Friday, September 19, 2014

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

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

The Rising Sun, was written in 1970 by John Toland, who is a known historian, this isn't his first book, nor was it his last.  This book was written from interviews from Japanese Generals, Admirals and government officials.  As well as a number of veterans and civilian witnesses.  Interesting to note, Toland married a Japanese woman.  I'm not sure how it impacted the book but all things considered I think it was a factor. A massive book even without counting acknowledgements and the index it's 877 pages which meant it took me awhile to crawl through.  I found it worthwhile however.

The book while focusing on events from 1936 to 1945 (the period of hostilities on the Asian front in World War II), it also discusses events from the Japanese-Russian war and events in the 1920s but not in any great detail.  The opening introduces us to the concept of Gekokujo, rebellion against authorities for the greater good of the nation (I'm skipping a number of subtleties).  Gekokujo which claims the tale of 47 Ronin as it's inspiration becomes a source of much of the instability and trouble that shook Japan in the 20s and 30s.  One of these events was the 2/26 Incident, an uprising of jr. officers ideologically motivated they attempted a wholesale purge of the government, including the Prime Minister of the time Okada, who they hated for supporting a recent Naval Treaty they felt unfairly limited Japanese power.  The uprising failed, but none of the members of the cabal were punished beyond being dismissed from the Army.  This happened in 1936.

Events like this and others (for example Japanese ship Captains refusing to preform convoy escort duty because it wasn't proper warrior duty) makes a convincing case that the Japan's officer corps was Japan's worse enemy.  The Japanese government comes off as very unstable and insecure here, only one mistake from violent overthrow and held together only by everyone's honest and shockingly deep loyalty to the Emperor.   Seriously even the Japanese Communist Party is quoted as wanting to keep the Emperor. Which makes them the 3rd weirdest Communist Party I've ever heard of in fiction or history.  Still this book offers a fascinatingly deep and complex look at the mechanisms and inner working of the Japanese Government before and during the war.

 The book examines Japan's war in China, but strangely glosses over the details.  The Rape of Nanking is mentioned but barely gone into.  This establishes a frankly worrying pattern in the book.  Japanese crimes and excesses will be mentioned (although unit 731 isn't mentioned at all) but glossed over or excused.  I found this a glaring problem in the book, this is a suppose to be an honest discussion of the Japanese Empire in WWII.  I get this is suppose to be from the Japanese point of view but given these were Japanese crimes, shouldn't they be discussed?

Additionally is Toland's attempts to justify Japanese actions and repeated statements that America simply had no business waging war.  I will quote page 146:

"Finally, America made a grave diplomatic blunder by allowing an issue not vital to her basic interests-the welfare of China-to become, at the last moment, the keystone of her foreign policy."  And on the same page:

"More important, by equating Japan with Nazi Germany, her diplomats had maneuvered their nation into two completely different wars, one in Europe against Fascism, and one in the Orient that was linked with the aspirations of all Asians for freedom from the white man's bondage"

While I am not as learned as Toland, I feel educated enough to declare my total disagreement with these statements.  It was completely in American interest to prevent a militarist, brutal empire from gaining domination of Asia no matter what their racial origin.  This is not to defend European or even American colonialism, which deserved to be torn down.  That said Japanese victory did not mean lifting the boot from the oppressed peoples of Asia.  It simply meant trading one boot for another.  There is after all a reason why many of the resistance groups fighting the European colonial governments decided to continue the battle against the Japanese.  And while the Japanese military was welcomed at first as liberators, their conduct and open racism quickly wore out their welcome.  I invite those who disagree to by all means ask the Chinese and Vietnamese how they felt about Japanese occupation and I will point out neither nation really has any reason to do the US any favors.  I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that this affected the book's grade.

Rising Sun also covered the attempts on both sides (American and Japanese) to reach a peace, with the Japanese government and it's military staff feeling that a war with America was incredibly dangerous and best avoided.  Of course the Japanese also implanted a secret deadline where they would start the war if they hadn't achieved acceptable peace terms.  To cover for the fleet steaming Pearl Harbor they kept talking however.

We also get a look at the planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We get to know Admiral Yamamoto, who going off this book was a great Admiral, but also way to addicted to gambling.  Something that would be ruinous for the Japanese fleet in the future. From the post Pearl Harbor celebrations (and there were celebrations) we are taken to every major battlefield and fleet engagement of the war, getting both a first hand look from statements and stories of the soldiers and officers who fought (mostly Japanese because again, a book from the Japanese side of the war) and the view from headquarters.   These segments also cement my belief that the Japanese officer corps was the Japanese Empire greatest enemy. During Guadalcanal we are brought to bear witness to amazing amounts of infighting and backbiting between senior staff on the island.... WHILE THEY ARE UNDER FIRE AND OUTNUMBERED BY INVADING AMERICAN FORCES!  The rampant insanity is on full display here. Nor are these isolated incidents, Japanese officers would engage in frankly moronic behavior right up until the very end.

We watch the reactions as the frontiers of the Empire inevitably and relentlessly shrank towards the main islands of Japan.  We see denial, hysteria and obsession with the divisive battle.  A number of Japanese senior officers were utterly convinced that if they could just force a big enough battle where they won and inflicted big enough causalities on the Americans, they would force America to come to the peace table.  It worked for them against the Russians in the early 1900s, but this was a utterly different war... But they refused to accept it.

We also see the Japanese officer corps refusal to accept reality even up to Okinawa, where officers would insist on leading manic charges against dug in American units... Despite knowing they were worthless tactically.  This denial carried on even after the Atom bombing where we read about Japanese Generals begging the government to be allowed to lead people with muskets and spears against the incoming American invasion.  I used to think this was just people trying to hold on to power, but considering some of these Generals committed suicide in a gambit to change the Emperor's mind... Not so much after this book.

I am left utterly convinced that the atom bombings were necessary after this book however.

So summing up.  This book is a great source of history.  It is a direct look at the officers and officials who lead Japan into the greatest war in history and into it's most disastrous defeat. It pry's back the curtains and let's use see what was going on in the palace antechambers, the meeting rooms and smokey meeting rooms where policy was decided and examine why those policies were chosen.  It shows us the mindset and desires of the lower level officers on the ground who carried out those policies.  Introduces us to the grunts and civilians who felt the effects of those policies.


It avoids really looking at the negative effects of those policies, often coming near white washing or throwing out justifications like the Japanese had to conqueror Manchuria to protect it from the Communist. In short I think Toland allowed his attachment to Japan and the Japanese people to cloud his judgement.  I admit I could be being unfair to the man.  This book was written in 1970 when the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China seemed a looming, unending threat.  But, in the end, politics and personal attachment can be seen influencing this book.  Which means that as a source for someone looking for information in the war this book is invaluable... But it should never be given to a beginning student of history nor read without counterbalancing sources that will point out just where Toland is sweeping things under the rug or is just plain wrong in his assertions.

Because of this, The Rising Son: Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland gets a B.  It's undeniable value as a history source keep it high, but the writers own bias drag it down.