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Japan's War: The Great Pacific Conflict 1853 to 1952by Edwin P. Hoyt : (McGraw-Hill: $19.95; 560 pp., illustrated)

April 06, 1986| Ronald H. Spector | Spector, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama , is the author of "Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan (The Free Press)." and

During the years immediately following Pearl Harbor, a great deal of thought and writing in the United States was devoted to the question of "Why did the Japanese do it?" What was it about the Japanese that impelled them to embark on a war to dominate Asia and the Pacific? (The idea that other countries may have had something to do with it, came much later.)

So far as the behavior of the Japanese was concerned, two explanations tended to predominate. The first, more popular during the war, held that the entire history and social makeup of the Japanese inevitably pointed them in the direction of militarism, totalitarianism and expansionism. The second, more popular after the war, held that the Japanese people had been duped, coerced and maneuvered into undertaking their disastrous course of conquest by a coterie of reactionary militarists and reckless expansionists.

In "Japan's War," Edwin P. Hoyt appears to embrace both of these venerable theories. His book is a kind of condensed modern history of Japan with heavy emphasis on the origins and conduct of the Pacific war. (Despite the title, fewer than a dozen pages are devoted to the years after 1945.) The events of these 150 years, Hoyt explains, can be understood as Japan's pursuit of "a destiny laid down long ago by the leaders of the kingdom, a destiny that demands for the Japanese the leadership of Asia and perhaps the world." Along with talk of this centuries-old Japanese "destiny," however, "Japan's War" also makes frequent reference to "the struggle between the advocates of parliamentary government and peaceful change and the expansionists bent on conquest."

Indeed, Hoyt suggests on several occasions that if the United States had only stood up to Japan in the 1930s, everything would have been all right. He claims, for example, that young hot-heads in the Kwantung Army were poised to seize Manchuria as early as 1928 but that U.S. "Secretary of State Kellogg called Japanese Ambassador Matsumoto to the State Department and warned him officially that in the United States' view Manchuria belonged to China and any attempt by Japan to seize Manchuria would be regarded by the U.S. as a most serious matter." The Japanese therefore "ultimately decided not to risk war with the United States, for that was the issue at hand."

Actually the United States was no more about to go to war over Manchuria in 1928 (or 1931-'33) than President Franklin Pierce was about to intervene in the Crimean War. Secretary Kellogg did discuss the Manchurian situation with Ambassador Matsudaira (not Matsumoto) but, as indicated in the documents published in Foreign Relations of the United States, Kellogg's statements hardly constituted a threat or warning to Japan. According to notes kept by the assistant secretary of state, Kellogg stated he was at a loss to understand how reports of this character should have gotten to Japan as he had consistently refused to comment on Japanese activities in Manchuria.

"The Ambassador said he himself had seen the various statements in the press and had seen nothing to indicate the Secretary had said anything that might show he was suspicious of Japan's motives, but of course the press had been pretty free in its comments." (Memo by Asst. Sec. State, May 22, 1928, Foreign Relations II, 227-228.)

There are other similar errors of fact and interpretation in "Japan's War" which make it a less-than-reliable guide to modern Japanese history.

That is too bad because Edwin P. Hoyt is a man who knows Japan and the Pacific war very well indeed. The author of more than half-a-dozen books on the subject, he reads Japanese, lived through the war, and has met many of the principal actors. The most valuable parts of the book are, in fact, not the long disquisitions on "Japan's destiny" but the sections in which Hoyt puts his knowledge of Japan and his journalist's expertise to good use to show how the war with the United States was perceived by the ordinary Japanese. He has some illuminating things to say on the subject of Japanese wartime news reporting, domestic propaganda and censorship. In this sense, the book is a useful popular complement to the more specialized work of authors such as Thomas R. H. Havens on life in wartime Japan. One of the surprises that emerges from Hoyt's account is the considerable amount of accurate information about the war which the Japanese "man-in-the-street" was able to deduce through the fog of propaganda and censorship.

Had Hoyt devoted more attention to this line of inquiry instead of dusting off the tired cliches of the 1940s and 1950s, he would have had a better book.

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