Courtesy Reuters

The Unmasterable Past: The Limits of Japan's Postwar Transformation

In This Review

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower
W. W. Norton & Company, 1999
676 pp. $29.95

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

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