I wrote this script for Frontier Media’s YouTube channel The Front in 2022. I did not write the title or thumbnail. As of November 2022, the video has gained over 1.9 million views.


World War II was nuanced as hell, and it’s impossible to determine what every soldier from every nation thought of his enemies. With that said, as humanity has studied the war, some common perspectives have floated to the surface.

You probably know, especially if you’re from an English-speaking country, how the Western Allies felt about the Japanese. But what about the other way around? What did Japanese soldiers think about Allied soldiers? What about their opinions on Americans, in particular, given that the Japanese launched the attack that pulled the US into the war?

Looking at some war documents, propaganda works, and anecdotes we hope to shed some light on those questions.

The Meiji era

In Japan’s Meiji era, from 1868 to 1912, Japan transitioned from an isolated feudal society to an industrialized nation-state, adopting Western innovations and culture. Though, while the Japanese may have played baseball and watched Hollywood films, they also wanted Japan to remain Japan.

To defend against Western colonization, and to grow as an empire and reach “great power” status, the Meiji government placed an emphasis on national unity and patriotism. As the Japanese islands lacked raw materials like iron and oil, however, “growth,” for Japan, was synonymous with “overseas expansion,” and overseas expansion meant war.

From the mid-1890s to 1945, war was pretty much what the Japanese did.

The 1930s

In the 1930s, during the Shōwa era, Japanese nationalism rose to new extremes. To achieve the coveted great power status, Japan began another war against China, namely the Second Sino-Japanese War. This angered the West, especially America, which answered with embargoes on Japan, drastically reducing its ability to wage war.

At this time, about 80% of Japan’s oil came from the US, as did most of its steel, so after the US cancelled all oil exports to Japan in mid-1941, the Japanese people felt they had been cornered. Some Japanese leaders considered the embargo a pre-emptive declaration of war.

This is corroborated in Read This Alone And The War Can Be Won, a Japanese military booklet issued in December 1941. The booklet reads, “At stake in the present war, without a doubt, is the future prosperity or decline of the Empire. Slowly, little by little, like a man strangling his victim with a soft cord of silken floss, America has been prohibiting the export to Japan of oil and steel.”

Of course, December 1941 was also when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, hoping to cripple the US fleet so Imperial Japanese forces could conquer the Far East and seize its islands’ raw materials.

A Rising Sun

The aforementioned Japanese military booklet offers additional insights, notably into how the Japanese military perceived Japan’s role in the Far East. The first chapter reads as follows:

“The English, the French, the Americans, the Dutch, the Portuguese and others sailed into the Far East as if it were theirs by natural right, terrorized and subjugated the culturally backward natives, and colonized every country in the area. The natural resources [of those countries] were taken by a handful of white men, and tens of millions of Asian inhabitants have suffered constant exploitation and persecution at [the white men’s] hands. The other peoples of the Far East trust and honour the Japanese and [hope] that, with the help of the Japanese people, they may themselves achieve national independence and happiness.”

In this narrative, Japan is painted as Asia’s only hope, while the West is clearly the aggressor.

Japanese World War II propaganda bolstered both of these notions.

Studying a graphic by Ikeda Eiji in the January 1942 issue of the Japanese periodical Manga, John Dower—the author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War—concludes that the Japanese saw themselves as the rising sun whose light was purifying the world. This was of course in reference to the Japanese Empire’s flag.

In War Without Mercy itself, Dower writes:

“The Japanese routinely referred to themselves as the leading race (shido minzoku) of the world. They called on a variety of metaphors, images, code phrases, and concepts to affirm their superiority—ranging from expressions that demeaned non-Japanese to elaborate affirmations of their own unique qualities.”

Western demons

On the other side of the coin, writer Jack Wikoff concludes the following in his review of Dower’s War Without Mercy:

“The Japanese portrayed the enemy as demons, cannibalistic ogres, gangsters, Napoleonic megalomaniacs, and even dandruff.” An excellent example of Japanese propagandists demonizing the West is this {see the video} depiction of American President Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, the Western Allies lived up to these depictions on more occasions than one.

US forces, for instance, sometimes refused to take Japanese soldiers as POWs.

In War Without Mercy, Dower refers to the 1980 memoir of veteran William Manchester, who witnessed a young American soldier mow down a line of unarmed, surrendered Japanese soldiers with a submachine gun on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945. Dower also pays heed to a publication by historian Denis Warner, who witnessed a US major general order a US colonel to gun down a group of wounded, surrendering Japanese during the 1943-to-1945 Bougainville campaign.

Bear in mind, these were just two accounts evidencing this behaviour—among many.

Another way in which the Western Allies lived up to Japanese propaganda was through trophy-taking and the mutilation of dead Japanese soldiers.

This practice was not uncommon among American soldiers, who were known to take Japanese ears, teeth, and bones as souvenirs. According to historian Niall Ferguson, “Boiling the flesh off [Japanese] skulls was not an uncommon practice.”

In his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, author Eugene Sledge depicts an incident in which a marine extracted gold teeth from a Japanese soldier… who was still alive:

“[The Japanese soldier] had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms. [The Marine] put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. The knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.”

It is evident that all of the above was indeed on the Japanese soldier’s mind, too, as corroborated by Japanese letters retrieved by US Marines during the 1942-to-1942 Guadalcanal campaign. According to I’m Staying with My Boys: The Heroic Life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC by Jerry Cutter and Jim Proser, one of these letters read as follows:

“The Americans on this island are not ordinary troops, but Marines, a special force recruited from jails and insane asylums for bloodlust. There is no honourable death to prisoners, their arms are cut off, they are staked on the airfield, and run over by steamrollers.”

Western cowardice

Demonizing the West was just one way to inspire contempt of Western soldiers in Japanese soldiers, however. Another way was to focus on—in quotation marks—”Western cowardice,” as well as the West’s “lack of spiritual incentive.”

Basically, the Bushido code of behaviour, which was instilled into the Japanese during basic training, regarded surrender as a cowardly act. Anyone who surrendered forfeited their honour—including enemy soldiers. According to US Colonel Fred Borch:

“Those who had surrendered to the Japanese—regardless of how courageously or honorably they had fought—merited nothing but contempt; they had forfeited all honor and literally deserved nothing. Consequently, when the Japanese murdered POWs by shooting, beheading, and drowning, these acts were excused since they involved the killing of men who had forfeited all rights to be treated with dignity or respect.”

The aforementioned Japanese military booklet Read This Alone And The War Can Be Won provides further evidence of this attitude, stating, “Our opponents are even more feeble than the Chinese Army. [They are] very effeminate and very cowardly and have an intense dislike of fighting in the rain or the mist, or at night.”

Drawn from John Toland’s The Rising Sun and the Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, a Japanese pamphlet titled The Psychology of the Individual bolstered this perspective. The pamphlet read:

“[The Americans] call themselves brave soldiers, yet they have no desire for the glory of their ancestors or posterity, nor for the glory of the family name. They as individuals want to be known as brave and to be given publicity. They fear death, but being individualists, they do not think much about what will happen hereafter. They go into battle with no spiritual incentive.”


As we said at the beginning of this video, however, the war was nuanced, and it’s impossible to determine how every soldier perceived his enemies. What we’ve discussed here was merely some evidence in support of some Japanese perspectives about Americans and the West, with many examples coming directly from Japanese military documents or Japanese propaganda.

Which perspectives do you think were true for the majority of Japanese soldiers? Can you think of any that support, or even contradict, the ones we discussed today? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.