PERHAPS the greatest irony of World War II is that the enemy we most detested, Japan, has become not only an ally but our closest friend in the Orient. The same Americans who still find it distasteful to visit Germany usually find themselves at ease in Japan. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor most Americans regarded the Japanese as subhuman. They were the Yellow Peril rather than China, and equally as evil as Nazi Germany. Moreover, they seemed like creatures from another world, altogether an incomprehensible contradiction: polite and barbarous, honest and treacherous, brave and cowardly, industrious and lazy -- all at the same time. To the Japanese these were not anomalies at all but one united whole, and they couldn't understand why Westerners didn't comprehend it. To the Japanese the more numerous the contradictions in a man, the deeper he was.

Even informed Americans understood little or nothing of this Buddhist concept or the power wielded by dedicated young radicals who helped plunge Japan into adventures in Manchuria and China. They assumed that these aggressions were merely steps plotted by the Japanese military leaders who, like Hitler, sought to seize the world themselves. What Westerners failed to realize was that underneath the veneer of modernity and westernization, Japan was still Oriental and that her emergence from feulalism to imperialism had come so precipitously that her leaders, who were interested solely in Western methods rather than Western values, had neither the time nor the inclination to develop liberalism and humanitarianism.

Unlike as the Japanese were, they shared many similarities with Americans, striking parallels which have been relatively unexplored in postwar studies. It is fortunate that Akira Iriye has finally brought forward a thoughtful and independent reassessment of the Japanese-American war from the perspectives of both combatants. He has viewed them as powers and cultures, concluding that "international relations are interpower and intercultural relations." He elaborates this bold concept by examining the meanings the two adversaries gave to the war. Both fought fiercely to survive, yet both "were concerned with more than physical survival and were keenly interested in defining what they were struggling to preserve." Iriye's conclusion is that the war aims and peace objectives of both nations were not at all disparate.

Iriye is well qualifed on two counts: he lived in Japan during the conflict and is now professor of American History at the University of Chicago. He asserts that the war for both nations was a search for international stability, not a struggle for power, and that throughout the hostilities influential Japanese such as Marquis Kido (lord keeper of the privy seal and the emperor's closest advisor), former prime minister Konoye, and Hirohito himself shared with the Roosevelt administration a Wilsonian dream of international cooperation; and that in the latter stage of the war, Japanese leaders, including Tojo, were actively planning a cooperative world structure very much like that being considered in Washington.

To an extent the very act of fighting was obliterating differences between the two nations, and by the end of 1943 there was a marked similitude between the postwar aims of Japan and America. The November Japan had convened the Greater East Asia Conference, a meeting of their friends and allies to plan the future Asia. Under the chairmanship of Tojo, a declaration was adopted calling not only for autonomy and independence throughout Asia but for worldwide abolishment of racial discrimination and maintenance of friendly relations with all nations, including economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. The resemblance to the Atlantic Charter (which, by the way, had never survived the trip through the Suez Canal) was no accident, and it had been promulgated as much for domestic as for foreign use so as to give the Japanese people a clearer conception of their government's war aims. The leaders, states Iriye, "were preparing themselves and the nation for accepting defeat by calling it a victory for certain universalistic principles." How Japanese this was. For to them "to win is to lose" and "to lose is to win."

Although the Greater East Asian Conference declaration seemed to Westerners to enunciate merely pan-Asianism, its visions of common economic development, cultural exchange and racial equality were not necessarily anti-Western. According to Iriye these principles paralleled the State Department's postwar plans as exemplified by Secretary Cordell Hull's statement at the Quebec Conference invoking maintenance of international peace and security on behalf of the community of nations.

Iriye's stimulating thesis is persuasive and should lead to even more penetrating studies of the war in the East. Questionable is his assertion that this tragic conflict had come fundamentally because Japan's military leaders and their civilian supporters decided "to put an end to the 'cold war' " between Japan and the United States. While true to an extent this hardly takes into account the extraordinary attempts by Japan to negotiate seriously with America in late 1941. At the September 6 Imperial Conference, convened to get the emperor's formal approval to a declaration of war, the generals were shocked to hear the emperor quote a poem of peace written by his grandfather. This was an innovative act from a monarch trained all his life to reign but not rule. Then, following Kido's advice, the emperor forced the new prime minister, Tojo, to "go back to blank paper," that is, to start with a clean slate and negotiate for peace. It was unprecedented in Japanese history. No emperor before had ever rescinded a decision of an imperial conference. And Tojo did his best, siding with the diplomats against his military colleagues to send a final proposal to America which promised to make no more aggressive moves in Southeast Asia, to withdraw all troops from Indochina once peace in the Pacific was restored, and eventually to pull all troops out of China. This went far beyond Japan's other offers; yet it was summarily rejected in a note from Secretary of State Hull, demanding terms even harsher than those proposed by America in June. The Japanese called it an ultimatum and three American admirals (Ingersoll, Noyes and Schuirman) later testified that they had not expected Japan to accept its terms. And so, to my mind, America must share the blame for starting the war.

This is an excellent, meaty book, blessed with original research. Iriye has delved resourcefully into official Japanese archives as well as recently declassified U.S. documents; and the result is a refreshingly welcome reappraisal of the wartime relationship between Japan and America. Power and Culture is an important step towards a deeper understanding between two nations upon which depends the stability of Asia, perhaps the continent of the 21st century.