Home > Books/Magazines, Reviews > Book Review: ‘Honoured and Dishonoured Guests: Westerners in Wartime Japan’

Book Review: ‘Honoured and Dishonoured Guests: Westerners in Wartime Japan’

For a subject that seems rarely to have been written about this is a welcome publication highlighting (and that is the operative term being used in this review) the experience of foreigners in Japan during WWII albeit in this review with reservations about some of the assertions it makes.

Given the history lessons learnt from the sadistic and cruel behaviour of the Japanese military towards POWs with an order issued by the Japanese military to the effect that on the 22nd August all Allied POWs were to be executed, the actions of Units 731/1855/1644/8604/9420, the then Prime Minister Tojo Hideki’s cruel declaration in February 1944 of ‘ichioku gyokusai’ (100 million deaths) requiring the entire population of Japan be prepared to die, along with the Taiwanese and Koreans under Japanese rule, to protect Japan and its territories, the Rape of Nanking with 200,000 civilian casualties and 20,000 cases of rape, between 3,000,000 – 14,000,000 people murdered by the Japanese military according to the University of Hawaii, in light of which a distinct impression is that the book’s basic premise is apologist. Contrary to the summary on the website of Harvard University Press, the book does not demonstrate ‘that Japan’s racial attitudes during wartime are more accurately discerned in the treatment of Western civilians living in Japan than the experiences of enemy POWs.’ Surely the sheer volume of atrocities committed against and experienced by a large number of POWs (140,000) and non-Japanese nationals throughout Japan’s occupied territories outweighs the experiences of a vastly lesser volume of enemy nationals, according to the book 2,138 with around 1,000 detained according to NHK which, to paraphrase Harvard University Press’s assertion, this reviewer contends more accurately discerns through sheer volume Japan’s racial attitudes during WWII. And that these explicit historical facts do not represent, as the author terms it, the West’s “voluminous retaliatory postwar scholarship”. Facts are facts and in these cases not subjective. However, as the book points out, different nationalities and different classifications of statehood (ally, enemy, stateless) elicited different responses dependant on classification.

And past examples of racism and social discrimination provide a pointer to and cast a shadow on the historical behaviour of some elements of Japanese society. For instance the Kanto Massacre which took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake when around 6,000 ethnic Koreans, Burakumin (a former ‘untouchable’ group), and Japanese Socialists were murdered by the Japanese police, military and vigilantes. Of this there are ample illustrations on the subject such as ‘Koreans fleeing to a Potato Field’ seen on a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall housing the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake memorial exhibition in Sumida, Miyatake Gaikotsu’s 1923 caricature of ‘lazy and violent’ Japanese vigilantes attacking ethnic Koreans, and the illustrations on display at an exhibition entitled, “The Great Kanto Earthquake 95 Years on: The Slaughter of Koreans and Socially Vulnerable People”, held at the Korean Museum in Shinjuku.

And the experience of Western nationals in Japan at that time, even Axis Nationals, the allies of Japan, were not universally positive. Hedi Koh, a member of the German community in Japan who was married to the Japanese cellist Yukichi Koh, about her time in Japan during WWII…

“It wasn’t always so calm and peaceful”, Hedi commented about her experience of wartime, “that was my worst experience. Fortunately I always had a really good relationship with my Japanese neighbours and because they knew I was German were always very helpful. Had I been American it would have been very problematic. After we moved from Zushi in Kanagawa to Yokosuka, a military port, things took a dramatic turn. The local population refused to have anything to do with me and there was downright animosity going so far as to suspect me of being a spy because of my Western appearance. My Japanese nationality did not help me at all. I hardly dared to venture out. Because of our political naivety Yukichi and I were unable to recognize the danger. Normally at that time Germans living in Japan spent the war living in Karuizawa and Hakone. By a favourable twist of fate one year before the end of the war our family moved to Manchuria where my husband got a post with a broadcasting company in Mukden as due to his poor health he was unfit for military service. Additionally there were no posts on offer for cellists as except for military parades musical performances were forbidden”. (Translated and adapted by Trevor Skingle from the German language article “120 years of Evangelism in the German speaking community of Yokohama and Tokyo: 1885 – 2005”, at https://kreuzkirchetokyo.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/120-jahre-ev-gde-in-tyo-2005.pdf)

And even in the lead up to Pearl Harbour the experience of Westerner’s in Japan could be problematic. Faubion Bowers, who was later credited with saving Kabuki during the post WWII occupation of Japan by the Allies, arrived in Japan in late March 1940 in a period of increasingly charged febrile pre-WWII atmosphere. By the time he left one of his English students, Hasegawa Tadashi, had been detained and held incommunicado by the Kenpeitai, the Japanese secret police, and severely interrogated as a result of his connection with Bowers, who himself was interrogated and labelled ‘hentai’ or pervert and, no longer able to stay in Japan, left in March 1941.

Ahhh, but these are just two examples and as the saying goes ‘One swallow does not a summer make’. With the final part of the book touching on the future development of social and racial discrimination in Japan what might have been a complimentary take on racial discrimination in Japan would have been the treatment of Koreans there, social discrimination towards burakumin and hafu, and the Executive Board and ‘legal’ manipulation of the position of senior foreign executives in Japanese companies, for instance:

  • Julie Hamp, Toyota – detained for importing pain killers. Sakae Komori said Hamp’s resignation from Toyota could have helped in winning her release (Guardian)
  • Craig Naylor, Nippon Sheet Glass – the latest example of friction between a Japanese company and a non-Japanese executive (FT)
  • Michael Woodford, Olympus – was forced out for whistle blowing on major corruption, a $1.687 billion fraud on the purchase of three ‘mickey mouse’ companies. Hisashi Mori, Deputy President and Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, Chairman of the company both resigned as a consequence (Guardian)

Though for undergraduates it would be an eminent reference work the book works better for a general reader when there is a narrative rather than when it’s academic. For instance the stories of the Frank and Balk families, and in particular those linked narratives which follow the plights of Hugo Frank and Arvid Balk. However the narratives lost some continuity as a result of being fragmented into different sections.

What is fascinating are the few examples of the tendency for some Westerner’s whilst living in Japan to retain their ‘privileged’ colonial arrogance and upper class snobbery. This resulting in disparaging attitudes and racial discrimination towards the Japanese and Japan, and towards ‘fellow’ Westerners perceived as lower class and of different nationalities.

In summary the book really does only highlight the experience of a few Westerners in Japan and does not prove that the treatment of Westerners in Japan is evidence of the racial attitudes of the overall population. Though still retaining the impression that this book is apologist whilst not a ‘pick it up and can’t put it down’ book it is still a fascinating read.

‘Honoured and Dishonoured Guests: Westerners in Wartime Japan’

W. Puck Brecher

Pub. Harvard University Asia Center, 2017

ISBN 9780674975149 £15.99

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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