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Dazzling portrait of the Occupation

by Jeff Kingston

EMBRACING DEFEAT: Japan in the Wake of World War II, By John W. Dower. New York: WW Norton, 1999. 676 pp. $29.95

History does not get any better than this. The award-winning author of “War Without Mercy,” (1986) an exploration of racism and the Pacific War, is in peak form in this sparkling evocation of how victor and vanquished coped with the bitter legacies of war and the daunting challenges of rebuilding a devastated Japan. Dower’s prose, insights and unerring eye for the humorous, paradoxical and hypocritical animate this epic tale, making it a rewarding read and a major contribution to our understanding of contemporary Japan.

Overall, the author argues that the U.S. Occupation was reasonably benevolent, but also flawed and inconsistent. Confident in victory and “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.”

In Dower’s view, the emphasis on democratization and demilitarization has had a lasting, positive impact, although vitiated due to inconsistent support for these objectives both by occupier and occupied. What is refreshing in this account of the Occupation is the attention given to the perspectives and varied experiences of Japanese from all walks of life. Thus, the policies and pronouncements of SCAP (Supreme Command for the Allied Powers) are not allowed to dominate the narrative and the voices of ordinary Japanese powerfully convey the complexities and hardships endured by a population driven to rise from the ashes of defeat.

The propaganda of war and the mutual dehumanization this entailed left both sides unprepared and apprehensive about the Occupation. Despite the many shortcomings of SCAP, few would have predicted that the Occupation would turn out so benign and beneficial.

It was equally surprising how quickly and enthusiastically the Japanese public embraced the agenda of reform, revealing a conservative elite totally out of touch with the desires of the people. “What defeat showed, to the astonishment of many, was how quickly all the years of ultranationalistic indoctrination could be sloughed off. Love of country remained, but mindless fanaticism and numbing regimentation were happily abandoned. By deed as much as word, people everywhere demonstrated relief at the collapse of the authoritarian state. . . .” Unfortunately, the U.S. embrace of the conservative elite enabled the latter to slow the pace of reform, shift it to the right and consolidate power; once the Occupation ended, this ruling clique worked to roll back or dilute many of the reforms.

Dower roots out hypocrisy on both sides of the Pacific. During the war, the public was saturated with propaganda extolling the virtues of Japanese values, the strength of the family and the community, and the nobility of sacrifice for the greater common good. In the wake of surrender, however, the martinets of mass mobilization who had destructively rampaged through Asia in the name of the Emperor and for the glory of the nation suddenly revealed their true colors. In the waning weeks of August and even after the Occupation troops arrived in September, “a great many individuals at the highest levels displayed no concern at all for the good of society. They concentrated instead on enriching themselves by the wholesale plunder of military stockpiles and public resources.”

This rampant looting of scarce resources by a venal elite at a time when the public was pushed to the edge of survival by widespread shortages generated disgust and wiped away any doubts people might have had about the nature of Japan’s wartime leadership. Media coverage about this pervasive display of greed and selfishness tarnished the image of those who had coerced and cajoled the public to sacrifice everything for the war effort.

The Yamato mystique carefully cultivated during the war evaporated in the face of revulsion at the self-seeking avarice of an elite that viewed sacrifice as an inconvenience to be borne by others. Understandably, “public discouragement was exacerbated by a recognition that privileged groups continued to prosper in defeat as they had in war.” Typically, “most of the opportunistic capitalists, former military officers, corrupt politicians, and powerful gang leaders who crassly manipulated the system and benefited most from the black market went scot free.”

Japanese had to reconcile themselves to a corrupt elite and the predatory milieu of the black market where merciless gouging made a mockery of the wartime “one-family” propaganda. The devastation of war brought out the worst in some Japanese, but this was offset by a welcome liberation from the dark forces of tyranny that prevailed during the war. “Until the surrender, the state and its ideologues had dictated that he primary love a human could feel was patriotism or love of country, ultimately expressed through devotion to the emperor. To the very moment of surrender, official myths about parents and wives gladly sending sons and husbands off to war with patriotic fervor, and men happily giving their lives for the Emperor, had prevailed.”

The new Japan may have been a harsh world of sharp elbows, but at least the pretenses of the mad zealots could be abandoned and families and individuals spared the intrusions of a police state.

The hardship suffered by the Japanese public left little room for sympathy for returning soldiers tarred with failure and blamed for the devastation the archipelago had suffered as a result of their adventurism. No matter that most of the returning soldiers were conscripts and had as much input into national strategies as any local farmer. Media revelations about atrocities committed by the Imperial Army wherever it had been stationed left them “pariahs in their native land. . . . many ex-servicemen found themselves regarded not just as men who had failed disastrously to accomplish their mission, but also as individuals who had, it was assumed, participated in unspeakable acts.”

On Aug. 18, 1945, with the Emperor’s surrender broadcast still resonating over the archipelago, the Home Ministry sent a message to regional police officials throughout the country to establish and staff comfort stations for the Allied troops. It may seem extraordinary that amid the chaos of defeat some bureaucrats were quickly acting to cater to the sexual needs of the enemy, but perhaps less so if one considers that, “the sexual implications of having to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen had been terrifying, especially to those who were aware of the rapacity their own forces had exhibited . . .”

Separately, government officials promised financial backing for creating the Recreation and Amusement Association that ran the comfort stations and lobbied local entrepreneurs to take on this new business opportunity. Since professional prostitutes were reluctant to sign up, recruiters placed advertisements aimed at “new Japanese women” and misleadingly referred to openings for female office clerks. Most interviewees left when informed about the nature of their duties, but by the end of August, 1,360 women in Tokyo alone had enlisted in the RAA. It is interesting to contrast the government’s initiative and extensive involvement in establishing comfort stations for the former enemy with repeated caviling and denials by the government and ardent nationalists of such involvement on behalf of the Imperial Army throughout Asia despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

While the occupiers tried to transform the institutions and practices of government and to empower citizens vis-a-vis their government, Americanization came to mean the embrace of materialism and often the abandonment of moral principles that some observers believe has characterized post-World War II Japan. The stunning material abundance enjoyed by the conquerors came as a shock and object lesson to a nation that had tried to overcome the odds by appeals to spiritual strength and racial superiority.

Some adapted more quickly than others in an inexorable process that offended national pride. Dower suggests that, “The ‘panpan’ openly, brazenly prostituted themselves to the conqueror — while others, especially the ‘good’ Japanese who consorted with the Americans as privileged elites, only did it figuratively.”

The U.S. is faulted for failing to ensure even a scant connection between justice and the Tokyo war crimes trials, thereby providing Japanese nationalists with an excuse to overlook and mitigate the rampant excesses of the Imperial Army. Dower also criticizes the decision to absolve the Emperor of war responsibility, arguing that by doing so the issue of war responsibility became a joke and the war crimes trials rendered a meaningless exercise.

Perhaps the roots of collective amnesia in contemporary Japan concerning its checkered past in Asia can be traced to the absolution of Hirohito, for, “if the man in whose name imperial Japan had conducted foreign and military policy for 20 years was not held accountable for the initiation or conduct of the war, why should anyone expect ordinary people to dwell on such matters, or to think seriously about their own personal responsibility?”

Why didn’t the Japanese pursue criminal cases against those responsible for ordering or carrying out various atrocities as was done in post-World War II Germany? In the months following surrender, there appeared to have been considerable public support for doing so, but SCAP blocked most such initiatives, not wanting to risk double jeopardy and suspicious that the sentences would be too lenient.

This was also a mistake, according to Dower, because the kangaroo court in Tokyo served to transform the accused from war criminals into victims; Japanese involvement in the prosecution would have made it more difficult to make an issue of “victor’s justice.”

Ironically, the much-maligned “victor’s justice” actually was relatively benign and contributed significantly to the whitewashing of Japanese history. So many criminals and crimes were shoved to the side for reasons that do not bear scrutiny. In fact, the U.S. prosecutors made a case far more restrained than many in Japan supported at that time. They inadvertently exonerated the majority of those involved in wartime atrocities by selecting a handful of scapegoats and asserting a dubious conspiracy theory that suggested a few bad apples in the military had hijacked an unwitting and unwilling nation into war. Dower points out that this does not square with the reality of broad popular support for the war, with the media, intellectuals and politicians serving as enthusiastic cheerleaders.

The term “victor’s justice” has been twisted by some ultranationalists to suggest that the U.S. unfairly persecuted Japanese based on a one-sided, self-serving view of history, but by ignoring many of the excesses of Japanese aggression and in trying to reinvent Hirohito by insulating him from any whiff of war responsibility the U.S. can be more fairly accused of airbrushing the record. It is also ironic that most of those indicted were fingered by other Japanese as key figures responsible for the war; Kido Koichi, a close adviser to Hirohito, personally singled out 15 of the 27 defendants who joined him in the tribunal’s original indictment.

The U.S. fundamentally betrayed its democratic ideals by resorting to authoritarian methods in implementing its ambitious agenda of reform. Dower concludes that “the anomaly of SCAP’s neocolonial revolution from above was thus that it cut both ways-toward genuinely progressive change and toward a reaffirmation of authoritarian structures of government.”

While the embrace of peace and democracy may well be the talismanic legacy of the Occupation, the gutting of the union movement, pervasive censorship suppression of dissent and ruthless repression during the Cold War-inspired Red Purge, left a bitter taste and did little to inspire tolerance.

For these victims, “. . . it was disheartening to discover the pleasure Americans took in exercising absolute authority – and dishearteningly familiar to observe the reflexive animosity they soon exhibited to those who disagreed with them.”

This is a book to savor for its success in revealing how ordinary Japanese were affected by the struggle to survive and how “they responded in recognizably human, fallible, and often contradictory ways that can tell us a great deal about ourselves and our world in general.” The stricken voices of the vanquished and the spirit of an indomitable people reverberate throughout this narrative, conveying a haunting, humbling and healing reverence for humanity that does justice to Clio the muse of history.