Monday, December 25, 2023

Japan's Holocaust by Bryan Mark Rigg

Bryan Mark Rigg's "Japan's Holocaust" is a bit of a conundrum. This is a historian who initially wrote about "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers" and has recently seemingly altered his interests, focus, and research toward the Pacific Theater of Operations. There's no doubt that he's gone through a large amount of primary and secondary source material in putting this volume together (over 1500 footnotes) but the structure/organization, central argument(s), and polemical detours often take away from what could have possibly been an excellent single volume look at Japan's war effort against the various civilian populations that fell under their occupation.

In effect, Rigg has a few agendas he is routinely pushing throughout this monograph. First is that the atomic bombs should have been used and this is in response to the fact that, second, the Japanese were perpetrating their own version of the 'Holocaust' throughout their occupied territories. This is somewhat simplistic and reductionist but, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, readers will be presented with a history of Japan and Japanese war crimes that encompass over 300 pages. The narrative is not necessarily based on a chronology of Japanese actions in the Pacific and it's more that the chapters are broken up thematically, so there is a fair amount of repetition when it comes to Japanese crimes and the author's condemnation.

Unfortunately, when reducing the history of the Pacific Theater of Operations to just Japanese war crimes this volume begins to read like a voyeuristic look at the basest acts humanity is capable of, ranging from mass rape, to mass suicide, cannibalism, and grotesque torture of human bodies before and after death. When just reading through Iris Chang's "Rape of Nanking" is a soul-crushing task, this book multiples that to the Nth degree. Every page is a new horror and every chapter reaches another level of depravity and debauchery. This is a volume that cannot but haunt readers and while I can appreciate wanting your audience to understand what occupied populations and prisoners of war endured, I'm not sure that an encyclopedic discussion (akin to "The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry," which chronicles the Holocaust on Soviet territory from primary sources) will accomplish much without the required academic commentary.

Which brings us to one of the significant weaknesses, in my opinion, of this work. There is simply not enough context for the amount of information presented. Going through the crimes of a perpetrator on the scale of Japan from the late 1920s through 1945 is simply not enough. While Rigg's does offer some contextual discussion about why Japanese soldiers and officers might have ignored orders, rules of war, and insisted on allowing wanton destruction, rape, and murder more often than not it is generally applied rather than based on specific situations or events and that can become problematic all too quickly.

Finally, while it is undoubtedly true that Germany has done a better job of reconciling with its past than Japan, Rigg's is either unaware or chooses to ignore the numerous obstacles that were put in the way of that reconciliation throughout the Cold War period, nor does he comment on the myth of the Wehrmacht with Clean Hands, which was only addressed in the 1990s and not without criticism. While there is much to admire in how Germany today approaches its past, that should not obscure the resistance many put up to recognizing the crimes of the Third Reich when it comes to the Holocaust and its occupation policies throughout Eastern and Western Europe.

In the end, this is a book I would only recommend to those already familiar with the Second World War and the Pacific Theater, otherwise, the author's polemical style and at times subjective commentary limits the utility of this work.

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