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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

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For those who teach about Japan, or any country other than their own, the issue of how to reach students is a constant challenge. Teachers always strive to go beyond the textbook and construct activities that actively engage students in their learning. Do you use a “hook” to “lure the students in” and then get around to the required material, or cover the material needed hoping that, through the exciting nature of history itself, students will learn something? Often, from my experience, the problem with the hook approach is that its focus is something odd or weird about another society. Because the hook is not substantive, it reinforces the simplistic view that it is easier to understand other peoples and nations by examining how they are different from ourselves. With recent publications and the popularity of such topics as the yakuza and geisha, one might assume that these topics are more essential for understanding Japanese society than they are.

book cover for embracing defeatSo how do we get students interested in critical historical events, such as the Allied occupation of Japan? Read John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. The history here is messy, complicated, emotional, and sometimes amusing. In his complex, far-reaching approach to the Allied occupation of Japan, Dower reexamines and chronicles in fascinating detail not only the idealism, arrogance, and contradictory attitudes and policies of the Americans but also the less-often-told story of the defeated and the many, varied, complex, and surprising Japanese responses to the defeat and the occupation. In these responses, we don’t see unique or essentially Japanese people bound by thousands of years of culture and national character, but human beings who reacted in countless expected and unexpected ways in the face of great tragedies and unknown futures.

Embracing Defeat also challenges the notion of the occupation as a seven-year stint, in which the Americans tried to establish democracy, followed by Japan’s reversion to its “old ways.” Instead, Dower argues the interactions between the victors and vanquished between 1945 and 1952 have had Martha, the United States, Japan, and their relationship ever since. The Japanese people were not passive recipients of the generous American reforms but actors who shaped the nature of these reforms from all sides, reacted to these reforms in every conceivable manner, and throughout the postwar years, made these reforms their own.

Dower chronicles these interactions in great detail in imaginative ways; his sources are varied and fascinating, providing substantive hooks for classroom instructions on virtually every page. Among the sources Dower uses are letters to the editor from Japanese newspapers, literature, cartoons, scholarly journals, official American (Supreme Command Allied Pacific) and Japanese documents, diaries, songs, police records, children’s games, and posters. All of these sources lend a greater understanding of the complexity of the reactions and initiatives of the Japanese people during the occupation. A minimal example is Dower’s use of radio programs to discuss one of the many problems facing Japanese families in the immediate postwar period. 

Beginning in January 1946, a radio program called Returnee News provided ongoing information concerning the names of incoming repatriates and their ports of entry. When this proved inadequate, Missing Persons was introduced in June 1946. Almost immediately, the station was inundated with four to five hundred written inquiries daily and dozens of phone calls, and by August, broadcast time had been increased to twice daily, five days a week. For a while, the program included a particular segment- “Who Am I?”- devoted to inquiries from disoriented returned veterans. Missing Persons had considerable success in accomplishing its mission. Initially, forty to fifty percent of the questions it broadcast were answered. Until 1950 the program continued to clear up the whereabouts or announce the deaths of significant numbers of individuals. Missing Persons continued on the air until March 31, 1962 (pg. 58).

Contrast this paragraph with standard textbook treatment, if any, on issues of great concern to Japanese people and families during the occupation. The use of such a source provides insight into issues that concern ordinary Japanese people, not only during the occupation years but far into the postwar period. Furthermore, these sources give us the “hook” of the complexity of history–the lives, concerns, worries, and issues of Japanese people with the “long history” of reforms, constitution, and governments. 

The “long history” is not missing in this book. One of the most thought-provoking sections of Embracing Defeat is Dower’s treatment of issues surrounding the Emperor. Dower argues that one of MacArthur’s biggest mistakes was to immediately remove the Emperor from all the problems regarding war responsibility and ensure that his office remained intact. All of the issues regarding the Emperor were based on American notions promulgated during the Pacific War of the emperor’s incredible spiritual and emotional power over all the Japanese people. Instead of asking him to step down or even trying him as a war criminal, MacArthur used the Emperor as a force for democracy. The issues surrounding the Emperor are very complicated and worth the read, for Dower argues that this policy regarding the Emperor had severe repercussions not only for Japan during the occupation period but also for Japan during the entire postwar period–and beyond. The ridiculous nature of the war crimes trial, the unresolved issues of war responsibility on the individual and national levels in Japan, and the symbolic importance of the Emperor’s position as the male unifier of a homogenous people are all linked to the American occupation treatment of the Emperor.

The Emperor is only one of many “hooks” this book offers secondary and post-secondary educators for use in teaching about the occupation of Japan. In 1999 the Teaching East Asia/Social Science Education Consortium sponsored an institute, “Japan, 1945-1989: Recreating a Modern Nation” in Boulder, Colorado, and several teachers who participated have already incorporated aspects of Embracing Defeat into their classrooms. Both social studies and English teachers have utilized haiku and other literature to examine the reactions to the Allied occupation forces. Others have drawn on individual stories to get the human side of this period of history. The possibilities for using Embracing Defeat in the classroom are exciting. Still, educators should also read Embracing Defeat to re-examine their ideas and approaches to account.