Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War – July 1937–May 1942 by Richard B Frank - review by Malcolm Murfett

Malcolm Murfett

Leaping into the Abyss

Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War – July 1937–May 1942


W W Norton 751pp £30

Who would have thought that Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, would provide the title for the first magisterial volume of Richard Frank’s history of the Asia-Pacific War? Not me, for one. Tagore’s beautiful Bengali verse seems a world away from the ghastliness of the conflict that was touched off by the Japanese thrust into China in the 1930s. However, Tagore’s world-view was not confined to his native Calcutta and its environs. He was appalled by Japan’s militarism and the country’s desire to remake Asia with itself as the regional hegemon. On one occasion he said that ‘no civilized society can thrive upon victims whose humanity has been permanently mutilated’. Did Japan listen to the wise Indian sage? It did not.

During the 1920s, nationalist feeling within Japan steadily rose. It was kindled at first by the doctrine of hokushin-ron (northern expansion), which took root within the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army, and then by that of nanshin-ron (southern expansion), which gained ground among the leading figures of the Imperial

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