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Saturday, June 17, 2017

“Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army”, by Meirion and Susie Harries


569 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0394569352

In Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army, the husband-and-wife team of Meirion and Susie Harries ask the question: “How was it possible for an organization displaying the highest of soldierly qualities to possess such a capacity for barbarism?” In this well-written and comprehensively researched survey of the Imperial Japanese Army – from its inception during the Meiji Restoration to its dissolution in 1945 – they describe an ethos based on service to the “Japanese Way” embodied in the devotion to service to the Emperor as expressed in the code of bushido, or “the way of the warrior”, a codified samurai way of life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry in Europe. According to the Harries’, bushido was perverted by modernizers of the Japanese military into a philosophy that exalted death and violence and taught contempt for the vanquished; alterations, that did indeed contribute to war crimes. But the Imperial Japanese Army was also influenced by the military institutions of Europe (particularly Prussia) and, in emulating the armies of Europe, the Japanese distilled much of the best of both the samurai and the European traditions while developing a fighting force that could compete successfully with those of the Great Powers.

Once it emerged from international isolation, Japan began to imitate Europe's imperialism as well as its militarism, with the soldiers increasingly advocating transforming Japan into a self-sufficient garrison state through total physical and psychological mobilization. This ideology, however, was not translated into operable strategy. Detailing Japan’s intrigues against China and Russia and its successes in the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, as well as its successful though peripheral involvement in WW I, the Harries’ show how the island nation's warlords developed a hubris that led inexorably to Japan's imperialist adventures on the Asian mainland. Unable to conquer China, the army embarked on war with the West, as well. This reckless advance into the unknown involved missed opportunities and repeated mistakes from Bataan to Imphal. Spirit and willpower were expected to compensate for material weaknesses. Unreflected decisions were made at all levels of planning and command. Eventually the gap between the samurai way and modern high-tech warfare became obvious even to true believers. But by the time of Japan's WW II surrender its army had unrepentantly inflicted death and destruction throughout the Pacific on a scale that continues to assert Japan's status as an outsider among Western-style democracies. This first-rate analysis will appeal to general readers and specialists alike.

The Harries’ show sympathy for the Japanese, acknowledging, for example, that the extraordinary commitment of resources and energy to the army was a virtual necessity, from the inception of the Imperial Army in the 1870s and 1880s well into the 20th Century, if Japan was to fend off Western imperialism. Nevertheless, while they are hardly Japan bashers, much of the history they narrate is so ugly that the reluctance of the Japanese to confront this part of their past becomes thoroughly understandable. As part of their repudiation of their warlike past, the Japanese rarely study the history of the Imperial Japanese Army. Among historians in Japan, the few who specialize in military history are even more isolated from other academic historians than are their Western counterparts. The Harries’ plead for a reversal of such attitudes in both Japan and the United States – an appeal that is a quarter of a century old, this book having been published in 1991. It argues that war and armed forces in general cannot be controlled unless they are studied and thus better understood. It also contends that the Imperial Army in particular was so closely bound to the Japanese people that it must be studied to understand Japan's future as well as its past. Soldiers of the Sun offers the most readable introduction to the special qualities of the Imperial Japanese Army and to the sources of its especially appalling history.

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