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Asia, World War II, and Beyond

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On July 11th, the day I am writing this column, six of the ten most viewed articles in the EAA archives are directly linked to the “Pacific War,” or World War II in Asia. One of the six “most viewed” articles featured below is a lesson plan on teaching Pearl Harbor and the other five “most viewed” articles focus upon the impact of the war on later events. It is inconceivable to me that anyone with background knowledge of World War II would argue the topic is irrelevant. Unfortunately, many academics, and some high school teachers, assume a critical mass of the students in their classes have at least a modicum of knowledge about the war.

photograph of a shrine
Yasukuni Shrine. As EAA Digest readers will learn from David Kenley’s Spring 2009 article, the shrine remains a controversial symbol of Japan’s war legacy. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Unfortunately, based upon at least one study and an extensive amount of anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from throughout the US, they are incorrect; especially if their students are under forty-five years old. In 2018, the Princeton Woodrow Wilson Center (the Center’s name has since changed) polled 1,000 American adults of various ages utilizing ten questions from the US Citizenship Test aspiring citizens are required to pass. Only 61 percent of American citizens polled passed the test that included the question of who the major belligerents were who opposed the US and its allies in World War II. Respondents sixty-five years of age or older scored highest on the test with 74 percent achieving a passing score (6/10 correct questions), but only 19 percent of American citizens under age forty-five passed the test.

The focus of the sample recommended EAA archives in this column is on World War II in Asia and multiple perspectives about the war. A future EAA archives column will emphasize the post-war impact of World War II in Asia, on Asia and the world.

The question of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is worthy of student and instructor exploration. Master teacher Jeffrey Hackler in “Japan’s Motives for Bombing Pearl Harbor, 1941” (Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2001), provides a dispassionate, but lucid lesson students can use to understand Japan’s incentives for the attack. Historian of Japan Daniel Metraux’s teaching resources essay “Teaching Pearl Harbor: A New Japanese Perspective” (Volume 17, Number 3, Winter 2012) is an excellent overview of a 2010 book, not available in the US, but which received much attention in Japan. The author concluded that although both sides made mistakes in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, the preponderance of guilt lies with Tokyo. Instructors are encouraged to use both readings in class.

More reflective and mature students who understand that wars are complex and often ironic will benefit from reading Tal Tovy’s “From the Nisshin to the Musashi: The Military Career of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku “ (Volume 20, Number 2, Fall 2015), a biography of the brilliant military strategist who first learned about the West from missionaries, and was often viewed by Japanese military leaders as pro-Western because of his cosmopolitan perspectives. Yamamoto spent extensive time in the US, including his 1919 study at Harvard. He accepted the assignment to plan and execute the Pearl Harbor attack that he personally believed would likely fail because of superior American resources.

What are public memories of World War II in Asia and how do they develop? David Kenley’s “History and Memory: The Role of War Memorials in China and Japan” (Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2009) provides instructors and students with excellent comparative case studies in this essay. Emily Matson’s teaching resources essay, “Empathy, Memory, and Teaching East Asia’s World War II” (Volume 27, Number 3, Winter 2022), is both thoughtful and particularly impressive because of the author’s inclusion of a wide range of accessible and positionally diverse reading selections, including memoirs and personal stories, of both military and civilian experiences in World War II.

Recently, Eleanor McCallie Cooper’s Dragonfly Dreams (Reviewed by Anne Prescott in Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 2022), based upon a true story about a relative of hers who married a Chinese man and survived Japan’s war in China, has won two national awards and is particularly useful for advanced middle, as well as high school, readers.

How should Hiroshima and Nagasaki be taught in high school and university survey courses? It is imperative with this topic that students be taught “how to think” and not “what to think.” Richard Rice’s “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb” (Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2006) and George Brown’s “Learning from Truman’s Decision: The Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Surrender” (Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2006)  should be taught concurrently. Both authors offer contrasting perspectives that are substantive and encourage critical thinking.

Other Teaching Resource: The War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s film documentary series on World War II, The War, is extensive, and makes the war more understandable on multiple levels. The segments on the Pacific War are superbly done. The series is reasonably priced and also available for streaming through PBS and other services.

This article is from the July 2023 EAA Digest.