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  • Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science
  • Paul E. Dunscomb
Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science. By Walter E. Grunden (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2005) 335 pp. $39.95

Grunden's overview of major scientific developments in Japan during World War II contributes to the historiography of Japan's wartime mobilization, the evolution of bureaucratic systems of economic control, and the development of science in Japan. Grunden seeks to describe the impact of science on Japan's conduct of the war. Additionally, he examines how attempts to harness "Big Science"—defined as government-controlled research projects in such cutting-edge technology as nuclear weapons, radar, rockets and guided missiles, and chemical- and biological-weapons systems—ultimately contributed to Japan's spectacular postwar growth. However, by not making greater use of other disciplinary techniques, Grunden ultimately fails to answer the larger questions that he poses.

Grunden thoroughly lays out the basics of Japan's wartime mobilization of science and technology, providing a broad comparative perspective with the other major combatants—Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States. He shows that Japan's forays into Big Science were crippled by the sheer inadequacy of its economic base; endemic turf warfare between competing bureaucracies (the highest expression of which was found in the army and navy); a total disinterest in systems perceived as merely "defensive" (like radar); and a paranoid insistence (again, best-exemplified by the military but not native to it) on secrecy, compartmentalization, and keeping even the most cutting-edge research "in house," away from the wider scientific community. Indeed Grunden makes it abundantly clear that Japan was by far the least successful in mobilizing the human and research potential of its major universities, which were left largely to pursue their own work during the war.

Grunden's finding that the United States was able to mobilize Big Science much better than Japan is secure, though he never satisfactorily explains why. A wider, interdisciplinary scope would have helped. What factors in Japanese society, politics, and culture make knowledge a coin to be hoarded rather than shared? Why were the Japanese unable to embrace the more open exchange of information inherent in "the Republic of Science," which, as Richard Rhodes notes in Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York, 1995), was essential to the success of the Anglo-American effort and survived even wartime compartmentalization? What makes bureaucratic turf battles so central to the story of modern government in Japan? That the phenomenon exists is indisputable, but some explanation of why it overrode all attempts to make a common effort when even national survival was at stake requires broader analysis.

Grunden's conclusions about the ultimate impact of Big Science on Japan's postwar recovery are also less than convincing. The failure of Japanese science was largely blamed for Japan's defeat. But to what extent was this a sober analytical conclusion rather than an effort to deflect [End Page 673] blame from a government and bureaucracy that had recklessly plunged into war without regard to its costs or dangers? To what extent can the greater "success" of government mobilization of postwar science be attributed to lessons learned from the war rather than a simple thinning of the bureaucratic herd as a result of occupation reforms? And does postwar success constructing bullet trains and developing consumer electronics really constitute the success of the government-directed Big Science that Grunden suggests?

Paul E. Dunscomb
University of Alaska, Anchorage


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pp. 673-674
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