An exceptionally complete look at Japan under US occupation

The second book I read in my efforts to understand the Japanese perspective after WWII picked up almost exactly where Benedict’s left off, (see yesterday’s post,) in the post-war occupation period: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John W. Dower. This book is another amazing work, though I will admit that it took me a little while to adjust my mindset to it after The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It came out in 2000, so it has the advantage of being able to look back at everything that happened, and Dower is a historian rather than an anthropologist, so he’s far more willing to have an opinion.

But what opinions he has! Not to mention facts. Lots and lots and lots of facts. This book is clearly the result of an enormous amount of research, working in both Japan and the US, with primary and secondary sources galore. Mostly primary. I can’t believe the number of contemporary books, magazines, and newspapers he went through. His use of small details to illustrate all his points really gives the reader an understanding of what the situation in Japan was really like at the time.

One of the things that gets a little difficult is that Dower covers the history by subject, rather than strictly by timeline. For example, the book is broken into six parts: Victor and Vanquished, Transcending Despair, Revolutions, Democracies, Guilts, and Reconstructions. Each one follows its particular topic through several years of occupation, and then time sort of resets when the next topic starts, which makes it a little hard to see which things were happening at the same time. However, Dower does refer back to things mentioned before and try to weave it all together in the end.

The first part, “Victor and Vanquished,” deals with the initial reactions on both sides after the surrender, and in preparing for the occupation. It gives a good picture of how chaotic things were in Japan at the time. We all know the stereotyped post-WWII 1940s pictures from the victorious sides: soldiers returning home in glory, being greeted off the train with cheering crowds and happy family members. For the Japanese soldiers, it sometimes took them years to get back to Japan, sometimes to find that they had already been reported dead, often to be shunned in any case; child dependents of soldiers and bureaucrats stationed overseas, often now orphaned, had to be processed and their families found (or not); when the surrender was announced, those still stationed at home raided military stockpiles and fled home, to sell their bounty before they could be ordered to give it back. But some things were organized: the government started up an official system of licensed brothels for the incoming occupation soldiers, having heard the stories of what their own soldiers had done to women in other parts of Asia. Women were asked to give up their chastity in order to spare the rest of Japan. (This program only lasted about a year, due to the spread of disease through the US troops, not to mention the women.)

“Transcending Despair” covers more of the early time of the occupation, when the Japanese had to figure out how to deal with the feelings brought on by defeat. They were also having to deal with malnutrition, inflation, rebuilding from the bombings, and improperly managed governmental assistance. Dower covers the new cultures emerging as people found different ways to deal: the burgeoning black market culture, the culture of decadence, hard-core drinking culture, hierarchies of newly independent women, and new children’s games. He also covers the new ways that emerged of mocking defeat, of finding new ways to look toward the future, and the booming new print industry, including those hundreds of magazines I mentioned earlier.

In “Revolutions,” he shows how the Japanese responded to the institution of democracy from above. He notes that this was a strange way for democracy to be brought about, top down rather than bottom up, and how the American idealistic vision of how democracy would be applied sometimes ran into surprises, given that it was being instituted by people who essentially knew nothing about Japan. They were quite surprised at how strong the Communist party in Japan became in the early years, and weren’t prepared for how willing the Japanese would be to adopt more liberal democratic principles.

This led into the next section, “Democracies,” in which Dower reveals a great deal about the inner workings of the American occupation administration, and its relations with the Japanese government officials. The dance that ensued to keep the emperor on the throne, but humbled, but exalted, but with fewer powers, and certainly never allowed to take any responsibility for the war crimes, is very strange and often ridiculous, particularly on the part of the Americans. The chapters on how the Americans rewrote the Japanese constitution from scratch were fascinating; the Japanese ended up with a far more liberal constitution that the US has, and in many ways seems better. It also revealed how much power fairly unknown individuals had on this process: for example, one young woman on the US military staff, one of the few who actually knew much about Japan, having grown up there, had an inordinate amount of sway with both the Americans and Japanese, and made sure the protections for women were quite equal. And of course, the ways the conservative Japanese politicians tried to change the document before ratifying it, often through interestingly baroque semantic quibbling; some changes were refused, but others went through, and created ambiguity that plague Japanese politics to this day. The chapter on the censoring that the occupation forces applied to all Japanese media is horrifying, and the story of how the Americans began swinging away from New Deal liberalism back to the conservative side to combat Communism is just sad.

“Guilts” covers the war crimes tribunals in detail, though not so much the process and the verdicts, but the intricacies of the politics surrounding the judging panel, the great cover-up for the emperor, and how little input either the Japanese or other Asians had in the process. It was here that the war became recontextualized as being all between the US and Japan, rather than Japan and its Asian neighbors, which has caused all kind of fall out, still being dealt with today. The second half of this section was also particularly interesting to me. Called “What do you tell the dead when you lose?” this chapter addresses the way the Japanese needed to deal with their feelings of grief, guilt, and resentment. How were they to honor their dead? The friends and family members often reacted with horror when news of the atrocities trickled through, but at the same time, these were their brothers, sons, friends, and they had all truly thought they were doing the right thing when they went off to war, to die for the emperor. The cultures of guilt that developed, often amongst intellectuals who had previously supported the war, were very interesting. In some ways, this chapter was my main reason for reading the entire book.

And finally, “Reconstructions” reveals the beginnings of the economic boom, and the end of the occupation that didn’t really end. If it weren’t for the Korean War, Japan would have had a much harder time rebuilding, because a huge amount of the economic aid they received from the US came in the form of payment for being a supply depot for the US forces in Korea.

Wow, this has gotten long. In my defense, I was reading Embracing Defeat for several weeks, because there was just so much to absorb, so the fact that I managed to summarize it this much is a feat in and of itself. I’ll probably say more about particular points later. I am really glad that I read this book after The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, because the first book gave me a good feel for the place Japanese culture had been before the occupation started, making it clear how many of the changes MacArthur and his crew instituted really were changes.

An interesting point about both books together is that both Benedict and Dower seem to agree on a key point. The occupation of Japan was an unprecedented event, and likely only worked because of the peculiar situation of the time, seemingly made possible through some strange combination of MacArthur’s cult of personality and the cooperation of the Japanese people themselves, (not to mention the advent of the Korean war.) There is no reason to believe the occupation of Iraq would ever work in the same way, as Dower so eloquently argued himself, back in 2003, in this editorial: “A Warning from History: Don’t expect democracy in Iraq“.


2 Responses to An exceptionally complete look at Japan under US occupation

  1. […] just finished John Dower’s account of Japan during the post-war period, Embracing Defeat, I have to say, that all sounds pretty accurate to me. Those were the Japanese […]

  2. Dana says:

    I forgot to mention that the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I knew I hadn’t spent enough time on this post. *sigh*

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