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  • Japan in the American Century by Kenneth B. Pyle
  • David Leheny (bio)
Japan in the American Century. By Kenneth B. Pyle. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2018. 457 pages. $35.00.

Kenneth B. Pyle's recent book provides a fascinating new vision of postwar and contemporary Japan, arguing that "[a]n understanding of postwar Japan . . . must begin with the American policy of unconditional surrender and its ultimate purpose of establishing a new international order" (p. 351). Pyle returns often to George Kennan's description of an "unnatural intimacy" between these two countries, forced together by global politics despite their radically different cultures. Reflecting on the widely shared confidence among U.S. foreign professionals and leaders in not just the superiority of U.S. values but also their inevitability among free-thinking peoples, Pyle examines a Japan frequently compelled to engage, if usually creatively, with U.S. expectations of proper behavior and development. The author is, of course, one of the leading historians of modern Japanese politics, with a distinguished and wide-ranging record of contributions on topics from the Meiji transition to Japan's recent security politics. By focusing on the myriad consequences of U.S. idealism regarding the country's ability to reshape the world in its image, Japan in the American Century deeply implicates American liberal ideals in the challenges confronting Japan as it has struggled to engage effectively with a global order over which it has had famously little control.

For Pyle, the original sin of U.S. engagement with Japan was the "policy of unconditional surrender" toward the end of World War II: not a fundamentally new concept, but put to a remarkable new set of ends. He writes that for President Franklin Roosevelt, "nothing less than total victory would satisfy the goal of achieving a new and permanent democratic and peaceful order." If one, as Roosevelt and many of his advisors did, were to locate the causes of war in domestic politics, particularly in the virulent militarism of [End Page 257] Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the policy made a certain kind of sense: only completely reforming these countries as U.S.-style democracies would prevent a cataclysm like World War II from occurring again. Because this would require the occupation of Japan to rebuild an order, a conditional surrender allowing the country to maintain its independence was out of the question. And because this would require a potentially catastrophic invasion of the main four islands, it became the kernel of the decision to drop first one and then a second atomic bomb on Japan's western cities.

The debate over whether the atomic bombings ended the war or, put more grotesquely, were "necessary," is likely unresolvable to everyone's satisfaction. Pyle's innovative take locates the blame less in those behind the bombings themselves than in the recalcitrant idealism that prevented the Americans from seeing that another way might have been possible. Quite like mid-century American "realists," Pyle views U.S. efforts to remake Japan as fundamentally misguided because its liberal idealism prevented it from grasping the deep sources of Japanese tradition and culture, and because it misread developments that might have portended a more responsible, nonexpansionist Japan even without an occupation. After all, as Pyle repeatedly notes, there were myriad quasi-democratic movements in interwar Japan as well as elements of conservative leadership that would have been only too happy to declare surrender to the United States, in essence giving up an empire they had already decisively lost, provided that they could be the authors of Japan's postwar reconstruction. The U.S. unwillingness to pursue this more restrained form of engagement resulted in a Japan that could focus on its victimization by atomic bombings rather than its victimization of its Asia-Pacific neighbors. It also justified continual U.S. meddling in Japanese politics in ways that built resentment and undermined the legitimacy among many conservatives of even the postwar constitution itself, while robbing Japanese of the chance to fight for their own democratic transition.

Although the book is not divided formally into two parts, its organization shifts dramatically at roughly the midway point. The opening chapters...


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pp. 257-261
Launched on MUSE
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