Category: Book Reviews

Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo

Unlike the West, Japan does not have a history of strong feminist movements – or, at least, Japanese feminism is less focused on individual autonomy than Western feminism. Even today, most ‘feminist’ dialogue takes place within community or civil rights organizations, not feminist activist groups. While the position of women within Japanese society has changed since the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, AKA ‘Japan’s Toothless Lion’) passed, Japan is still a country characterized by an M-shaped labor curve for women and abortion is still a preferred form of birth control, due both to cultural factors and the difficulty and expense associated with using oral contraceptives. I would also like to point out that many observers believe that low-dose oral contraceptives were finally approved for use in Japan in late 1999 (after 35 years of debate) because that the Diet fast-tracked the approval of Viagra (which took about 6 months). Therefore, one must ask: how successful has women’s suffrage been within Japanese society?

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The common treatment of the Heian court found in textbooks and survey histories depicts Japan’s ruling class as a group of leisured and effete aristocrats more concerned with composing elaborate waka (poetry) and mastering esoteric Buddhist practices than the effective governance of the country. Furthermore, efforts during the Taika Reform era to adopt a Chinese-style administration and military are dismissed as complete failures, abandoned only a few decades after their inception. As the court “became isolated to an extraordinary degree from the rest of Japanese society,”[1] and could no longer provide an effective military or police system, “provincial residents were forced to take up arms for themselves…[which] allowed the development of large, private warrior networks.”[2] In their respective works, both Karl Friday and William Farris seek to revise this misperception and argue that “the genesis of Japan’s bushi [warrior class] took place within a secure and still-vital imperial state structure.”[3] In Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, Karl Friday traces the evolution of Japan’s military system, from the foundations laid by the Taika Reforms in 645 to Minamoto Yoritomo’s “epoch-making usurpation of power in the 1180s,”[4] to prove it was court activism that concentrated military control in the hands of the rural elite. Furthermore, Friday believes that the court’s growing reliance on the private martial skills of the gentry was motivated by the desire to maximize the efficiency of its military institutions and reflected the changing nature of Japan’s military needs.[5] William Farris advances Friday’s argument in Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan’s Military, 500-1300 by arguing that the samurai class of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the “direct descendant of the mounted archers of yore…[and maintains] that an equestrian mounted elite was a critical factor in society, economy, and politics as early as about A.D. 500.”[6] However, while Farris asserts that the imperial reforms were essential to the evolution of Japan’s mounted military elite, he does not support Friday’s belief that the court successfully took control of the military from the hands of provincial elite. In the context of these two works, the evolution of Japan’s military can be divided into three stages: the centralization of military control and the adoption of Chinese-style mass infantry tactics under the ritsuryō codes during the eighth century, the subsequent ‘abandonment’ of infantry in favor of ‘the privately acquired  martial skills of provincial elites and the lower nobility,’[7] and the further organization of private military networks around major provincial warriors during the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries.

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Pearl Harbor

Following the model laid out by Band of Brothers, The Pacific begins with actual footage of Pearl Harbor and interviews with some of the veterans of the Pacific War. We’re rapidly approaching the time when the generation who fought in WWII will be gone and I find these interviews extremely valuable. In Band of Brothers, they were often the most heart-wrenching parts of each episode. I am immensely happy that The Pacific has continued using real footage and interviews – it reminds the audience that this show is based in fact and reality.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States was not ready to go to war with Japan on December 7th, 1941. While the American military had been anticipating a war with Japan for some time, they did not have the equipment or men needed to engage in a massive war halfway around the world. On August 7th, 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal became the first major offensive of the Pacific War precisely because the United States needed to spend that time training soldiers (marines specifically) to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific.

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HBO's The Pacific

The Second World War is a massive subject, so I will endeavor to stick closely to the subject of The Pacific – the land war fought by the marines in the South Pacific and on the islands surrounding Japan. This will be very difficult for me…those who have had the misfortune of experiencing one of my rants about military history no doubt know that I have a tendency to get a bit overexcited. So, please forgive me for any subsequent deviations from the main theme.

When you think about the Pacific War, you need to think about two things: naval and air power. So much of our modern view of the military application of naval and air power is the product of WWII. When we examine the late 1930s and early 1940s, we need to understand that military thinking was quite different then. For example – the destruction of two-thirds of the Russian fleet at the hands of Admiral Togo in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima convinced nearly every military planner that battleships were going to be the most important and valuable piece of technology for a modern navy. Thus, everyone began building battleships. However, it was not the battleship that proved critical in the war in the Pacific but the aircraft carrier. The development of aviation caused the battleship to get leapfrogged. Nowadays, this seems completely obvious – of course an aircraft carrier’s ability to effectively project military force far exceeds the battleship. However, during the interwar years, military strategists were still unsure of exactly how to use aviation effectively. The Air Force didn’t even exist then, it was still merely a small and little respected division in the Army called the Air Corps (and another division with in the Navy). More importantly, most of the top brass in the Army and Navy remained unconvinced over how effective airpower could be. Yes, it had proved effective during WWI for gathering intelligence or when used in conjunction with land forces such as infantry. Many were skeptical of how effective airpower would be when used alone. This was partially because aviation was still rapidly developing at that time – in the late 1930s, airpower would not have been enough to replace either the navy or coastal artillery in America’s defense, despite Brigadier General William Mitchell’s claim that it could.[1] But it was also due to the revulsion that many felt at the idea of using airpower on civilian targets. You see, it was during WWII, with the aerial bombardments of Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, and almost every single nation associated with the conflict by almost every single nation involved with the conflict, that we began to desensitize ourselves to the questionable morality of bombing densely populated urban areas. In any case, while it is difficult to overemphasis the importance of airpower in the Pacific War, it is also unlikely that many of America’s military planners fully realized this in the late 1930s-early 1940s.

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Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

I was initially going to post an entry complaining about my job, but I think I’ll sit on the draft for a little while longer to see if I still feel the same way tomorrow. Let’s not be rash when it comes to posting on the public domain…

So instead you get a post about whiny French nihilists. But first I will tell you a story, so if you just want the book review skip down a few paragraphs.

I hate the French. Now, I know that this sounds completely small-minded and ridiculous, but I will still say it. I hate the French. Not on an individual level, for I am sure that there are many French people who I would get along with famously. But as a general group,  I hate the French. I could make a list of all the silly, vague reasons for this, but in reality I am holding the entire culture responsible for the actions of one extremely ridiculous boy I encountered while I was in university.

After randomly approaching me in the student union and asking me out to lunch, this boy (I will call him Frenchie) said something to the effect of:

“Stop doing that with your eyes.”

“What?” I replied, more than a little bit confused.

“Stop doing that thing with your eyes…it’s like they’re hypnotizing me.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

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Scene from HBO's The Pacific

5. An accurate depiction of battle, of course. Unfortunately, film can only go so far when it comes to recreating battle. One of the most important features of the battlefield that is absent in film is the smell. Movies cannot show us what the smell of rotting flesh, discarded food, gunpowder, spent artillery, and burnt rubbish must have been like.

“Occasional rains that fell on the hot coral merely evaporated like steam off hot pavement. The air hung heavy and muggy. Everywhere we went on the ridges the hot humid air reeked with the stench of death. A strong wind with no relief; it simply brought the horrid odor from an adjacent area. Japanese corpses lay where they fell among the rocks and on the slopes. It was impossible to cover them. Usually there was no soil that could be spaded over them. Just the hard, jagged coral. The enemy dead simply rotted where they had fallen. They lay all over the place in grotesque positions with puffy faces and grinning buck-toothed expressions. It is difficult to convey to anyone who has not experienced it the ghastly horror of having your sense of smell saturated constantly with the putrid odor of rotting human flesh day after day, night after night.”

With the Old Breed, by EB Sledge at Peleliu

4. More significantly, I would like to see an accurate depiction of the natural environment that the soldiers faced in the Pacific. The Marines not only had to face the Japanese soldier, but contend with the nature of the environment as well. Malaria, jungle rot, heat exhaustion, etc.

Glad to leave the stinking foxhole, I got up and carefully started down the slippery ridge. My buddy rose, took one step down the ridge, slipped, and fell. He slid on his belly all the way to the bottom, like a turtle sliding off a log. I reached the bottom to see him stand erect with his arms partially extended and look down at his chest and belt with a mixed expression of horror, revulsion, and disbelief. He was, of course, muddy from the slide. But that was the least of it. White, fat maggots tumbled and rolled off his cartridge belt, pockets and the folds of his dungaree jacket and trousers. I picked up a stick and handed him another. Together we scraped the vile insect larvae off his reeking dungarees.”

With the Old Breed, EB Sledge in Okinawa

3. Hierarchy and Class Relations within the 1st Marine Division – something that might get glossed over in many books and films about war is the inherent division between enlisted man and officer. The difference between a commissioned officer and an enlisted man (or NCO) was usually always a matter of socio-economic class and education, not experience or ability. In both Helmet for My Pillow and With the Old Breed the enlisted men express a general disdain for officers…at least for the less competent among them. I am interested to see if The Pacific keeps many of the incidents between enlisted men and officers described in the books.

“He [a doctor] began to question me about my experiences in the war, and, as I told them to him, he shook his head from side to side, as though to indicate that my whole division, not only myself, ought to be psychoanalyzed. Then we talked of books for he was well read, and philosophy. Suddenly he broke it off and said, “What did you say you were?”

“A scout,” I said proudly. “I used to be a machine gunner.”

“But that’s no place for a man of your caliber.” Now I was shocked! The old shibboleth, intelligence! Had not our government been culpable enough in pampering the high-IQ draftees as though they were too intelligent to fight for their country? Could not Doctor Gentle see that I was proud to be a scout, and before that a machine gunner? Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. Keep it up, America, keep telling your youth that mud and danger are fit only for intellectual pigs. Keep on saying that only the stupid are fit to sacrifice, that American must be defended by the lowbrow and enjoyed by the highbrow. Keep vaunting head over heart, and soon the head will arrive at the complete folly of any kind of fight and meekly surrender the treasure to the first bandit with enough heart to demand it.”

Helmet for My Pillow, Robert Leckie at a hospital before Peleliu

2. A fair and realistic depiction of Japanese soldiers. Japanese soldiers were not fanatics, nor were they all brainwashed into worshipping the emperor as a god. Though they were prepared to die for their country, letters and diaries written by Japanese soldiers show that as they prepared to face death their thoughts were for their families and countries, not the emperor. However, the fact that American soldiers could not understand the extreme determination of Japanese soldiers is part of the reason why the war in the Pacific was so frustrating and difficult.

“Four Japanese soldiers and one officer has been taken alive, and had been brought down to the C.P., their arms bound behind them, knives at their throats, and from them we learned that the 3rd Company, 53rd Regiment of the Japanese 17th Division had been dispatched from the main body at Cape Gloucester to Tawali to defend against our landing.

Their passage had been through near impenetrable jungle and they had not arrived on the scene until two days after our own coming. Nevertheless, they attacked us. They attacked us, some one hundred of them against our force of some twelve hundred, and, but the prisoners, we had annihilated them. Were they brave or fanatical? What had they hoped to gain? Had their commander really believed that a company of Japanese soldiers could conquer a battalion of American Marines, experienced, confident, better armed, emplaced on higher ground? Why had he not turned around and marched his men home again? Was it because no Japanese soldier can report failure, cannot “lose face?”

I cannot answer. I can only wonder about this fierce, mysterious enemy – so cruel and yet so courageous – a foe who could make me, in his utmost futility, fanaticism, if you will, call upon the best of myself to defend against him. ”

Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie in Guadalcanal

1. An honest depiction of the level of cruelty both Japanese and American soldiers were capable of. The war in the Pacific was a brutal war and that brutality led men on both sides to do things considered unimaginable in other circumstances. On the Japanese side, the harsh discipline and training that soldiers underwent definitely helps us understand why they were capable of now infamous acts of brutality.

“Once on another patrol, I saw him taking great pains and efforts to position himself and his carbine near a Japanese corpse. After getting just the right angle, Mac took careful aim and squeezed off a couple of rounds. The dead Japanese lay on his back with his trousers pulled down to his knees. Mac was trying very carefully to blast off the head of the corpse’s penis. He succeeded. As he exulted over his aim, I turned away in disgust.”

With the Old Breed , by EB Sledge at Okinawa

HBO's The Pacific

It only takes the opening theme of Band of Brothers to make me cry. Now, I can add The Pacific to that list. I am not embarrassed to admit this, because anyone who is not brought close to tears when they think about World War II is guilty of either the grossest ignorance or the most unforgivable callousness. WWII (I won’t object to adding WWI as well, especially if you adhere to the ‘30 year war’ interpretation) was the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century and, arguably, of mankind’s entire history. And, personally, the Pacific theater of WWII is the closest thing I can think of when I try to imagine Hell.

With the Old Breed by Eugene B Sledge

I spent the majority of the last two years of my undergraduate degree studying WWII, specifically the Pacific theater. I have been reading books about the subject far longer than that. Yet, I have barely scratched the surface. I don’t even dare consider myself an amateur WWII historian; academics devote their entire careers to the subject. But, I know enough about the subject to be able to spot the annoying inaccuracies contained in nearly every movie ever made about the conflict…or to question the way filmmakers choose to portray it.

This is why I have tremendous respect for Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and everyone involved in Band of Brothers and The Pacific. More than attempting to produce cliché-ridden blockbusters that can be peddled off as commodities, they strive to bring historical accuracy and integrity to the filmmaking process. I believe that filmmakers have a personal responsibility to depict WWII as accurately and realistically as possible. And we, as the audience, have a personal responsibility to advance our understanding of the subject past whatever our high school US History class taught us. This applies not only to WWII, but to the subject of WAR in general. War is not cool. It is not glamorous or fun or badass. Even if it is necessary or unavoidable, it is still the single most unimaginably horrible and wasteful act that humans are capable of.

Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie

Past the accurate re-creation of battles, uniforms, environment, and technology, past the disturbingly realistic special effects, the makers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific never forget (and never let the audience forget) that they are depicting real events and real people, not fictional characters and exaggerated situations. Put simply, Band of Brothers and The Pacific represent simply some of the finest examples of historical and military filmmaking ever.

I have been anticipating the release of The Pacific for longer than I care to admit. I idolize Stephen Ambrose more than I care to admit. Now that it’s finally coming out, I am going to begin posting my thoughts on the miniseries as it airs.

Eagle Against the Sun by Ronald Spector

The Pacific is based on With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. It also draws on the books China Marine by Sledge and Iwo Jima: Red Blood, Black Sand by Chuck Tatum. I have read all of these books and will be comparing them with The Pacific as I post about each episode, with the exception of Iwo Jima: Red Blood, Black Sand. It is currently out of print and since I am no longer near my university library, I won’t be able to reference it. I will also be drawing information from Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan by Ronald Spector, one of the finest and enjoyable pieces of historical scholarship on the Pacific War that I have ever read (despite its obnoxious cover). I highly recommend all of these books to anyone interested in modern history, military history, or WWII.

I hope that the people who read my blog will find these posts interesting and enjoy watching The Pacific as much as I will. The Pacific can be watched online at HBO’s website. As always, I encourage everyone to share their thoughts on the subject as well.

Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 Review

Book Cover

In the space of 50 years, Japan built an empire that stretched from northern Manchurian down to the tip of Australia. Though its existence proved ephemeral, this was a staggering accomplishment for an island nation that had remained largely (though not completely) disconnected from the Western world until the mid-19th century and had only begun to modernize in 1868. In Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945, W.G. Beasley provides an overview of Japanese territorial expansion and imperialism, beginning with the Sino-Japanese War and ending with Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. In Beasley’s own words, the thesis of this book is as follows; “I do not believe the human impetus towards imperialism needs explaining…What the character of a society, or the international circumstances with which it has to deal, does indeed determine the timing and direction of the impetus, the degree of its success or failure, the kind of advantages that are sought, the institutions that are shaped to give them durability…That is what I propose to examine with respect to Japan” (Beasley, 13). This thesis struck me as vague and somewhat ill-defined. Essentially Beasley does not intended to examine why Japan attempted to carve itself an empire out of East Asia but how it did so. Much of this book is merely a summary of the conventional narrative on the subject with exhaustive references to names and dates. Ultimately, Beasley does not substantially contribute to the historical debate on the subject and merely synthesizes existing lines of thought. Upon turning the last page, the reader knows nothing more than the standard facts and is left to wonder what the point of picking up the book was in the first place.

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