Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 1941-1945.
The meaning of “power” and “culture” and the interactions between the two are
central to this book. Power is the most concrete and easiest to define in
terms of military strength, geopolitics, and realism. Stalin defined “power”
nicely when he said, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” But how much
influence does the Pope have despite his feeble military strength? Culture,
economics, etc, represent this soft power. Did this affect US-Japanese
relations in the 30s and 40s?
Does considering “culture” contribute new information to the historiography on
WWII that traditionally focused on power?
Can the influence of culture be measured in order to come to any meaningful
conclusion? Even the very concept of culture can be vague. Iriye does not
discuss specific cultural practices, and only references public opinion. So
how does he connect culture with power politics?
More importantly, should culture be considered a primary factor in foreign
policy decisions or a secondary one that contributes to power-based realism?
For specific events, such as the Emperor issue during peace negotiations,
culture played a major role and must be studied. This does not necessarily
mean that culture can help explain US, Chinese, and Soviet relations during
the same time period.
Realists say international relations will often be decided by power or
economic motives. The Japanese needed to invade the Philippines because the
islands had military utility and access to resources. Culture can help explain
how they ruled the nation. The Japanese treated the Filipinos differently than
the Chinese because the pro-American local culture made rebellion more likely.
But how does this differ from strictly power-based analysis? Japan would have
invaded the islands (military and economic value) and would have worked to
prevent a guerrilla war (a measurable military action). Culture might, if
anything, play a refining role to help smooth over a “power” thesis.
disagrees with the power-based analysis and attempts to show that culture is
important factor in policies. Was he able to convincingly show how culture was
as influential as power in causing the war as well as the means and ending of
Does Iriye overemphasize the role of Japanese diplomats and civilians? Part of
his thesis is a search for lost opportunities to come to peace before August
of 1945. Does this possibly taint his argument? The military’s positions seem
to be secondary at times given that it wielded the most power over Japan.
US and Japanese diplomats had similar views of the world. What was the cause
of this? Interestingly, Iriye never directly answers this.
End to Uncertainty:
A. Japanese foreign policy
Cold war of the 1930s with the US.
There was a breakdown in the Wilsonian international order in the early 1930s.
This lead to “uncertainty” as all nations tried to readjust to the new
Japan responded through Pan-Asian imperialism as both a cultural and power
Power-based imperialism centered on gaining land and resources in China and
Southern Asia. Intention on creating a Japanese regional bloc.
Cultural conflicts between different Western and Japanese ideologies.
Unresolved debates within Japan lead to an incoherent foreign policy.
Japan forms the Axis with Germany and Italy. The goal was to divide the
European powers and reduce interference in the creation of an Asian empire.
This resulted in Japan tying its success to nations and events in Europe
beyond its control.
Attempts to maintain status quo trade relations with US and neutrality with
B. US foreign policy
Based on international trade and mutual dependency. Tried to bring Japan back
into the old pre-war system. Cultural belief in self-determination was in
conflict with Japanese and British Empires. In terms of policy and goals, the
US and Japan were much closer than it first appeared. There were shared
economic factors and past cooperation between the two nations.
Reactive policies similar to Japan. The US had no proactive agenda and only
sought to prevent Japan or others from becoming too imperialist. The oil
embargo was enacted after continued Japanese aggression. This forced Japan to
decide whether or not to go to war.
Unclear stance on China
Atlantic Conference – Called on Japan to restore pre-war Wilsonian
Abortive New Order:
Both nations became united after the war began, but neither had clear goals
for the future.
The military became the decision maker in Japan.
Japanese occupation of China showed the gap between the rhetoric of
Pan-Asianism and the actual imperial exploitation.
Japan did not change strategies in China – continued to wage war against
Chinese Nationalists and Communists.
Asian culture – How much appeal did Pan-Asianism have?
The US countered with anti-imperialism messages and intended on making China
into a major regional power yet had no actual policies to carry any of these
US diplomats began internal debates on the future of Japan: Would the entire
society have to be reformed, or would simply removing the militarism and
restoring ante-bellum relations work?
Both nations relied on public opinion to shape and carry out war objectives.
1. In order to conquer Southeast Asia, Japan used cultural propaganda to win
the public over to spartan virtues and suppress Western liberalism. Japanese
culture had to support the power-based imperial goals.
American public opinion concentrated on eliminating the Japanese threat while
some favored self-determination and expansion of democracy. Neither viewpoint
Culture and public opinion determined the meaning of power for each nation.
Depending on one’s culture, power might be represented in a land-based empire
Japan had no in-depth plans to administer parts of the Japanese Empire, so the
military largely acted through the pre-existing Western structures by
replacing the Dutch, French, and British.(Is this a fair description? The
Japanese were often worse than the Western imperialists – e.g. “The Rape of
Nanking” – this may have been a result of a more militarist culture).
Both the US and Japan were most concerned with stability rather than
revolutionizing the region.
Russia played the role of a potential power balancer. At the start of the war,
Japan was faced with the decision to “go north” into Siberia and fight the
Russians or “go south” towards the Western colonies in Southeast Asia to
secure resources. The decision to fight the British and Americans meant that
Russia, despite neutrality in Asia, was a key player.
Redefining War Aims:
US counteroffensive forced Japan to define what Pan-Asian reality would be.
They needed allies to halt the offensive.
Role of China: Japan wanted the puppet government in Nanking to become more
independent and declare war on the US. Was only partially able to do this and
the Japanese military continued to control occupied China. Explored
possibilities of ending the war in China in order to concentrate in the war
against the US. Amounted to nothing.
Southeast Asia: Burma and Philippines were to be granted independence by
Japan. Other territories would be absorbed by Japan.
Culture played a role in defining which nations would be given independence.
The Philippines had already been promised independence by the Americans, and
its people were mostly Catholic and pro-American. The Japanese feared an
uprising if it acted too imperialist and forced the Filipinos to fight the
Coprosperity plans – Similarities with the US/UK Atlantic Charter
State Department began to plan the rebuilding of post-war Asia in 1943.
The US plans grew from a mix of power and culture. Interdependence and
self-determination after a period of trusteeship for most Asian nations. Some
wanted a strong China to serve as a power balance against Soviet expansion.
But since China was in a civil war, which faction would the US side with?
Communist & Nationalist ideology determined possible interaction with the US
Cultural ties with Great Britain prevented the US from taking too strong of an
US planned for a Wilsonian internationalism following the war with Japan being
reintegrated into the system.
Russia promised to declare war on Japan.
US support for the Chinese Nationalists was tempered by concerns over
competence and stability. China’s failure to stop a Japanese offensive late in
the war only renewed such fears.
Japan used propaganda to tell its people that victory would mean subjugation
to American imperialists. This would also make it more difficult to surrender
As the US captured islands close enough to Japan to enable bombings, Prime
Minister Tojo was forced to resign. Politicians still refused to consider
peace despite the poor military situation. Tojo was replaced by General Koiso.
The new cabinet desired to win a major battle then work for a peace treaty or
truce that would have more favorable conditions and might leave parts of the
War plans. Unilateral US action to minimize British and Soviet power in the
region. This was a result of both power and culture. Power because the US
feared Soviet encroachment in the region. Culture because of American’s
The role of culture in post-war planning.
Emperor remained a prominent issue despite it having no “power”. Culturally,
the Japanese wanted to retain the emperor, and the State Department realized
that treating him harshly would be too costly. Instead, planning for peace
would involve purging the militaristic culture from Japan, and restoring the
moderates and liberals.
Making of Post-War Asia:
Victory in Europe was in the near future, but the US, UK, and USSR alliance
was becoming shaky. The US/UK feared Soviet expansion and strength. This
encouraged the Japanese to believe that the Allies would split apart after
Germany was defeated. Culturally and ideologically the US and UK were close,
and they only used power-balancing with Russia against Germany. The Japanese
were correct that the US and Russia would not remain allies for long, but they
badly misjudged the timing of the split.
US begins planning the invasion of Japan.
Japan viewed Russia as a mediator for a conditional peace treaty. They had no
progress on that issue.
The US began to gradually end military cooperation with the Nationalists of
Yalta Agreement between Allies. Reduced China’s role. Set up trustee systems
and gave Russia more land and control in Northern Asia. The US would run the
occupation of Japan.
In terms of power, Japan was defeated by early spring of 1945. Terms of
surrender were decided largely for cultural reasons. The State Department was
mainly concerned with defeating Japan and were willing to negotiate terms (the
unconditional surrender was just figurative). The US public wanted the emperor
removed and interpreted unconditional surrender literally.
The Japanese faced a more complicated situation – diplomats and civilians, the
military, and the public had different conditions on when peace would become
Prime Minister Koiso favored peace in early ’45 but was removed in favor of
pro-war military leaders. War continued. Japanese diplomats like Togo favored
the return to Wilsonian internationalism but could not convince the military.
After Germany fell, the US became wary of Soviet land grabs in Eastern Europe
and feared that the Russians would do the same in Asia. Analyzed alternative
ways to end the war with minimal Russian help – namely with the atomic bomb.
The Russians are coming! The rush to unilaterally end the war was seen as a
power struggle over the post-war environment.
Civilians on both sides desired for a surrender that would recognize the
Emperor. Only miscommunication and inaction by the Japanese military slowed
the process. Japan should have surrendered in July rather than August after
the nuclear bombings. This was the biggest of the lost opportunities.
Potsdam declaration: US goal was to demilitarize and democratize Japan. This
was an example of culture influencing power in terms war and surrender
Japan failed to surrender before the use of atomic weapons. This initiated the
new concept of nuclear war that changed the way wars would be fought.
Reconstructed Japan returned to economic internationalism that resembled the
old system of the 1920s.
conclusion is that the US and Japan had similar economic and cultural goals in
Asia. The war resulted from a power struggle, not over what to do, but who would