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Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 163-168 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0010

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T. Fujitani’s Race for Empire is an invaluable contribution to the growing body of historical scholarship on race and empire in Japanese and U.S. history. Not since John Dower’s War without Mercy (Pantheon Books, 1986) has there been such a meticulously researched, stimulating comparative study of racial politics in wartime Japan and the United States in Japanese or English. Based on Japanese and U.S. government and military documents, newspapers, literature, film, and secondary materials in English, Japanese, and Korean, Fujitani’s path-breaking book examines how racial ideologies and policies in Japan and the United States, specifically those pertaining to Koreans in Japan and Japanese Americans respectively, developed in response to both countries’ wartime exigencies of filling military manpower needs, mobilizing internally diverse populations, and establishing hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. Comparing two groups that are seldom put side by side, this book offers a profound reinterpretation of their place in the Japanese and U.S. empires, the Asia-Pacific War, and each country’s racial politics.

Fujitani’s book is organized around a single, compelling question: Why, during World War II, do we find “some of the most horrific and racially motivated atrocities of the twentieth century committed by Germany, Japan, and the United States” alongside “equally vigorous denunciations of racism by the Japanese and U.S. regimes” (p. 8)? Concentrating on the period from the 1930s to 1945, extending to the 1950s for the Japanese American case, Fujitani argues that racial ideologies in Japan and the United States underwent a parallel development during World War II, from what he characterizes as a “vulgar,” biological racism that is primordial, reactionary, and exclusive to a “polite,” cultural racism that, at least on a superficial level, is universalistic, cosmopolitan, and inclusive. In their quest to mobilize and maximize “every available human and material resource” (p. 6), both internally and externally, U.S. and Japanese leaders exerted “enormous and concerted efforts in order to demonstrate not just to the negatively racialized populations and potential allies of color throughout the world, but to the majority populations in the two metropoles as well, that their nations were committed to racial equality” (p. 18).

Rather than treat them as incommensurable, exceptional cases, the book gives the Japan and U.S. cases equal weight, drawing attention to their convergent racial discourses and policies. Applying Michel Foucault’s concepts of “bio-power” and “governmentality,” Fujitani explores how both states generated overlapping strategies for incorporating their subject populations as “formally free and responsible subjects” (p. 27) who were “worthy of life, education, health, and even to some degree happiness” (p. 26) but whose conduct would be mobilized toward desired ends. For Fujitani, these convergences should be viewed not as mere coincidences but as the products of their “mutual and multidirectional agitation and emulation” (p. 10) in which both sides sought to fully utilize their subject populations and, at the same time, mobilize “allies of color” to “gain their support for the longer-term goal of establishing postwar global, or at least regional, hegemony” (p. 11). Part 1 compares efforts by U.S. and Japanese leaders to mobilize loyalty among Japanese Americans and Korean subjects, respectively, at home and to exploit racial divisions abroad. The two chapters in this section vividly illustrate how state and nonstate elites within Japan and the United States—including elites within the Korean and Japanese communities in each country—constructed institutions and relationships that would lead to a new “racial common sense” that made “vulgar” racism no longer feasible. Rather than evaluate the “sincerity of intentions” among Japanese and U.S. leaders, Fujitani argues that the discourse of equality that mobilized Korean subjects and Japanese Americans into the military “made it increasingly difficult to openly espouse vulgar racist views” and disregard their rights and welfare (p. 49). This book thus makes a significant contribution to the study of comparative racial politics by foregrounding the role of politics, rather than individual behavior or intergroup relations, in the social and political mobilization of various social groups premised upon the race concept, racial hierarchy, and distinction.1

Fujitani, moreover, challenges two dominant frameworks used to study the two main groups under scrutiny—Korean...

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