By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dec. 7 marks the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And while it’s been eight decades since the Japanese attacked the Oahu naval base, comprehensive information about Japan’s role in World War II is still hard to find in the west.
Takuma Melber is working to address this with his book, “Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Attack and America’s Entry into World War II.” The book, originally released in German in 2016 and translated into English last year, centers the Japanese perspective—a point of view that is often missing from western history books—providing a fuller account of the war, its background, and consequences.
For Melber, a lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Centre for Transcultural Studies in Heidelberg, Germany, his interest in highlighting the Japanese side of the war comes—in part—from his half-Japanese, half-German heritage.
Born and raised in Germany, Melber learned a lot about the Germans’ role in the war in school. The country’s educational system doesn’t shy away from events that don’t put Germany in the best light, such as Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the Holocaust, and the atrocities the country was responsible for during the war. Growing up, Melber also learned about World War II from his German relatives, who told him stories about his late grandfather who fought in the war and died when Melber was very young. He also had German schoolmates who shared stories about their grandfathers who fought in the war.
But learning about the Japanese side of the war was more difficult. Melber said in Europe, as well as in the United States, the world history that is taught in school tends to be very western-centric. Students learn very little Asian or African history and what they do learn, he said, is from a western perspective—usually starting with colonialism. So information about Japan’s role in World War II can be difficult to come by, Melber said. And even though his Japanese grandfather was also a soldier, serving in the Japanese military, he also died when Melber was very young and much of his story has been lost.
Melber said many of the Japanese accounts of the war—and what is taught in Japanese schools—contain a victim narrative, focusing on events such as the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather than cases in which the Japanese were perpetrators of violence. Melber said there may be a cultural element in play here, with the Japanese not wanting to lose face and admitting to something that would make them look bad, but in his opinion, this approach is completely lacking. And this is what prompted his desire to learn more and share what he’s learned to paint a fuller picture of the war, with an emphasis on the Japanese perspective.
In “Pearl Harbor,” Melber wanted to tell the story of the battle from Japanese actors’ side—from soldiers and pilots, to diplomats and politicians. It wasn’t an easy task. Direct sources such as oral histories and interviews with survivors were not available.
“It can become tricky,” Melber admitted about trying to talk to Japanese people about World War II and Pearl Harbor, specifically.
In addition, many Japanese written sources are not translated into western languages or the translations are not complete.
Despite this, and his book’s very specific focus, Melber worked to present an objective and thoroughly researched account—relying on secondary sources—to deepen readers’ understanding of the battle that led to the United States to join World War II.
One takeaway Melber had from his research was how factors such as Japan’s war with China, starting in 1937, and the United States’ oil embargo at the time hit the country hard and led Japanese leaders at the time to feel they had no choice but to attack the United States. With information like this, which gives a more well-rounded picture of the war, Melber hopes readers learn to think beyond the black and white and realize nobody is all good or all bad.
“I think we can learn from this for nowadays and also for the future,” he said.
For American and other non-Japanese readers, Melber said it’s important for them to learn the Asian side of World War II, and for Japanese readers, it’s important to get a more complete account of the war.
In general, Melber said there needs to be more voices and points of views included in the story and hopes that his book contributes to the international research of World War II—because it is an international story. He said people tend to think too nationalistically, but if they had less of an “us versus them” mentality and were really willing to work together as one world community, global issues like climate change would be easier to solve.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.