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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II
676 pages (Hardcover)
680 pages (Softcover)
John W. Dower
W & W Norton and Co.
A hard look at America's occupation of Japan following the Pacific War.
Overall Rating:

Animefringe Reviews:
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II
By Ridwan Khan

Sometimes, after watching Rurouni Kenshin or Seven Samurai I wonder about how much Japan has changed in one hundred years. An astute viewer can see the changes taking place in Japan in the Kenshin movie. However, the biggest catalyst for Japan's change to a technological superpower was the American occupation of the country after World War II. But still, this Pulitzer Prize winning book is not about the victorious America, but rather Japan and how the Japanese dealt with the stigma of losing. In a world where history is written by the winners, Embracing Defeat is a refreshing look at the the triumphs and the mistakes on both the American and Japanese sides during the occupation.

The book deals with the social and political aftermath of the war; from immediately after Hirohito's radio broadcast to the nation (to which Dower adds the differing feelings of the Japanese people upon hearing of the surrender) through MacArthur's role as an unoffical shogun. Throughout the book, Dowers presents not the complete history of post-occupation Japan, but the feelings and experiences of people. He presents wives praying for husbands to come home and Japanese people trying to deal with being a ravaged, beaten nation. Dowers moves deftly through the period, which is no easy task, considering the amount of personal material (diaries, letters, etc.) the author had to sift through.

Though good things did come of the occupation (first and foremost Japan's MacArthur constitution), the book is bogged down in the dismal, but Dower's succint style still keeps the book moving. Throughout the text, Dowers highlights the hypocrisy of the occupying forces. America outwardly wanted to promote democracy in Japan, but they did this through the all powerful Douglas MacArthur. The Allies wanted to punish the war criminals responsible for the war, but instead let the biggest war criminal of all, Hirohito, go free while others took his bullet. America promised the Japanese American ideals, like freedom of speech, but instead censored nearly as much as the Meiji goverment had (and, adds a wry commentary, the Japanese didn't have to translate work into English for censorship reviews during the Meiji goverment). Most of all, America promised to demilitarize the Japanese, but rearmed them as soon as the Communist threat began to keep Washington up at night. The list of American injustices runs long. One of the most striking sections of the book describes the playtime activities of children during the occupation. Instead of pretending to be samurai, little boys would fashion GI hats out of newspaper and their female playmates would act as their prostitutes.

The book also goes into detail about the Tokyo Trials of the Class-A war criminals. Some of the most interesting facts in the book concern the trial, including that the Americans had the trial in an American judical style, rather than the British style the Japanese were accustomed to, which obviously greatly handicapped the defense. At the last minute, two token Asian judges were added to the panel to lend a note of credibility, one from the Phillipines and one from India (of course, at the time both countries were firmly underneath the thumbs of America and Britain, respectively). The Indian judge, the most versed in international law of the panel, acquitted all of the defendants, since most of the charges against them concerned conspiracy to start the war, and he reasoned that there was no conspiracy. He was voted down by the Western judges.

The less discerning reader might accuse the book of being very pro-Japan. However, Dower does mention the Japanese disdain for the Chinese, Koreans, Okinawans, and other Asian peoples the Japanese Army had ravaged. Dower goes to great lengths to describe the mental backflips that the Japanese did to absolve themselves of war guilt, as flimsy as the connections were. Overall, the book is objective in its treatment. If one party is looking good, it is probably because Dower is explaining some failing of the other.

I've said it before, I'm a history nerd. Embracing Defeat is a solid history book, but one has to be interested in the topic to make it through the book's nearly seven hundred pages. Having said that, Embracing Defeat is a Pulitzer Prize winning book (and they don't just hand those out) and the softcover edition is only thirteen bucks at Amazon.

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