NEH-JUSFC Fellowship

Adelphi Professor’s Research Draws Attention to the Diverse Character of Japanese Forces in World War II

Published February 27, 2023

Kirsten Ziomek, PhD, associate professor and director of Asian studies, has been recognized with a fellowship for research on Japan in World War II. Her expertise on forced labor and colonial soldiers brings a new understanding of the Asian-Pacific operations.

People and their stories can get written out of history.
Incomplete information can leave us with a partial view of past events
that leaves us unable to understand the present as clearly as we should.

That’s why Kirsten Ziomek, PhD, associate professor of East Asian
history and director of Asian Studies at Adelphi, is writing a book that
will shed light on a forgotten corner of history: the diverse
ethnoracial makeup of the Japanese fighting forces in World War II.
Historical scholarship tends to tell us Japan fielded a racially
homogeneous force of professionally trained Japanese men to fight
against the Americans. But the true story is more complex, Dr. Ziomek
said. A vast and diverse group of people fought alongside the Japanese.

She’s found compelling stories.

“Civilian women on certain islands of Okinawa cut off their hair, put
on men’s uniforms, took guns and fought and died alongside Japanese
soldiers,” Dr. Ziomek said. “Indigenous Taiwanese fought alongside
Koreans and Japanese soldiers in New Guinea, the Philippines and other
parts of the Pacific.”

Dr. Ziomek is able to write the book thanks to a $60,000 fellowship
from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Japan-U.S.
Friendship Commission. Its working title is The Disorder of Killing: Colonial Soldiers, Forced Laborers, and the Local Peoples on the Japanese Empire’s Edge. She’ll take a year off from teaching to write the book.

Providing a new look at the makeup of the Japanese military

These stories are important because they correct misconceptions that
Japan’s military was a homogeneous monolith that rolled over the locals
every place they went, Dr. Ziomek said. “My research reveals that the
Japanese needed different ethnic groups to fight or provide labor in
these areas. They were reliant on these people.”

Her research aims to show that various ethnoracial groups in the
Japanese empire and locals in the lands where battles were fought
weren’t passive bystanders. Nor were they merely playing auxiliary roles
as they have often been depicted in Japanese military histories. “It’s
usually like ‘Oh they built roads or they carried supplies or they
carried the wounded,’” Dr. Ziomek explained. “But many also fought and
died on the front lines. It is often these people who get written out of
military history as inconsequential to actual on-the-ground fighting.
What my research aims to do is show how it was not just white Americans
fighting homogeneous Japanese.”

Dr. Ziomek sees parallels between the forgotten stories of
non-Japanese combatants in the Japanese army and African-American
soldiers’ experiences in the United States armed forces during World War
II. “These people are used for the war and when the war ends, none of
the promises made to them are made good,” she said. “There’s this longer
fight for recognition and compensation.” She is including narratives of
African-American soldiers as well as of Americans of Japanese ancestry
in her research along with those of white soldiers to provide a fuller
telling of the varied experiences in the war. “I want to get a sense of
how different groups talk about their war experiences,” Dr. Ziomek said.

One of the more surprising stories Dr. Ziomek has uncovered is that a
force of Japanese and Indigenous Taiwanese soldiers massacred about 300
American and Filipino troops before the Battle of Bataan in the
Philippines in 1942. “It raises questions of how we think about stories
of war,” she said. “We usually believe the Japanese used and oppressed
colonial and Indigenous people. Now we’re seeing oppressed people
inflicting violence and committing horrific acts. How does that change
our understanding of war and our understanding of colonial history?”

Telling a vast story through individual stories

Dr. Ziomek has dug into Japanese archives, the National Archives and
the Library of Congress, just to name a few. She watched interviews with
World War II veterans on old VHS tapes and read transcripts of
interviews. She’s looked at photos and films shot by the U.S. military.
She’s read Japanese language sources and used databases in Taiwan and
Korea. Her goal is to find the testimonies of people who were there and
give a broader view of history by reconstructing their individual

“I’m trying to get as realistic as possible as to what a fighting
scene would look like on a specific island,” she explained. “I’m trying
to put those people on the battlefield in real time, interacting with
people from many different groups. I want to figure out what sort of
bonds they formed and how they worked together.”

Her goal isn’t to displace official U.S. military history but to add
more perspectives to it. “I want to ask why military histories are being
narrated from one perspective and not others,” she said. “How does our
view of the war and fighting change when we include these other
perspectives? The information we find out can tell us about the past as
well as present politics.”

This will be Dr. Ziomek’s second book about Japanese history and culture. Her first, Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Harvard
University Asia Center, 2019) told the stories of people from four
ethnic groups—the Ainu, the Indigenous Taiwanese, Micronesians and
Okinawans—during the 20th-century colonial period in Japan.

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