Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 9, 2010

Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower

This book was a phenomenally eye-opening account of the confusion and evolution of Japan before and especially after the Second World War.  Though I certainly won’t retain all the information I read about in this well-written but dense piece of history, here’s an attempt to jot down a few lessons:

1.) I still can’t believe I live in a place that is so peaceful and welcoming when my grandfather fought in the very war that started Japan on the path to peace.

2.) I had no idea how revered and even worshiped the emperor was before the Japanese defeat in WWII.  Until then, he was referred to as a god, and the direct descendant of the sun god Amaterasu.  Amazing.

3.) After reading about what American GIs did to women (“comfort” women serving as government-sponsored sex workers) and the culture at-large in Japan after WWII, I sometimes feel ashamed to show my face here.  That kind of pain is still inflicted on many Japanese through the continued military presence in Okinawa, where rapes and reckless behavior still occur to the disgust of many Japanese.  That’s probably why the new administration (Hatoyama) seems to be making such big shifts in the Japanese support of American war efforts in Afghanistan and other military maintenance traditions in the Pacific.

4.) The irony of “imposed” democracy is one of the most important lessons I learned in this book.  Rather than allow democracy to form in a spontaneous and creative way, the U.S. basically forced her values upon an entire nation with deeply held and long lasting traditions of political life.  Japan certainly benefited from the U.S. occupation and in their guidance over the new constitution, but the cons of imposing something that should be embraced by a “grassroots” movement also weigh strongly in my mind as a detriment to our postwar policies here.

5.) The bombs.  I certainly understand the mentality of why the atomic bombs were dropped much more than I did before.  The determination of the Japanese to not accept defeat at any cost required great sacrifice to break.  However, the U.S. persecution of Japanese “war criminals” then automatically carries a great deal of irony.  After killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians ourselves, we executed leaders for doing the exact same thing.  They just happened to be on the losing side of history, and thus didn’t have the option to take the American military and political leaders to task for their role in the concentrated bombings of civilian targets.

6.) The U.S. occupation had a massive censorship on Japanese press and art in the 6-7 years after the war.  I feel like that effort had a crippling effect on the development of a truly “free” press and expression in Japan and buried a lot of very important conversations that might have set Japan on a better initial path of rejuvenated internal recovery.

7.) Leaving Emperor Hirohito, who led Japan into war, without any responsibility for the war was surely smart policy, but is just another example of the trade offs of U.S. pragmatism vs. idealism.  Like in the current situation with Iran, supporting the protesters (whom we would like to see as successful because of the horrible government they are seeking to remove) is a Catch-22.  If we support these protesters, and stand by our idealistic American charter of freedom and democracy, we risk further alienating the Iranian leaders with whom we are seeking meaningful and productive dialogue to end a dangerous path towards the development of nuclear weapons.  If we don’t support these protesters, we lose a great opportunity to see the spread of a system of government that, although far from perfect, at least holds high the goal of providing equality and opportunity to all its citizens.

8.) American lawyers basically wrote the bulk of the Japanese Constitution in a week.  And not even lawyers who were truly prepared for the task!  But what was produced has been an interesting Japanese-specific form of democracy.  It makes me think about Iraq and the incredibly short time period that we imposed “democracy” on their government and people.  Japan has lasted because it depended on peace and economic development for its sustained growth.  Can Iraq survive on such a fragile sheet of paper without the same commitment to peace and without great opportunity for widespread economic development apart from serving our oil needs?

9.) Many of the successful Japanese companies that are prevalent today have their roots in post-WWII development, and even in the Korean war re-militarization of Japan (Even though we imposed a completely pacifistic constitution, we then asked them to re-arm a few short years later when we wanted them to help us fight the “reds.”  The irony never ceases.).  Canon and Nikon made military optics tools before switching to consumer cameras.  Honda started by a guy taking small engines from war communications devices and refitting them to power bicycles called the “Dream.”  Sony, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and many other companies all benefited from restructuring following the war.  This must explain previous (and some current) Americans’ anti-Japanese product sentiments.

10.) Hierarchy, patriarchy, and bureaucracy have been a major part of Japanese public life for a long time.  In trying to change this mentality, the U.S. put these exact things in place again.  General MacArthur was the “Supreme Commander,” and all laws pronounced by the U.S. victors were required to be embraced by the Japanese.  Although the ends may have justified the means, the hypocrisy in these efforts certainly wasn’t lost.

Japan is a fascinating place.  The mix of old and new, Asian and Western, is startling, exciting, and depressing all at the same time.  On a train, I’ve seen gothic punk 16-year old girls with pink spikes for hair standing right next to their peers clad in flowery traditional kimono and wooden sandals.  Both are costumed to a certain extent, but the contrast is striking and confusing at first glance.

After delving into the modern roots of this country, I can understand why that tension exists.  It’s due in part to having received democracy through imposition, and also through the process of seeking a postwar identity after some of the strings to the conquerors had finally been severed.  I imagine Japan asking herself, should we: 1.) seek out the traditions of the past, 2.) rebrand Japanese culture with a unique flair, 3.) embrace Westernization, or 4.) accept some bizarre mix of all of the above?  From what I can tell, option number 4 has been the route taken, whether intentionally or not.



  1. Brad- I enjoyed reading your comments on this book. You have some good insights. At our next opportunity I would like to explore with you, in greater depth, the continuing reverberations of the war period in Japan today.

    I was especially interested in your thoughts on how the Occupation of Japan might compare to the Occupation of Iraq. Fifteen years from now, if Iraq is functioning politically and economically at the level Japan was in 1960, will we judge that we did good in the world? Have you found any Japanese sources that describe what they felt about the U.S. in 1960? If, on balance, we would judge that we did well by Japan, after the war, do we still have the principles that made that possible? Or, has our culture changed in ways that make us incapable of replicating the best of that effort?

    If you’re interested in other readings on WWII in the Pacific, I can recommend three other authors:
    Gordon Prange, John Toland and Samuel Elliott Morrison.

    On a related topic, you may be interested in two books about the Japanese conquest and occupation of the Phillipines: Beyond Courage by Dorothy Cave and Ghost Soldiers. In regard to these latter two, I have always been struck by the irony of the view that most have of General MacArthur and President Roosevelt in respect to this chapter of history and the view of many New Mexicans regarding the character they displayed and the decisions they made in that chapter.

    • Thanks so much for writing, Rick. I had a little chat with Rachael about how difficult it’s been for me to read so many books and articles like this without many opportunities to discuss them and really flesh out my understandings and ideas. I thought I might try writing a few and am glad they connected with someone out there in cyberspace!

      There have to be parallels with Japan/Iraq. Although the circumstances of the US entry into the country are quite different, the similarities of installing democracy, bringing together warring factions, and restructuring the defeated country as a strategic US ally can certainly teach us something. To me, the main difference is in the level of control from the victors and “buy in” from the vanquished. The Japanese basically looked at MacArthur as equal to their divine emperor until the end of the occupation. People seem to have sincerely appreciated his “benevolent intentions” in building peace and prosperity in Japan. There are certainly citizens of Iraq who appreciate the US role in deposing Saddam Hussein, but I haven’t seen any evidence of widespread appreciation and acceptance of the US occupation. Rather, there is an irritating and militant faction intent on keeping the US embroiled in battle rather than the nation-building they would like to be doing, and were able to do in Japan.

      So, without knowing as much about Iraq, the two situations at least seem to have some strong similarities. And strategically for the US- yes, if Iraq is stable US ally in 15 years the effort probably will have been worth it. The question of having done something “good” is another issue entirely. By the early 1950s, many Japanese had become quite jaded with the US occupation and our hypocritical reenlistment of their nation in the Korean conflict. Will the US do the same with Iraq? Will we train up the Iraqi forces and then ask for their allied military services in a Middle Eastern conflict? Resentment would be immeasurable. In the end, Japan after the occupation and after years of making democracy and capitalism their own way did produce widespread wealth (more evenly distributed than in the US) and long periods of peace. (Another topic entirely is how Japan’s imposed pacifist constitution has neutered men and the public in general in some ways that have fundamentally changed the culture here- to oversimplify, there’s a lot less testosterone in the air). If Iraq can enjoy the same lasting periods of peace and prosperity, then the US can get some reassurance that “we did good in the world.”

      That was fun to think about. Thanks again for the question. I have to take a break from history for a bit and am now reading Tokyo Vice, an incredible account of the Japanese mafia (yakuza) and their entrenched role in Japan’s bureaucracy and civic life. Rachael is actually catering a party for the author next Friday, so it’ll be great to get to know the author, an American journalist who reported the crime beat in Japan for two decades.

      Take care Rick- much love from Japan!

  2. Mine is very simple: isn’t it great that the Japanese people can now choose how they want to dress? That’s called “freedom” and I’d say that’s a good thing.

    • I can’t wait until you get to Tokyo and see what some of these crazy kids wear these days! Did you see my Christmas picture with the guy wearing women’s underwear over his Diesel jeans? Never ceases to amaze…

  3. Thanks for sharing, Brad — a very interesting read, obviously. My overall reaction to your post is that you’ve found multiple examples to prove that the world in which we live is one of mostly grays rather than blacks and whites (no pun intended!). The Japan and its people that launched and prosecuted WWII were not totally bad (though I find their behavior in China and other occupied lands through 1945 truly horrible), and the U.S. that defeated and occupied them not totally good (though MacArthur, for all of his personal foibles and arrogance, did a remarkably good job managing the reconstruction and design of a new Japan from the ashes).

    Whether dropping the two bombs was necessary will be debated forever, but I think it was the right thing to do. I’ve told you before of our special Japanese friends living in Tokyo that we first met in grad school in the late ’70s — he was 10 in 1945 and was about to enter a brief kamikase training program as part of the preparation in Japan for the coming American invasion of the homeland. The bombs saved millions of Japanese lives, probably including his, not to mention countless Americans and their allies.

    We did, in fact, impose a form of democracy on the defeated nation that looks a good bit like ours. And I’d argue that having almost totally destroyed the country with our air power, we had to do something to fill the vacuum in order to avoid total chaos and/or a resurrection of the pre-war form of government. And with a 1-2 thousand-year heritage of dictators (multiple warlords or a single emperor), some form of the old is most likely what would have occurred, absent the American military and civil occupiers.

    You know my feelings about almost all things created or touched by Bush & Co. I have no idea how Iraq will finally turn out, but see this situation as almost totally different from the Japanese example. I’m sure the debate will go on for many years as to whether we were “right” to invade Iraq, or whether trying to impose a democratic model on a country of desert tribes recently controlled by a military dictatorship was justified or not (I think not). If, 50 years from now, democracy has bloomed in the Middle East, will that justify the invasion in a similar way that a half-century of a democratic Japan seems to justify our actions in that country 50 years ago?

    Ah well — I’m glad you are finding time to read books like this one, and appreciate your sharing your thoughts with us. Perhaps graduate studies in history or cultural anthropology lie ahead? Love to Rachael –

    • Can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read my thoughts and respond, Gus.

      I do hope to meet these friends of your someday. I can’t imagine hearing about what I’ve been reading firsthand.

      I totally agree with your comment about imposing our democracy and how that process filled a large void. Reading about the constitutional draft (created by the conservatives while the MacArthur directed-version was developed simultaneously in secret), the lack of significant and necessary change was quite clear, suggested that our intervention did do some good.

      Fortunately, I got through most of this book while Rachael was on the other side of the pond with you and the Cahill clan. It’s going to get tight with all the required reading for keeping my teaching up to date and my Master’s coursework. If only I had the patience for footnotes I might pursue those other studies you mentioned. For now, my sights are set on finishing this program at Cal State Northridge and getting into Harvard’s new education leadership doctoral program down the road. One step at a time…

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