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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  3,525 ratings  ·  278 reviews
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the 1999 National Book Award for Nonfiction, finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, Embracing Defeat is John W. Dower's brilliant examination of Japan in the immediate, shattering aftermath of World War II.

Drawing on a vast range of Japanese sources and illustrated with dozens of astonishing documentary p
Paperback, 676 pages
Published June 17th 2000 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 1st 1999)
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Yolanda It's not patronising. There is a full exploration of how the constitution was drawn up, for example, which illuminates the thought processes of the Ja…moreIt's not patronising. There is a full exploration of how the constitution was drawn up, for example, which illuminates the thought processes of the Japanese side and the American side. I would say it's evenhanded. (less)

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“Such an audacious undertaking by victors in war had no legal or historical precedent. With a minimum of rumination about the legality or propriety of such an undertaking, the Americans set about doing what no other occupation force had done before: remaking the political, social, cultural, and economic fabric of a defeated nation, and in the process changing the very way of thinking of its populace…”
- John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

While I have ready plenty of bo
Mikey B.


Before defeat, and after defeat
In the top photo Hirohito is in military uniform. After the surrender, in the photo with Douglas MacArthur, the uniform was discarded

This is a masterful account of Japan after their surrender in August, 1945. It is very nuanced, pointing out both positive and negative aspects of the U.S. occupation and how the Japanese coped and adapted. And the primary problem for most Japanese was food. Many were already mal-nourished before the surrender – and their struggle con
Jun 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: world-history
WWII left Japan decimated. Millions had died; millions were disabled, sick and starving; millions were stranded overseas facing reprisals; millions were missing including countless children; and millions were homeless, without family, without jobs, without anything. In the largest city, Tokyo, 65% of homes had been destroyed, in the second largest, Osaka, 57% and the third largest, Nagoya, 89%. Industry had been obliterated leaving few places to live or work. Those with the least suffered the mo ...more
E. G.
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing

--Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Photo and Illustration Credits
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of my major interests is the sociocultural and political evolution of Asian societies in modernity. The preeminent society among these — the one people that had seemingly "made it" in the 20th century — was of course Japan. The Japanese were an inspiration for reformers from Turkey to China. Even African Americans looked to the Japanese with hope. For a time Japan showed that it was possible for the colored peoples of the world to sit on equal footing with Europe and America. Their story wen ...more
An entertainer in Tokyo was singing subversive songs while accompanying himself on the violin. Investigators attended a performance and were shocked. They heard lyrics like “Seducing Japanese women is easy, with chocolate and chewing gum.” More scandalous yet was this line: “Everybody is talking about democracy, but how can we have democracy with two emperors?” Democracy, Hirohito, and MacArthur lampooned, all in a single breath! The Americans banned the show.

Embracing Defeat was written by John
Simply among the most spell-binding books ever. Embracing Defeat proceeds both topically and chronologically from the end of the war to the signing of the peace treaty.

The two most riveting chapters tell how fewer than 10 lawyers on MacArthur's staff (none experienced in Constitutional law) wrote Japan's post-war Constitution in under a week. One of those lawyers was a woman (she died in 2013)--she's responsible for Japan's strong woman's rights protections.

On the other hand, of course, that s
Apr 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Quite simply the most in-depth, perceptive and brilliant study of the post-war US occupation and reconstruction of Japan after World War II. Even with almost 600 dense pages of academic but well-written erudition, it's not easy to tackle how Japan was transformed from a brutal imperialistic aggressor into a docile, cooperative, contrite and eager anti-Communist ally of the US, and how the decision to preserve the Japanese Emperor as a symbol of both Japan's rich cultural heritage and its new pea ...more
Peter Tillman
The two reviews that led me to read the book were Max’s very detailed one, and and Stuart's more impressionistic review, . If you are thinking about reading this book, those are where to start. I’ll add comments and elaborations from my notes. Thanks to both of them for their reviews!

A meaty book that sometimes bogs down in detail — such as the postwar girlie pulps, which were pretty interesting, but the long discu
This is a fantastic book, creating a fully realized sense of life as lived in post-war Japan, ranging from the individual experience to its collective representation in culture, the economy, and rapidly evolving post-war politics. Highly nuanced and neutral in tone, it’s an entirely persuasive account of how Japan transitioned from fifteen years of war and defeat to its new and not-so-new nationhood and the American, especially MacArthur’s, role and goals in bringing it about.
Dec 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: japan, asian-history
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John W. Dower, is an excellent history of postwar Japan from 1946 to the end of the US occupation in 1952, and slightly onward. The book looks at many different topics from this period, but conveys the massive paradigm shift that took place in Japan following its defeat in war. Japan in 1945 was an ultranationalistic and militarist state where much of society was geared toward warfare, and followed the directions of the deity-Emperor withou ...more
Oct 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I posted some comments under updates (,
and so will not add a special review here. Suffice it to say, this is a book of real depth and intelligence, and is fully deserving of the many awards and prizes it won. Anyone who's interested in Japan (that's you,, or in the turns and events of the Postwar period, will gain immeasurably from reading this volume. One point that came through loud and clear is the degree to which the U.S., and its ideals
This is not the book to read if what you are looking for is the typical history of the Occupation Forces in Japan. This is a Japanese story. It tells the story of how the people of Japan managed to assimilate defeat and what it meant to them, how the occupation changed the nation, if it did, and the effect it had on both defeated and conqueror.

Dower does this in a series of chapters that encompass everything from the food shortages and initial starvation, the rise of black markets, the establish
Nancy Regan
Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Last September Japan's never-amended 1947 constitution was reinterpreted to expand the authority of its self-defence force so that it could come to the aid of Japan's allies if they were attacked. That this was effected by reinterpretation rather than amendment, that it was not supported by a majority of Japanese citizens, and that the US was cheering the "clarification" from the sidelines will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read Dower's exceptional, and exceptionally readable, history ...more
Aaron Million
Jun 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
John Dower has written a very good book examining Japan from the moment that Emperor Hirohito announced the country's surrender, up through the removal of General Douglas MacArthur as, essentially, another emperor in April 1951. Dower provides a review of multiple facets of Japanese life: hunger, poverty, uncertainty about many of the soldiers who were still somewhere else at the time of the surrender, culture, and their relationship with Hirohito.

The Americans, sadly once again, come across as
James Murphy
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a big and comprehensive history of the American occupation of Japan following WWII. As a kid and military dependent I lived in Japan, in Sasebo, a port near Nagasaki. In the years of our stay there, 1949-52, though aware of general Japanese culture, I was busy being a kid and wasn't paying attention to the social upheavals going on around me. It was only as an adult that I began to wonder about the history of those years.

John Dower has the answers. His is a history of the occupation from
Larry Bassett
This is probably yet another book that I finished with the grace of the Audible format. I am not quite sure that I could’ve gotten through it otherwise. I was fascinated by the title and presumed content of the book since you never hear about our country goes through the process of being a loser in a war.

The asset and the liability of this book is that it simply doesn’t just make claims but it goes the next steps to prove the claims with data. The method of proof in this book is just to overwhel
Joseph Stieb
Mar 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
The history of Japan during the US occupation, told by one of the leading historians of Japan and the United States. This is a long book that extends beyond politics to look at culture, film, literature, gender, and Japanese society. The main theme here would have to be diversity. Despite stereotypes of the Japanese as conformist, Dower traces a range of interpretations to questions like: Why did the war happen? Why did we lose? Who is to blame? How should we see the Americans? What is to be the ...more
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Well written and fascinating book. The first couple of chapters had wonderful historical pictures quite often, but then there suddenly weren't any pictures anymore. That's why it loses a star for me.
Tom Mathews
Dower's book is an in-depth study of postwar Japan and how it responded to its crushing defeat at the hands of the allied forces. Dower meticulously combed through myriad sources; political, social and artistic, to get a sense of the people's mindset during this most trying time in the country's history. His sources included books, movies, cartoons, articles and letters to newspapers and public officials from the Emperor's surrender announcement through the end of the occupation. While his schol ...more
Nov 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Because I've not read other writing of any kind or description on WWII in the Pacific, I can't comment on the content. I can only describe my experience of reading this particular book. In sum, Dower's book is a brilliant, entirely engrossing historical narrative that fully merits reading and consideration. I would expect such a book to have garnered as many awards for exemplary historical scholarship and writing as there are organizations to present present them.

I can just barely begin to imagi
Nov 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: History buffs
The defeat was Japan's in WWII. The author describes the Japanese response to finding themselves a defeated nation, occupied by the the U.S. from 1946-1952. Although it was a long read, 564 pages, I found it well worth sticking with it. Each chapter was filled with such interesting stories and facts. The author dealt with such subjects as the Japanese having to digest their defeat after they had been told they were winning the war, the Emperor's admission he was not a god (a muddled confession!) ...more
Dower delves into the Japanese and American sources to reconstruct and explain the 6 years of American occupation after World War II. From Hirohito to MacArthur, democracy and emperor worship, writing a new constitution, war crimes and guilt; this book explained prevailing sentiments and consequences of decisions made high and low.

Why I started it: I'm trying to learn more about the history and culture of Japan. I was eager to pick up a book about the Japanese perspective and experience starting
56% of the way through and I give up - the book is so dry, I can't bear to finish it. It reads as a collection of essays placed end-to-end, which in my opinion is the worst way to write about history. The amount of research and work that has gone into the book is regardless very impressive, and a staggering achievement, but I just cannot read it, which is a shame as it is a subject I dearly wish to learn more about.
Dec 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Winner of the National Book Award. John W. Dower is a named history professor @MIT, Japanologist, Japanophile. Won a slew of slightly less prestigious awards; wrote a Yoshida Shigeru biography. (Yoshida was from an old samurai family; had American contacts before the war, and after the defeat, was installed by the Allied Command as 'rehabilitated' and anti-Communist.)

Embracing Defeat is very tightly, elegantly written. explains culture of "decadence/defeat = kyodats
Dec 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, history, japan
A compelling and thorough examination of the Occupation of Japan after World War II. The Americans initially focussed on making Japan a functioning, stable democracy and on eliminating its capacity to wage war. By the end of the Occupation, those goals had largely been abandoned in favour of making Japan a stable ally and client state in the fight against communism. Whereas making Japan a more egalitarian country, strengthening labour, breaking up concentrations of wealth and power, restoring th ...more
Sep 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
John Dower's comprehensive study of the years during which the Japanese lived under American-led occupation is undoubtedly the masterwork from which many PhD studies have derived. It's a fascinating account of a devastated people wrestling with Japan's responsibility for the horrors that occurred before and during WWII's conflicts in the Pacific.

There's too much here to describe in detail. I'll highlight some points that I found particularly intriguing and capstone them with a general observatio
Jun 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Dower has put together a great book on postwar Japan, which will undoubtedly remian definitive for quite a while. He smoothly interweaves different historical narratives of post-war Japan. He looks first at the social history, and uses that to build the political issues. His idea is that for a while Japan was a vibrant democracy and had all of those leanings. It was the paradox of revolution on high by the Americans, and the oncoming of the Cold War that killed the larger movement toward a freer ...more
Gavin Smith
To anyone thinking of writing a book about modern Japan, especially if your central argument is predicated on Japan's 'unique-ness', borne of some kind of 'Edo vacuum', whether you are arguing that Japan is uniquely 'good' or uniquely 'bad', I strongly urge you to read Embracing Defeat first. A fitting alternative title for John W. Dower's book could be Modern Japan: How It Got That Way. I have long found it frustrating that writing about Japan usually starts from an assumption that the country ...more
Mar 31, 2011 rated it did not like it
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John W. Dower is the author of Embracing Defeat, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; War without Mercy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Cultures of War. He is professor emeritus of history at MIT. In addition to authoring many books and articles about Japan and the United States in war and peace, he is a founder and codirector of the online “Visualizing ...more

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“For all their talk of democracy, the conquerors worked hard to engineer consensus; and on many critical issues, they made clear that the better part of political wisdom was silence and conformism. So well did they succeed in reinforcing this consciousness that after they left, and time passed, many non-Japanese including Americans came to regard such attitudes as peculiarly Japanese.” 3 likes
“The occupation of Japan was the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as “the white man’s burden.”2” 2 likes
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