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War in the Pacific

LAURENCE REES: Let's talk about the war in the Pacific and Asia. Why were the Japanese so successful in the early months of 1942?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: The Japanese military had defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, defeated the Chinese in the first Sino-Japanese War and they’d performed credibly in the First World War when they evicted the Germans from a lot of their colonial concessions and archipelagos. They also invested heavily in the army and the navy during the inter-war period, modelling themselves very much on the old Prussians, having a War Minister who was responsible only to the Emperor, he was an active duty general, with no parliamentary oversight. So they built this heavily funded, efficient, motivated army and navy and it had no shortage of funds and equipment.

The army and the navy that they took into action in 1941-42 were quite strong. Fifty-one divisions, one point seven million troops, well armed, well equipped, there was some element of mechanisation there with a decent airforce. And what happens is that they overwhelm these US or Dutch or French or British contingents wherever they find them as they are relatively demoralised and distracted by events in Europe and have had their numbers and equipment drawn down because of the demands of the war in Europe. The Japanese meanwhile weigh in at full strength, full readiness and full motivation, but what happens is once they attack Pearl Harbour and bring the US into the war, the US clamps this strangling blockade around them that gets tighter and tighter and tighter and cuts off the flow of critical raw materials and other resources, so you see this big army that was once quite strong have most of its strength shaved off by the war in China which they never win.

It becomes a real quagmire that absorbs most of the Japanese Army and its equipment for the duration of the war and it is never settled. And then what’s left is stripped of everything by this blockade, which finally cuts them down to almost nothing and makes it likely that if we ever actually invaded the Japanese home islands instead of dropping the atomic bombs we would have faced what little Japanese Army was there, as opposed to China, which was very poorly equipped, very little in the way of communications and it would have been a rag-tag force even by 1944-45 Wehrmacht standards.

LAURENCE REES: And yet it was so difficult for the Americans once they start trying to recapture the islands - like the famous struggles on Iwo Jima. Why are they having such problems?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: Well, because the Japanese military embraced this Bushido code; this code of the Samurai. I think there still needs to be a lot of work done in this area. To what extent did this Bushido Code trickle down to the ordinary troops? To what extent was it the province of officers?  And the more menial troops, did they really buy into all this code of the Samurai stuff? But, apparently they did.  I mean when you think of the last stands in places like Iwo Jima and when you think of the notion of the Banzai charge, ordinary troops were doing this. When you think about what happened at Iwo Jima in this relatively small island battle you see the Japanese heaping up more US casualties than we suffered in Normandy during the D Day landings. In part it had to do with the difficulty of assaulting that island, it had these cave and bunker complexes connected by tunnels, but the Japanese wouldn’t surrender - the entire garrison fought to the last man.

There was this whole mentality about how it was disloyal and dishonourable to surrender. It didn’t exist in Western forces. In Western forces you would fight and then when there was no further hope of fighting you would surrender. In Japanese culture that was regarded as a supreme insult to oneself, one’s family and one’s Emperor, so there was this presumption that you’d fight to the bitter end. And they did, and they did consistently. And the Kamikaze fighters were the same; the idea that they’re going to climb into a plane and fly themselves to death, to die for the Emperor, to fight and die for Japan.