Embracing Defeat: A Chevron Ross Book Review

By March 11, 2022No Comments

I found myself attracted to this history because of its stellar reputation and my own murky knowledge of post-World War II Japan. I’m pleased to state that it was well worth my time.

Drawing from numerous sources, author John Dower depicts a culture humbled and devastated by war, its people universally remorseful and relieved to trade the yoke of military dictatorship for SCAP, the American occupation force led by General Douglas MacArthur. From 1945 to 1952, SCAP guided the nation’s transition to a non-militaristic, democratic society. The Japanese deified MacArthur as their liberator, placing him on almost equal footing with the Emperor.

The author notes that by August 1945, Japan’s war-making capacity was so diminished that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened surrender by only a few days. He cites appalling death statistics among the military and civilian populations, destruction of the nation’s economy, and dire poverty that forced millions to live in the streets. Food shortages produced mass starvation that forced citizens to depend on black market products they could not afford. Demoralization was reflected in many ways, most revealingly in a children’s game in which boys and girls paired up to play pimp and prostitute to imaginary GIs.

On a brighter note, liberation sparked a renewal of intellectual interests. One enterprising citizen made a fortune by producing an English-Japanese phrase book to help the conquered population communicate with their new masters. Poetry, novels and films began to appear, though many fell victim to the watchful eyes of American censors.

Though American experts were skeptical that democracy would take root in Japan, history has proved them wrong. One of the most interesting chapters outlines America’s strategy to preserve Emperor Hirohito as Japan’s symbolic figurehead while placing blame for the war on his military leaders – even though Hirohito was briefed on and approved military strategy, including Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. When a Japanese committee could not reach consensus on a new constitution, MacArthur’s people drafted one themselves in the space of a single week.

Most astonishing is the section on the Tokyo war tribunal, which convicted only a handful of the most responsible war criminals. Kishi Nobusake, accused of enslaving Chinese laborers during the war, rose from defendant to become Prime Minister in 1957. Tsuji Masanobu, an officer notorious for such atrocities as the Bataan Death March, eventually won election to the House of Representatives. Paradoxically, many militarists sent to prison managed to achieve martyrdom as scapegoats for their people’s downfall.

Ironically, Japan’s demilitarized status became inconvenient when the Korean War broke out and the United States needed Japanese assistance in producing war materials. This windfall was a major element in revitalizing the nation’s economy.

With great objectivity, Dower chronicles SCAP’s successes and failures, as well as those of the Japanese people in redefining themselves as a culture. The history includes numerous photographs supporting the text.

What moved me most was the general consensus among the Japanese people that they bore personal responsibility for the war and its atrocities, although they, like the Germans, had been living under a brutal dictatorship. This mindset was influential in their transition to a new society.

Dower’s history is authoritative and well-annotated. I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in this aspect of World War II and its aftermath.

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