Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, John Toland

If last year I was on a WWI kick, I have a feeling this year will be the year of learning about WWII..

I admit; I accidentally bought this book. It was an audiobook that I previewed and inadvertently bought. So I gave it a try. 41 hours later I was finished. 41. Hours. It took awhile.

There is a lot to this book and what I thought I would do was dispel some of the myths I thought about the Japanese Empire during WWII.

  1. The Japanese were an ironclad fighting force that only were defeated because of the superiority in numbers of the American military machine during WWII. Well.. No. Actually, one of the earliest and only successes of the Japanese campaign in the Pacific was their bombing of Pearl Harbor. The American’s took a little time to recuperate, but after the battle of Midway and the island hopping campaign in the Pacific theater, they sustained relatively few casualties compared to the Japanese. Consider one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater: the Battle for Iwo Jima. The Americans sustained around 8,000 dead while the Japanese mustered around 18,000. Pretty much the whole war after Midway followed the same pattern.
  2. The Japanese had lots of time to prepare their defenses so they could outlast the Americans; that’s why they were so successful at first. Again.. not really. You have to understand that after the Philippines, the Japanese were resolute in fighting a defensive war. By the time the Battle of Laity was over, almost their entire Navy and much of their Air Force was in shambles. They never really expected the Americans to get to the mainland. So while they were dug in, it was only good enough not to be totally annihilated during the naval and air bombardments that preceded a landing. Even then, the battles after 1943 or so did not last very long. Take into consideration the Battle for Iwo Jima again and you will see that it only last for a few days.
  3. Towards the end of the war, many Japanese sacrificed themselves to inflict damage onto the enemy. This conjecture is more right, but still totally blown out of proportion. The Japanese have an honor based culture, and loss at the hands of an enemy was seen as very dishonorable. I was moved to see so many who contemplated suicide in the upper echelons of command. In the Marine Corps, we practice an ideal called tact which is this idea that you must stay strong even when you might lose as to not disrupt a fighting hope for victory. It was strange to me that so many times the commanders of the Japanese, on the cusp of defeat, wished to committed harakiri, particularly after Japan conceded to American powers.
  4. The Japanese were prepared to fight to the very last man, woman, and child. I think this is the biggest myth that I discovered was not as accurate as you might think. There were actually many calls to the government to cease hostilities well before 1945 from the public. This also manifested itself into assassination (or attempted assassinations) of high cabinet members and military men. Not every Japanese person was willing to lay their life down for the call of a nation. And in fact, the amount of people who were opposed to the war surprised me.

There’s a lot of moving parts to this really broad narrative. I enjoyed reading (or listening) to this book though because the author did such a great job of including stories within the metanarrative. Many times, he personalized the details by examining a person or figure that was personally affected. This is especially clear in the two atomic bombs that were dropped on the mainland of Japan. You have innocent people who were going to work or taking the train and suddenly, they are not just statistics who don’t matter; they are real people who experienced real tragedies and were impacted by those events and continue to pass that along to the next generation.

I also think a lot of lessons can be learned about the war in the Pacific. It has special significance to me because, as a Marine, the battlefields of the Pacific are full of graveyards of my own kin; Marines. Further, I think the war in the Pacific is overlooked in favor of the European War. But I think this is a mistake. There is not a lot of notoriety given to the Pacific theater because it is without some of the more controversial elements of war like the mass genocide of the Jews in Hitler’s Nazi regime. Ever since I lived in Japan however, I think that the East-Asian mind is so unique and I think a lot of good things can come from the study of the Pacific Theater. To look over it too quickly is to push important narratives to the periphery.

Either way, it’s a long way so buckle in if you pick it up..

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