We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World War, published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Lee K. Pennington, an associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, Professor Pennington relates for the first time in English the experiences of Japanese wounded soldiers and disabled veterans of Japan’s “long” Second World War (from 1937 to 1945). He maps the terrain of Japanese military medicine and social welfare practices and establishes the similarities and differences that existed between Japanese and Western physical, occupational, and spiritual rehabilitation programs for war-wounded servicemen, notably amputees.
We thank Professor Pennington for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project.
How did you become interested in the topic of wounded Japanese soldiers?
Studying the visual historical record of the Second World War sparked my interest in depictions of combat and its consequences that existed within Japanese wartime culture. I came to realize that wounded soldiers commanded a prominent presence within the wartime mass media, and as such, began to investigate the realities that lay behind such representations. While mucking about in archives in Japan, the world of the wounded serviceman began to grow more apparent and more consequential than I had previously thought!
What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?
It was very important for me to examine not only the institutions created to support wounded servicemen but also the views and experiences of those men as depicted in their own words. Also, I wanted to include popular images of battle casualties as well as official discussions of them. Important archival sources included the National Diet Library and the Japan College of Social Work. Then, the Shokeikan archive opened in Tokyo during the later stages of my research and I benefited from its vast collection of historical materials related to wounded Japanese servicemen and Japan’s disabled veteran community.
Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Japanese cultural norms created a different experience for returning soldiers than for American soldiers?
A key difference was that local communities in wartime Japan energetically rallied themselves in support of wounded servicemen. That’s not to say that such did not happen in the United States during the war years, but in Japan providing aid to battle casualties was in many ways a grassroots rather than a national endeavor. To tell the truth, I was more struck by the similarities rather than the differences between the two national contexts. No community wants to see its men (and women!) in uniform suffer, and both Japan and the United States mustered great resources for the benefit of wounded servicemen and disabled veterans.
What surprised you most in the course of your research?
I went into this project expecting to find little in the way of support services for repatriated battle casualties in wartime Japan, but I discovered that historical conditions differed greatly from my preconceived ideas. I think that for too long we have bought into the wartime propaganda produced in Japan that asserted that it was disgraceful for Japanese servicemen to do anything but die in battle. In actuality, the same state that spouted such jingoism also created a sophisticated social welfare system that trumpeted the heroism of war-wounded men.
How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s wartime experience?
One hope that I have for Casualties of History is that it leads readers to reconsider many of their beliefs and assumptions about how Japanese society experienced war and reacted to its effects. Years ago, during my first year at Columbia as a graduate student, I remember Professor Carol Gluck stating one day in class that we need more social history about Japan during the Second World War. As I found out during the course of my own research, there’s much about wartime Japanese society that we historians have yet to explore. A lot of valuable material is out there in the archives, just waiting to be uncovered and unpacked!