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  • Post-war Japan as a Sea Power: Imperial Legacy, Wartime Experience and the Making of a Navy by Alessio Patalano
  • James R. Holmes
Post-war Japan as a Sea Power: Imperial Legacy, Wartime Experience and the Making of a Navy. By Alessio Patalano. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 272 pages. Hardcover £85.00; softcover £28.99.

Japan operates a world-class if modest-sized navy, euphemistically named the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) to conform to the nation's post–World War II constitution, which forswears the use of arms for political purposes. The JMSDF is part of a combined US-Japanese fleet that constitutes the enforcement arm of allied strategy vis-à-vis surging Chinese economic and military might. And yet little has been written in English about this close partner to the US Navy, a shortfall that is doubly striking in light of the profusion of studies on the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), the JMSDF's institutional forebear. Chinese strategist Sun Tzu urged sovereigns and generals to know themselves and their foes to succeed in martial enterprises; he might have counseled them to know their allies as well.

That's where Alessio Patalano's book comes in so handy. (One imagines it will be read avidly in China as well.) The compact community of Japan watchers in the West has long depended on a handful of works for insight into the JMSDF's past and present. Best known is James E. Auer's The Postwar Rearmament of Japanese Maritime Forces, 1945–71 (New York: Praeger, 1973), which appeared over forty years ago. Peter J. Woolley brought the story up to the turn of the century with Japan's Navy: Politics and Paradox, 1971–2000 (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000). Post-war Japan as a Sea Power supplies a sorely needed update founded on interviews along with primary-source research in the JMSDF archives. Japan's navy [End Page 354] now confronts a rising China as well as a renegade, nuclear-armed North Korea. On such pressing recent matters, Auer's and Woolley's books are silent for obvious reasons.

This is not a narrative history of postwar Japanese sea power per se, and that constitutes one of its strengths. The treatise is thematic in outlook, with chapters reviewing, for example, the imperial navy's ethos and traditions; the JMSDF's interpretation of the imperial experience and its incorporation of that experience into its own service subculture; Japanese maritime policy and strategy; and the navy's pursuit of a balanced fleet. Japan's postwar navy studied the reasons for the IJN's downfall closely and fashioned policy and strategy to avoid committing similar mistakes. Antisubmarine warfare, for example, figured prominently in postwar strategy, doubtless because of painful memories of US submarines sending Japanese merchantmen and warships to the bottom. Logistics was another core takeaway. The imperial navy seized vast territories and sea space from 1941 to 1942, yet little thought was given to how to hold all that area once it had been seized. JMSDF commanders faulted their predecessors for neglecting sea-lane defense—a crucial oversight for any island empire dependent on resource imports. And on and on.

Culture is the common denominator among these strands of inquiry. Patalano concentrates in large measure on organizational culture, namely, the habits of mind and deed that are imprinted on the bureaucracy and individual seafarers by an institution's founders and founding legends, and by which the institution acculturates newcomers—chiefly through naval education in any sea service's case. He thus puts the US Navy's part in the JMSDF's founding in perspective. He observes that while American seafarers such as Admiral Arleigh Burke were indeed key figures in the JMSDF's early history, Japan's navy is by no means a simple appendage of its US patron and ally.

Nor is it a direct descendant of the World War II navy. Henry Steele Commager once wrote in The Search for a Usable Past (New York: Knopf, 1967) about the American founders' efforts to fabricate a "usable past" binding together thirteen disparate states clustered along the eastern seaboard of North America. A central point for Commager was that the...


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