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Japan at War: An Oral History

4.31  ·  Rating Details ·  542 Ratings  ·  82 Reviews
This "deeply moving book" (Studs Terkel) portrays the Japanese experience of WWII. This oral history is the first book to capture--in either Japanese or English--the experience of ordinary Japanese during the war. In a sweeping panorama, Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook go from the Japanese attacks on China in the '30s to the Japanese home front during the inhuman r ...more
Paperback, 493 pages
Published October 1st 1993 by New Press (NY) (first published January 1st 1992)
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(showing 1-30)
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This was a phenomenal book. It is not the first compilation of interviews I have read about World War II, but it was by far the most comprehensive. Haruko and Theodore Cook did an excellent job in presenting the vastly different experiences of WWII Japanese and Japanese-occupied peoples.

This is a must-read for any historian interested in Japanese history, Asian history, WWII, or the twentieth century.
Erik Graff
Mar 08, 2008 Erik Graff rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: adolescents, particularly anyone considering enlistment in the armed forces
Recommended to Erik by: Lisa Henderson
Shelves: history
I only began this oral history collection because a close friend gave it to me. Normally I avoid the genre as being too anecdotal, too prone to give false impressions. Starting with the Manchurian incident of 1931, the going was slow at the outset because I know too little about Sino-Nipponese relations before the Pacific war. But once I got to the late thirties and events with which I've acquired some knowledge, it became riveting and coming to its conclusion with the occupation of Japan was a ...more
Apr 16, 2008 Douglas rated it it was amazing
A must-read for WW II buffs. See the Pacific theatre from the firsthand viewpoints of the Japanese. The book is basically a collection of interviews from Japanese who either promoted or suffered in the War. The overwhelming conclusion even from these Japanese was "we were wrong."
I had to rate this book as a whole, trying to encompass everything in here, and that was a bit challenging as there's so much. These are personal accounts of people involved in WWII on the Japanese side. Men, women, and children in Japan, China, Korea, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Okinawa, etc. from the very beginning of the war to the occupation.

These stories in particular really stayed with me:

-"Manchurian Days" and "Flight": I had never read about a Japanese immigrant in Manchuria before
Josh Brett
Sep 21, 2012 Josh Brett rated it it was amazing
I originally read this book for a course on memories of WW2 in America and Japan. I picked it up again to read while my car was being fixed, I soon found myself openly crying at Peet's Coffee, reading the account of the woman who married a kamikaze pilot on the night before his suicide mission. A staggering, heartbreaking panorama of the horrors committed and inflicted on Japan in the 1930s and 40s. there is some real darkness in here, such as the man who literally became addicted to beheading, ...more
Mar Tome
Mar 23, 2015 Mar Tome rated it it was amazing
Read this for my History of Modern Japan course. I have to admit I was really amazed by this. It's a collection of first-hand accounts of those who survived the war ...but many years later. Some of the stories are horrifying while others seemed to be barely impacted by the war (or so they say). To Japan this was the 15 years war, that began many years before World War II when they invaded China in the hopes of overtaking Asia back from the West.

If you like oral histories, and enjoy reading firs
Christian Austin
Apr 13, 2008 Christian Austin rated it really liked it
As an American, reading this book was particularly interesting. Besides having relatives who lived during World War II, our culture is saturated with John Wayne movies, World War II TV specials and the like. All of which try to present the way every-day Americans dealt with the war.

This book contains dozens of short interviews with people living in Japan or Japanese-controlled areas as children, wives, soldiers, workers and forced-labor during the war. It was amazing to see both the differences
Feb 23, 2010 Nick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Disclosure: Both of the authors were my undergrad professors, so maybe I'm biased. However, this book is an excellent collection of interviews conducted by the authors with Japanese who experienced WWII. The interviews range from the interesting (Saburo Sakai) to the horrific (A man who becomes addicted to beheadings) to the heartbreaking. Even a cold historian's heart should melt during the interview with a kamikaze pilot's wife!
Jun 06, 2014 4triplezed rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, world-war-2
For those that like oral history this is essential. Well presented in chronological order with everyone from the school children, the house wife, the front-line soldier and even Kamikaze failures, all are represented. For a peoples who are generally reticent to speak this is a must for those that have a thirst for Japanese wartime knowledge.
Vitaliy Oprysko
Nov 07, 2016 Vitaliy Oprysko rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-of-japan
A riveting, and at times grizzly look at the Pacific War from the eyes of those Japanese men and women that witnessed the war. Anecdotal, personal, and human, this book breathes life into history's greatest conflict by presenting the down to earth experiences of regular people in that conflict.
Jan 11, 2017 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing
Anyone with an interest in WWII, and especially interested in the different perspectives on war and survival, should make the time to read this powerful volume.
Jul 18, 2013 S. rated it really liked it
Shelves: hookah, red-queen
this heavy, long, academic work consists of scores of interviews cross-referencing Japan's population during the war, and is a sort of legend in the field, multiply quoted and referenced in academia. it focuses on 'inherently interesting' topics, rather than a person's two years in the early war, their blow by blow account of being aerial bombed, and takes as its scope everything from Nanjing massacre perpetuators to pro-communist koreans-living-in japan to kamikaze pilots to people who did pape ...more
Dec 30, 2016 Nicholas rated it really liked it
An overview of World War II from the perspective of Japanese who lived through the war. With topics from the rise of nationalism, Unit 736, and the firebombing of Tokyo covered, it was informative.
May 24, 2011 Yakinikuman rated it it was amazing
The book’s format is inspired by and identical to Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” – a collection of oral histories of soldiers and others involved in World War 2 – only this time we hear from the Japanese perspective. And there is absolutely no way that this collection could have shared Terkel’s title. This was one of the saddest, most depressing books I have read in a long time.

There is one similarity with America’s experience as in “The Good War” – the common man in Japan felt like he was doing
Dane Henshall
Jul 27, 2014 Dane Henshall rated it it was amazing
Shelves: military-history
This is a very powerful and well written book. In the words of another reviewer, no one will be able to think, write, or teach about the Pacific War without reference to this work.

The book is presented as a collection of first-hand accounts of "the war" from men, women, and children in many different parts of Japanese society. These accounts are grouped into sections, and each section is prefaced with an essay explaining some conventional history lessons that put the group of accounts into conte
Dave Hartl
Oct 07, 2014 Dave Hartl rated it it was amazing
This book really moved and awed me. I have to admit that I had no concept of what the Japanese point of view was during the WWII years on a street level. Halfway through this book, I was hit with the realization that the people who were telling their stories were at least the peers of the people for whom I played piano in the Tokyo Palace Hotel's premiere restaurant for three months in 1986. If they had been thirty years old at the end of the war, when I was there they would have been in their e ...more
May 03, 2013 Kyle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Anyone who is interested in history will know many of the details about Imperial Japan's abject defeat in World War II. But a textbook's recount of history only provides broad facts, numerical statistics, dates, and outcomes. It doesn't give you an understanding of what the people involved were going through, the personal costs that everyone paid in this great war. That's why I found this oral history book so interesting. It is by no means a light read -- very dense writing, with content that is ...more
Azri Alipah
Jan 04, 2016 Azri Alipah rated it it was amazing
If you want to find out about life during wartime, this should be on your list. Although the book is specific to Japan, its anti-war message is universal.

Japan at War: An Oral History is a collection of stories from war survivors, most of whom were interviewed nearly a half-century after the Second World War. Many of the stories were of civilian life and how it was affected by war, but many others were the stories of lower-ranking military officers or soldiers simply trying to survive.

There are
Lori Anderson
Apr 24, 2008 Lori Anderson rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: WWII buffs
This was an interesting, compelling, and horrifying read. I've read a lot about World War II from the German and American side, and took a particularly interesting class on Hitler in college. However, I've never known a thing about the Japanese side other than that they bombed Pearl Harbor and we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The book is written as a series of conversations from Japanese survivors of the war. Some are military participants, and some were caught in the everyday life that war brou
Sep 11, 2013 TinHouseBooks rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-we-love
Curtis Moore (Tin House Books, Editorial Intern): As I gathered together a literary CARE package for my grandfather (a WWII vet stationed in Japan during the occupation) I found myself caught up again in one of the more harrowing reads I’ve had in the past year—Japan at War: An Oral History. The book, recorded in 1988, details Japan’s involvement in the Pacific War through the memories of those Japanese who experienced it. By documenting the stories of people positioned throughout society—from o ...more
I was meant to read this book back in the beginning of 2009 as part of my history course, but being the slacker uni student I was at the time, I never got around to it. Of course, having finally finished reading it now, I honestly don't think I could have, with all the other units I was doing at the time. This is a dense book to read, and it really requires some good time set aside to really take in all of what's being said.

I liked each of the personal stories that were being told, and how the
Feb 17, 2014 Molly rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan
Excellent. I have long wondered what the Japanese people thought about the wars their country instigated and what impact it had on them personally. As one might expect, it covers the broadest spectrum of human reaction; from seemingly light-hearted dismissal to the deepest possible remorse. But the majority were still haunted by their own personal losses and sense of betrayal. Although unspeakable things happened at the hands of their military, I at least now have a better understanding of how s ...more
May 13, 2012 Joseph rated it it was amazing
Okay, I'm not going to give that many "5's" but this book deserves it. The book was done by Ted Cook and his Japanese wife, Haruko. It's a series of oral histories about real people and their real lives in Japan during WW II. Some of the stories like "The end of a Bake Shop" will rip your heart out. Too often when we think of World War II and Japan we think of Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Tojo and his clique. This book tells the untold story of life in Japan fo ...more
Mats Frick
Aug 09, 2012 Mats Frick rated it it was amazing
Others have written excellent reviews about this book and I'm not going to repeat the main aspects. The greatest lesson to me though is the mindnumbing emptyness of collective militarism. Nearly all of the people featured in the book struggle to find meaning from the chaos and violence of war, but the message between the lines is actually quite depressing: the horrors were completely meaningless. Stalin allegedly stated that "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statisti ...more
Jun 05, 2007 Sarah rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone studying WWII history or Japanese culture/language/etc.
This book was amazing. It's a really hard and tough read because it's so densely packed with information. And not just information you've heard before, it's the good, the bad, and the very very ugly side of the Japanese Empire. From the beginning of the war to the beginning of the occupation, the first hand accounts are priceless. This book is sure to create a whirlwind of emotions with anyone who reads it. Although I'd recommend it mainly to history buffs, WWII researchers, or anyone studying a ...more
Alex G

This book is one of the few compilations of first-hand accounts of common, everyday people--both victims and perpetrators of violence.

* Its diverse sampling of Japanese society is wonderful.
* Arranged in a common sense chronological order.
* Divided into well-defined subjects.

Personal Notes
War affects the common people the most--much more than the leaders and the privileged classes--that's why their story needs to be told. Ever since I read Studs
Jun 13, 2011 Sophie rated it really liked it
Few books have ever made me so depressed about what humans can do to each other as this one. It is unthinkable that these things could have happened in our grandparents' lifetime, and that somebody could survive them psychologically intact. That said, the collection of oral histories is totally fascinating and diverse. It's interesting because when you read about the European front of WWII you might get a sense of how awful war is, but you never feel that this was a pointlessly brutal war. This ...more
Kyle Bunkers
Sep 06, 2015 Kyle Bunkers rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, history, japan
This was a great collection of stories from the Japanese perspective, and more importantly, from a variety of Japanese perspectives. Usually WWII books tend to lean heavily on the soldier and war. This book has some soldiers, but also gets stories from the civilians around the Japanese empire. The stories are put in chronological order, and while they do not make any overarching theme (other than, perhaps, the horribleness of war), each story is fascinating on its own. I wish that there were mor ...more
Richard Bentley
Nov 22, 2015 Richard Bentley rated it it was ok
The title of this book should be: Anecdotes About Their Experiences in World War II From A Collection Of People I Cobbled Together Who Agree to Talk With Me.

It is not an oral history, because it doesn't go deeply or broadly enough. The reason is, as the author herself admitted, that most people didn't want to talk to her about their wartime experiences. What you get is a very patchy sketch of some aspects of the war, but not enough coverage to qualify for an oral history, unless you choose to ca
Mar 11, 2016 Jeannine rated it it was amazing
Interviews of Japanese survivors of WWII, civilian and military, half a century later. After reading Sereny's "Into That Darkness", it seemed appropriate to re-read this accounting of the Japanese in the same war. Both populations were lead step-by-step over a over several decades to commit, allow, or ignore the horrors eventually foisted upon them by a determined military government. Best read with a sense of detachment.

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Haruko Taya Cook is a member of the faculty today at William Paterson University's Department of Languages and Cultures and Center for the Study of Critical Languages and is Fordham Marymount Professor Emerita of History. She is author of Japan at War: An Oral History and has published extensively on war and the common people of Japan and Asia during the 20th Century.
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