RACE WAR! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire, by Gerald Horne. New York and London: New York University Press, 2004, 407 pp., 4,478 yen (cloth).

Racism is a particularly dirty issue of World War II in Asia that is often swept under the carpet. Tokyo’s claim that Japan stood up against European domination and colonial exploitation is usually dismissed as self-serving propaganda. Gerald Horne demonstrates that this is too simplistic a view reflecting the general tendency to lionize the victor and vilify the vanquished.

Tokyo’s battle cry, “Asia for the Asians!” neither was unfounded nor fell on deaf ears. It was not difficult for Japan to expose and take advantage of the system of white supremacy, the “glue that held colonial empires together.”

Race wasn’t a matter of secondary importance, but a key factor of the various conflicts fought out on the Asian mainland and in the Pacific. This is Horne’s principal argument for which he provides so much evidence that it is almost too tiring to read. Even during the war, white racial arrogance was everywhere.

In Burma the “colonial governor had segregated black and white refugees.” In exterritorial Shanghai, “dogs and yellow people” were barred from many buildings. India was “a slave under the British people,” and it was a matter of course that “no white person ever thanks an Indian for anything.” Eurasians and other people of mixed blood were routinely discriminated against and mixed marriages were frowned upon throughout the Empire. Unequal pay for whites and nonwhites was the norm, as were segregated residence and employment patterns.

Australia had a white-only policy that excluded even nonwhite refugees from other parts of the British Empire.

Many in Asia, therefore, hailed Japan’s military successes as harbingers of a new order. Feeling a sense of “joy at the British defeat,” they viewed Japan’s own imperial designs rather lightly in the beginning. At the time of Japan’s attack, many Chinese in Hong Kong were more sympathetic to the Japanese than to the British. And even after atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army came to light, important Asian leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohammad and Ho Chi Minh in retrospect concurred that the Japanese occupation led to the fall of the British Empire that “few non-whites regretted.”

Japan’s resistance against white supremacy, Horne reminds us, goes back to Versailles where Tokyo called for the League of Nations covenant to recognize racial equality, a request that was strictly rejected, with American approval, by Great Britain and France. However, Tokyo never abandoned the topic. It organized a “Pan-Asian” conference in Nagasaki in 1926, and by pointing the finger at racial discrimination whenever the occasion arose made many friends in colonial Asia, including China, and not just in Asia.

One of the most fascinating chapters of this important book describes how a strong pro-Tokyo movement arose among blacks in the United States. Many of them had a high opinion of Japan and the Japanese because “they were the first colored [the common designation in Western publications at the time] nation to refuse to take orders or to be bluffed by white Europeans and Americans in generations.” Many blacks saw no reason to come to the aid of an empire built on racism.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading black activist in the 1940s, is quoted by Horne as accusing the Empire of having “caused more human misery than Hitler will cause if he lives a hundred years.”

In India, too, pro-Tokyo sentiments were very strong. Like other “coloreds,” Indians looked to Japan as the leader of Asia and the only power able to challenge the “colour bar” inflicted on Asia by the British Empire. Horne calls into question the view that Subhas Chandra Bose, who supported Japan during the war, was a “kind of Quisling of the Axis powers,” seeing in him rather a sincere Indian patriot.

The strength of this book is that it leaves no claim unsubstantiated, and that it does not paint a picture in black and white. Horne does not evade the many contradictions that race inserted into the complexities of the war, but tackles them with analytic clarity: A segregated U.S. military fights fascism. A white supremacist empire promotes democracy. Tokyo combats racial discrimination and allies itself with the ultimate racist regime, Nazi-Germany.

Power politics were at the heart of the Pacific War, but it was obfuscated by racism. It is a lasting legacy of the war that it ushered in the downfall of colonialism in Asia, and that was largely attributable to Japan rather than what London or Washington set out to accomplish. The war acted as a catalyst that changed race relations in unforeseen and unintended ways. When the guns were silent, it was impossible to return to the old ways.

Horne’s argument that World War II in Asia was very different from that in Europe because it was more racially charged is well taken. As he shows with a wealth of quotations, there was a popular belief among British and U.S. elites “that the Japanese were members of a lesser race.” Surprisingly, he is silent on one important point. He only indirectly links racism with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While not the dominant motivation, racism was a contributing factor that led to the deployment of these weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps Horne thought it too obvious to mention, since the decision to drop the bombs was made by a committed racist.

To illustrate the mindset of the U.S. political elite at the time, he quotes Harry S. Truman who unabashedly said he hated the Chinese and the Japanese: “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.”

Tokyo played its hand badly, because it wreaked havoc on those it promised to liberate. But its contribution to discrediting white supremacy is undeniable, as this insightful survey of the racial dimension of British and U.S. politics during World War II clearly shows.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.