Ko Unoki’s overview of Japanese-U.S. relations from 1853 to 1941 is written for a general reader and as such is easy to read. However, the bulk of the book is disappointing.
The chronological narrative from Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival to the attack on Pearl Harbor is flawed. Tokugawa Japan is presented as a blank slate upon which the United States imprinted the concepts of racism and imperialism.
While it is clear that white supremacy, the ideology of “manifest destiny” and the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine cast a shadow over early U.S. involvement in Asia, to claim that Japan was an innocent utopia before 1853 stretches credulity. The language the author deploys is equally telling: The United States engages in “imperialism,” Japan in “expansion”; the United States is “aggressive,” Japan is merely “rising.” It smacks of spinning facts to fit a theory.
It’s a shame, because while this book contains much that is scholarly and important, these failings undermine its impact.
In one chapter, Unoki examines present-day U.S.-China relations through the prism of U.S.-Japan relations leading up to World War II.
Drawing analogies across history is always troublesome but this section is fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. The inexorable drive of capitalism to find new markets to open, he argues, runs the risk of propelling the United States and China into conflict.
For this chapter alone, the book is worth reading.