At the center of both modern Japanese history and the United States' evolving relationship with Japan is the tension created by breaks in Japanese history. Small wonder, then, that the Japanese themselves, as well as many of their friends and critics abroad, stress the nation's overwhelming need for continuity. Japan has been portrayed in the West as a nation whose omnipotent bureaucracy has ruled for centuries, whose emperor traces his legitimacy back an uninterrupted 2,600 years, and whose everyday social (and too often political) practices have deep historical roots. But no industrialized nation has matched Japan's roller coaster experiences over the past 150 years.

Behind the Japanese emphasis on continuity is a history of jarring fractures that is foreign, in every sense of the word, to the American experience. Until 1853 Japan enjoyed several centuries of isolation from nearly all Western nations; a decade later the West blew up Japanese coastal installations and imposed unequal economic and political treaties. In the 1920s the nation moved toward the more liberal political system known as "Taisho democracy" and backed Woodrow Wilson's new emphasis on anticolonialism and self-determination; a decade later a military regime ruled and began building a colonial empire. By the mid-1940s Japan had sacrificed three million of its citizens to realize that empire and maintain its tradition of never having been occupied; in the late 1940s thousands of GIS arrived to ensure that General Douglas MacArthur could carry out his "white man's burden" policies. In the late 1980s Japan's economy was envied as the real winner of the Cold War; a decade later that economy was dismissed as awesomely corrupt, shortsighted, and bankrupt.

In Embracing Defeat, his third major work dissecting Japan's mid-twentieth-century history, John W. Dower explains these last two seismic shifts -- the war years of the 1940s and the roots of today's economic upheaval -- as well as anyone ever has. He cuts through Japanese society and politics between 1945 and 1950 as if they were a thickly layered and not always palatable cake. On one level Dower, a history professor at MIT, analyzes U.S.-Japanese relations; on another, he explores domestic Japanese political and economic policies. The thickest layer reveals how Japanese of every social stratum confronted "in exceptionally naked ways" the confusion, destruction, and starvation thrown up by their defeat. At one point, the authorities in Osaka had to suggest that starvation could be avoided by eating mice, rats, moles, rose leaves, silkworm cocoons, and sawdust broken down into powder for use in dumplings and bread.

Dower argues that this experience of defeat, which Japan had never endured before, helps explain why the "preoccupation with their own misery . . . led most Japanese to ignore the suffering they had inflicted on others." Throughout the war, soldiers had been taught not to surrender. Civilians were to be prepared to die "like shattered jewels," as the phrase had it. But when surrender came, Tokyo's skies remained dark -- not only from the smoke billowing from lingering fires set by U.S. planes but also from massive bonfires set by pragmatic bureaucrats destroying wartime records. History was to turn so sharply that the past was to be incinerated.

But the past, as always, refused to die. In finely drawn case studies, Dower shows how the Japanese -- and above all, the returning veterans -- published letters in newspapers detailing the war's horrors. Many veterans focused on the cruelty and stupidity of officers who ordered them into hopeless battles. When one paper ran the story of how soldiers had lynched an abusive officer, 16 of the 18 readers who responded supported the soldiers.

Such public responses did not mean that Japan's elite leadership was anxious to fundamentally reform the society that took the country into war. MacArthur actually asked Prince Konoe Fumimaro, the former prime minister whose government started the 1937 war against China and signed the 1940 pact with the Axis, to advise him about constitutional reform. That the general made such a request revealed his concern about maintaining some continuity. That Konoe's conservative proposals were abruptly rejected revealed the elite's misconception that reform could be minimal. Rejected and then listed as a Class-A war criminal, Konoe committed suicide the night he was to go to prison.

The veterans' letters, Konoe's suicide, and MacArthur's imposition of a new legal system that promised human rights, free political expression, new educational systems, and decentralized police authority -- all symbolized the stunning openness and opportunity that suddenly seemed to blanket Japanese society. "People behaved differently, thought differently, encountered circumstances that differed from any they had previously experienced -- or would ever experience again," Dower writes. "People were acutely conscious of the need to reinvent their own lives." Such reinvention could be seen, unfortunately, in a lucrative prostitution business set up expressly to service the occupiers, flourishing strip-club shows to entertain Americans and Japanese alike, and a vibrant literature and photography that deeply explored decadence and degeneracy. The backlash was not slow in coming. If these were parts of Western democracy, many Japanese wanted no more of it. Nevertheless, Dower emphasizes, Japan experienced a moment of openness, experimentation, and questioning of fundamentals. But the moment too quickly passed.


Most Japanese preferred the changes brought about by MacArthur and his vast bureaucracy, which created, in Dower's words, a "neocolonial revolution." By 1948 this "supergovernment" numbered 3,200 Americans. Key U.S. officials admitted they knew little about the country they now ruled. They were guided primarily by their ideas about the U.S. reform tradition, especially the New Deal, which they knew and loved first-hand. Thus Japan, confronting the opportunity to reshape itself, instead entered a confusing world of paradox: "While the victors preached democracy, they ruled by fiat; while they espoused equality, they themselves constituted an inviolate privileged caste" that tolerated little fundamental debate. The occupation thus became "a new manifestation of the old racial paternalism that historically accompanied the global expansion of western powers."

Other paradoxes also haunted the occupation. In 1947, as the Cold War accelerated with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, the Truman administration suddenly told MacArthur to reverse course. Until this point, the general had set out to dismember the great industrial-banking combines, bring war criminals to trial, permit not only liberal but communist labor unions to exist, and write a constitution that pledged democracy. Dower observes that for all the chaotic discussion, neocolonial attitudes, and bitter Japanese response to parts of the document, Japan's constitution has yet to be changed. But then, he continues, the need for changes has been minimized because -- even before the volte-face in 1947-48 -- MacArthur encouraged the continuation of two institutions that satisfied Japanese conservatives: the civilian bureaucracy and the emperor. The occupiers became so dependent on the bureaucracy that it "actually attained greater authority and influence than it had possessed even at the height of the mobilization for war." Dower repeatedly declares that MacArthur's passionate insistence on maintaining the emperor's secular authority doomed any hope of far-reaching economic, bureaucratic, or political change. It also doomed any hope that Japan would come to terms with the wartime atrocities committed in the emperor's name. The emperor had merely descended "partway from heaven."

Given the continued power of the emperor and the bureaucrats -- along with Washington's demand that MacArthur jump-start the Japanese economy so that Japan could help fight the Cold War -- the hope for an open, democratized system had dissipated by 1948. Dower devotes little space to the causes and effects of this "reverse course." Perhaps he believes that he already adequately examined that turn in his earlier work. It is more likely, however, that he sees the root of Japan's later problems in the occupation's failure to seize the moment of maximum Japanese openness in 1945-46.

This failure is exemplified by the fate of the phrase "the people," which American authors inserted in a draft Japanese constitution (as in, "We, the people"). The Japanese had no comparable history of popular sovereignty, so the translation turned "people" into kokumin, a term that connotes traditional harmonious relations between the people and the authorities, including the emperor. Indeed, kokumin had been a popular term in wartime propaganda. Pivotal U.S. officials (one of whom admitted gleaning his knowledge about the country from his morning newspaper) let the word stand. Thus the intent of New Deal reform was blunted by the unwitting insertion of a Japanese nationalist term. Thus too, less need arose to change the constitution after the New Dealers departed.

The Japanese constitution's famous Article IX, which by one interpretation renounces war, went through a similar transformation. The end result, as Dower painstakingly shows, should not displease modern-day proponents of rearmament, such as former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who wants to respond to North Korea's firing of its Taepodong missile over Japan last August with a military buildup. In its first draft, Article IX not only "renounced" war and "the threat of force" as means of settling disputes with other nations, but declared that "land, sea, and air forces . . . will never be authorized." After intense debates in the Diet, Ashida Hitoshi rewrote the provision, changing, most notably, the word "authorized" to "maintained." MacArthur's staff accepted the new wording.

Afterwards, Ashida claimed his provision allowed self-defense. Dower observes that such a claim never appeared explicitly in either the Diet's debates or in the Ashida subcommittee's long-secret records, which have finally been declassified. U.S. and Japanese drafters agreed in Article LXVI to allow only "civilians" to serve in the cabinet -- explicitly preventing military officers from controlling national politics as they had since the late nineteenth century. But the wording also assumed the need to exclude the military from the cabinet because they would indeed be present in post-1947 political affairs. Given Dower's analysis, recently revealed episodes when Japanese forces helped Americans in Korea and Vietnam, the evolution of Japan's military strength within the terms of the 1960 security pact, and the Clinton administration's liberal interpretation of how freely that military can now aid U.S. forces, the debate over Japan's future role might be less over how to amend Article IX than over how to accelerate the buildup that Ashida's wording and Article LXVI allow.

Japan's neighbors, not enthusiastic about such a buildup, believe that the Japanese have never come to terms with the crimes they committed between 1931 and 1945. As Dower shows in a devastating critique, neither these neighbors nor anyone else interested in international justice can draw satisfaction from the Tokyo war-crimes trials that the occupation authorities started in May 1946. The trials lasted 31 months. (The German war-crimes trials, by contrast, began in November 1945 and were completed in 10 months.) "Whimsy, or at least casualness," as Dower puts it with distinct understatement, marked the proceedings. Of the 11 judges who presided, only one, the Indian representative, had major experience in international law, and he wrote a scathing critique of the affair. The Soviet judge's reputation largely rested on his usefulness in the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, and he apparently knew only two words of English: "Bottoms up!" The Chinese representative had no background as a judge, and by the end found his government moving rapidly to Taiwan. The Filipino judge's legal detachment was questioned because the Japanese had put him in the 1942 Bataan death march. The judges openly and bitterly split over crucial issues; one of the seven Japanese sentenced to death was doomed by the vote of only six judges.

The occupiers dismissed the Japanese defense that they had been attempting to prevent chaos in China and stop communism throughout Asia -- even as Washington reversed course in 1947 to fight Maoism in China. As part of that reversal, U.S. officials began to work with major war criminals they had previously wanted to convict, if not hang. The resurrected included the powerful political power broker Kodama Yoshio and a future prime minister, Kishi Nobusuke, who was to be sacrificed to the anti-American riots in 1960 after he had single-mindedly renewed the U.S.-Japan security pact. Japanese conservatives dismissed the trials as meaningless. Japanese liberals lamented that an opportunity had been missed to discipline war criminals lawfully. In the State Department, George F. Kennan called the proceedings "political trials . . . not law" and characterized them as "ill-conceived, psychologically unsound." U.S. Brigadier General Elliott Thorpe, who was central in selecting which suspects to put on trial, later condemned the process as "ex post facto law. . . . [W]e hanged them because they used war as an instrument of national policy." For later war-crimes trials, the Tokyo tribunals offer little more than a lesson in what not to do.


By 1948, Dower concludes, hope for a genuine democratic revolution from either above or below was disappearing. The time for meaningful official Japanese expressions of remorse for wartime atrocities had passed. This was especially unfortunate because many articulate Japanese in 1945-46 were prepared to deal constructively with that past. By 1949, however, many Japanese identified with Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind; they made the novel a bestseller and seem to have vowed, like its heroine, to forget about the war and never to "be hungry again."

The United States was happy to help them -- even if that meant accelerating the economy's pace by retaining many wartime controls, permitting a highly centralized oversight of foreign trade, and encouraging the aggrandizement of the bureaucracy's already vast power. With U.S. guidance and Japanese effort, these parts of the occupation melded into the keiretsu syndicate structure that propelled the nation's export drive from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Dower observes that MacArthur and other U.S. officials proved that "one did not have to be the bearer of a Confucian cultural heritage to promote autocracy, hierarchy, harmony, consensus, and self-censorship." In the 1850s, the 1920s, and especially the 1940s, Americans were instrumental in helping Japan navigate the political and economic rapids of sudden change. In the last two encounters, at least, the results have turned out to be quite different than either party had originally planned. Dower's superbly researched account explains why this was so and why the historic, complex, and fascinating relationship between such apparently different peoples remains so crucial to the post-1945 world.

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  • Walter LaFeber is Professor of History at Cornell University. His latest book is The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History.
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