70 pages 2 hours read

John W. Dower

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999) by John W. Dower is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Dower is an author, historian, and Professor Emeritus of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This book tells the story of Japan’s metamorphosis during the formal American occupation of that country between 1945 and 1952 under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). Dower covers several key aspects of transforming Japan from a militarist empire to a democracy, such as the creation of its postwar constitution. Many political events, however, serve as a backdrop. The author’s main goal is to document social history—to give voice to the ordinary Japanese people caught up in the turbulent events of that time. Unlike many other history texts that only focus on leadership, Dower opts to highlight the lived experience of the Japanese as their country changed dramatically. For this purpose, he relies on hundreds of documents, including classic and pulp literature, film, political cartoons and booklets, diaries, letters to the editor, newspapers, and radio broadcasts. This study guide references the 2000 W. W. Norton & Company illustrated edition.

The book is divided into six thematic parts. The first part comprises two chapters and overviews the sheer extent of Japan’s devastation in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Indeed, the economic hardship lasted for several more years. Dower points out the difficulties of dating the end of the war in the Pacific theater to Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945. Aerial bombings destroyed 40% of its urban areas, for instance. People were psychologically exhausted from the prolonged war, which began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. After 1945, Japan faced hyperinflation, food shortages, malnutrition, joblessness, homelessness, millions of displaced persons, widows, orphans, and a spike in serious illnesses. The loss of its overseas empire as a source of supplies and political corruption exacerbated its situation. However, the story of Japan’s destruction sets the scene for its recovery. It also helps understand the complex relationship between victim and aggressor—according to Dower, Japan was both.

In the second part of the book, the author explores the way in which war exhaustion and the psychological sense of defeat gradually transformed into the will to live and overcome the given circumstances. Dower locates the first signs of this transformation on the edges of society—among the sex workers and the nihilistic artists. He explores the interactions between the female Japanese sex workers and male American soldiers within the framework of neocolonialism and by using the language of gender and sexuality. The author believes that these social interactions reflected a broader pattern of the subsequent unequal relationship between the United States and Japan. Dower also examines the changes in communication and language to understand the way in which the postwar Japanese society departed from its militarist past.

The author then focuses on the American-led top-down revolution in Japanese society at this time. He explores neocolonialist, racist attitudes, further describing how the majority of American occupiers of the upper echelons had little to no understanding of Japan’s history or culture. Many of them believed that the Japanese were incapable of self-government and that they required American paternalistic, “civilizing” guidance. However, the American top-down measures of demilitarizing and democratizing Japan were met with many bottom-up grassroots initiatives such as May Day protests; the formation of teachers’ unions; and a variety of political ideologies, including many on the Left side of the political spectrum.

The book’s fourth section analyzes the creation of Japan’s new postwar constitution (1947) to replace its Meiji counterpart (1890-1947). Initiated by General MacArthur and in line with his neocolonial paternalism toward the Japanese, the constitution generated many draft suggestions, translations, and factional in-fighting as part of the process. One of the key aspects of this new nationally defining document was Article 9, solidifying Japan’s demilitarization and opposition to wars. Article 9 raised the question of the legitimacy of self-defense and the question of just war. MacArthur saw this new constitution as a way to guarantee Emperor Hirohito’s survival in the new postwar society. In turn, the emperor’s survival guaranteed social cohesion, since he was revered by the Japanese. Working with Japan’s royal circles, Americans rebranded the emperor from a militarist leader to a symbol of the new Japan and an advocate of peace and democracy. The question of Hirohito’s war responsibility and his exoneration at the Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948) is one of the central themes in this book. Dower also details the way the American conquerors maintained social cohesion through a system of stringent censorship of the media and even private communication. They also cracked down on the progressive and left-wing movements in the broader context of the early Cold War.

Dower then focuses on a difficult question of Japan’s culpability in the Second World War. He analyzes the International Military Tribunal for the Far East by discussing the types of crimes and evidence presented at the trials. There are important parallels—but also distinctions—between the Nuremberg and Tokyo war-crime trial counterparts. Dower situates some of his discussion in the language of colonialism, considering that all the countries occupied by Japan between 1931 and 1945 were Asian. He notes the hypocrisy of having other colonial powers, such as the United States and Britain, judge Japan in this specific context. Dower also investigates the reception of the trials including the criticism by George Kennan and General MacArthur himself. In light of all the evidence, the author often refers to this military tribunal as the “show trials.”

One of the book’s most complex chapters analyzes the subjects of war memory, grieving the dead, atonement, and war responsibility within the framework of Japan’s defeat. The book’s dozens of literary sources, both fictional and nonfictional, present a diverse image of the Japanese society at that time. Many blamed the leadership for defeat and avoided the subject of the Japanese imperial army’s atrocities. Others sought a deeper understanding in the context of Christian or Buddhist thought. Others yet whitewashed war crimes by giving voice to hundreds of Japan’s convicted war criminals through publishing their last thoughts before execution. Some war criminals even became elected politicians.

The book’s final section discusses Japan’s economic recovery as the country approached the end of the formal American occupation. As its economic situation improved, Japan subscribed to capitalism that was heavy with bureaucratism, rather than true democracy. Many of Japan’s war-related industries were revived in the context of offering Americans special procurements during and even after the Korean War (1950-1953).

Embracing Defeat is an important contribution to Japan’s modern history, the history of the Second World War, and American-Japanese relations. Dower’s unique approach—subordinating key political events to highlight the lives of ordinary people—makes the book all the more accessible to the reader. Many of the issues that the Japanese faced in the wake of the Second World War transcended cultural specificity and were part of a shared human experience.