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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.2 (2000) 108-109

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Book Reviews

Embracing Defeat:
Japan in the Wake of World War II

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton/The New Press, 1999. 676 pp. US$29.95.

On the eve of the restoration of Japan's sovereignty in April 1952, the Nihon Yukan newspaper published an editorial in the form of a traditional short poem, or haiku:

Cherry Trees have blossomed out.
We will be independent soon.
Why don't we feel as happy as we should?

This rueful juxtaposition of images resembles the artful analysis of John Dower's incisive study of Japan's social, cultural, and political evolution during the American occupation after World War II. Although several scholars, including this reviewer and Dower, have previously examined aspects of the history of occupied Japan, no earlier study has penetrated so deeply into the domestic forces that shaped and reshaped Japanese society, language, and political culture during this crucial period. Dower has written an elegant and accessible work of revisionist history that defies the simple categories of "right" and "left" typically applied to this era. Using a variety of analytic techniques from several disciplines, he shows how Japanese citizens from diverse backgrounds grappled with military and spiritual defeat and struggled to forge new lives.

Dower is less interested here in "conventional" politics than he has been in his earlier accounts of wartime and postwar Japan. This book, unlike some of his previous works, is not intended to explain how factionalism drove Japanese politics or how the rivalries between the U.S. State and Defense Departments shaped the American occupation agenda. Embracing Defeat uses not only a rich array of period photographs but also art, comic books, poetry, letters, and journals from the 1940s to examine how the Japanese coped with hunger, homelessness, and despair in the wake of surrender. In the process, Dower delves into the technical and human dimensions of the black market, prostitution, the treatment of demobilized soldiers, the blossoming of literature despite a rigid and often mindless censorship that barred virtually any discussion of the nuclear bombs' impact, and the evolution of language to accommodate Japan's radically altered circumstances. Other chapters discuss the impact of war crimes trials and the remarkable work of American civilian and military administrators as they rushed the preparation of a democratic constitution that has, despite criticism, remained unamended for more than half a century. [End Page 108]

Several of the most innovative chapters demonstrate how the Japanese elite and American occupation authorities found a common interest in protecting and redefining the role of the emperor and Imperial institutions in an emerging democracy. A description of how American officers and their families participated in the Imperial duck hunt in Tokyo is by itself worth the price of the book. On the less playful side, Dower explores how shielding the emperor from culpability for the war and its atrocities--a priority for both General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration--mitigated and confused the meaning of the Tokyo war crimes trials.

Through all of this, Dower notes, both elite and ordinary Japanese played active roles not only in interpreting American goals, but in shaping them to meet local needs. Dower's account enriches our understanding of how and why postwar Japan emerged as a unique capitalist democracy. Focusing on the period from 1945 through 1950, the book says relatively little about the impact of the Korean War or the peace and security treaties of 1951-1952 that defined Japan's formal position in the emerging Cold War. It focuses more on the labors of career bureaucrats in Tokyo and their American counterparts than on the machinations of MacArthur and his masters in Washington. But it says a great deal about the internal forces that allowed the Japanese to accommodate, defy, and reshape the agenda that outsiders tried to impose on them. In short, the book is indispensable reading for both specialist and layperson interested in Japan...