Embracing Defeat; Japan in the Wake of World War II

Embracing Defeat; Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower. W.W. Norton, 2010, paper. (835)


On 15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s capitulation via Japanese radio. Two weeks later the Supreme Command Allied Powers began an occupation that would last until April 1952. Most of the officials who administered occupied Japan were American. There were never more than 3200 of them, plus an occupying military force. John Dower argues that while the end result of our occupation was a post-war Japan of remarkable vitality, the means where by that was accomplished were flawed.


When General Douglas MacArthur was fired during the Korean War, he left Tokyo to Japanese acclaim. But for the seven years of his administration, this hero reigned as a paternalistic dictator, or in terms of Japanese history an all-powerful shogun.


Japan was destitute. The bombing of Japanese cities had created millions of homeless. Japan’s industrial economy was shattered as was its transportation system. Cut off from its traditional sources of food and its merchant marine sunk, starvation now stalked the land. In 1946 the inflation rate was 539% and still 256% in 1949. There were 6.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians stranded in East, Southeast, and Pacific Asia. Most families had a father, son, or brother either missing or dead. Many Japanese civilians suffered from what was called the kyodatsu condition – despair and exhaustion.


The Potsdam Declaration had determined that the American occupying force should destroy the basis of Japan’s militarism, ultra-nationalism, and feudal elements and build the basis for a democratic future. With this mandate the American occupation introduced a “revolution from above.” One of the earliest reforms was MacArthur’s proclamation of universal suffrage before the first postwar election in April 1947.


The end of the military dictatorship produced what John Dower calls a “new social space,” characterized by openness, and personal freedom. It provoked a flourishing of literature and film, and a public that relished this new ‘brightness.’ It also gave rise to a rambunctious mixture of overlapping subcultures, including the all-pervasive black markets, and panpan – prostitution. The latter was intended to serve American servicemen, oversexed the Japanese thought.


One of the most remarkable amongst the many interesting stories in Embracing Defeat was the drafting of a new constitution for Japan. Several Japanese attempts had failed, and characteristically MacArthur made the unilateral decision to appoint a drafting committee drawn from civilian talent then serving in the army of occupation. MacArthur gave the committee a week to finish its work. The proceedings of this ‘constitutional convention’ were in English as was the final document, followed by a “translation marathon.”


What do you tell the dead when you have lost a war? Dower compares the ‘community of remorse’ to that of the ancient Greek tribute to its fallen heroes. Victors can comfort their grieving by claiming that the outcome of the war – the good war – is partial recompense. The vanquished must celebrate less glorious outcomes.


Surprisingly one trope was that the war dead represented a ‘sacrificial atonement for the crimes of the nation.’ But this sacrifice could not be praised. Censorship by the occupation forces excluded this and a long list of other topics. Among them: criticism of SCAP and the occupation forces; criticism of Great Britain, or Russia; criticism of pre-war Allied behavior toward Japan; fraternization of Allied personnel with Japanese women; and the divine descent of the emperor.


Dower is much interested in the fate of Emperor Hirohito. General MacArthur protected the throne, reasoning that after its ‘dry cleaning’, the institution of the Emperor would become a rallying point for post-war Japan. The trouble was that the Emperor had participated in the planning and execution of Japan’s ‘Great East Asia War,’ including the attack on Pearl Harbor. And General Eisenhower had told MacArthur to include an investigation of the Emperor’s role, with his possible inclusion in the Tokyo trials of Japanese war criminals.


MacArthur basically ignored that command. He chose instead to bring to trial a selection of the war-time Imperial Cabinet and the army leadership. Tōjō Hideki became perhaps the most notorious war criminal to be tried. He did not implicate his Emperor.


The general who was responsible for the Bataan Death March escaped a trial. He had made himself useful to the Nationalist Chinese in their war with the Chinese Communists. Indeed the “loss of China” and the Cold War cast their shadows over the trials and the American occupation in many ways. Americans in Japan came to appreciate Japan as a potential ally against Mao’s China and the Stalin’s Russia.


The book has only a brief mention of one of the most remarkable creations of the occupation. The economic planners, mostly Japanese, decided to foster a cutting-edge economy. Stagnant for the first decade or so after the war, Japanese manufacturing took off. An envious America and Europe eventually talked about “Japan as Number One.” Japan became a wealthy economy with a lot of consumer confidence and with a more equitable distribution of that wealth than was true of the victors’ postwar economies.


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