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John Dower on Teaching from Embracing Defeat: An EAA Interview

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John W. Dower is the Elting E. Morison Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent work, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (W. W. Norton and The New Press, 1999), has received international critical acclaim from the academic community, the media, and the general public. A long list of awards for Embracing Defeat includes the American Historical Association’s 1999 John K. Fairbank Prize, the 2000 Bancroft Prize awarded by Columbia University, the 1999 National Book Award, and the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. In achieving such broad acclaim across specialized and general audiences, Professor Dower’s work has focused new attention on the historical context of contemporary Japan.

Embracing Defeat continues an exploration of questions about war, peace, and justice in Japanese history and U.S.-Japan relations that has characterized Dower’s career and his previous works. including Empire and Aftermath and War Without Mercy. In this work, however, Dower moves in new directions. While he reexamines “big” questions of history, such as the decision to retain the imperial institution. Dower also taps into rich resources of popular culture and personal writings to analyze issues and events as perceived by ordinary Japanese. In so doing, he offers a new narrative of the occupation as an essentially Japanese experience lived by real people.

We met Professor Dower in the spring of 1999. As part of our initial work to plan the summer institute, “Japan 1945-1989: Recreating a Modern Nation,” we had just read Embracing Defeat and knew that Dower’s research and analysis could be critical and exciting topics to explore with high school teachers in the institute. We invited John to give the keynote address for the institute; he joined the program for two sessions, engaging us in his research questions and analysis.

During our institute follow-through in the 1999-2000 school year, we were impressed by the number of institute alumni incorporating Embracing Defeat into their instruction on the postwar period. Dower’s discussions and his book had both challenged institute participants to engage their students with important questions of this period- how bitter enemies can become friends and allies, how democracy develops,  howthe experiences of ordinary people change our perceptions of events- and provided them with rich new primary sources for doing so. Our interview with Dower for EAA is an outgrowth of our 1999 institute participants’ response to Embracing Defeat. We invited Professor Dower to talk with us about Embracing Defeat, the evolution of his own research on war and its impact in Japan. and particularly, his thoughts on secondary-level teaching on this and related topics.