Westerners in Wartime Japan
W. Puck Brecher
Harvard Univ. Asia Center: 2017
There was little surprise when the Japanese military police arrested and imprisoned a number of British and U.S. citizens on their soil after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Some, like the Reverend Samuel Heaslett, were held and interrogated for a few months, then released and eventually sent back to North America. However, outside prison walls, Western civilians did not face much persecution or racial animosity from the Japanese public.
W. Puck Brecher, associate professor of Japanese history at Washington State University, addresses the complexities of Pacific War-era treatment of Western civilian residents in Japan in his book. Through their stories, we can better understand how the Japanese treated the “others” within their borders.
Documentation of Western lives inside wartime Japan is scarce, since many records were destroyed post-war. However, Brecher gathers memoirs, letters, and other sources to tell the little-heard testimonies of Europeans and North Americans in 1940s Imperial Japan. Some enemy civilian Westerners were imprisoned, others fled to mountain towns where they spent the war, and still others were repatriated to their home countries.
Without denying the racial hatred and atrocities of the Japanese military during the war, these stories show the often stark contrast in how the Japanese public actually regarded Westerners stranded in Japan.
As Brecher illuminates the lives of Westerners in WWII-era Japan, he asks why Japanese state propaganda was relatively unsuccessful in overcoming the racial ambivalence of their public, and how race consciousness in the Japanese public differed from what we commonly consider racism.
The existing research on race relations during the Pacific War shows race hatred on both sides of the conflict. However, as Brecher writes, that research often means government and military elites, “those who tell the rest what to think and believe.…What the public actually thought and believed has been omitted from the conversation.”
Assumptions of racial enmity were true among the military, and the government certainly tried to instill it in soldiers, but the Japanese civilians often treated the Western people in their country with compassion. On the other hand, brutal treatment of prisoners by the Japanese secret police increased as the war’s prospects worsened for the Japanese military.
While the Japanese government and military followed the racist playbook of their allies in Nazi Germany when it came to treatment of other Asians, by asserting moral superiority based on race, the Japanese did not subscribe to a singular approach toward Caucasians. It’s further confused because Japan had spent decades before the war in a kind of Westernization process.
Race consciousness in Japan was certainly not straightforward racist antipathy toward Westerners. Instead, it was partly because “Japan focused more on asserting its own spiritual and moral supremacy.” In other words, they didn’t denigrate Westerners, but did maintain a sense of superiority.