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Review: John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Updated on December 28, 2016
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J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

World War II was for the Japanese a time in which death of civilians, self-sacrifice for the nation, suicide instead of surrender, and starvation on an unprecedented scale, became commonplace as Japan became what historian John Dower calls a “blood soaked monster.”[1] Upon Japanese defeat, Japan entered an imposed state of seclusion, in which American military attempts to demilitarize and democratize the Japanese people were frequent and persistent. Throughout historian John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, Dower argues his thesis that even though Americans tried for self-righteous and arrogantly idealistic reasons to impose democracy on Japan, Japan embraced democracy on its own terms due to circumstances beyond American pressures. Dower argues that the attempted Americanization that occurred between 1945 and 1952, was not more of a democratizing force than Japan’s own sense of misery, disorientation, cynicism, resentment, hope, resilience, and “from within” yearning to reevaluate and secure Japanese national identity and personal values.[2] As “prostitutes and black market operatives created distinctive, iconoclastic cultures of defeat,”[3] post-war Japan shifted from wartime militarism to peacetime pacifism amidst the embarrassment of defeat, the humiliation of occupation, and the experience of “complete psychological disorientation.”[4]

Through the lenses of culture, languages, revolutionary ideology, democratization, post-war despair, guilt, and reconstruction attempts, Dower presents a convincing thesis with extensive analysis and heavily documented sources. Using such evidence as photographs, diaries, memoirs,[5] imperial records, police records,[6] prostitutes’ diaries, the political cartoons of Kato Etsuro, radio recordings, military correspondence, and other such documentation to document the Japanese experience of wartime, post-war defeat, and reconstruction, Dower provides historians, World War II and Japanese History enthusiasts, sociologists, anthropologists, and other interested readers with an intriguing account and interpretation of the Japanese embrace of defeat.

Dower raises controversial theories, such as how to quantify the defeat of Japan in terms of Japanese civilian wartime casualties; a task which seems even in modern time with access to wartime records, to be an impossible task due to the difficulty of determining which causes of death were linked to war circumstances and military activities. According to Dower, “the ravages of war can never be accurately quantified.”[7] Dower tries to quantify defeat in the most comprehensive way possible, quantifying the number of people left homeless by allied bombings, the percentages of the population remaining after such attacks, area populations before and after the war, the number of Japanese soldiers and sailors stranded throughout Asia upon Japanese defeat, the number of civilians held in repatriation camps, the amount of Japanese prisoners of war held by the Soviet Union, how many children were orphaned, how many women were widowed, and how many Japanese were dislocated throughout China upon the war’s end.[8] Dower also tries to quantify the distrust and disaffection expressed by the Japanese people towards former servicemen after the war, as feelings of guilt and blame were projected upon those serving as symbols of the war that had torn their country apart and cost Japan so many lives, homes, families, and communities.

As United States military forces demilitarized Japan and engaged in the destruction of Japanese armaments, the Japanese people embraced democratization and even women’s suffrage by 1946.[9] Japanese exhaustion and despair after the war, in which widespread famine and homelessness challenged Japan to “endure the unendurable,” captured the Japanese post-war sentiment of revolution en-route to democratization.[10] According to Dower, discontent with post-war conditions allowed for an easier shift from imperial Japanese political tradition to an embrace of democracy. Amidst a growing sense of social disintegration and the increase in prostitution[11] and black market entrepreneurship, Dower contends that sexual expression and black market commerce through which men and women could regain a sense of personal worth and economic stability, were deeply rooted in Japanese ideas of democratization.[12] The sense of degeneracy and dislocation of the early post-war years metamorphosed into a “bittersweet ambiance of life on the margins in a defeated land,” as linguistic shifts from wartime militaristic vocabularies towards peacetime vocabularies of pacifism mocking defeat to lessen the wounds of such a failure.[13] According to Dower, the Japanese embraced the vocabulary of pacifism, and made “construct a nation of peace” Japan’s most popular phrase by the late 1940s.[14] Within Japan’s “neocolonial revolution,” Dower argues that an increased demand for democratic literature, grassroots movements for a democratic revolution, and the growth in popularity of “May Day” demonstrations, were evidence that the democratization imposed by American General McArthur “from above” was actually simultaneously being driven by the Japanese people “from below.”[15]

Beautifully written with a level of detail that places the reader within the period of which Dower writes, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II offers readers valuable insight into life in post-war Japan, and a valuable understanding of the economic, political, and cultural transformations taking place throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in Japan. However, although Dower’s research presented throughout Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II is well researched and presents intriguing questions and interesting perspectives that inspire curiosity, his work presented therein is so vast and broad that it could easily be broken down into two or even three monographs, instead of this single behemoth of historical literature. At 677 pages, it seems as though this work is an encyclopedic volume of World War II history focused on Japan during the war and in the war’s aftermath, not a simple monograph in which Dower seeks to present a single thesis and provide analysis of evidence to prove his point.

John Dower’s compelling examination of post-war Japan presents readers with an extremely detailed and extensively documented narrative of Japanese reconstruction spanning the 1940s and 50s. Japan’s prewar “runaway militarism”[16] was transformed into a post-war embrace of defeat, through what Dower asserts was “regendering a hermaphroditic creature”[17] in the process of creating a Japanese constitutional democracy. As American forces censored the Japanese media and glorified their own image as the victors,[18] the Tokyo Tribunal served as a cleanse of Japan to purge Japanese war guilt by punishing war-time leaders, much like the German Nuremburg Trials.[19] In what Dower contends was a “requiem for departed heroes,” Japan embraced the “responsibility for defeat” through an embrace of Buddhism as an expression of repentance, in which repentance became a means of nationalistic expression.[20] Dower asserts that “the Japanese economists and bureaucrats who drafted the informal 1946 blueprint for a planned economy” centered in Japanese democratization upon demilitarization, were “admirably clear” in their objective of embracing defeat to rescue Japan from the war-time absence of democracy.[21] Dower successfully argues that Japan embraced their defeat in World War II through an embrace of democracy.

[1] John Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999) P.22.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 627.

[6] Ibid., 605.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Ibid., Chapter 1.

[9] Ibid., 83.

[10] Ibid., 105.

[11] Ibid., 125.

[12] Ibid., 153.

[13] Ibid., 167-170.

[14] Ibid., 176.

[15] Ibid., 277.

[16] Ibid., 332.

[17] Ibid., 347.

[18] Ibid., 432.

[19] Ibid., 468.

[20] Ibid., 496.

[21] Ibid., 564.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library
Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library


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