.
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- In the general nonfiction category in 1971. ↩