Embracing Defeat

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John W. Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. $29.95 Hardcover: ISBN 0-393-04686-9.



While John Dower’s Pulitzer and Bancroft prize-winning Embracing Defeat is ostensibly a history of Japan in the postwar era, the “embrace” that Dower refers to is a mutual lock between the occupied and the occupier - Japan and the United States. Dower’s book is the history of that embrace, and how it evolved from a figurative wrestler’s pin to something more like a dance. His argument is that defeat and occupation forced the Japanese to struggle with the most fundamental of life’s issues, and that the ways in which they responded to these challenges can tell us a great deal about human capacity and about the world in general (29).

Embracing Defeat focuses on social and cultural development and popular consciousness within Japan. Dower’s intent is to capture a sense of what it meant to start over in a ruined world by recovering the voices from all levels of society (25). Dower, a historian of the modern Japan and US-Japan relations, is also known for War Without Mercy, which explores the racial and vindictive aspects of WWII. He uses a wide range of primary sources from the period, from the usual official reports and news articles to personal diaries, popular literature, art, cinema and other reflections of popular culture which capture the impact of the occupation on the Japanese people.

The book is organized in six parts, organized by theme and loosely focusing on each the years between the Japanese surrender in 1945 and 1952 when the occupation officially ended. In Part 1, he describes Japan in the immediate aftermath of the war, from the moment that Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech was broadcast. It describes the widespread chaos and destruction in Japan, and the extent of personal displacement and feelings of both failure and betrayal. This short section gives way to Part 2, which contains much of the “popular culture” reflections that Dower describes in his Introduction. He describes everyday life for common Japanese in the early phases of the occupation, and how they dealt with hunger due to food shortages, the rampant black market, and the considerable loosening of prewar moral codes and traditions.

Part 3 focuses on changes in societal conscious rather than on changes in day-to-day life. The section documents changes in Japanese perceptions and prewar conditioning regarding their American foes and their own leaders. Dower exemplifies this by describing how the Japanese perceived General MacArthur and his staff, and how a nascent Japanese version of a communist movement was suppressed between a conservative government at home and a more militant and doctrinaire party influence from abroad. Part four of Dower's book focuses on the place of Emperor Hirohito in Japan postwar. Dower describes the Allied policy of separating (“driving a wedge”) the emperor from the Japanese government and militants, humanizing him and largely absolving him of responsibility for the war.

Discussion of Hirohito’s rehabilitation sets the stage for Part 5, which describes the war crimes trials where responsibility for the war was adjudicated and punished. These trials were characterized on one hand by the judicial dominance of the colonial powers (only two Asian justices were included as part of the tribunal) and by the absence of any implication of the emperor on the other (470-71). The colonial mindset was also illustrated when Japan’s decision to wage aggressive war was presented as a war crime committed “without provocation.” Dower gives evidence of public confusion over this policy (for how could the emperor be wholly innocent?) and American control over the tribunal proceedings with the aim to protect the emperor. Many observers of the trials were angered by the perceived lack of justice, but from a pragmatic sense it helped pave the way for the American occupiers to brush aside the remnants of Japan’s wartime government and completely remake a new constitution and government (300). Dower concludes by describing the end of the occupation and the start of Japan’s economic recovery. The economic recovery, jump-started by American involvement in the Korean war, in combination with American manufacturing philosophies and policies which were instituted during the occupation, led directly to the emergence of Japan as an economic powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Embracing Defeat is not revisionist history. Dower does mention that Japan’s ability to wage war in 1945 was far less than Allied intelligence reports had estimated (44). His other histories show that to a certain extent this overestimation was understandable. The campaigns of late 1944 and 1945 had become progressively more costly and the Japanese had shown no decrease in determination. While the allied leaders knew that Japan’s air and naval forces had been decimated, they also knew that the planned invasion of the home island would have been primarily a ground war. Their experiences in the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa most probably influenced the intelligence assessments.

Dower’s experience with the nuances of Japanese language, culture and philosophy allows him to make some major insights into the impacts of change and the progress of the recovery. For example, he emphasizes Japan’s tradition of acceptance of change, an attribute that is largely overlooked due to their parallel and better-known reverence for tradition (179). This attitude of acceptance was also encouraged by the conservative paper Kyorryoku Shimbun, which included editorials describing how to find value and education even in defeat (183).

While Dower illustrates Japan’s adjustment of their perspectives in ways that seem contorted and elastic given their rigid wartime stance, he shows the same quality in their American occupiers as reflected in their training material (214). While the text of the American training films seems simplistic and crude, it also reflects honest attempts to reverse a war’s worth of conditioning and depict Japanese in human terms. These reversals in stance are even more remarkable when one remembers that such films were not intended for an audience of historical scholars, but ordinary soldiers whose thought processes were much less sophisticated. Such examples show the evolution of the mutual embrace – as Japan and the United States realign themselves from adversaries to allies.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

John Dower's "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II" is a much-needed addition to the study of World War II. While there are many books which focus on the European Theater, the Nuremberg Trials, and post-war Germany (perhaps because of the many Cold War implications inherent in the reconstruction of post-war Europe), very little well-known work has been done on post-war Japan. Dower's book is an excellent addition. While I have historically not been a fan of his work (I found the footnotes in "War Without Mercy" so illegible as to throw his entire thesis--though undoubtedly true--unconvincing), I really enjoyed "Embracing Defeat."

Dower's construction and organization, while logically inside the chapters, proceeds neither strictly chronologically nor strictly topically. While this does get confusing at times (had the new Constitution been written yet or not? Has the hunger situation come under control?) there is really no way to reconstruct the country both as a bureaucracy and as as a society without overlapping themes and dates. Dower's section on the aforementioned Constitution is his most successful, as he quite convincingly argues that the United States quickly and thoroughly dictated this constitution to the Japanese; ironic, as it was to put a democratic government in place.

Dower's command of the language and the intricacies of Japanese culture are integral components to the success of "Embracing Defeat." Unfortunately for the field of history, most historians do not have this knowledge. Dower's work opens up so many veins for future scholarship; each section could be a book in itself. I hope that future historians will take this up for study, as Dower's book explains quite a lot about the post-war world and about present Japanese-American relations.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

John Dower’s massive tome covering the defeat of Japan and its occupation by American military forces is an exhaustive examination of the complex relationship between the so-called “victor” and “loser” nations. Although the American forces exerted fantastic control over the shape of Japan in the post-war occupation period, the people of Japan simultaneously absorbed and reflected certain elements of democracy and demilitarization, ultimately creating a nation of peace and democracy that also retained its cultural heritage and imperial traditions. An historian would struggle to find an aspect of post-war Japan that Dower does not incorporate into his study.

Compared alongside studies of American planning during the war, Dower’s text is, in some ways, a study of planning and counter-planning in which American military officials attempted to shape the future of Japan while Japanese responded to the destruction and moral defeat they suffered and occupation by American forces. Though not necessarily in competition with one another, each group wielded certain ideological and influential tools that relied on understandings of the opposite group. Both the Americans and the Japanese used the other to help define post-war Japan. Dower’s text moves deftly through those complex interactions, highlighting the two-directional embrace that affected both sides. Although he does not provide as complete a history of the industrial, economic, and physical planning as studies of the American homefront, Dower presents a much deeper, more nuanced, and complete view of occupied Japan than a simple planning history could provide.

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