JPRI Occasional Paper No. 38 (May 2012)
Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II
by Tak Fujitani

Note: On March 5, 2012, Professor Tak Fujitani visited University of San Francisco to discuss his latest book Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (University of California Press, 2011) . Several pages from the introduction—“Ethnic and Colonial Soldiers and the Politics of Disavowal”—of this important work is excerpted below with the author's permission. We at JPRI and the USF Center for the Pacific Rim were honored to sponsor the talk in cooperation with the USF Davies Forum.

Reflecting on her childhood years in early postwar Japan, the pioneering historian and activist Utsumi Aiko wrote in her 1991 contribution to the popular Iwanami Booklet series that she could recall no public memory from that time of the Korean and Taiwanese men who had fought for Japan as soldiers and sailors during the Asia-Pacific War. While she remembered those around her struggling to piece together their lives in the immediate aftermath of the war, or simply getting by from day to day, she had no childhood memories of these ethnic and colonial soldiers. “Thus, although the ‘War' remained in our daily lives,” she wrote, “I had no way of knowing that the Japanese military had drafted soldiers from colonized countries such as Korea and Taiwan. I never imagined that North and South Koreans such as Kim Chae-ch'ang who had been unilaterally stripped of their Japanese citizenship by the postwar Japanese government and [thereby] had no relief benefits at all, were among those wounded soldiers that [I noticed] in the streets.” While she imagined retrospectively that there must have been Korean soldiers among the wounded or disabled that she had seen in the streets of her war-torn city, to her they were, as she put it, “invisible.”[1] Similarly, the well-known filmmaker Ōshima Nagisa has written that when he began preliminary research for a television documentary on Korean veterans in the Japanese military that aired in August 1963, he was shocked to discover that in fact, “all of the white-robed disabled veterans begging in the streets of Japan [were] Korean.”[2] Even as late as the mid-1990s, when many Asia-Pacific War memories that had been marginalized began to reemerge in the mainstream media and public debates with the thawing of the Cold War, the historian Kang Duk-sang (Tŏk-sang) lamented that in the flood of publications and TV specials in Japan commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the recruitment of students into the Japanese military, he had not seen even one reference to Koreans who had been mobilized for this purpose, even though by his calculations about one in every twenty student soldiers had been Korean.[3]

Moreover, ethnic and colonial soldiers remain remarkably absent from the postwar public discourse around Yasukuni Shrine, the national site that is dedicated to the souls of all those who have lost their lives in military service for Japan. Each visit of a postwar prime minister or other high-ranking Japanese official to Yasukuni has sparked strong and fairly predictable outcries from leftists within Japan and from the international community. These critics understand that Yasukuni is a symbol of Japanese militarism and imperialism and that visits to that site represent both a lack of remorse about the past and renunciation of responsibilities in the present. Rarely do these critics fail to mention that such convicted war criminals as Tōjō Hideki have been deified in this war memorial. And yet regardless of the fact that by official (under)count, 21,181 Korean and 28,863 Taiwanese war dead have also been enshrined at Yasukuni—an uncomfortable reminder that Japan not only waged a war of invasion against its neighbors but was also a multiethnic colonial empire and nation—a conspicuous silence about these ethnic and colonial soldiers remains.[4] Even on Okinawa's Cornerstone of Peace, a sprawling monument on which its builders have attempted to list every participant killed in the Battle of Okinawa—man or woman, enemy or ally, civilian or serviceman—there is a noticeable paucity of Koreans, either with Korean or “Japanized” names. In many cases, it seems, postcolonial conditions in Korea and the specter of the label “collaborator” have made many Koreans wish to suppress memories of family members who had been Korean servicemen or civilian employees of the Japanese military.[5]

In contrast, it would be hard to deny that in the United States, soldiers of Japanese ancestry have achieved the status of American war heroes. To be sure, not all who live in the United States today have heard about the military exploits of the 100th Infantry Battalion or the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the two segregated units whose members—nearly all Japanese American—were, as the legend goes, the most highly decorated group of soldiers in U.S. history. Still less known are the thousands of Japanese Americans who joined the war effort in the Pacific as translators and interpreters. Moreover, not all Americans have welcomed this relative abundance of Japanese American war memorials and commemorations. For example, in 2004 vandals defaced the “Go for Broke Monument” in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo with star etchings scraped into the monument's pillars. The commemorative site had been built in 1999 to honor the patriotism of Japanese American soldiers during World War II and to remind the public of the Constitution's guarantees of civil liberties for all Americans.[6]

Yet the failure of some Americans to remember the World War II valor of Japanese Americans, coupled with the force of ongoing anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiments, continues to push Japanese American veterans, their children, and their admirers toward more retellings and commemorations of Nisei heroism. Reunions and celebrations of Japanese American veterans of World War II continue to be held throughout the country; highways in California have been named for the 100th, for the 442nd, and the Japanese Americans who served in military intelligence; and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles has prominently featured the story of Japanese American soldiers in its permanent displays and a special exhibit.[7]

In the critical period of the 1980s, the discourse on Japanese American military heroism gained even more prominence in public discussions and served as a powerful catalyst for the American Civil Liberties Act of 1988. As is well-known, the act provided $20,000 in individual payments to former internees and established a $1.25 billion fund for education about the internment of Japanese Americans. The House version of the bill, H.R. 442, carried the name of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.[8]

Through the 1990s and into the current millennium, mainstream narratives of the war, whether voiced by leaders in government or carried in the popular media, with some regularity at least mention Japanese American internment and military service. For example, during the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of Pearl Harbor, President George H. W. Bush narrativized these Japanese American experiences in his commemoration speeches. The New York Times reported that “as he did at every place he spoke, he President lauded the Japanese-Americans who fought in the American armed forces during the war and expressed regrets to those interned ‘innocent victims who committed no offense.''' “This ground,” he said in one of his speeches in Honolulu, “embraces many American veterans whose love of country was put to the test unfairly by our own authorities. These and other natural-born American citizens faced wartime internment and they committed no crime. They were sent tf internment camps simply because their ancestors were Japanese.”[9] More recently, his son, President George W. Bush, proclaimed May 2006 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month while calling on his fellow citizens to learn about their history—a history that included “the many Asian/Pacific Americans who have courageously answered the call to defend freedom as members of our Armed Forces.”[10]

But perhaps the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism, dedicated in November 2000 and erected in Washington, D.C., just three blocks away from the Capitol, best testifies to the incorporation of Japanese American internment and military heroism into mainstream U.S. memories of the war. A bronze sculpture at the site's center depicts two cranes struggling to free themselves from the barbed wire that holds them in bondage, while one of the granite walls carries the names of more than 800 Japanese American soldiers who died fighting for their nation. The memorial's point is unambiguous: Japanese Americans, both in battle and on the home front, remained loyal to the United States despite infringements on their civil rights and forced relocation to internment camps. An epigraph attributed to President Truman honors Nisei soldiers by proclaiming: “You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice—and you have won. Keep up that fight and we continue to win to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for[:] the welfare of all the people all the time.”[11] In short, despite violent periodic reminders of the persistence of anti-Asian racism and despite haunting memories about the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans that still resist pub­lic representation and even individual recollection, the narrative of Japanese Amer­ican soldiers fighting heroically for freedom at home and abroad, even in the face of racism and incarceration camps has achieved a notable if not always comfortable place in mainstream narratives and memories of the war.[12]

Although the world tends to remember or forget these U.S. and Japanese ethnic and colonial soldiers so differently, this book aims to show that during the Second World War their positions, as well as the respective regimes that called them na­tional subjects and then mobilized them into service, were surprisingly similar. My purpose is less to detail the heroic or tragic stories of the soldiers, a task that several scholars have already taken up, than to utilize the two sites of soldiering as optics through which to examine the larger operations and structures of the two changing empires, which were based on the nation-state form, as they struggled to manage racialized populations within the larger demands of conducting total war. While I do not wish to trivialize or minimize the intrinsic importance of telling straightfor­ward histories of the soldiers—and I hope that my book makes some contributions in this regard—I seek to show how discussions about, policies concerning, and representations of these soldiers tell us a great deal about the characteristics of wartime racism, nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, gender politics, the family, and related issues on both sides of the Pacific that go well beyond the Japanese American and Korean Japanese soldiers themselves. With regard to one of the primary concerns of this book, I hope that a detailed study of these “soldiers of color”—placed within their larger social, cultural, political, and economic contexts—will help illuminate the dramatic wartime shift in the type of racism that characterized these two regimes: namely, toward an inclusionary rather than exclusionary form, and thus away from what I will be calling “vulgar racism,” and toward a more refined and, at least in appearance, often less overtly violent “polite racism.”

One of the book's main arguments is that the material and ideational demands of waging total war effected parallel and mutually constituitive changes in the political rationalities of the two colonial empires and nations, producing very similar adjustments to the ways that the regimes managed racialized colonial subjects and national minorities. Most importantly, both the U.S. and Japanese total war regimes shifted decisively toward the strategy of disavowing racism and includ­ing despised populations within their national communities. This contrasted with the Nazi regime's solution for managing populations in the conduct of total war—­namely, through aggressive territorial expansion and inclusion of those viewed as German within an explicitly articulated and biologically conceived “racial welfare state,” coupled with the extermination of undesirable populations or their use as forced laborers, whether they resided inside or outside the Reich's geographical borders.[13]

At the same time, the U.S. and Japanese regimes experimented with new post­colonial models of imperialism—the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the Atlantic Charter, with its rejection of territorial “aggrandizement”—that operated on the principel of the right to self-determination of all peoples and that therefore fit well with declarations of racial equality. The Japanese regime's expanding and tightening grip over its primary colonies in the late wartime years does not con­tradict this interpretation, for as we will see, it increasingly incorporated Taiwan and Korea into an enlarged concept of the Japanese nation (put differently, it decolonized by nationalizing) at the same time that it made strenuous efforts to give the appearance that other regions under Japanese imperial domination were in fact self-determining, or at least almost ready to be so. Thus, we must recognize Japan's 1932 establishment of the “puppet regime” of Manchukuo as a formally indepen­dent nation-state and the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act) as parallel experiments in setting up postcolonial client states, a strategy that the United States perfected after the war but that Japan was forced to abandon.[14] I will consequently be arguing that the disavowal of racism served the aspirations of the Japanese and U.S. total war regimes in two complementary and mutually constitu­tive projects—namely, to achieve global or at least regional hegemony and to unify internally diverse populations.

I thus write against the grain of most academic writings and everyday common sense, in that (with some significant exceptions) these tend to distinguish Japan and the United States during the war as two incommensurable political formations—­the one pose-New Deal, liberal-democratic, egalitarian, and a country with few colo­nial possessions; the other fascist, ultranationalist or totalitarian, a proponent of racial supremacy, the oppressor of its colonial subjects, and an expansionist empire that brutalized peoples throughout the Asia-Pacific region and that launched an illegitimate war against the United States. In the United States, the Second World War has come unequivocally to represent the “good war” against powers such as Japan that have threatened freedom and democracy.

Contrary to this dominant view, I attempt to highlight historical convergences in the characteristics of these two wartime regimes, with special attention to their treatments of and discourses on colonial and racialized subjects.[15] I hope to make it clear that the racial common sense of the majority populations in both wartime na­tions began to I shift in roughly “comparable” ways. In both regimes, it became in­creasingly difficult to sustain policies founded on explicit doctrines of racial or eth­nic inequality and for state leaders to make public statements espousing such views. This does not mean that the United States and Japan moved easily in tandem to­ward the steady elimination of racism, or that it is difficult to identify many individuals, organizations, and even government agencies of the most vulgar racist kind. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that the disavowal of racism precluded systemic racialized violence. Rather, what I propose is that it is precisely during the Second World War—when we find some of the most horrific and racially motivated atroc­ities of the twentieth century committed by Germany, Japan, and the United States (and many other nations)—that we discover equally vigorous denunciations of racism by the Japanese and U.S. regimes. It is this uneasy compatibility of racism and its disavowal in the United States and Japan that I analyze in this book and that I maintain is part of the legacy of the war years that remains with us today.

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T. Fujitani is the Dr. David Chu Professor in Asia-Pacific Studies and Professor of History at the University of Toronto.


1. Utsumi Aiko, Chōsenjin “kōgun” heishi tachi no sensō (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991), 39; for slightly different translation, see “Korean “Imperial Soldiers': Remembering Colonialism and Crimes against Allied POWs,” trans. Mie Kennedy, in Perilous Memories: The Asia Pacific War(s) , ed. T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 200. [Return to Text]

2. Ōshima Nagisa, “People of the Forgotten Army,” in Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978 , ed. with an introduction by Annette Michelson, trans. Dawn Lawson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 71. [Return to Text]

3. Kang Duk-sang, “Mō hitosu no kyōsei renkō,” Ningen bunka , preparatory volume (March 1996): 25-38. [Return to Text]

4. For the official count as of 2001, see Takahashi Tetsuya, Yasukuni mondai (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2005), 93. [Return to Text]

5. This is fairly common local knowledge among those involved in building the monument and was reported to me on a visit in 1998. [Return to Text]

6. Pacific Citizen , 2-15 April 2004. [Return to Text]

7. Takashi Fujitani, “National Narratives and Minority Politics: The Japanese American National Museum's War Stories,” Museum Anthropology 21, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 99-112. [Return to Text]

8. Cathleen K. Kozen shows the ubiquity of the discourse on Japanese American soldiering in congressional debates on the Civil Liberties Act in “Achieving the (Im)possible Dream: Japanese American Redress and the Construction of American Justice” (master's thesis, University of California, San Diego, 2007). [Return to Text]

9. Robert Reinhold, “Pearl Harbor Remembered,” New York Times , 8 December 1991; President George H. W. Bush's speech as heard on From Hawaii to the Holocaust: A Shared Moment in History , executive producer, Judy Weightman (Hawaii Holocaust Project, 1993). [Return to Text]

10. “Asia/Pacific American Heritage Month, 2006: A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America,” Proclamation 8008 of 28 April 2006, (accessed January2011). For more examples, see T. Fujitani, “ Go for Broke , the Movie: Japanese American Soldiers in U.S. National, Military, and Racial Discourses,” in Fujitani, White, and Yoneyama, eds., Perilous Memories , 239-66. [Return to Text]

11. The national media reported on the memorial in the days before and after the 9 November 2000 dedication ceremony. For example, see Melissa Lambert, “California and the West; The Washington Connection; A Place of Honor for Japanese Americans,” Los Angeles Times , 7 November 2000. The National Japanese American Foundation website, , gives a fairly detailed description of the memorial, its history, and its significance. [Return to Text]

12. For silences or absences in memories that trouble mainstream narratives of internment, see Marita Sturken, “Absent Images of Memory: Remembering and Reenacting the Japanese Internment,” in Fujitani, White, and Yoneyama, eds., Perilous Memories , 33-49; and Carolyn Chung Simpson, An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945-60 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). [Return to Text]

13. Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage, 1998), esp. 138-81. [Return to Text]

14. Prasenjit Duara has very convincingly demonstrated the seriousness of the scheme to present Manchukuo to the world as a self-determining and authentic nation-state rather than a Japanese colony in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). [Return to Text]

15. In questioning the dominant contrastive logic, I align this book with the important volume edited by Yamanouchi Yasushi, Victor Koschmann, and Narita Ryūichi, Sōryokusen to gendaika (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobō, 1995). [Return to Text]

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