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Japan at War: An Oral History

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  836 ratings  ·  108 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 rai
Paperback, 493 pages
Published October 1st 1993 by New Press (NY) (first published January 1992)
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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 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
I think I’m not a fan of oral history; the accounts are inconsistent in quality, there’s too much readjusting to new voices, it suffers from a lack of thesis or unifying vision. So given that, I still thought this was tedious; cherry-picking resulting in a shorter work would have been better. DNFed at 100 pages.
Mats Frick
Aug 09, 2012 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 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: asia, 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.
Yukio Nagato
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: all-stars
An exceptional account of the people, which was pretty much everyone in Japan, engulfed in this horrendous war. Most people are quite familiar with the basic parties, dates, and events of WWII in the Pacific theater but these amazing, and at times heart-wrenching, first-person narratives give much clearer glimpses and interesting perspectives by the Japanese themselves into what it really felt like to almost die, watch people die, suffer, starve, and lose loved ones. I'm not going to hesitate to ...more
Milia Mizoguchi
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Growing up in a western-style classroom, everything I learned about my own country has been westernized. I would open my history book excited to finally learn about Japan and all it would cover is the attack of Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb dropping at Hiroshima. I considered it lucky if Commodore Perry was mentioned. So when my english teacher mentioned this book I was more than excited to read it.
The book covered so much, and captured so many different perspectives and experiences of the p
Apr 16, 2008 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." ...more
Jul 18, 2013 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
Josh Brett
Sep 21, 2012 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
May 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing
To read or write about Japan at War: An Oral History -authors Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook without getting emotional is to suggest that the reader has either missed the content of these recollections or is in need of therapy. The authors have collected together a variety of first-person accounts by Japanese people who participated in and survived World War II. Together they provide testimony about not just what was done to them, but what they participated in doing. Along side the Japane ...more
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
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A gem, as far as oral history goes, as it truthfully represents daily reality of people - from those opposed to the war, to those completely in favour of it, even after it has been lost. It also confirms my hypothesis in part, that the majority of the real war criminals, those who claimed to have acted only upin orders, were never punished, and even if they were, a good part of them felt slighted for that as there was no push on the part of the international community to make them recognize thei ...more
Mar Tome
Mar 23, 2015 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
Stephen Douglas Rowland
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
These candid, personal accounts of Japan's war in China and the subsequent Pacific War, from all walks of life, are alternately moving and ghastly, often brutally intense and never once not fascinating. Citizens, soldiers, war criminals, Shinto priests, artists, collaborators, and dissenters are all consulted. I put this book off for a long time, believing the knowledge I'd already amassed about the Pacific War would make it redundant, and that was a mistake. Not only did I learn a startling amo ...more
Christian Austin
Apr 13, 2008 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 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! ...more
Feb 23, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a very interesting look at WWII through the eyes of Japanese who lived through it. It was surprising how many people admitted to thinking anti-war thoughts at the time, although just as many talked of being indoctrinated into believing that the war was the right thing to do. The authors interviewed a wide variety of people, so the reader gets a lot of information about Japanese life.
Jan 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
With accounts straight from the cockpit of a Zero fighter, the ruins of Nagasaki, the jungles of Southeast Asia, this left me gobsmacked. What unimaginable relationship development must've occurred between the interviewer and her subjects, to make this oral history possible.

Stunning panorama of all manner of voices. Pre-war anxieties, combat memories, post-war reckonings. Together, they plunged me into the cultural, psychological, and emotional contexts for experiencing the war and its aftermath
May 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When I lived in Hiroshima Prefecture, I went one year to the Flower Festival and while I was standing in the Peace Park, an elderly Japanese man walked up to me. In mixed Japanese and English, he asked me where I was from and then drew a triangle shape with two parallel lines intersecting it on the ground and asked me if I knew what it was. When I said I did not, he said it was the island the Peace Park was on.

Then he drew a circle around the island.

I thought I was in for a rant about the bombin
Julie Woolery
May 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
An extremely difficult read, but such a valuable collection of stories
Tom Scott
Nov 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a moving and devastating oral history of the Pacific War gathered some 40-odd years after the war's conclusion. The stories are told chronologically starting with the early heady conquests of Manchuria and ending with a bewildered nation struggling to comprehend its collective and individual trauma, complicity, guilt, victimhood, and responsibility at war's end. The interviewees come from all strata of citizenship. Many of the stories describe day-to-day life in wartime. A pervading them ...more
May 24, 2011 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
Fermin Quant
Dec 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Super eye opening book about war experiences of real people and their after war consequences. I learned also about a lot of events not usually mentioned but that were part of the war. Really gives you the chills to learn of how indoctrinated the Japan government had their people at that time, and how dangerous having power concentrated in a few really is.
It was shocking to read through the experience of families and surviving members of the suicide missions like kamizake, and to learn they had
Nov 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I appreciated the breadth of perspectives, and how the authors allowed each interviewee to speak for himself or herself, with just a brief introduction to establish necessary background. Everyone is presented as an individual, a human with a unique perspective. No one, whether soldier or civilian, victim or war criminal, is reduced to a statistic. I don't know whether the final product is representative of the views of most Japanese WWII survivors (likely not), but regardless it is a remarkable ...more
Aug 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Because I'm a foreigner living in Japan for 30 years, this is an amazing book to me. Everything I can read in English is from the Allied point of view. And no Japanese want to talk about their war experience. But here, finally, through the Cooks' interviews (plus commentary as history professors), I get to sit down with a wide variety of Japanese people and "hear" about their wartime experiences--on the home front, in Manchuria and Southeast Asia, early in the war, late in the war, ardent nation ...more
Apr 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A history book as it was meant to be. Divided in sections that highlight each instance of world war II, the oral histories of soldiers, civilians, children, war criminals, government employees, factory workers, pilots, and survivors of the atomic aftermath.

An infinitely important war and historical text, recommended and absolutely necessary for every military historian.

A special thanks to Haruko-sensei and Ted Cook for bringing the Japanese perspective to the world's attention. I hope the pers
Anthony Emmel
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-ww2
In the past couple of decades histories based on identity and "ground level" view of historic events have become more common. I'm glad I found this one. The authors end with the best short summation of the Pacific War I have ever read. One paragraph and really the last sentence.

No, I'm not going to tell you! Read the book yourself!
William Webb
Jul 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A brutally revealing portrait of Japan during wartime. Poignant, shocking and disgusting, one is left with the impression that, to this day, the Japanese aren't sorry they launched WW2, only that they lost. Recommended. ...more
Feb 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think that this should be read by everyone studying WWII history. It reminds us that not everyone in a country agrees with the government's actions, not everyone can say exactly what they want about their rulers, and how important it it to remember, even those who committed war crimes. ...more
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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. ...more

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