John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat

John W. Dower is an American historian and former “Ford International Professor of History” at MIT, best known for his 1999 work Embracing Defeat: Japan In The Wake Of World War II, which won nearly every award for which it was eligible, including the National Book Award for Nonfiction, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. It focuses on the often-neglected post-war period, when America occupied and governed the country it had just bombed into submission, seeking to remake it into a modern, democratic and Western nation. “In those years,” Dower writes in his Introduction, “Japan had no sovereignty and accordingly no diplomatic relations. No Japanese were allowed to travel abroad until the occupation was almost over; no major political, administrative, or economic decisions were possible without the conquerors’ approval; no public criticism of the American regime was permissible, although in the end dissident voices were irrepressible.” It’s a fascinating period of history, too long overshadowed by Pearl Harbor, the Pacific theatre, and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Dower’s telling, the occupation of Japan amounted to “the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as ‘the white man’s burden,'” and no one can hope to understand Japan’s post-war trajectory – including its stratospheric economic rise – without a comprehensive knowledge of this period.

For my own part, I was driven to this book by my readings of post-war Japanese fiction, with its strong undertones of pessimism, alienation, and rootlessness, so resonant in the 21st century West. Dower, it turns out, was the perfect guide for me, for this is one of the most comprehensive history books I have ever read: he isn’t content merely to relay the news-worthy details, but instead dives much deeper, giving us insight into how ordinary Japanese citizens – veterans of the war, war widows and orphans, bureaucrats, and blackmarket salesmen eager to profit off the social and political upheaval – adjusted to life under American occupation. He does this by drawing on a wide range of primary source materials, from newspapers and diaries to letters and reminiscences, not to mention the popular plays, novels, and nightly entertainments. Consider, for a moment, the exposure the average Japanese had to America, a country that they had likely never visited, and had, until very lately, been told was a murderous, bloodthirsty enemy. When the American ships and servicemen flooded Tokyo harbour, after having literally flattened the city by sustained bombing campaigns, the Japanese encountered Americans up close and in the flesh. “A country that had celebrated its mythic ‘2,600-year anniversary’ in 1940, and prided itself on never having been invaded, was about to be inundated by white men.” The American men were taller, better fed, and backed by an impossibly large navy now taking up every berthing spot in the bay. “In Japanese eyes, the inescapable impression of September 2, 1945, was that the West – which meant, essentially, the United States – was extraordinarily rich and powerful, and Japan unbelievably weak and vulnerable.” This impression was reinforced by the general shortage of food and basic supplies in Japan, which meant that the largesse of individual American soldiers, as well as the semi-regular gifts of American chocolates, cigarettes and rations, often made the difference between hunger and starvation.

Demoralization was the norm, not the exception. War widows resented the military and the former Japanese government. Soldiers, who left to fight as heroes of the nation, returned to a disillusioned public only lately made aware of their rapacities in China and Korea, and were often spat on and treated, one and all, as potential war criminals. Younger Japanese men found themselves competing – and losing – against taller, wealthier and more powerful American servicemen for the affections of young Japanese women, some of whom merely engaged in casual romance while others availed themselves of the profitable sex trade, given semi-legitimacy by the American military’s overlooking of the brothels catering to their soldiers. The city infrastructure, across most of Japan, had been devastated by American bombing campaigns, and in the ruins of Japan’s former glory, thousands of orphaned children set up camp, begging and stealing to survive:

In July 1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated that there were approximately 4,000 war orphans throughout the country. A February 1948 report put the number of orphaned and homeless children combined at 123,510. Of this number, 28,248 had lost their parents in air raids; 11,351 were orphaned or lost contact with their parents during the traumatic repatriation process; 2,640 were identified as “abandoned”; and an astonishing 81,266 were believed to have lost their parents, or simply become separated from them, in the turmoil that accompanied the end of the war.

But by far the greatest humiliation came from defeat itself, and the sudden, wrenching recognition that the Shōwa nationalist myth of the Japanese as a superior people, destined to spread their reign, was exactly that: a myth. The years of sacrifice and semi-starvation, of unquestioning devotion to the Emperor, had resulted in defeat and impoverishment. Dower’s calculation of the damage of the war is sobering:

All told, probably at least 2.7 million servicemen and civilians died as a result of the war, roughly 3 to 4 percent of the country’s 1941 population of around 74 million. Millions more were injured, sick, or seriously malnourished. Approximately 4.5 million servicemen demobilized in 1945 were identified as being wounded or ill, and eventually some three hundred thousand were given disability pensions. […] it was estimated that the Allied assault on shipping and the bombing campaign against the home islands destroyed one-quarter of the country’s wealth. This included four-fifths of all ships, one-third of all industrial machine tools, and almost a quarter of all rolling stock and motor vehicles. General MacArthur’s “SCAP” bureaucracy […] placed the overall costs of the war even higher, calculating early in 1946 that Japan had “lost one-third of its total wealth and from one-third to one-half of its total potential income.” Rural living standards were estimated to have fallen to 65 percent of prewar levels and nonrural living standards to about 35 percent. Sixy-six mjaor cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been heavily bombed, destroying 40 percent of these urban areas overall and rendering around 30 percent of their populations homeless. In Tokyo, the largest metropolis, 65 percent of all residences were destroyed. In Osaka and Nagoya, the country’s second and third largest cities, the figures were 57 and 89 percent.

General Douglas MacArthur, tasked with leading the transformation of Japan, had two major advantages: the people were fed up with the status quo, and the physical damage to the country was so severe that the American command was able to build, from the ground up, the infrastructure it needed to support its vision of a liberal, democratic Japan.

Dower isn’t blind to the contradiction in my last sentence: can liberal, democratic reforms be imposed, or are they, by their very nature, ground-up phenomenon? The American occupying force made public two express objectives of their endeavours: to ensure that Japan would never again “become a menace to the United States or to the peace and security of the world,” and a much larger vision:

To bring about the eventual establishment of a peaceful and responsible government which will respect the rights of other states and will support the objectives of the United States as reflected in the ideals and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. The United States desires that this government should conform as closely as may be to principles of democratic self-government but it is not the responsibility of the Allied Powers to impose upon Japan any form of government not supported by the freely expressed will of the people.

The language invoked above – democratic self-government, freely expressed will of the people – was alien to the Japanese people, which left a very large and consequential question looming, unanswered: what exactly was the will of the Japanese people? Here the American reformers found a loophole that allowed them to be more influential in shaping Japan’s future than their above-quoted mandate might indicate. “Under imperial Japan’s existing political, economic, and social institutions, the reformers argued, the people had had little if any control over their lives. To enable them to truly express their will freely required dismantling this authoritarian structure root and branch, even while disclaiming any intention to ‘impose’ an alien system of government on the defeated foe.” Dower quotes Colonel Charles Kades, “an idealistic and influential lawyer in GHQ’s Government Section,” who bluntly summed up the difference between the surrender reforms proposed by the Japanese authorities and the mission of MacArthur’s occupation forces: “They wanted to take a tree that was diseased and prune the branches – cut off the branches. We felt it was necessary to, in order to get rid of the disease, take the root and branches off. Otherwise we find new branches and the same disease in the tree.” There was also, Dower argues, a racial component, that was not in play during the Allied occupation of Germany: the extreme militarism and nationalism of the Japanese was understood to reflect “the essence of a feudalistic, Oriental culture that was cancerous in and of itself.”

Under this logic, the American reformers had a moral duty to unmake Japanese society, and they set about their task with gusto. Sweeping reforms were quickly enacted, reforms that were unimaginable to even the most optimistic of Japanese liberals in the pre-war period. War crimes trials were held, which swept up not only military leadership but the more zealous of the business and political classes. On top of those imprisoned or executed, some 200,000 were purged from government roles.

And this was but the beginning of the revolution from above, which over the next two years would extend to the reform of civil and criminal law, elimination of the “feudalistic” family system that had legally rendered women inferior, extension of the right to vote to women, decentralization of the police, enactment of a progressive law governing working conditions, revision of both the structure and the curriculum of the education system, renovation of the electoral system, and promotion of greater local autonomy vis-à-vis the central government. In the single most brazen and enduring act of the democratic revolution, a reluctant government was forced to introduce an entirely new constitution that retained the imperial system but simultaneously established the principle of popular sovereignty and guaranteed a broad range of human rights. It was under the charter that the emperor’s erstwhile subjects became citizens.

Most incredibly, from the perspective of the defeated Japanese, the Americans did all of this while keeping Emperor Hirohito in power, and even actively shielding him from war crimes investigations. Removing him, it was thought, might provoke greater resistance to the reforms, and thus he was kept in a position of power and authority, doing his best to dissemble in public appearances about Japan’s defeat, his own authority, and the future of his dynasty.

Embracing Defeat does a wonderful job excavating a forgotten history, and forcing the victors to confront the neglected realities of the vanquished. It is also, from my perspective, a useful source of insight into modern Japan, which sublimated its former military energies into industrial and economic competition, and helped recover much of its bruised self-esteem by becoming an economic superpower, eventually surpassing America in a lucrative market it birthed: automobile sales. Finally, a major theme of Japan’s post-war literature – the abrupt severing of their heritage and the sense of being untethered to the past and therefore drifting towards an unknown future – becomes comprehensible in light of the history of the American occupation, which didn’t so much prune Japanese culture as attempt to root it out entirely.