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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

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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 photographs, Embracing Defeat is the fullest and most important history of the more than six years of American occupation, which affected every level of Japanese society, often in ways neither side could anticipate. Dower, whom Stephen E. Ambrose has called "America's foremost historian of the Second World War in the Pacific," gives us the rich and turbulent interplay between West and East, the victor and the vanquished, in a way never before attempted, from top-level manipulations concerning the fate of Emperor Hirohito to the hopes and fears of men and women in every walk of life. Already regarded as the benchmark in its field, Embracing Defeat is a work of colossal scholarship and history of the very first order.

676 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1999

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About the author

John W. Dower

35 books111 followers
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 Cultures” project established at MIT in 2002 and dedicated to the presentation of image-driven scholarship on East Asia in the modern world. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Profile Image for Matt.
918 reviews28.2k followers
February 1, 2020
“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 books about the Second World War’s Pacific Theater, I will be the first to admit that my studies have – for the most part – ended with the twin atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that, a gap appears in my knowledge, a gap that doesn’t really end until the Korean War picks up in 1950.

Now, I’m not entirely ignorant. It’s just that my understanding is made up of bits and pieces, of half-comprehended fragments. Obviously, I know that Japan was occupied by the United States. I also know that the occupation was dominated by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), Douglas MacArthur, playing the role for which he was born (to wit: God). This thin grasp has left me with the impression that the occupation was a net positive, bringing Japan back into the family of nations after embarking on a series of murderous endeavors beginning as far back as 1931. When we think of Japan today, the ghosts of Nanking are mostly absent, having been replaced by Japan’s status as a place of peace, of technological innovation, and of economic robustness.

When I went looking for a book to provide a fuller, more complete story, I did not have to search long or hard. John Dower’s Embracing Defeat is the history on postwar Japan. Dower is a noted historian of the Pacific War, and Embracing Defeat is his opus. Published in 1999, it cleaned up on the literary awards circuit, winning both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. At 576 pages of text (and 83 pages of annotated endnotes), it strives for comprehensiveness. The ambition is admirable, but ultimately self-defeating. Embracing Defeat is a very good volume that – to paraphrase Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring – gets stretched, “like butter scraped over too much bread.”

In structuring this tale, the most obvious thing Dower could have done was sort the material chronologically, resting the narrative on the shoulders of the larger-than-life MacArthur. This would not have made for an uninteresting book. MacArthur, to quote one of his biographers, “was a thundering paradox of a man,” as endlessly fascinating as any other historical figure who ever lived. More than that, many of his impulses as SCAP were correct (even if Dower might disagree), and he left Japan as a hero to many.

But Dower is not interested in making this MacArthur’s story (or rather, another in a long line of MacArthur stories). To his credit, he aims to write from the perspective of the Japanese. His goal – as impossible as it sounds – is to distill a traumatic national experience. Dower tries to imagine what it felt like to go from being the ascendant conqueror to being utterly vanquished. He attempts to describe what it was like to have a foreign culture try to remake your own. We know that Japan managed to survive, and eventually thrive, with many of its cities in ashes, and millions of its people dead. Dower tries to explain this process.

The upshot of leaving MacArthur mostly on the sidelines (I do not mean to imply that he is not present, because he is, and has to be; he just isn’t the center of attention), is that Dower takes a subject-matter oriented approach. Rather than follow a strict timeline, each individual chapter – which is further broken into numerous subsections – discusses a particular topic or theme.

In my experience, thematically-arranged books can sometimes lack consistency, because certain focal areas are more interesting than others. This holds true in this case. For me, the best parts of Embracing Defeat came early, when Dower describes the “ordinary” lives of the Japanese living in the aftermath of nuclear destruction, fire-bombings, and the realization that the world held them responsible for the deaths of untold millions. The scenes of near-famine are startling, while the repatriation of millions of defeated soldiers – and the way they were received – is fascinating. Equally good is Dower’s description of the drafting of the 1946 Constitution, written by a committee from SCAP headquarters over the course of a week. Dower has a lot of issues with the document, but it has endured. Dower also makes a rather forceful argument for the war-guilt of Emperor Hirohito, who was protected by SCAP and allowed to remain as a symbolic presence, even as the U.S. attempted to democratize Japan.

Dower is a fine writer, leavening his prose with a dry, understated wit. This style is particularly suited for the inevitable clash of cultures as East met West. This material can be pretty heavy, so it’s nice when Dower can find the humor in an entrepreneur who published a runaway bestseller by rushing a Japanese-English phrasebook into print.

There is a vast array of topics here, and not every chapter is equally absorbing. For example, I found my mind starting to wander a bit during Dower’s esoteric discussion of obscure Japanese writers and poets. More troubling, at least to me, is that Dower has an idiosyncratic notion of the relative weight to be given to the various issues that are covered. This was especially striking with regard to the economy. When I cracked these covers, I was interested in how Japan’s bureaucratic capitalism came into being. Economic issues, though, are mostly skimmed at the end of the book, in a fifteen page chapter. Meanwhile, Dower devotes twenty-seven pages to America’s censorship of Japanese books, cartoons, and films. To me, that’s a bit lopsided.

More troubling is Dower’s tone. By channeling the Japanese viewpoint, Dower has created a sympathetic portrait. That, in and of itself, is certainly not a bad thing. The problem, though, is that this postwar panorama tends to forget the precipitating events that led to America’s occupation in the first place. Obviously, Dower had no room – in an already cramped book – to even begin to summarize the massive cataclysm of World War II. Yet this reality, combined with Dower’s predisposition, tends to be unfair to the Allies in general, and the United States in particular.

The trajectory of Japanese historiography has been ineluctably altered by the triple convulsions of Fat Man and Little Boy, the fall of China to the Communists, and the outbreak of the Korean War. Without these three events, we would remember Japanese war crimes and outrages with far more clarity and emotion. Instead, WWII-era Japan is as much victim as victimizer. Japan is now a valued friend, while former Allies such as China and Russia (formerly the USSR) have become outright antagonists.

Dower’s bias in this regard is revealed in his discussion of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Since the day of its conception, the IMTFE has been a target of elite opinion. Dower mimics the tired accusation that the so-called Tokyo Trials amounted to “victor’s justice.” In doing so, he – like other IMTFE critics – fails to answer the question that is begged: With what would you have replaced the IMTFE? Does he support “loser’s justice,��� wherein there is a high-level conference serving milkshakes and cookies, after which all is forgiven and everyone goes home? Is Dower saying that Tojo should have been allowed to retire to his estate, or even run for the Diet?

It’s interesting to me that seventy-five years after World War II, we are still hunting down elderly and decrepit Nazis, as though they can somehow pay for their sins. We all remember the evils of Nazism. But what about the search for Japanese war criminals? Suffice to say, the last Class A war criminal was released after approximately eleven years in jail, a sentence to which a petty thief in Florida might respond: Hold my beer.

(Dower himself has cited statistics showing that as many as fifteen million Chinese were killed by the Japanese. China itself insists on eighteen million civilian deaths, along with four million military deaths. I get that China’s fall to Communism has skewed the record, and that America officially stopped caring after Chiang fled to Taiwan. But if those figures are anywhere near correct, it’s more than double the Holocaust).

Back in 1986, in War Without Mercy, Dower mentioned working on the project that would turn into Embracing Defeat. At that time, he was sanguine about the cooperation between victor and vanquished, between West and East, between the U.S. and Japan.

Now, all Dower can see are the imperfections. Embracing Defeat spends a lot of time criticizing the U.S. occupations, often regarding things that are strikingly minor, considering the circumstances. Dower’s belaboring of censorship, to take one example, is sort of laughable compared to Japan’s own wartime censorship, backed by the Kempeitai (when they came for you, it wasn’t with a black pen).

The occupation of a “great power” is sort of a massive undertaking, making it difficult to judge. It just so happens, though, that there are a number of other occupations by which the U.S. occupation can be compared. It also happens that they occurred almost contemporaneously. First, there is Germany, which incorporated vast swaths of Europe into its dominion, an event that – you might have heard – included death camps, slave labor camps, murder squads, and sick medical experiments. Second, there is Japan itself, which killed millions of people, enslaved hundreds of thousands more, raped on an industrial scale, and also performed sick medical experiments. A less extreme example comes from the USSR, whose dominion over Eastern Europe was not exactly benign.

Dower does not recognize how bad it could have been. He is so busy tabulating all the things that went wrong, that he never acknowledges anything that went right. Sure, there were mistakes, there was ineptitude, there was the imposition of beliefs, and there was – especially on MacArthur’s part – no shortage of condescension. On the other hand, there was also idealism, munificence, and mercy.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
January 21, 2018


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 continued. Millions of returning soldiers and civilians from China and Korea added to the problem.

Hovering over all this, chameleon-like, is the Emperor Hirohito. Due to his reverence by the Japanese people he was spared of any involvement in causing and making war. War against China in Manchuria that started in 1931, a vicious racist war in China proper that started in 1937, and the war in the Pacific and Southeast Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia...) that commenced in December of 1941.

Hirohito managed to transfer himself from the head of the Imperial Japanese Army to become the Emperor of peace and a new Japan that was to have non-militarism as a basis of government. There were many outside Japan that put him in the same category as Hitler and Tojo (and there were some who thought that way in Japan too).

Douglas MacArthur was now the new supreme leader of the U.S. occupation forces in Japan. His main concern was to protect the Emperor from any type of tarnishment as a war leader. He went so far as to tell all the Japanese being prosecuted as war criminals to deny (lie) of Hirohito’s culpability in the war. MacArthur feared that if Hirohito were removed from the throne, Japan would descend into chaos. There is truth in this; many Japanese revered the Emperor as a deity. On a few occasions Hirohito considered abdicating, MacArthur told him not to.

Hirohito tried to humanize himself by emulating the British monarchy and going out amongst his people now and then. He never did deny that he was a deity, keeping some of his God-like aura.

Page 278 (my book)
Hirohito was also, as it turned out, resilient and malleable, blessed by the heavens – and by General MacArthur more particularly – to survive and prosper, while all around him, his loyal subjects were denounced, purged, charged with war crimes, even executed. The emperor’s role in Japan’s aggression was never seriously investigated. He was dissuaded by the Americans from acknowledging even moral responsibility for the repression and violence that had been carried out in his name and with his endorsement... the occupation authorities chose not merely to detach the emperor from his holy war, but to resuscitate him to the center of their new democracy...if the nations supreme secular and spiritual authority bore no responsibility, why should his ordinary subjects be expected to engage in self-reflection?

Page 179
Renovation and iconoclasm [in Japan] were strains as deeply embedded in consciousness as were the reverence for the past or acquiescence to the powers that be. For almost a century the Japanese had been socialized to anticipate and accommodate themselves to drastic change. When World War II ended, they were well prepared – not merely by the horrors and manifest failure of the war, but also by socialization of the past and even the psychic thrust of wartime indoctrination – to carry on the quest for a “new” Japan. In other words, it was entirely “traditional” to find pundits gathering soon after the surrender to engage in a “roundtable discussion” on “changing the world”. What changed, and drastically so, was how men and women now chose to define what that new world should be like.

The occupation caused a tremendous overhaul of Japanese society. When the Japanese government modified their constitution the Americans said “not good enough”. So a small U.S. staff worked to make a new, much more liberal constitution. It granted equal rights to women (something the U.S. constitution does not do), it allowed trade unions, educational reform, removed patriarchy, allowed more freedom... During the occupation there was an astounding growth of new periodicals, newspapers, movies, and new radio shows. Political prisoners, mostly communist or left-wing, were released from prison.

But there were restrictions, no criticism of the occupation forces or the Emperor was permitted. The author discusses how this lack of freedom to “question” the role of the Emperor and the emasculation of a “free press” led the Japanese readily to see themselves as victims, but not as victimizers. The top military cadre was blamed for the defeat – and the Emperor was removed from that clique. Also when China became communist in 1949 the Japanese atrocities in China became more and more overlooked. Communism was now the new enemy and Japan was needed as a buffer to stop the advancement of Soviet and Chinese forces. This also made the U.S. side with the right-wing in Japan.

This is a comprehensive examination of many aspects of Japan after the war. And it was then that the great Japanese companies like Toyota, Sony, and Nikon started to build up their vision of a future far different than what had recently occurred. Japan is obviously a country that is able to re-invent itself.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
191 reviews136 followers
August 21, 2022
"After the defeat we became distrustful of the grownups around us, and felt the true way of living existed in the opposite of whatever they said. We came to believe that revolution and love were the best and most delicious things in this life, and because they are such good things grownups perversely lied." - Dazai Osamu, 'The Setting Sun' 1947

"We say defeated, defeated, but I don't think that's so. We've been ruined. Destroyed. [From one corner to the other the country of Japan is occupied, and every single one of us is a captive.] People who don't find this is shameful are fools." - Dazai Osamu (bracketed words censored by US military)


John W. Dower won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for this history of postwar Japan, in an attempt to see the occupation and reordering of society and polity from the viewpoint of the vanquished. Dower begins with the Hirohito radio address declaring an end to the war without admitting responsibility or defeat. Japan attacked and invaded for its survival and the liberation of Asia, not for aggression or aggrandizement. He now sought peace for humanitarian reasons, to save the world from nuclear devastation, asking the nation to make sacrifices along with his own, as he remained on the throne.

Dower describes the vast destruction in Japan and millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians spread through Asia and the Pacific. General MacArthur and American occupation forces were greeted by anger, joy, grief and relief as the displaced were repatriated to refugee camps. Veterans returned from futile and fanatic campaigns, embittered towards those who led them and shunned by others for losing. Atrocity reports followed them home. Widows, orphans and homeless were ostracized. Black markets, prostitutes and crime proliferated as imperialist politicians swiftly switched to liberal parties.

An American revolution came from above and communists released from Japanese prisons and endoctrinated POW's from Soviet camps briefly praised defeat of the old guard, but democracy by fiat and freedom under martial law were inherent contradictions. During the occupation of 1945-52 war crime trials were held for military leaders and ministers. A constitution drafted by US lawyers guaranteed freedom of speech, religion and human rights, renouncing prerogatives to wage war. Purges evolved from military officers who were banned from public office to communists as cold war began.

Agrarian land reform and labor laws became a part of the Supreme Command's purview. The large banking-industrial monopolies known as zaibatsu were broken up by antitrust actions. It was a sweeping program to uproot the oligarchy who supported the war, as mass disarmament campaigns destroyed weapons and planes. Universal suffrage and equal protection for women shattered social conventions. Nation building, on a scale not seen before or after, was a source of anguish for conservative elites and hope in former subjects. It was seen as a boon granted by a new emperor, MacArthur.

Starvation was alleviated by aid shipments but hobbled by profiteers as people ate rodents and insects. Industrialists, politicians and military officers got rich while inflation and unemployment went off the scale. Disease was rampant, multiple families crowded into shacks. Alcoholism and drug abuse were widespread, robbery and murder commonplace. In time criminals and prostitutes were organized into yakuza gangs. People endured in misery, perhaps as a retribution for the misery caused by the war. Wartime myths of a unique racial and cultural harmony crashed into the postwar reality.

The day before surrender military funds and supplies were diverted to private hands, more than the annual budget. The Bank of Japan made massive loans to military contractors, emptying its coffers before the allies arrived, as documents went up in smoke. Echoing Korean comfort women, state sponsored brothels were set up to service the arriving army and protect others chastity. It was ended in six months by occupation authorities as a violation of human rights, but prostitution persisted. Open air black markets sold all things from foodstuffs to industrial materials looted by the army.

Sexual commercialization took on western pop forms of pulp magazines, hollywood movies, strip shows and chorus lines. Along with the counterculture English loan words accrued. Writers repudiated tradition, espousing decadence. War was an illusion and defeat the human condition; a national body was superseded by the individual body. Marital relationships became more egalitarian, compared to the roles women had played prior to war. Factories retooled from machine guns to sewing machines, businesses arose catering to G.I.'s. People looked foward to a bright future, a new start from the past.

The top down approach of American reformers succeeded in dramatically transforming the status quo. MacArthur became a popular figure, although he rarely left headquarters and met only a handful of Japanese leaders. Engineering all facets of society from media to banks, schools, hospitals, libraries and government required an army of experts and a million G.I.'s. Mid level officers lived in upper class homes spared from the Tokyo fire bombing with staffs of servants. Relationships developed between conqueror and conquered, democracy and freedom learned to be loved on command.

While Americans lived in their colonial enclaves criticism was forbidden to the press and extraterritorial laws applied. The occupation resembled older forms of racial supremacy visited on the east by the west. MacArthur's command was a military bureaucracy, not unlike that of Hirohito. Rule was made through existing state organs requiring support of the throne. A pivot from monkey-man war propaganda and the detention of a 120,000 Japanese-Americans seemed to be needed. Democracy deemed impossible in Japan, the best that could be hoped for would be constitutional monarchy.

Culture viewed conformist by the west was a traditional mix of manners and morals in the east and yet the resistance to reforms by average Japanese was much less than expected. Catastrophic defeat made many question the system that had brought it. Intellectuals went further, calling for socialism or communism, left of where the Americans had desired to go. After the Chinese revolution and the Korean war it would be time to fetter freedom, but before then the militarists were forced to resign from newsrooms and universities. Women won national elections and labor unions organized strikes.

International opinion grew in Allied and Asian countries to stage a war crimes trial of the emperor. The decision not to hold Hirohito accountable made it difficult for others to feel responsible and his retention complicated ideas of popular sovereignty. Wartime analysts had determined he would be useful later and propagandists created fictions he had been tricked and betrayed by gangster militarists. In order to save lives and maintain their control Allies planned to depend on blind obedience to the emperor. Royalist cronies argued all of Japan bore guilt for the defeat with the exception of Hirohito.

The Allies and the Imperial House collaborated on a rescript, renouncing divinity of the emperor and racial superiority, as Shinto religion was separated from the state. Hirohito was hailed in the US, a hero and leader of democratic reform, and seen as a bulwark against communism. Both the court and cabinet discussed his abdication, but MacArthur would have none of it. Princes who had been politicians and generals in the war were absolved, including those involved in atrocities. Trials were held through 1948 for crimes against peace and humanity. The emperor resolved to remain on the throne.

After months of proposals from the government and political parties for a revised constitution, MacArthur issued a memo outlining three principles and ordered the army to write it up in a week. His tenets were to preserve the emperor, proscribe the military and end feudalism. With Hirohito's endorsement it was adopted into law although conservatives were aghast. He toured each prefect and endeared himself to the nation. Prior to surrender he never spoke in public and was rarely seen. Preservation of the emperor, no longer a sovereign, made the constitution acceptable to both polity and people.

With values of freedom came a strict censorship. Criticism of MacArthur and the Americans was excised from newspapers, radio and theater. As Tokyo trials proceeded highly ranked officials were imprisoned or executed, eventually thousands across Asia and the Pacific. Charges of judicial idealism and victor's justice contributed to a later neo-nationalism. Many imagined drumhead court martials and firing squads rather than lengthy legal battles. Allies were enraged over abuse of prisoners, the most common conviction. In Manchuria lethal medical experiments had killed three thousand captives. The director was co-opted by the CIA and his research resumed.

In the cold war charges against high profile capitalists and bureaucrats were dropped. The communists now a concern, occupation forces aligned with the right wing. Politicians who were purged returned to public office. The radical left became censored and removed from their positions of power. European victors attempted to re-establish rule in SE Asia, nuclear arms races ensued while war erupted again in Korea. MacArthur bowed out as Americans re-armed their former enemy. Japan's disasterous downfall would be rivaled by a miraculous recovery as Hirohito visited presidents and kings.

This book was meticulously researched by Dower, a Harvard Ph.D in Japanese history and language. Since then he was a professor in California State and an emeritus historian at MIT. It’s not weighed down by a ponderous academic style. Dower enlivens the text with photos and stories from the news and popular culture of the period, balanced by the political and economic facts. Arranged by topic, individual sections follow a timeline. Dower may be better read after 'Hirohito' by Herbert Bix, his fellow alumni and Pulitzer winner, a biography and political history of WWII Japan.
Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews308 followers
June 17, 2015
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 most as their homes easily fed the huge fires from incendiary bombings. And Japanese culture exacerbated the plight of the already disadvantaged. Those who had lost their families, including children, were shunned, as were the many women who no longer had a man. Returning soldiers were looked on as failures and brutes as their atrocities became known. Returning enlisted men took reprisals on their former officers for the abusive way they had been treated during the war.

Hunger, lack of housing and poverty persisted for years after the war ended, leaving a widespread feeling of despair and victimization. People lived packed together in old train stations and shantytowns. Just finding a time and place to go to the bathroom was difficult. The search for food alone could occupy half of a person’s time. People sold whatever they had including their bodies just for food. Prostitution proliferated to service the hundreds of thousands of American GIs. Many women found this the only way to get by. Crime was rampant. The black market was endemic not only providing necessities but American goods often procured from GIs.

To alleviate this deprivation, Mac Arthur and the US administrators did little; rather they focused on demilitarization, prosecuting war criminals and democratization. The prevailing power structures in both government and industry were broken up. Authority was decentralized. Statements supporting war and subservience to the state were stricken from school texts and replaced with statements extolling democracy. Elections were held and woman given the right to vote, something unthinkable before. Japanese society was to be radically changed.

MacArthur was the new autocratic leader of Japan. He kept aloof from the populace only dealing with a few top leaders. American Japan experts and those who spoke Japanese were considered tainted and excluded from MacArthur’s staff. However China experts were welcome, their views shaped by Japanese atrocities in China. American administrators lived in “Little America” set in one of the few undamaged sectors of Tokyo. They lived a life unimaginable for most in the US in refurbished large houses replete with Japanese servants. The administrators were instructed in what passed for psychology at the time. They were told that the Japanese were a people that conformed to a herd mentality requiring authoritarian rule; that not all Japanese were “monkey men” and they could be made to be almost like a regular person, a John Doe, however they called the Japanese version “Joe Nip.” MacArthur’s staff looked askance at their wards with these preconceived notions.

Ordinary Japanese looked on MacArthur as a father figure who had freed them from oppression and brought freedom. The intellectual community’s response was more complex. Most had been complicit with the military regime and thus had lost respect of the people. However, the communists now had credibility for having defied the emperor; freed from jail they began espousing their cause. They saw democracy within the confines of Marxist doctrine.

Communism appealed to many citizens. Labor unions began organizing with strong communist backing. GHQ (US General Headquarters) and SCAP (Supreme Command for the Allied Powers) became alarmed at communist influence and the emperor was seen as useful in combating its rise. Demonstrations became organized culminating in one of 250,000 called “Food May Day” in 1946. As the Communists gained political power, GHQ organized the “Red Purge” in 1948. By 1949 GHQ had weeded out many thousands of activists from labor and the Japanese government. Conservative Japanese leaders would now hold power for the rest of the century.

Since MacArthur deemed the emperor necessary to lead the “herd”, Hirohito’s image had to be separated from those of leaders who would be held responsible for the war. As 1946 began war criminals were identified for prosecution. While the emperor’s former prime minister and closest adviser were included, the emperor was not. The emperor’s involvement in the war was kept hidden. MacArthur intervened ensuring damaging testimony against the emperor would not be presented. Back in the states many were calling for Hirohito’s scalp, but MacArthur cabled army Chief of Staff Eisenhower that Japan would disintegrate without the emperor. He claimed the emperor was essential if the US didn’t want to have to bring in more troops and administer the country directly. Washington deferred.

GHQ began an information campaign to purify the emperor and vilify his former cohorts. The new Japanese leadership concurred in this strategy. SCAP advised the emperor and Japanese supporters on how to proceed. They dressed the publicly awkward Hirohito in civilian garb and sent him on tours to meet the people to humanize him in a public relations campaign. MacArthur even called the emperor “sir” which he called no one else. The emperor had gone from god to mortal, from leader of a holy war to a symbol of democracy. Many Japanese especially ex-servicemen felt betrayed, believing the emperor should accept responsibility for the country’s destruction and that he should share their own plight.

Next came writing a new constitution. Discarding a conservative Japanese government draft, GHQ wrote one in secret in a week with three values provided by MacArthur: The emperor symbolically leads the country; Japan stays completely demilitarized; peerage is abandoned and a parliamentary democratic system is established. GHQ threatened to have a referendum on it if the government did not accept it. The government adopted it with minor changes in 1947. Unlike prior documents this was translated into simple Japanese. Booklets explained the law to the populace who generally accepted it.

GHQ established an extensive censorship program. At its height, the Civil Censorship Detachment had a staff of 6,000. Censored were all books and magazines, major daily newspapers, brochures, pamphlets, movies and thousands of radio scripts. Hundreds of thousands of private phone calls were monitored. Over 300 million pieces of mail were spot checked. Foreign materials were censored before they could be distributed. Prohibited was any defense of the Japanese war or war criminals, disparaging remarks about America, its war conduct including the atomic bombing, its occupation or its allies or the reconstituted Hirohito. Any reference to censorship itself was also prohibited. The 1946 John Hersey novel, Hiroshima, a best seller in America, was not allowed in Japanese until 1949. Even Tolstoy’s War and Peace was reviewed before being allowed in translation. Japan was being isolated from much of what was widely available in America and the rest of the world. Communist and leftist rhetoric was targeted particularly after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Left leaning media outlets were shut down, accompanied by a massive purge of “ultra-leftists” from Japanese media, government, labor and business.

The Japanese version of the Nuremburg trials, the Tokyo Tribunal started in May 1946. Unlike Nuremburg it had eleven judges from many different countries, most of which suffered Japanese atrocities in the war. Only a simple majority was required to convict. The defendants, all former leaders, were accused of “crimes against peace”. In late 1948, a majority decision sentenced seven to the gallows, sixteen to life, one to twenty years and one to seven. Those receiving death sentences were hung, the rest were all released by 1956. Who was indicted was often arbitrary as many ostensibly equally guilty were ignored, most notably the emperor protected by GHQ.

Most Japanese were concerned with who lost the war not the war’s impact on foreigners. The Japanese felt guilty because their family members, their countrymen died in vain. The immensity of their country’s atrocities made it difficult to honor fallen or returning servicemen. Again this was not so much out of sympathy for the victims as it was a loss of respect for the perpetrators and the long shadow they had cast over all of Japanese society. The search for reasons for the loss of the war found an “acceptable” answer, science. The Japanese saw themselves as too technologically backward to have won. America had the atomic bomb, clear evidence of the importance of technical superiority. Thus moral, structural and political failures of Japanese society could be ignored with this simple one word answer. This answer led to Japan’s focus on high tech following the occupation. Science wasn’t the only answer offered. Leftist’s blamed failed leadership and capitalism in a Marxist take on the war. Perhaps the most fascinating answer was philosopher Hajime Tanabe’s Metanoetics. Tanabe, who had studied with Heidegger in Germany, combined the Buddhist concept of “absolute nothingness” with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He believed neither war nor any other pursuit of hegemony or riches could solve Japan’s problems. Only each individual deriving meaning from reflection on everyday life would build a better society, not striving for glory and rewards. Tanabe was influential, but Japan embraced the first answer, science, and its incumbent rewards.

MacArthur and America’s occupation became less idealistic and more pragmatic by 1949 with the fall of China, the Korean War, and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. In what was tagged in Japan as the “reverse course”, SCAP supported right wing conservative leaders and dropped charges against suspected war criminals. As America anticipated the need to rearm Japan to fight communism, it gave up on establishing a pure democracy. Supplying the American war effort in Korea with what were called “special procurements” reignited Japan’s economy. SCAP had idled much of Japanese industry when it broke up the consortium of family owned large corporations known as zaibatsu. This had kept the economy from recovering, but Americans felt the Japanese were getting what they deserved. The silver lining was the opening for many smaller companies. Some went on to make it big, for example, Nikon, Canon, Honda, Sony and Komatsu. The large banks were not broken up. They became the basis for the new Japanese industrial oligarchy known as keiretsu. The American occupation left a legacy of centralization and government implementation of economic policy. Now the keiretsu and government led by American favored conservative capitalists could work hand in hand to plan Japan’s economic revival.

Dower’s book was at times fascinating and at times a bit of a slog, but it was definitely worthwhile with three themes I found important. First it helped clear up misconceptions about the Japanese people and their culture. Common are racist views from cruel and heartless based on WWII atrocities to conformist and blindly loyal. Dower shows these easy characterizations to be superficial. The Japanese appear much more diverse and complex with behavior dictated by their circumstances. Second, the book said much about American foreign policy - arrogant, alternately idealistic and opportunistic. MacArthur’s autocratic administration shifted goals quickly to reflect America’s political imperatives of the moment. An altruistic effort to establish democracy gave way to pragmatism and the red scare. Instead of a bastion of peace Japan was now expected to be an arsenal in the fight against global communism. Japan became a pawn in America’s game. American expediency overrode moral values, just what America saw in Japan before the war. Third, Dower showed how the occupation led to the Japanese miracle of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The family owned zaibatsu were dismantled a new more efficient oligarchy, the keiretsu, established. Building on an occupational legacy of centralized economic direction, government and industry could now work closely together without the need to fund a large military. This led to the well-coordinated economic trajectory that took a decimated country to one that would dominate world markets with products from Toyota cars to Sony electronics.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
April 15, 2019
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 went awry however. Their modern project ultimately led the Japanese to become colonialists just like the Westerners whose civilization they had seemingly mastered. This led them into a campaign of aggressive war and genocide directed mainly against their Asian neighbors. This project came to a horrifying end in the atomic explosions that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering in a new Japan in their wake.

This book is the story of Japan after those explosions. The United States occupied the country as de facto military rulers until 1952. Between 1945 and 1952 no Japanese were even allowed to travel outside their borders. The Americans instituted a very strange regime. On one hand, they were almost as atavistic in their behavior as medieval conquerors. They unleashed themselves on Japanese women in the crudest manner possible. The legacy of this sexual conquest and the perceived emasculation of the Japanese men they had just faced on the battlefield continues to color the U.S.-Japan relationship. The arrogant, frankly racist attitudes of ordinary Americans towards the defeated Japanese were in evidence all over the conquered country. I feel in some sense this reflected a desire to put an emboldened Asian people back in their place. The Americans truly lived as conquerors with the Japanese as their servants. The crushing poverty and exploitation of Japan during the U.S. occupation was shocking. Living as a defeated person means cramming into a full subway car while a spacious one nearby sits vacant, reserved for the new rulers. It means being a domestic worker in the luxurious home of your conqueror while your own people starve for lack of food. This was Japan during the postwar years.

At the same time, by destroying the old militaristic Japanese order the Americans unleashed the economic energies of the country in the long-term. The Japanese are undoubtedly a gifted people. And the Americans, for all their contempt, had not come to permanently enslave them. Once it became clear that the Cold War was about to kick off with Communist China and Russia nearby, Japan was recast as an important bulwark. The Americans helped put the new Japan on its feet and on the path to becoming the economic powerhouse that it was for the rest of the century. While its growth has faltered tremendously, Japan remains a modern and developed country. Anyone who has visited can attest that for all its structural flaws it remains an impressive society. The U.S. military regime set in place lasting structures and practices, some good and some troubling.

I was astonished by this book. The suffering of the postwar Japanese was almost unfathomable. Even more interesting from an ideological standpoint was the disillusionment over the cult of the Emperor after the war. The "holy war" had been fought in the name of a God-King, Hirohito, who ruled Japan as its living divine monarch descended from the Sun God, Amaterasu. After the war ended in defeat, people were stunned and heartbroken, dazed and furious. I will never forget the story of Watanabe Kiyoshi, one of the millions of young men who had fought and seen his comrades die on behalf of the Emperor, only to be filled with disgust and rage at the monarch's postwar kowtowing to the U.S. occupation. What had all that death and waste been for? The ideology of Imperial Japan reminds me much of the apocalyptism of ISIS and similar groups — both obsessed with divine empire building and rushing to a glorious death.

Judge Radhabinod Pal was one of those who stood in judgement at the Tokyo War Crime Tribunals. He and even many of the Americans who took part felt the whole proceeding to be an exercise in victors justice. The war against Japan had been a race war par excellence, on both sides. The Japanese had committed heinous war crimes. But no one could deny the American atrocities staring them back in the face, the evidence lying in the smoldering cities of Japan that had once been full of quotidian life. Americans like Bonner Fellers who both loved and loathed Japan played an important role in the country's remaking, as did the singular General Douglas MacArthur. I was undeniably impressed with the competence, confidence and forward-thinking attitude displayed by these men, truly stewards of a powerful empire. Having said that, most of the Americans based in Japan during the occupation however did not think much. They simply enjoyed the benefits that have accrued to conquerors in a conquered land since time immemorial.

This is riveting history of the type that you seldom come across, from a true scholar of Japan. Over 600 pages the book was an absolute page-turner, even to a lay reader such as myself. I will definitely seek out Dowers other book on race in the Pacific War, a subject of which there were strong allusions to in this excellent work.
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews673 followers
March 5, 2019

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

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Profile Image for Stefania Dzhanamova.
525 reviews307 followers
October 25, 2020
In his brilliantly researched work, John Dower narrates Japan's experience of defeat and occupation at the end of WWII from the Japanese point of view. The book examines the hopes, visions, and dreams, as well as the despair and exhaustion, of the defeated country and its people as they sought to remake their identity and and values in the aftermath of the war. Dower places the motley array of Japanese contradictious responses – guilt and liberation, selective forgetting, old disillusions and new hopes – against the background of an American occupation, which according to him, was at once high-minded and visionary, arrogant and imperalist.

Central to the work are three intertwined political issues whose resolution would highly affect Japan's post-war course – the emperor, the constitution and democratization, and the war crime tribunals. In discussing these, Dower also offers new cultural and social perspectives on Japan and the Japanese-American relationship, dismissing many stereotypes.

Dower begins his cultural history with the anguish of physically and materially "shattered lives" at the end of the Second World War, and graphically captures all the shock, exhaustion, and devastation. He vividly conveys the loss and confusion the Japanese experienced, the huge scale of social displacement, "food-wretchedness", and missing people. However, aside from the economic and social mysery, Dower also shows the transformative effects of defeat: the Japanese began reshaping their future identity and discovering new aspirations. He tackles this topic at three levels.

Firstly, Dower studies the "bridges of language", revealing that some of the pre-war language was emptied of its old meanings and re-filled with new ones, "like so many suitcases." Those linguistic bridges, he explains, were ways of escaping the past. Yet, words and phrases also carried past resonances too, and the possibility to move on coexisted with the temptation to cross back.

Secondly, he studies "the subcultures of defeat." For example, he argues that the world of prostitution under the occupation was both an arena of sexual exploitation and a channel for the development of interracial affection and the undermining of old racial stereotypes. Likewise, a new urban "demimonde" introduced nihilism and hardship into lifestyles of deliberate decadence, and flourishing authors of pulp literature began to challenge traditional social and gender roles. Here, Dower successfully captures "the bittersweet ambiance of life on the margins in a defeated land."

Thirdly, the author studies what he calls "the virtuoso turnabout" of the Japanese intelligentsia in embracing democratization. Before and during the war, the Japanese state had seduced or cowered intellectuals into supporting militarism with a remarkable degree of success – almost no opposing intelligentsia remained. The sudden post-war conversion could be viewed as hypocrisy. Yet, Dower paints a more complex picture. On one hand, the intelligentsia associated the new ideas with those of the 1920s, with the past before the rise of the militaristic regime. On the other hand, remorse was a serious factor. According to Dower, it might, for instance, have provoked the remarkable transformation of Japanese teachers from "drill sergeants of emperial system orthodoxy" to fervent guardians of the new democracy.

Aside from relating the socio-cultural transformations of Japan, John Dower also presents the early American occupation, which emerges in his book as the boldest attempt to refashion another society as a democratic nation ever made. "Initially," writes Dower, "the Americans imposed a root-and-branch agenda of 'demilitarization and democratization' that was in every sense a remarkable display of arrogance idealism." Drawing upon plenty of archival, documentary, and public sources, he highlights the arrogance and blunders of MacArthur, who appears to be larger-than-life, just like in the iconic photo of him towering over a subservient Hirohito.
Dower's work also effectively shows the hybrid character of the occupation. While MacArthur ruled with the absolute authority of a military dictator who suffered no criticism, the Japanese people, from the highest levels of imperial and state power to the grassroots, still managed to shape many of the outcomes, whether by reinforcing or by subtly subverting the plans of their American rulers.

Emperor Hirohito attracts Dower's attention with his elusiveness, and the author sets out to dispel the long cultivated myth of Hirohito as a passive figure. For example, he points out to the emperor's pivotal initiative of sacrificing Okinawa to American strategic designs by offering the States a virtually unrestricted military use of the island and continuing U.S colonial rule there long after the main islands were returned to Japan. According to Dower, this was a shrewd ploy for reducing U.S demands for bases on the home islands and encouraging the States to end the occupation earlier. It was also, as Dower sarcastically remarks, thoroughly consistent with the Japanese military's sacrifice of the Okinawan people, one forth of whom perished in the final battle of WWII.

Embracing Defeat also emphasizes the surprisingly democratic and progressive character of the U.S-drafted Japanese constituion and other occupation policies, such as the enfranchisement of women, even though it also exposes the irony and the limits of imperial democracy.

In summary, John Dower's nuanced appreciation of the achievements of the American occupation in creating a lasting basis for a democratic, peaceful, capitalist Japan, however, goes hand in hand with sharp criticism of the misunderstandings and jingoism of elites on both sides. Regarding the bold action ordering the secret drafting by SCAP's government section of the Japanese constitution, he comments, "The line between Supreme Commander and Supreme Being was always a fine one in MacArthur's mind. In these momentous days of ealry February 1947 he came close to obliterating the distinction completely." Likewise, Dower exposes the self-serving actions of the Emperor, court officials, and much of the military and business elite: in disguising Hirohito's responsibility for the war committed in his name, in attempting to sabotage the democratic provisions of the constitution, and in plundering the national treasury for private profit in the immediate aftermath of the surrender. Therefore, the Japan that emerged politically and socially transformed from the ashes of defeat was, Dower argues, by far not an American creation. Rather, it was a product of the complex and often contradictory synergy of Americans and Japanese.

Embracing Defeat is an impressive study of post-war Japanese culture and politics and the nature of the early U.S occupation. Recommendable.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,104 reviews52 followers
June 1, 2019
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 Dower, an MIT scholar on modern Japan, and won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1999 and the Pulitzer too.

Every once in a while I read a history book where the author anticipates every question that I am likely to pose. This was that kind of read for me. Most of the material in this book is highly original and covers the six years of American occupation following WWII and unsurprisingly this was the most disruptive in Japan’s history. With clarity and nuance, Dower addresses questions like the following:

What was it like for the Japanese citizens in those months and initial years after the surrender? How did they get through a depression worse than America’s Great Depression? How did Japan turn it around so quickly? Why were the Japanese people so fond of MacArthur? Did most Japanese citizens know of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? What forms of censorship did America implement? How did America change Japan’s constitution? Why did Japan refuse to re-arm when MacArthur asked them to during the Korean War?

Perhaps the most discussed theme in the book was around Emperor Hirohito. In the months following Japan’s surrender, the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers “pulled out all the stops” to prevent Emperor Hirohito from war crimes prosecution by the American government. MacArthur further warned that if the Emperor were indicted that the nation of Japan would “disintegrate”. In contemplating a possible abdication, a detached Hirohito opined that maybe could follow his passion into the field of marine biology. It is not at all clear if he seriously took the likelihood of a conviction and the penalty of death. But in the end it was MacArthur who got his way with Eisenhower and Hirohito remained Emperor until his death in 1989. The fact that dozens of Japanese leaders were executed for war crimes including PM Tojo and that the Emperor remained in power was hard to square for most.

The other large focus was on the Japanese people who, for the most part, showed great deference to the leadership of the occupying forces and to MacArthur in particular. They embraced the new concept of democracy although admittedly America’s thumb was on every scale of the political system. The author presents some dark topics to be sure. There is a riveting chapter on how many Japanese citizens never forgave the leaders for evading responsibility and also other excellent chapters on censorship of books and films.

I would have liked to have seen more personal stories about select individuals and discussion of more cities beyond Tokyo but I guess adding those topics to an already lengthy book would have made for an exhausting read. Beyond MacArthur, who is always entertaining to read about, it is the smaller topics that pack the big punches such as the coverage on prostitution (Geisha and otherwise), the animosity of ex Japanese soldiers to the American G.I. presence, the systematic throttling of the Communist minority in the new democracy, the starvation years, MacArthur’s very clever (and probably wise) manipulation of the Diet to change the constitution to end the feudal system.

5 stars. I can’t recommend this book enough — that is for anyone who is remotely curious about this period of history.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews37 followers
January 28, 2020
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 same team wrote "Article 9" which, to this day, limits Japan's military to a purely defensive role, thus forcing the country to reman dependent on U.S. protection from, say, China. It's all explained.
Profile Image for Andrew.
656 reviews187 followers
December 27, 2019
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 without question. Most of society was on board with this mobilization, and those that were not were languishing in prison. Communist and Socialist agitation had been suppressed, and citizens were indoctrinated to literally die for their Emperor. And 7 years later, Japan had quickly transcended this identity. American occupation authorities (GHQ/SCAP) were skeptical whether society would change, and the rhetoric of the time, a mixture of the 3 C's (Christianity, Civilization, Commerce) and New Deal era thinking determined their policy. This was democracy imposed from above - a bit of an ironic twist.

Japan's identity post WWII was determined by some key events. The refusal of occupation authorities to prosecute Emperor Hirohito was a big event. This was done for two reasons; the first was to avoid a situation of Japanese opposition to American occupation. The thought process behind this was the occupations view that the Japanese were "herded like cattle" or like "working bees" - a racialized viewpoint that was still behind the US thought process in the GHQ. If the Emperor was deposed or arrested, it was posited, then nationalistic reactionaries would come to the fore, and American forces would require a more active occupation. This left the Emperor, largely responsible through his position as Emperor of Japan, for signing, initiating, and supporting Japan's war in Asia and many of the atrocities committed, as well as more legitimate military attacks, like Pearl Harbor, which would have potentially been attached due to its importance in America's WWII situation and in the public conscious.

Another key issue was the relaxation of cultural, social and political restrictions under US occupation. Initially, the US released all wartime Japanese prisoners, including many members of Japan's Communist Party (who would later be re-arrested or sent into exile by Red Scare government officials). This would have a massive impact on the growth of trade unions, socialist ideals, and academic thought in Japan, and strikes and worker mobilization, as well as solidarity movements from academics, students, and the poor was common. Post WWII Japan in 1945 was a bombed out shell, and most of its infrastructure was destroyed by bombing raids, and much occupied by US forces. Food prices skyrocketed, and rationing was common. This led to the growth of the black market in Japan and the growing importance of Yakuza-style gangs who ran open air black markets. Although this was illegal, almost all Japanese citizens, except maybe a small number of elite, shopped in these markets. A well known event where a Japanese judge, who was trying and convicting Japanese citizens for shopping at the black market, and also purchasing food for his own family on the same markets, vowed to personally never consume food bought on the black market. He died of starvation.

This policy of want and destruction, as well as the relaxation of Japan's rigid nationalistic structure, the humanization of the Emperor, and the growth of democratic governance and policy under US occupation, culminating in the development of a national constitution in the early 1950's, led to a frenzy of change. This change was not always, and indeed not usually, generated by American policy. Instead, much of the change was generated at the grassroots. Iconoclasm of traditional Japanese ideas, as well as the growth of globalized culture, and the introduction of new and exciting political and social customs, led to an explosion of change. Sexuality - previously the domain of men and highly restricted for women, was one example. Women took charge of their sexual identities and desires, leading to rapidly changing structures of marriage, relationships, familial structures, and identities. Women gained the right to vote in elections and participated in both official political avenues like elections, as well as in protests, marches and demonstrations. Art and literature flourished, as previously banned books were reprinted, Marxist texts flourished, and philosophy, religion and ideas that were previously repressed became easily accessible. Iconoclasm of culture became the norm; wealth and status grew in importance, soldiers previously geared toward dying for their nation became merchants in the black market, out for an easy profit. Japan began to become more vibrant, and was infused with new ideas, forms, thoughts, art, and so on, leading to a heady brew of newness.

Japan's political sphere changed as well. The rigid hierarchy of appointed officials that governed Japan up to its defeat in WWII was dismantled by occupation authorities. The Zaibastu - conglomerates of corporations that dominated Japan's wartime economy, was liquidated. New forms of power emerged - now democracy was the buzzword, and much of Japan was geared toward embracing and accepting this new form of political organization. Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Conservatives, and nationalists competed for peoples attention and votes. New ideas, parties and principals were attractive to most voters, and most Japanese citizens, previously thought of as "cattle people" by occupation authorities, shocked their occupiers with their easy acceptance and embrace of change, sometimes a direct challenge to "democracy from above." America's drive to alter and Americanize Japanese society was in some ways very successful - American movies, cuisine, sports and political culture all became important in Japan's new society, but each one was turned into its own local adaptation, and sometimes so much as to be unrecognizable to occupation authorities. On the flip side, many new ideas, products, services and cultures were developed completely in house, or even continued from Japan's wartime traditions - just in different ways. Japan's traditional New Year pamphlets, released with words and phrases for each of Japanese's phonetic sounds, grew into an ironic and comedic play on tradition - very popular among Japanese citizens in the late '40's and 50's. Japanese print and film flourished in this period, leading to the creation of juggernaut industries that continue to have global appeal and influence to this day.

This was a fascinating time in Japan, one of immense change, development and the growth of a new, homegrown identity. It saw the emergence of new ideas, forms of expression, and the emergence of Japan as a powerhouse in the 20th and 21st centuries. A fascinating read, and a great work of history that is accessible, multi-faceted, and examines many different aspects of this time in Japan. Worthy of a read, and the Pulitzer Prize it received.
Profile Image for Stuart.
718 reviews267 followers
March 31, 2014
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 peaceful role in the post-war world was a crucial decision by MacArthur and the GHQ. The effort to transform Hirohito from the symbol of Japanese militarism into a symbol of peace and acceptance is truly an amazing feat, and how GHQ worked with the post-war Japanese politicians and bureaucrats is equally impressive. The discussion of how the GHQ's reconstruction policy was then warped by the effort to contain Communism in Asian is also something you won't find in many other works. The book is a treasure of details on every conceivable aspect of the occupation and reconstruction strategy as it unfolded, so I won't attempt to describe it here.

Actually I read this book back in 1999 when I was a JET in Shimane Prefecture, Japan, and it has colored and deepened my perceptions of Japan in the ensuing 15 years of living here in Japan. The JET program was started by Prime Minister Nakasone in 1987 during the Reagan Administration at the height of tensions over trade imbalances, ostensibly to "increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations" by sending English-speaking college grads to rural Japanese junior and senior high schools to serve as cultural ambassadors and assistant English teachers. So my perceptions of the program were very much affected by Embracing Defeat, because to me the JET program was a clear extension of the Japanese government's efforts to present a positive front to the youth of its Western allies and trade partners, to demonstrate good faith in "opening" the country to foreign youth, and also to expose Japanese students to Westerners. What I found very telling was the programs' emphasis on only inviting college graduates from English-speaking countries, and its total exclusion of youths from other countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, etc. Because, frankly, Japan has still not been able to kick its admiration and aspiration to be like other Western countries, much more than neighboring Asian countries.

(for reasons why Japan has been with this way ever since the Meiji restoration, see my review on War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War) .

And I experienced again and again during my 3 years on the JET program how much Caucasian foreigners were treated extremely kindly and warmly, while at the same time ethnically Asian foreigners, despite being raised in English-speaking countries, receiving a much cooler and more ambivalent welcome. To wit, many Japanese still look up to Westerners, and in many cases look down on other Asians. Of course this is a generalization, but ask any white foreigner in Japan and they can tell you they receive different treatment from Asian foreigners (not to mention the tens of thousands of native Korean residents of Japan who have lived here for several generations but are NOT granted citizenship despite this).

To be fair, I think Japan has made major strides since the early days of the program, incorporating CIRs (Coordinators of International Relations) from various countries including China, Korea, Russia, Germany, France, etc to work in local government offices promoting "international relations", and I also served in that capacity for two years and had an amazing, life-changing experience.

And yet in light of the continued tensions with China and Korea over war crimes, comfort women, reparations, trade friction, and recently ocean and air territory, it's clear that Japan has yet to fully establish equitable relations with its Asian neighbors even over 60 years after WWII ended. And now that China is an economic powerhouse in the region and flexing its might, the relations among the US, China, Japan, Korea and the ASEAN nations get more complicated by the day.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
895 reviews846 followers
May 26, 2022
John W. Dower's Embracing Defeat offers a compelling account of postwar Japan, from the dropping of the atomic bombs to the end of American occupation seven years later. During that time, Dower writes, the Japanese were forced to confront the shocking end of empire and the horrendous destruction wrought about them by Allied bombing. The response took many forms: while a handful of hardcore nationalists defended Japan's record, most in the immediate aftermath felt a mixture of grief for its losses, denial over the country's overseas atrocities and relief at its ending. Liberals and leftists viewed Japan's defeat as an opportunity to destroy the monarchy and its militarist allies, while conservatives cut deals with the occupiers to retain what power they could. Elaborate war crimes trials targeted military and political leaders but left Emperor Hirohito (who disingenuously disclaimed responsibility for the war) unscathed, to avoid alienating the public as the Cold War approached. Ordinary Japanese dealt with the desolation from prolonged bombing and military deaths, battled starvation and disease and struggled to develop a fresh national identity in the face of foreign occupation. The Americans, led by the imperious Douglas MacArthur, ruled both with a heavy hand and racist assumptions about the "Oriental mind," but also instituted liberal reforms in government, economics and gender reforms that helped Japan emerge as a functional, if flawed democracy. Dower shows that Japan, though momentarily humbled by their defeat, emerged from occupation with its people embracing free press and government, technological ingenuity, a repudiation of foreign adventurism and a vibrant, self-reflective culture - while, paradoxically, embracing a heavily corporatized economy and traces of nationalism that downplay the darker strands of its recent history. A stellar, thought-provoking book showing a country and people reinventing themselves after a world-historical trauma.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,628 reviews326 followers
July 19, 2019
The two reviews that led me to read the book were Max’s very detailed one, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... and and Stuart's more impressionistic review, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... . 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 discussions of authors who were akin to our postwar Beats -- not so much. So my strategy, when I bogged, was to skim, or put the book aside for awhile. I don’t think I missed anything substantial. My rating: 4.5 stars, rounded up. Highly recommended, if you are interested in Japanese and/or 20th century history.

What a pity the militarists managed to take control of the Japanese government! Millions of lives and untold treasure wasted. The contingencies of history…. There were Japanese ruling-class factions that thought war with America was a really bad idea. Admiral Yamamoto's doubts. Some wanted to move North, against Russia. (p. 480)

When the tide turned, the Home Islands found out how badly they had been misled, with the massive American firebombing attacks on their cities killing perhaps 900,000 Japanese civilians, with another 120,000 killed by the atomic bombs that finally ended the war. Had the zombie government admitted defeat early in 1945, they could have saved well over a million Japanese lives, and avoided the A-bombs. But the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the accidental peacekeeping power of nuclear weapons. No nuclear-armed state has ever attacked another since then.

And by early 1945, it was obvious to the Japanese elites that the war was lost, and the internal search for who to blame had begun. The Byzantine complexity of Japanese politics. (p. 480, hardback). Informal efforts by the Japanese to notify the victors of the worst war criminals.

I’ll let you read Max’s review for the sad, nasty and sometimes bizarre stories of the American Occupation. And the suffering, up to starvation, of the poor civilians. And all sorts of other unsavory details. Wholesale looting of supplies prior to the American arrival. Better still, read the book.

The serendipities of fine-grained history. Beate Sirota, a 22 year old Viennese/American woman, a recent graduate of Mills College, fluent in Japanese, played a major role in the Japanese “Constitutional Convention” the Occupation organized. Author Dower argues that participants like Sirota felt they were doing what the Japanese people would have wanted. Their humanistic spirit was infectious, and MacArthur’s style, to give even the most junior subordinates free rein to pursue the guidelines he laid down, led to a national Charter that, even 70-some years later, endures largely as written by people like Sirota. (p. 364)

As you know, dear Reader, Japan eventually recovered and became a manufacturing and technological powerhouse, a wealthy nation, and a strong ally of the US. Not much of this by direct American intentions — the legacy of the Occupation is mixed and tangled. The national Charter written at MacArthur’s direction largely endures, the Japanese Nation is a working democracy. Its pacifistic tendencies, enshrined in the Charter, are in tune with the national revulsion against the disastrous Pacific War.

Japan’s economic recovery dates to the Korean War, when it became a major supplier to the American and allied war effort. Some in the Truman administration argued for a revival of the Japanese Army, just 7 years after the end of WW2. Think of the welcome Japanese troops would have enjoyed in Korea! Fortunately, Japan’s newly-independent government resisted this hare-brained idea.

Japan’s strongly bureaucratic, top-down government echoes the Occupation’s style, and its arguably over-concentrated banks escaped Occupation breakup. But the feudal and family owners are largely gone, new companies prospered, and income inequality is now much less than in America. Japan today has problems, but they are the problems of wealth.
Profile Image for Nancy.
388 reviews59 followers
March 23, 2020
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.
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews160 followers
January 30, 2020
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 the time the Americans sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1945 until 1952 when SCAP (Supreme Command of the Allied Powers)--headed by Douglas MacArthur until 1951--ceased strict oversight of the government and returned it to Japanese control. Among the hugely important issues that Dower explains is how Emperor Hirohito so delicately and dignifiedly stepped down from divinity to become an ordinary man in the eyes of his subjects as the U. S. demanded. The issue of war crimes and punishment is discussed at length, including whether or not Hirohito should be held accountable in the same way as the military. One of the most important steps in transitioning from a militaristic fascism to a democracy modeled on America was the adoption of a new constitution written by MacArthur's staff.

Explaining the enormous cultural impact the occupation had on Japan is a sweeping and complicated story. Every aspect of life was touched by what amounted to a revolution, not only in politics but in business practices, individual freedoms, and the arts, especially film and literature. Dower writes that even the sexual practices of the entire society was changed. When the Japanese in 1945 organized a system of prostitution designed to provide relief for the arriving Americans and to spare the larger society from sexual predation, it opened the door to a widespread prostitution that outlived the bureaucratic arrangement. The end of the war also brought about a sea change in Japanese conjugal relationships when love and mutual sexual gratification became a way of defying authority and asserting individualism.

Dower also spends considerable time explaining the war guilt experienced by the Japanese. Not only did so many lost lives need to be grieved for, but the nation had to come to grips with assigning responsibility for the war and finding ways of atonement. This was more acutely felt when knowledge of atrocities committed during the war became known, though many if not most thought the Allies guilty of atrocities as well.

Fittingly, Dower brings all the analysis of occupied Japan together in an "Epilogue" showing how the reshaped government and society became an economic powerhouse in the late 20th century. If it's dry reading in places--like the material on the new constitution-- this is nevertheless a fascinating read shedding light on aspects of Japanese and U. S. history not that widely known.
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
423 reviews40 followers
November 15, 2020
With 2020 being the 75th Anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, I've read a a number of books about the Bomb and the end of WWII.

Embracing Defeat by John Dower is not only the best book on the period, but arguably the best book I have read this year.

At the start of 1945, nobody expected Japan to surrender---espcially the Japanese public. The Japanese may have started to realize that the war was not going as the military machine represented, but surrender was not part of the Japanese vocabulary. The militaristic culture that dominated the soceity taught that it was better to die, than to surrender.

This mentality was such, that by October 1944, Japanese pilots were actively recruited and trained as a Kamikaze pilots. School children weren't taught how to duck and cover, but how to serve as a final line against an American invasion. Even after America started fire bombing Japanese Cities, everybody thought it would take another year or two before Japan surrendered.

While there were thoughts about Russia changing the equation and some secret talks occuring---but the dropping of two bombs drastically changed the equation from the public perception.

Within a matter of days, the Japanese went from an intense desire to fight to the death, to the unmistakenable realization that they had lost.

Literally every aspect of Japanese culture had to be recreated and re-envisioned. Classic stories previously used to glorify military prowess, were repurposed to accept current realities. Literature, books, newspapers, magazines and songs adopted defeatist attitudes. One of the most popular songs during the period described the color and taste of an apple.

How did the language change itself? What words literally took on new meaning after WWII? What words were introduced into Japanese culture during this period?

How did Americans themselves affect Japan? One day, the Japanese believe that Americans are rapist murderers. The next day, they are literally setting up "comfort stations" and hiring desperate girls to service Americans.

How did Japan go from an utterly defeated country in 1945, to an economic powerhouse? How did they achieve semi-independence seven years after the occupation began? What role did the Korean War play?
Profile Image for AC.
1,689 reviews
November 29, 2010
I posted some comments under updates (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...),
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, Jimmy...lol), 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, were distorted by the Cold War. Dower describes how in 1952-1953, panicked by events in Korea, Dulles and his Administration pushed to rearm Japan -- just seven years after the end of WWII - and how it was the Japanese, and the conservatives in power there at the time, who stopped it. The height of folly and irresponsibility -- traits that have dogged Republican administrations and Congresses since the death of FDR.
Profile Image for Pamela.
423 reviews19 followers
August 18, 2017
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 establishment of brothels and the rise in prostitution, the literature both intellectual and obscene that began at this time, to the games that children developed which reflected the lives of the adults and the post-war problems of survival. Each chapter is written from the Japanese view; how they reacted to events and changes in their lives, and not from the American position or the post-war Japanese government. Dower covers every area of post-war Japanese life: labor, employment, male/female social relations, education, women's rights, recreational pastimes, and religion to show the progress of the swift turn to democracy, ordered by the occupiers, by a previously traditional, militaristic and obedient nation.

While I believe this book was meant for a general readership it tends to read more like a textbook and contains such detailed information that I found my mind wandering at times. The author also uses a lot of $2.00 words where a 50 cent one would do and some pretty high sounding metaphors for a history book. For example, "Japan— only yesterday a menacing, masculine threat— had been transformed, almost in the blink of an eye, into a compliant, feminine body on which the white victors could impose their will." Otherwise, it's an excellent, scholarly account of the occupation of Japan from 1945-1952 - which lasted longer than the war itself.
Profile Image for Nancy Regan.
38 reviews44 followers
January 18, 2016
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 of the US postwar occupation of Japan.

Dower's highly-refined sense of irony equips him admirably to illuminate the most ingenious paradox of Japan's adoption of democracy by fiat, freedom of expression amid heavy censorship, and widespread culpability for war crimes heartily endorsed by the Teflon former-deity who set the conflict rolling. But the irony takes a backseat to even-handed analysis, balanced reporting and a well-built foundation of impressively researched sources.

The book was a natural choice for the nonfiction Pulitzer in 2000. It is an eminently worthwhile read fifteen years later.
Profile Image for Aaron Million.
494 reviews495 followers
June 14, 2020
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 racist and condescending. This flows from MacArthur, to his staff, and right on down the line. While MacArthur is not a focal point of the book, his retrograde racial views are covered, along with his imperial manner of rule: he rarely left his compound in Tokyo, and had virtually no interaction with any regular Japanese, only meeting with high-level officials or representatives of Hirohito or the Emperor himself. I do realize that Dower's book is about Japan and what happened to it; however, given that MacArthur basically had dictatorial control (Washington D.C. was consumed by events in Europe, the deepening rift with the Soviet Union, and the Communist takeover of China), I would have thought he would have been featured more prominently in the book.

The Tokyo war crimes tribunals are covered in depth, though there is very little actual testimony from the trials. As Dower explains, they were hardly a model of judicial and legal perfection, and were only a pale shadow of the much more famous (and much shorter) Nuremberg trials that concerned Germany. What struck me here is how little responsibility was actually doled out in the end. There were a handful of people, including Hideki Tojo, who were found guilty and executed. The vast majority though were sentenced to prison and later released without having served full terms. And this was because the Americans wanted to use them for various purposes.

Which brings me to a theme that is present throughout the book: lack of accountability. It was rampant. It started with Hirohito. Despite everything prior to the war, and during the war, being done in the name of the Emperor, once it came time to assess blame, almost everyone (Japanese and Americans) seemed to place protecting the Emperor as their number one priority. Now, instead of the Emperor having total control over everything, it was stated that people did things without the Emperor's knowledge, that he was not aware of what the militarists were doing, and that, by losing the war, the Japanese people had somehow dishonored him. This seems fantastical when you think about it. If you say that someone is all-powerful, and has total control over everything, then how can that person - once defeat has come and the country has been forced to capitulate because of two atomic bombs dropped on it, with the inevitability of more coming - be protected from any consequences and made to look like someone who was taken advantage of by war-mongers? It makes no sense, and I have a feeling it didn't make much sense then, despite the almost total indoctrination of the Japanese people to worship the Emperor. Dower does note that there were some who indeed thought the Emperor should be held accountable, but MacArthur, his staff, and most Japanese did not. The Americans thought that trying Hirohito as a war criminal and removing him from titular power would make the task of controlling and then rebuilding Japan even more formidable. Yet every single person who served Hirohito was fair game for being tried or held in some way responsible for Japan's actions. Hirohito, with difficulty, could have stopped the war before it started. He chose not to do so.

Dower also focuses on accountability in the larger sense as well, beyond Hirohito. The Japanese seemed incapable of accepting responsibility for their actions, often trying to move on from the war without reflection. Soldiers returned home to find that their wives, assuming they were dead, had remarried. Young women turned to prostitution (often with American GIs) just to survive. People who had been gung-ho for war until August 1945 were suddenly promoting theories that they had been led astray by the militarists, that it really wasn't their fault. Dower, who writes very well, provides an example on page 490, writing about Nanbara Shigeru, a prominent academic: "Nanbara's conversion rested on the belief that he, like the truth-seeking students he conjured up and mourned, had been misled by Japan's leaders. In this, he was perfectly in tune with popular sentiment, for the most ubiquitous passive verb after the surrender was surely damasareta, 'to have been deceived.' Even the most flagrant wartime propagandists seized upon such slippery language as a detergent to wash away their personal responsibility."

This is a very informative book, and if I were going to be teaching a course on post-WWII Japanese history, I would make it required reading. The footnotes are copious and full of additional information. It won multiple awards, and I can easily see why it did. Why am I not giving it a higher rating? Well, despite it's multifaceted scope, and Dower’s clear command of his subject matter, parts of it were boring. Dower goes into long Japanese philosophical discussions, and while occasionally showcasing someone's personal travails, generally remains detached and somewhat antiseptic. There was no discussion of how the American occupation was going outside of Tokyo. Also, there was nothing written on how other countries - aside from the United States - viewed Japan at this time. For the first several sections of the book, there were many photos to go along with the narrative. But later the photos decreased and eventually died out, which was a disappointment. So in the end, as a solid work of history, this book clearly succeeds. As something equally entertaining to read, it only sometimes hits the mark.

Grade: B
Profile Image for Frank Theising.
339 reviews26 followers
August 8, 2021
The majority of my time in military service has been dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the failure of US attempts to transform those countries into capitalist democratic allies, I found this book extremely interesting. While there are obviously sooooo many difference between these recent wars and WWII, it was still fascinating to see how the US handled its effort to win the peace, transform Japan into a liberal democracy, and establish a capitalist ally on the cusp of the Cold War. Honestly, reading through this it seems something of a miracle that the US succeeded in Japan given, what seemed to me, the high level of impulsive and inconsistent (or outright hypocritical) leadership decisions made by MacArthur and his staff. Really an educational and enlightening read. 4 Stars.

What follows are my notes on the book:

Following the war, the US occupied Japan for the next 6 years, during which time Japan had no formal international relations. US strategic objectives initially focused on demilitarization and democratization, however these slowly shifted as the US partially rearmed Japan in order to create a capable ally in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

While much has been written about the vast demobilization of the US, including the points system for veterans to return home, it honestly never crossed my mind that the Japanese faced demobilization issues of their own (only they were essentially broke and rebuilding a functioning government while trying to bring their soldiers home). These challenges often meant that many Japanese soldiers stranded across the Pacific were pressed into service as labor or combatants in either the Chinese Civil War or Soviet expansion in the Far East. While Japanese soldiers were honored during the war, as the Japanese public learned of their atrocities, many were disparaged upon returning home (similar to US soldiers returning from Vietnam).

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the rampant poverty was compounded by the significant number of widows and orphans left to fend for themselves. These poor souls were often treated as an undesirable class to be shunned rather than helped. Crime and prostitution were often their only recourse (and of course crime and prostitution were rampant among other swaths of the country, not just orphans and widows). This was a dramatic change from a previously law abiding culture. Starvation and malnutrition were serious issues for the entire population. The Japanese Islands lack any significant source of natural resources to provide for its people. Prior to the war, Imperial Japan gained those resources (including food) from their overseas empire in Manchuria and Taiwan. Now, those sources were cut off and the country was on the cusp of mass starvation. People were encouraged to supplement their meager diet with acorns, bugs, sawdust, and orange peels. In a weird twist compared to historical conquests, the US actually imported vast quantities of food. Still, there were shortages and the government implemented heavy rationing.

Many turned to Black market just to survive even though food could range anywhere between 2-1 to 13-1 compared to the official government published prices. At those rates, many people quickly burned through whatever savings they had and while those involved in the underground grew rich. While the US entered a period of great optimism, Japanese faced a growing attitude of despair. As the Japanese began significant printing of money (in part to pay for military demobilization, pensions, etc) inflation exploded. This further devaluing whatever money the struggling people had during the rebuilding of their country. During the war, the Japanese fostered an attitude of racial superiority. Now, they turned on one another or price gouged the most vulnerable (even family) without a second thought, undermining there previous thoughts of their own racial superiority.

The Japanese soldiers had forced Korean and other nation’s women into sexual servitude (so called “comfort women”) for their overseas armies. Now, they faced the opposite problem of a large US occupation force in their home islands. The Japanese government sanctioned the even sponsored legal prostitution. Many American soldiers patronized these “pan-pan girls” and naturally STDs began to increase both among the occupation forces and the local women. Indeed, the availability of women to American soldiers with extra cash influenced US opinions of the country: what were formally a masculine, militarist society began to be viewed as a feminine, pliable society who simply followed orders.

Japanese literature also underwent a significant revolution and there was an explosion of new publications as the militarist censorship was lifted (the US however continued to censor publications, especially any criticism of MacArthur or the occupation forces). The lack of paper and the high costs of retracting printed stories after the fact led to strong self-censorship among Japanese publishers. US censorship especially targeted leftist and left-leaning publications fearing communist subversion. This was especially pronounced at the start of the Korean War. Many Japanese at that time drew parallels to the military censorship of any liberal criticism of the Japanese war party prior to the outbreak of World War II. In addition to the rise in artistic and political (including communist) publications, there was an explosion of promiscuous literature which accompanied the change in sexual values in the formerly conservative country.

The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur and his staff intentionally excluded any former “Japan hands,” US bureaucrats with a greater familiarity of Japanese culture or language. The US therefore remained heavily reliant on the Japanese technocratic elite to govern the country (in many cases keeping the same people in power that led Japan during the war). MacArthur had his own preconceived notions (especially on the importance of Emperor Hirohito) and moved forward with an incredible amount of autonomy in shaping the future of Japan. By keeping the emperor in place and shifting the blame for the war to others, justice became arbitrary. MacArthur and SCAP staff concocted the notion that the emperor had always been for peace and was misled by his military advisers. MacArthur deeply believed the people worshipped their emperor like God and that it would be easier to govern the country and promote capitalism through the emperor. In reality, the average Japanese citizen was more concerned with their well-being and where to find food than whether or not the emperor would be retained in the new Japan. For a great many Japanese, MacArthur worship quickly replaced emperor worship.

It was both ironic and hypocritical of the US to push democracy, free speech, and equality while operating an authoritarian military occupation. Many of the Japanese communists (some locked up by the former militarist regime) had great mass-appeal during these poor years. Subsequently, the US with its supreme power began a red purge of the country to eliminate communist influence.

The emperor’s rescript declaring his “humanity” was well received in America especially among Christians. This further insulated him against prosecution of war crimes. However in Japanese, the rescript was vaguer and did not outright declare that the emperor was not descended from the sun god.

The conservative government attempted to simply modify the Meiji Constitution but the US rejected this outright. MacArthur’s broad instructions morphed into a mini constitutional convention where the Americans drafted a new constitution in just a week. It included equality of women (thanks to females on the drafting committee) and outlawed war as a means of settling international disputes. The Japanese slyly modified many of the US terms thru the ambiguity of the Japanese language to weaken some of the stricter provisions. It also guaranteed freedom of speech (which as noted did not extend to any criticism of the occupation forces (effectively putting them above any public accountability)).

The Tokyo war crimes trials were modeled off of Nuremburg but there were several key differences. At Nuremburg, the Nazis were prosecuted for conspiracy to commit war crimes…in Japan the military ran the show, not a political party). And if they followed the Nuremburg approach, the emperor would be at the center of the trials and be prosecuted. By going out of their way to save the emperor, the war crimes trials were much more of a farce. The Allies chose to use military tribunals rather than civil courts specifically to avoid the trials being used for propaganda purposes by Japanese defendants. This also allowed the circumvention of established legal practices and control over what constituted evidence which could drag out trials or lead to large numbers of dismissed cases. The trials also revealed Western hypocrisy…the US had been allowed to expand its sphere of influence and impose the Monroe Doctrine yet Japan was now being accused of crimes for following this example. Likewise, some found it absurd to prosecute Japan for war crimes while the US had firebombed and nuked Japanese civilians. War criminals like Tojo were the only ones capable of criticizing the occupation or America’s conduct in the war because they knew they would be found guilty anyway and had nothing to lose.

Posthumously published letters to family of war criminals condemned to death humanized them and contributed to a feeling that the war had a life of its own and that it wasn’t really the Japanese’s fault. As Japan tried to rebuild and diversify their economy, the US tried to impose many New Deal style mandates (land reform, women’s suffrage) as well as anti-trust provisions to break up the Japanese conglomerates (“Zaibatsu”). Japan clearly struggled but did experience a war-time business boom supplying the US during the Korean War. This too created much debate as the Japanese population had begun to adopt and internalize the pacifistic constitution.

Truman’s firing of MacArthur was a massive shock to the Japanese. It is impossible to overstate his influence over the Japanese people during the occupation and many revered him (there were serious efforts to build statues of him). His reputation fell in their eyes as he returned to the US and unintentionally belittled the Japanese people while defending himself before Congress.
Profile Image for Donna.
416 reviews
December 3, 2020
It's difficult to imagine the devastation that the Japanese experienced following their country's surrender in 1945 and subsequent occupation. In addition to the shock and disgrace of defeat, many were left without home or livelihood, living life in the margins and struggling for survival. This was exacerbated by runaway inflation and a ubiquitous black market, which in some of the larger cities was run by Mafia-like gangs. For people who had been indoctrinated to believe that they lived in a unique “familial” country, this dog-eat-dog, predatory post-war world was shocking. Cynicism, decadence, and disease marked defeated Japan. Society itself began to dismantle, as indicated by rises in alcoholism, prostitution, suicides and crime. Dower delves into virtually every aspect of life in post-war Japan in this impressively in-depth, detailed and nuanced book. It's a very information-intense book but surprisingly readable.

Unlike a partitioned Germany, Japan's sole occupier was the United States with McArthur as Supreme Commander. McArthur became the symbol of paternalistic authority and the embodiment of the democratic ideal for Japan to emulate. He felt it was essential to protect the Emperor and make him the centerpiece of the new democracy, in effect “dressing the emperor in new clothes.” I found it fascinating that the whole approach to constructing democracy in Japan was paradoxically top-down as orchestrated by McArthur and his staff, something that Dower describes in great detail - the irony is hard to miss. They even took control of writing Japan’s new constitution, presenting it to a stunned and unsuspecting Japanese cabinet as a fait accompli.

My in-laws spent two years in occupied Japan while my father-in-law was serving in the military and told many stories about their time there. He was the base chief surgeon and mom taught in the base school. They had Japanese house servants and generally lived a much more lavish lifestyle than they could have enjoyed back home, something that Dower talks about as well. I wish now I had asked more questions of them about their experiences.
Profile Image for Karl-O.
168 reviews4 followers
July 22, 2020
This was like a healthy meal: not very tasty and interesting but nourishing. I'd even say at a certain level -- especially after reading it -- pleasurable. Not a great aftertaste...but I am getting ahead of myself.

John W. Dower is clearly very knowledgable about Japan, and particularly the period before, during and after WWII. This book documents with full, or rather choke-full detail the political, cultural and social realities of the Japanese between August 1945 when Japan surrendered till April 1952 the date when the the US occupation ended.

In the introduction, Dower mentions how right from the moment when the deity cum emperor Hirohito announced the surrender on the radio to millions of Japanese, until way after the occupation, the Japanese had to grapple with life's most fundamental issues. These issues included terrible defeat, poverty, corruption, social fragmentation, guilt, multilevel identity crisis, and of course shame. Every single page here is filled with details documenting these horrible experiences of ordinary Japanese people, and how they tried within their means to continue living around these issues and somewhat surmount them, and sometimes failing to do so.

Very interesting for me was how the idealized image of Japan as a homogenous people and refined culture disintegrated under these pressures. The words of the late Christopher Hitchens that "human beings are essentially the same" may seem like a truism, but they are very difficult to internalize when our minds are constantly categorizing and pigeonholing people and nations.

Another very interesting aspect was the disillusionment of ordinary Japanese who were quite eager to embrace the American call to democracy and demilitarization at the start of the occupation, just to be forced to choose specifically a version of democracy that is in line with US foreign policy (e.g. communists are not welcome, but conservatives are), and then forced again to pick up arms in support of US adventures in the Korean peninsula.

Despite these interesting bigger picture topics, and a few other ones, the book is generally dry. Dower spends an unjustified amount of time taking about minute details on how and why Americans absolved the emperor from war responsibility. Or when he writes on the Tokyo war trials, or the drafting of the news constitution. Countless pages are devoted to marginal events with background information about what was said and by whom, and how it was received in various circles, etc, etc. One senses the need for an adroit editor to save the otherwise interested readers, but unfortunately no editor was in sight...

Besides the dryness, I found that the book ended on the wrong note. In particular, it makes the claim that the economic growth of Japan is due to it being an outlet for their nationalism and sense of vulnerability, which for me trivializes the achievements of Japan both in relation to its people and from a global perspective.

"Consigned to military and therefore diplomatic subservience to Washington’s dictates, the only real avenue of postwar nationalism left to the Japanese leadership was economic. National pride - acute, wounded, wedded to a profound sense of vulnerability - lay behind the single-minded pursuit of economic growth that created a momentary superpower a mere quarter-century after humiliating defeat."

I'm sure there are nationalist strands in Japan, and Dower does good job to document them, but assigning the economic success of Japan to a single factor seemed reductionist to me. Is there no role at all for culture, geography, or politics or anything else in the economic success of Japan?

Well, Dower is clearly not impressed by the current state of affairs in Japan, but I would be happy to remind him that Japan, by no means the greatest place to live and has some catching up to do, ranks 19 on the UN Human Development Index, ahead of quite a few West European darlings, and has been there for decades. Clearly its citizens are better off than most people in the world. Moreover, with Japan bringing so much innovation to the world (ranked number 12 as the most Innovative Economy by the highly regarded Bloomberg Innovation Index in 2020), I think it deserves more than the ending that Dower musters:

"No one is certain where Japan will land, and no one is murmuring 'number one' any more....the lessons and legacies of defeat have been many and varied indeed; and their end is not yet in sight"

Some 176 countries would be happy with being number 19. I'm willing to bet my neck on that.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,413 reviews300 followers
February 22, 2020
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 overwhelm you with information. Regrettably I found that not to be the most interesting method. There was too much detail and two little humanity for me.

I had no idea that JAPAN was occupied by the US for six years after the end of the war. Of course in someways they are still occupied by a massive US military presence. The country is often labeled as pacifist in the book but I don’t think that is really accurate. They were demilitarized and there is much conversation about article 9 in their constitution which prohibits militarization. The Constitution was written by the United States in a very short amount of time and the story about how that happened and the people who did it is quite fascinating. The constitution had not been modified in the 50 years since it was adopted and until this book was written in 1999. During the Cold War the US forced Japan to establish a small army but article 9 prohibiting Militarization remains.
Profile Image for BookishStitcher.
1,101 reviews46 followers
June 7, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book132 followers
March 15, 2019
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 nature of the new Japan? There's no doubt that the debates in Japan were vivid and multifaceted. At the same time, Dower acknowledges that the Japanese themselves were often concerned with the questions of collectivism and conformity. Many believed there was a certain inauthenticity in shifting so quickly between militarism and cooperation with the United States, and both Americans and Japanese chalked that up to a collectivist tendency in the society.

I haven't loved every Dower book I've read. There's a tendency to be too academic and too critical of his actors. Cultures of War I thought was a bit of a screed, although I found War without Mercy to be a brilliant work. This book I'd put somewhere in the middle. It definitely illuminated a major blind spot in my historical understanding, and it is useful for shooting down certain myths about Japan and the US. Still, there were a few things I didn't love. There are points at which he discusses tons of Japanese films, books, and media, but if you aren't familiar with these products these sections become long and tedious. Occasionally he fixates a bit on the "authoritarianism" of MacArthur's rule, downplaying the fact that it didn't last very long, phased into an era of greater freedom, and was always meant to be temporary. Overall, though, even Dower has to admit that this was largely a success story. Two hated enemies came together in cooperation and reconstruction, and their relationship set the groundwork for the foundation of both a democracy and one of the world's powerhouse economic forces. This history was the essential first step in that process. Recommended for people interested in Japanese history or people whose knowledge of Japan is only about WWII and want to (or should) branch out a bit.
Profile Image for Liam || Books 'n Beards.
535 reviews48 followers
February 6, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Katy.
1,902 reviews152 followers
August 16, 2021
Five stars for the scholarship that went into this book. The presentation, for me left something to be desired. Too much information in each page felt like an info-dump. Too many names, dates, and places read much of the time as a boring history textbook.

However, if you are interested in Japan post WWII, I don't think you will find a better and more thorough book.
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
662 reviews
May 9, 2019
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 scholarly approach tends to be a bit dry at times it is extremely comprehensive and provide insight into how Japan was able to go from the economic wreckage of 1946 to become the economic powerhouse it became in the 1970s. I highly recommend it for students of the war and the impact it had on the world.
My thanks to the folks at the The History Book Club for giving me the opportunity to read and discuss this and many other fine books.
Profile Image for Jurij Fedorov.
364 reviews65 followers
September 6, 2022
Euphemistic Surrender
Unconditional Surrender
Quantifying Defeat
Coming Home . . . Perhaps
Displaced Persons
Despised Veterans
Stigmatized Victims
“Revolution from Above”
Demilitarization and Democratization
Imposing Reform

Great start. Not too deep intro though. Nothing on WW2. No intro to how the Americans came in and what the plan was. No strategy or plan explanation. No leaders explained or discussed as such. It focuses on how the people lived. The lack of food, democracy, more free speech being implemented, not feeding women and children but feeding former soldiers. Women missing their husbands.

Hunger and the Bamboo-Shoot Existence
Enduring the Unendurable
Sociologies of Despair
Child’s Play
Inflation and Economic Sabotage
Servicing the Conquerors
“Butterflies,” “Onlys,” and Subversive Women
Black-Market Entrepreneurship
“Kasutori Culture”
Decadence and Authenticity
“Married Life”
Mocking Defeat
Brightness, Apples, and English
The Familiarity of the New
Rushing into Print
Bestsellers and Posthumous Heroes
Heroines and Victims

Way more personal and deeper stories. Focuses a lot on Japanese prostitutes for largely the Americans. They want to keep the Americans sound and women need money somehow. Japanese liked how they were finally free from war. But they didn't like Americans sleeping with their women, not having enough money, and crime rates being high. Many former kamikaze pilots and poor men either became thieves or traded in the black market. You could earn a month's wage in a day as wages were extremely low. Largely Japanese blamed themselves for not having a caring society.

The Japanese have a sex revolution via magazines that become very popular as Americans force it into their culture. About women also needing sexual gratification in marriage. Many upbeat songs and stories become popular. New things and ideas become popular and you can even sell tools and things to the Americans using old weapons or weapon production ideas to develop them. There are some emo authors who feel it's all empty and hopeless to not even be a full nation and they speak to the masses too. Japan wants to use the great nationalism to build a new nation. They don't want to abandon this hope and motivation.

The author gets a lot into writing and authors. It's the boring part. But Part 2 overall is more in-depth than Part 1. And some of the post-war ideas are curious enough to know about. Some of the writers who were formerly imprisoned get famous. Students who died in the war, who wrote high quality diaries, are published. And Japanese sees them as innocent victims of the conditions. No one is the blame. A lot of left-wing and communist writers get hugely popular. But largely the author just picks them out alongside Japanese philosophers and women's magazines. It's low-tier Japanese writing overall. I wish he had focused more on movies and documentaries. Basically the Part starts out amazing and ends with a lot of boring summaries of boring authors who the author himself calls mediocre.

Victors as Viceroys
Reevaluating the Monkey-Men
The Experts and the Obedient Herd
Embracing the Commander
Intellectuals and the Community of Remorse
Grass-Roots Engagements
Institutionalizing Reform
Democratizing Everyday Language
Lovable Communists and Radicalized Workers
“A Sea of Red Flags”
Unmaking the Revolution from Below

Finally mentions the strikes and the banning of communists. But it's very little about what actually happened in Japan politically. It still focuses on smaller stories.

Psychological Warfare and the Son of Heaven
Purifying the Sovereign
The Letter, the Photograph, and the Memorandum
Becoming Bystanders
Becoming Human
Cutting Smoke with Scissors
Confronting Abdication
Imperial Tours and the Manifest Human
One Man’s Shattered God
Regendering a Hermaphroditic Creature
Conundrums for the Men of Meiji
Popular Initiatives for a New National Charter
SCAP Takes Over
GHQ’s “Constitutional Convention”
Thinking about Idealism and Cultural Imperialism
“The Last Opportunity for the Conservative Group”
The Translation Marathon
Unveiling the Draft Constitution
Water Flows, the River Stays
“Japanizing” Democracy
Renouncing War . . . Perhaps
Responding to a Fait Accompli
The Phantom Bureaucracy
Impermissible Discourse
Purifying the Victors
Policing the Cinema
Curbing the Political Left

Rules and laws. Japan's conservative government is forced into writing a new democratic constitution. But Japan is very conservative and write in very few democratic laws while proclaiming the emperor holy. The Japanese media, now free, attacks these ideas. Americans then take over. Just forcing Japan to adapt an American constitution. Everyone knows what's going on even though the government claims it's their own constitution. Many say they want to wait for the Americans to get out before making such laws. But overall there is a fairly large support for such democratic ideas.

Meanwhile USA has very strict speech laws in Japan and actually ban a lot of media. More free speech is allowed now but war, politics, gender, and USA are topics you can't make much media about. Japan is forced to accept egalitarian gender norms.

Stern Justice
Showcase Justice: The Tokyo Tribunal
Tokyo and Nuremberg
Victor’s Justice and Its Critics
Race, Power, and Powerlessness
Loser’s Justice: Naming Names
A Requiem for Departed Heroes
Irrationality, Science, and “Responsibility for Defeat”
Buddhism as Repentance and Repentance as Nationalism
Responding to Atrocity
Remembering the Criminals, Forgetting Their Crimes

War criminals are tried in a badly put together international show trial led by Western countries. Other countries have their own trials and retrials too.

“Oh, Mistake!”
Visible (and Invisible) Hands
Planning a Cutting-Edge Economy
Unplanned Developments and Gifts from the Gods

This part focuses on how Japan perceived the reconstruction.

My final opinion on the book

Great audiobook for sure. Very much a recommended read. The topic is post-WW2 with focus on the American rulership and Japanese writing in those few years. It feels like the author largely looked up Japanese opinion pieces and books from the time to figure out how they were thinking about the situation. Of course that's just the intellectual elite or even a few artists. Of which many were communist or loners. So I'm not sure it was the most widespread opinion. It feels like he is so obsessed with using books and opinion pieces that the overview is at times ignored. The book it feels shallow. It lacks a more indepth and clear explanations. The text is clear. But when you talk about single people with single ideas it can be hard to understand how big a part of the population would agree with the ideas he talks about. Maybe it's just me having a hard time visualizing all his points. I think when he sticks to the history the book is great. When he goes into ideas and concepts he has a hard time making it clear. But the book is never once dull and you always get what he is saying. I just needed a more clear timeline of what happened when and how Japan changed and he ignores that part. You kinda need to string it together in your head on your own.

He does miss a few points. The book focuses on the atmosphere and he skips some steps about where the food was hidden by the government, how food was delivered afterwards, and how long the starvation lasted, how rich was the country each year. He mentions all of this, but it's not a focus and just told via smaller claims. I do suggest watching docs about this topic to get more info, as I did the past few days, but I'm currently searching for more docs on this as they are hard to find. Not sure what else I can do. I'll try to read a few more books on the topic. But clearly you need a book for each single year going over that year 1 month at a time.
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