Review: The Rising Sun

It is a bit of an odd coincidence that I would get around to writing about John Toland’s history of World War II as perceived by Japan on December 7th.  I even considered putting it off another day, but I think there is a certain fitness to it as well.  Titled in full The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, Toland’s work focuses in some detail on Japanese politics leading up to war with the United States and on the internal negotiations required before the Japanese surrender.  The military campaigns between are sketched, with a curious amount of detailed attention paid to Guadalcanal (perhaps as a sort of icon of Japanese difficulties throughout the war) but otherwise as much said about the infighting, misperceptions, and socially driven problems of the Japanese campaign.

It is an interesting book as much as for what is left out as for what is put in.  Japan’s campaigns in Asia proper are mentioned briefly, but despite contending that the drain on resources was significant – an entirely plausible claim – little detail is given to them.  Similarly, Japanese atrocities in the Philippines are examined fairly closely, but those in China or Korea barely mentioned.  This is – unfortunately – hardly unique in writing on World War II, but curious given Toland’s clear intention to at least outline the entire scope of Japanese planning and action.  Intention outrunning performance is of course also less than uncommon.

The most interesting aspect, especially in comparison with more standard histories (especially from the period relatively soon after the war; The Rising Sun was published in 1970), is Toland’s examination of Japanese ideals and actions – contrasted with Allied ideals and actions.  For a brief summary: what do we make of Japan’s conception of itself as a Pan-Asian leader, contrasted with its colonialist brutality in its campaigns; but then set against American proclamations of democratic idealism, as against actual connivance with continued French or (save for a popular revolt) Dutch colonialism?

Toland I would guess began with a thesis, which in the course of his research faded to something more like the desire to convey an impression.  The most distinct impression created is the tragedy of the war: the Japanese pre-war judgment (which led, Japanese military theories being what they were, directly to the Pearl Harbor attack) that as they stood the Japanese ambitions were incompatible with American interests seems incontrovertible, but Japanese and American misunderstandings of each other’s politics and culture contributed to the way the war came, and the way it ended, both far more dramatic and destructive than it seems they might have been.  That the narrative ends more or less with the Japanese surrender was perhaps the only plausible option; however,  a continuation or another work considering both the continuation and transformation of Japanese politics and culture would be necessary, I think, for any kind of real conclusion to the story Toland begins.  Though 1936 is rather a middle of things place to begin the tale, as well.

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