Race and World War II: The Racial Hatred between Japanese and Americans Fueled a Merciless War

When one thinks of racism in World War II, one automatically sees images of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The German genocide of Jews in Europe was one of the biggest racial tragedies of the modern world. However, it was not the only racial hate that was fueling cruelty and oppression during the context of World War II. As John Dower presents in his work War without Mercy: Pacific War, it is clear that there were extremely high racial tensions between the Japanese and the United States which were perpetuated by the military and media’s of each respective nation. This extreme xenophobia and racism then led to an increase in wartime atrocities because of the underlying hatred of the two groups based primarily on racial stereotypes. It even led to the United States’ own degeneration of democracy even here inside its borders with the issue of Executive Order No. 9066 that sent hundreds of thousands of American citizens into internment camps deep into the hostile deserts.

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Race played a huge role in the nature of the war between the Japanese and the Americans. Each side played off racial differences and hostilities, essentially demonizing the other based on racial characteristics and qualities. Here, Dower suggests that “to scores of millions of participants, the war also a race war. It exposed raw prejudices and was fueled by racial pride, arrogance, and rage on many sides” (Dower 4). Millions of Americans and Japanese, both on and off the battlefield, were taken over by hostile racist attitudes. Essentially, elements of racism intensified the war in the Pacific between the Japanese and the Americans. Racial hatred has long fueled tensions that have erupted in violence and military aggression (Shy 15). The conflict between the Japanese and the Americans is just one example that many here in the United States are either too willing to forget or in sheer denial.

Throughout the war, the United States expressed extreme prejudice, both in regards to its politics and in promoting its public opinion on a wide spread context.

Overall, the Japanese were reduced to child like images of inferior individuals. In this, Dower suggests that “the Japanese were unique in unattractive ways, almost totally lacking in diversity or individuality, culturally, and socially primitive, infantile or childish and as a group, collectively abnormal and in the psychological and psychiatric sense, and tormented at every level by an overwhelming inferiority complex” (Dower 122). The Americans reduced their Japanese enemy to childlike monsters, bullies who would never hold back in their cruelty and greediness for world domination. This dominated the American perception of their Japanese enemies. As such, “Americans saw Japan though the black-white racial prism” which the image of Japanese as foreign and inferior to many Americans as the image of African-Americans had in the earlier nineteenth century (Lie 175). The most unfortunate part is that much of the racist sentiment came directly from leadership and government here in the United States. There were little efforts for the government to remain in a state of political correctness, and many found themselves promoting a racist agenda in lieu of a patriotic spirit. There was even a strong racist sentiment in the academic tones of the time as well. Here, Dower suggests that “the academic racism of the nineteenth century drew support from such disciplines as anatomy, phrenology, biological evolution, ethnography, psychology, social psychology, theology, and linguistics to provide proof” of other minority group’s racial inferiorities (Dower 153). This type of professional and academic racism had been providing a negative image of Asians since the mid 1800s, essentially drawing of negative stereotypes of Chinese and Japanese in the early days of their immigration into the United States.

One of the main racist fuels that intensified American hatred of the Japanese was the way the media presented and maintained racist stereotypes throughout the length of the war. The media was ruthless in its presentation of the Japanese enemy. As such, “another manifestation of this most emotional level of anti-Japanese racism was the routine use of racial slang in the media and official memoranda as well as every day discourse” (Dower 81). When the government would hint at racism, the media seemed to relish in it. Images of racial stereotypes were all over newspapers, movies, and other sources of disseminating information to a curious public during one of the worst wars in modern history. Dower shows how “Nip and especially Jap were routinely used in the press and major weeklies and monthlies such as Time, Life, Newsweek, and Reader’s Digest” (Dower 81). Racial slurs were even littered throughout pop culture references, like in film and even music (Dower 81). This only solidified the American hatred for a seemingly racially inferior Japanese enemy, and the average every day American could not escape the racist propaganda that was being published here in a country supposedly resting on the laurels of democracy.

Yet, it was not the Americans who were entirely alone in their racial stereotyping of the enemy. In fact, the Japanese were just as active as portraying the Americans as an inferior race as well. Many Japanese saw World War II as an “emancipatory war from white domination” that would allow the country to regain a sense of pride they felt white Americans had tried to take from them in the preceding century (Lie 41). Often times, the Japanese would dehumanize their American enemies to the point of portraying them as beasts and not as individual people. Essentially, “the Japanese dehumanized the Anglo-American enemy just as the enemy dehumanized them” (Dower 216). Americans were reduced to demons and beasts, inhuman creatures that had no regard for their country or their fellow man. The Japanese soldiers and civilians saw the Americans “as unclean and wrong hearted men, as beasts, and ultimately in the most prevalent Japanese idiom — as demons” (Dower 126). One of the most defining differences between the two cultures was the notion of individualism over a collectivist identity. The Japanese were very much a communal culture, with great reference towards one’s society and the hierarchy that built it. However, the Americans had longed believed in a sense of individualism, where the individual was more powerful and important that the underlying collective identity. Many stories and rumors went around about the real nature of American individualism. Japanese propaganda exploited the image of the individualistic American, who had no mercy for other human beings and any regard or sense of patriotism for his own race. Japanese rumors about American mothers murdering their own babies intensified the image of the heartless American who cared about nothing but him or herself (Dower 243). The image was just as present in Japanese culture and media as the negative image of the Japanese soldier was in American media and culture.

With each side having such strong racial prejudices against the other, the war between the Americans and the Japanese was made much more merciless than if it had been between two similar racial groups. It is true, “race hate fed atrocities, and atrocities in turn fed the fires of race hate. The dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurable to the psychological distancing that facilitates killing, not only on the battlefield, but also in the plans adopted by strategists far removed from the actual scene of combat” (Dower 11). Soldiers in the field of battle and even generals planning for battle were intensified in their aggression towards an enemy they saw in such a negative racial stereotype. One theorist explains that “racism expresses the structure of irresponsibility” that lead to countless scenes of violence and cruelty during the context of the war (Lie 175). There was a mass experience of xenophobia, where the portrayed different outsider was feared to the point of a determination to exterminate that other (Lie 17). This was seen on both sides, and increased the cruelty seen in the war altogether. Unfortunately, “the natural response to such a vision was an obsession with extermination on both sides — a war without mercy” (Dower 11). Each side went over and above to eliminate the threat of the other. In this, “they reinforced the impression that the Japanese were dressed-up primitives — or savages in modern garb, as the war rhetoric had it — who still conformed to a tribal mode” (Dower 123). The idea of savages winning the war and controlling the Pacific was frightening, and made a huge impact on the level of commitment many Americans held during their time served in the Pacific. With the idea of extermination, the war became even more cruel and hostile. Here, Dower explains it well, “World War Two simply witnessed new as well as old ways of carrying out mass destruction and individual violence” (Dower 73). Suicide bombers and Kamikazes fed into American fear so much that the public eventually justified the nuclear bombing of Japanese towns. Yet, there were much smaller atrocities that occurred on a daily basis during the war as well. All because of a racially fueled hatred that exaggerated the nature of the merciless war. This image of the cruelty and heartless Japanese is what eventually allowed the American people and government to justify the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The racist attitudes clearly clouded the United State’s commitment to defending Democracy, both abroad and within its own borders. One of the worst examples of this merciless prejudice was the removal of the Japanese from cities along the West Coast in Executive Order. The internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans clearly threatened the mage of democracy here at home, in the U.S. borders. The research suggests that “after the American entry into the war against Japan, the U.S. military imposed curfews and other restrictions on persons of Japanese descent living on the West Coast, including both naturalized native American citizens, and eventually ‘excluded’ mot Japanese-Americans from certain Western areas, interning those who lived there in military camps further inland” (Primus 200). Reportedly, over 120,000 people were removed from their homes after Executive Order No. 9066 was issued in February of 1942 by then President Roosevelt (Daniels 1). Yet, this was a clear violation of American citizen’s Constitutional rights. Actual American citizens were being held in internment camps because of their race. Critics of the United States decision to remove Japanese-Americans from their homes “implicitly and explicitly linked the American military policy toward Japanese-Americans with Nazi policy toward Jews” (Primus 203). Over 1,862 Japanese-Americans died in the camps of natural causes, with 5,918 new births of American citizens in internment camp conditions (Daniels 1). They had to suffer at the hand of their own country because they had different racial characteristics. In this is the worst atrocity of the war. A country betraying its own people to satisfy a racial hatred.


Daniels, Roger. “Executive Order No. 9066.” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. Web. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/haiku/9066.htm

Dower, John. War without Mercy: Pacific War. Random House Digital. 2012.

Lie, John. Multiethnic Japan. Harvard University Press. 2004.

Primus, Richard A. The American Language of Rights. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Shy, John. “Cultural Approach to the History of War.” The Journal of Military History. 5 Vol. 57 No. 5 (2011), 13-26.