Embracing Defeat


by John W. Dower

Explaining the Inexplicable

I became fascinated with Japanese pop and traditional culture through discovering Anime in the early 90s. Slowly my interests broadened from the animation form to the langauge, culture, and history. Eventually I encountered some references to the "profound sense of betrayal" held by Japanese who had lived through the post-WWII era. While everyone on the losing side of a war loses faith in their rulers, there seemed to be something more there, something I didn't understand.

Until, that is, I read Dower's profound book. Embracing Defeat won the Pulitzer Prize among other honors for its exposition of the experience of those Japanese who, after thirteen years of nationalist war, suddenly experienced something else entirely from their own government.

The primary value of the book is to bring home for anyone -- Japanese or Western -- who didn't live through it the incredible cruelty of the Japanese government to its own citizens in that dark hour. At the end of the war, supplies of all kinds were in short supply in Japan as the war-won supplies from overseas dried up. The greater part of the Japanese army was not forced back to the mainland -- it was trapped in China, Burma, or island bases across the Pacific by the American naval victories. American bombardments shattered the production chain for any manufactured goods, and made the organized activity necessary for rice production diffucult. Making a bad thing worse, 1944 delivered the worst rice harvest in decades.

As 1944 ended, it became impossible for even the jingoistic Japanese cabinet to pretend the war against America would be won; they settled for urging their fellow Japanese to defend the home islands to the death (they clearly had forgotten the brilliant Admiral Yamamoto's pre-war briefing to the emperor: "In a short war, I can guarantee you victory; in a long war, I can guarantee you nothing."). Although "defend to the death" sounds merely jingoistic to us now, in 1945 it was a fairly reasonable expectation. The Japanese soldiers defending island bastions had indeed lived up to that exhortation, and it was in line with centuries of conditioning to subjugate the needs of the individual to the needs of the group.

From this mindset, the Japanese citizens were confronted with, first, the sudden decision of their government to surrender; the phenomenon of the emperor speaking to them personally over the radio; and the arrival of the paternalistic McArthur occupation authorities. But the events that most help explain the conversion of Japan into the most pacifistic major country in existence comes from another source: the actions of the various pieces of the government and army in the months of chaos.

The list is almost too long to enumerate: the army colonel who sent his troops out to scour up the country's supply of nickel (necessary for steelmaking), and thus personally secured a monopoly in Japan for a decade after the war; the armed confiscation of the 1945 rice harvest by troops not yet disarmed; the government's callous disregard for the exhausted returning Japanese troops; the Japanese occupation authorities and their families who were murdered in Manchuria, where they were trapped by lack of transport; the list goes on. The Japanese administration was probably truly incapable of effectively mitigating the terrible starvation conditions in Japan in 1945-46; the war had greatly weakened the resource base of the country. But the remarkable thing Dower reports is how, once surrender had broken the spell of the emperor's cult, the primary activity of Japanese government and army officials was self-enrichment.

In any other era, this would have been little-reported and probably of little impact on the average Japanese citizen. But in 1945-6 two factors combined to make something totally different occur. First, the occupation authorities, while carefully censoring any hint of agitation against the U.S. troops then taking up station, had no such prohibition against tales of mismanagement domestically. Thus, for the first time outside of the brief democracy window in 1920-21, Japanese citizens got detailed information on their government's misdeeds. Secondly, part of the pre-surrender brainwashing had been the upcoming misdeeds of the American troops once they arrived.

Instead, the 20-year-old new recruits simply showed up to direct traffic, live on the base, and hand out candy bars to starving kids. More fantastically to people steeped in images of the caucasian barbarians, the McArthur occupation (bearing a Western attitude towards the welfare of the people) took effective steps to mitigate the starvation conditions throughout Japan as the extent of the problem became clear in 1946. Emergency shipments of rice, wheat, and other grains from around the Pacific supplemented a quick reimplementation of the agricultural distribution chain, such that after the winter of 1947 most Japanese once again had a reliable supply of basic provisions.

Abused by their own governing classes, abandoned by their commanding officers, and fundamentally misled about the war, the Japanese people were uniquely ready in 1946/7 to adopt a new credo for their country. That remarkable story is the true and gripping one retold in Dowers' spectacularly researched book.