Education About Asia: Online Archives

John Dower on Teaching from Embracing Defeat: An EAA Interview

Back to search results
Download PDF

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.

book cover for embracing defeat
Paperback cover photo: Hiroshima, September 1945. National Archives.

Embracing Defeat explores questions about war, peace, and justice in Japanese history and U.S.-Japan relations that have 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. At the same time, 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 ordinary Japanese perceive. In so doing, he offers a new narrative of the occupation as an essentially Japanese experience lived by real people.

photo of a bearded man
Photograph of John W. Dower by Mark Ostow

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 alums incorporating Embracing Defeat into their instruction during the postwar period. Dower’s discussions and his book both challenged institute participants to engage their students with essential questions of this period- how bitter enemies can become friends and allies, how democracy develops, how the 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 research on war and its impact on Japan, and his thoughts on secondary-level teaching on this and related topics.

– Lynn Parisi and Kathleen Krauth

 Lynn: John, first, we want to congratulate you on your recognition for Embracing Defeat. When we first approached you in the fall of 1999 about an interview for Education About Asia, Embracing Defeat had not yet received the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, or many other awards. We know that your schedule has been hectic this past year, partly due to the positive response to your book, and we want to thank you for taking the time for this interview.

In talking to you about Embracing Defeat, our perspectives are that of precollege staff developers and secondary-level history teachers. Consequently, we want to ask you how your work questions and enriches historical narratives of the occupation period and U.S.–Japan relations for teachers designing instruction and for their students, as well as how it challenges our thinking about Japan and the Japanese people.

Kathy: The impact of the occupation on postwar Japan and U.S.–Japan relations has figured into your previous writings. What was your impetus to undertake this new research for Embracing Defeat?

JWD: For much of my career, I’ve been interested in the broad questions of how two countries that had been such ferocious enemies in World War II – the United States and Japan – emerged as close allies and friends. How could they move so quickly from war to peace, from truly virulent hatreds and racial animosities into a period of cooperation, collaboration, amity, and personal friendships at many different levels? When I began looking at these issues as a graduate student, I approached the topic through the elites and the formal record. That was how you made history in the 1960s and into the 70s – you looked at legal documents, official records, and the activities of the ruling groups. It was a good way of getting at some regions of policy-making and power. But it left out a lot.

a line of small children walk together
Children orphaned during the repatriation of Japanese civilians from Manchuria arriving at Tokyo’s Shinagawa station in December 1946, sixteen months after the surrender. Photo: Asahi Shimbunsha

As the years passed, my interest moved toward social and cultural history – trying to understand national and international interactions and changes at every level, including the grassroots. Embracing Defeat, I look at Japan and the Japanese people in many different ways. I’m challenging the concept of “Japan” and saying that there are many Japan’s, just as there are many Americas.

Kathy: Your response leads directly to our following questions. Can you comment on your approach to this period and the sources you use, including expressions of popular culture? How does your system differ from previous narratives of this period?

JWD: When I came to this project, I said, “I want to get out of the Japanese experience of defeat and occupation.” And then I ask myself: “Who are the Japanese?” but once you ask this seriously, it is like asking who the Americans are. If someone comes up and inquires, “What are Americans like?” it’s only natural to respond, “Who are you talking about – men, women, old, young, north, south, rich, poor, people of color, white people?” This is just as true of Japan. You can’t talk about Japan; you must speak of “Japan.” And you can’t talk about “the Japanese” as if we still adhered to the old wartime cliché about seeing one and thus seeing them all. You have to talk about a great diversity of people. This goes against the popular notion of a harmonious and homogenized Japanese populace, just as it breaks down the idea of a monolithic “Japanese culture.” There are many cultures and many people.

So, when trying to understand the response to the Defeat of Japan after World War II, I felt it necessary to try as best as possible to talk about “everyone. “That meant the top politicians, capitalists, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and ordinary men and women. It meant children and young people as well as adults. I wanted to see if I could make a start at understanding what war, defeat, occupation, and starting over meant for individuals and all walks of life – the people who don’t provide us with conventional “scholarly” records. Once I had formulated the question this way, I had to consider how to pull it off – how to get at the gamut of personal experiences. And this led me to look at a wide range of sources that are still a little unconventional, at least in mainstream historical writings on Japan. This included cartoons, films, jokes, slogans, letters to newspapers, poems by ordinary people, children’s games, best sellers, pulp magazines, and common everyday language – all of which underwent rapid and extraordinary changes after the Defeat.

many parachutes fall on a people reaching for it
Cartoon by Kato Etsuro. The reformist agenda introduced by the occupation force was a “gift from heaven” welcomed by the populace. The canisters being parachuted in by the victors to a joyous reception read “democratic revolution.” From Kato’s 1946 booklet Okureta Kukmei, published by Kobarutosha

There were visceral things that the official record doesn’t convey. Colloquial and even vulgar language, for example. For instance, In severe historical writings of the very recent past, one didn’t introduce crude words. This was regarded as reflecting negatively on the seriousness or elegance of the scholarship itself. Indeed, this is a somewhat perverse variation on the notion of guilt by association, for much of our human experience – at all levels of society – is conveyed in that kind of language. I also examined subcultures like the prostitutes who serviced the American occupation forces and the vigorous black market that was the real economy of Japan from 1945 to 1949. I looked at “cultures of corruption.” I asked what games the children were playing. As I researched and wrote, one of the “keywords” in my mind was voices. I tried to uncover and listen to as many as I could – and then let them speak for themselves in the book.

Lynn: Would you comment further on “multiple voices?” The titles of many of the chapters in sections of Embracing Defeat are pluralized (Shattered Lives, Cultures of Defeat, Revolutions, Democracies, Guilts, Reconstructions), underscoring this fundamental perspective of your book – that there is no single or uniform Japanese experience of an occupation, but rather, many stories. What do the adventures of “ordinary” people add to our understanding of Japan, particularly in this period? How did the varied experiences and voices in Embracing Defeat challenge assumptions about the occupation period?

JWD: What I did in structuring the book, as you know, was pluralize things. In other words, I don’t speak of the culture of Defeat. I can talk about cultures. I address revolutions taking place at many levels. There is a revolution from above coming from both the American victors and certain Japanese elites – and full contradictions, as the notion of “revolution from above” implies. There’s a whole chapter on “embracing revolution” – that is, on how Japanese in all walks of life responded to often radical reforms. “Revolution” also manifested itself in various forms “from below” – not only in dynamic movements involving organized labor in the communist and socialist parties but also spontaneous demonstrations by housewives and shop-floor workers.

Sometimes, as with “democracies,” I suggest inherent tensions and contradictions that have carried over to the present day. I see the emergence of genuine democratic consciousness and activism in these years. At the same time, this is boxed in various undemocratic ways. This leads me to introduce the notion of “oxymoronic democracy” – “imperial democracy” under the Emperor, for example, and “censored democracy” in which the Americans promoted free speech whiles themselves engaging in censorship of the Japanese media. “Bureaucratic democracy,” reflecting the occupation command’s modus operandi, is another example of democracy in a box.

Overall, however, I am arguing that, in many ways, the Japanese embraced not just the end of the war that had come home but – more subtly and yet dramatically – the opportunity to start over and create a more democratic and non-militaristic society. I am merged with admiration for the vigor of people at all levels, particularly the so-called non-elites, and how they wrestled with starting over in a shattered world. Vast numbers of Japanese struggled intelligently with building new private lives and a new society. Without understanding this, we can’t understand the nature of democratic and anti-militarist sentiments in contemporary Japan. The energy and iconoclasm I found at so many levels repudiate the stereotype of people who are socialized to acquiesce to authority and incapable of governing themselves.

Kathy: We have been talking about the stories of ordinary people – history “on the ground.” Embracing Defeat also re-examines major national and international policy issues of the period. One of these is the issue of Emperor Hirohito. In perhaps the most controversial part of Embracing Defeat, you argue that the Allied retention of Hirohito and the imperial institution was probably the most significant missed opportunity by the Americans. Please comment on this policy’s repercussions for postwar Japan.

JWD: I think several aspects of the book are controversial. “De-homogenizing, “the Japanese, is controversial, as is my critique of the Allied war crimes trials. But you’re right – the most contentious argument is probably how I treat a decision to retain Emperor Hirohito on the throne. Here I am introducing a line of view we can find in Japanese scholarship: the neglected “third alternative “for dealing with a sovereign who had reigned since 1926 through two decades of aggression abroad and repression at home. One option was to bring Hirohito to trial for war crimes – alongside the top-level loyal officers and officials who were brought to trial. A second alternative was to retain him as a new kind of “symbol emperor “under a new constitutional system – the policy followed. 

several men in uniform ride horses, including one riding a white horse at the front
Hirohito’s most memorable public appearances before the surrender involved reviewing the imperial forces from his handsome horse, White Snow. Photo: National Archives

The third alternative was to use Emperor Hirohito to effect the surrender and then have him abdicate under the assumption of “moral “responsibility for the disastrous war. In fact – and I document this in detail – the abdication issue came up concretely on three occasions following the Defeat. It arose first in 1945-6 after the surrender had been smoothly carried out: then in late 1948, when the Tokyo trial of “class A “war criminals came to an end, and finally, in late 1951 and early 1952, when the occupation was drawing to a close. On all three occasions, the possibility of abdication was raised on the Japanese side. It had supporters among individuals close to the throne (including the Emperor’s uncle and younger brother) and other conservatives who believed that Hirohito had a moral obligation to take responsibility for the millions of loyal subjects who died fighting in his name. Whenever the Japanese side came to General MacArthur or other top occupation officials and asked, “Do you think he should surrender? “the Americans said, “No, absolutely not. We need him for stability. We need him as a bulwark against social unrest and communism in Japan. “And so Hirohito continued on the throne – his reign did not end until 1989, long after every other famous wartime leader had passed away. General MacArthur even took to publicly calling him the leader of postwar democratization. And the usual view is this was a wise decision. The Emperor has always been a pacifist at heart; the story went and was now able to lead his people into an epoch of true peace and democracy.

I am critical of this. I think Hirohito’s retention created problems that continue to the present day. Why? Under the new Japanese constitution that the Americans fathered from 1946 to 1947, sovereignty was given to the people for the first time. Until then, there was no such thing as a Japanese “citizen.” All were “subjects” under the Emperor. Popular sovereignty was truly radical reform – as was the renunciation of the “right of belligerency” formally proclaimed in the new constitution. Under the new charter, the Emperor was identified as “the symbol of the state of the unity of the people.” 

The problem lies, as I see it, in the ambiguity of the “symbol emperor” concept. It is imprecise. It is almost; one might say, ambidextrous. It is an empty vessel that can be filled with any number of conflicting interpretations – and when Hirohito was allowed to stay on as sovereign, the more conservative connotations of this imperial “symbol “were personified and strengthened. We must step back and ask, “What, in total, did Hirohito symbolize as Emperor? “The answer is not simple. I would agree that he became a symbol of Japan’s transition from war to peace, and that is not negligible. At the same time, however, it takes a vivid imagination to see the noble inheritor of divine kingship as a symbol of democracy.

On the contrary, Hirohito and the new postwar constitutional monarchy “symbolized “many things that are not democratic. One is the monarchy itself and the whole oxymoron of imperial democracy. The throne remained a symbol of hereditary privilege. It also remained a symbol of patriarchy. One of the little puzzles of the occupation is why the Americans, given their enthusiastic support of the monarchy, allowed the Japanese to retain the rule that only males could succeed to the throne. This wasn’t even a “traditional “practice in Japan, for there had been empresses in earlier times. The patriarchal rule of succession was adopted only in the late nineteenth century when the Japanese set out to make the throne the pivot of modern nationalism. Still, the American reformers, who were so zealous in other areas, let this stand – with obvious dire consequences today when their heir apparent. His wife is under enormous pressure to produce a male heir. And, of course, the throne remained a racial symbol as well. Japanese sovereigns did not intermarry with the royalty of other nations, races, or cultures. No Japanese sovereign was more closely identified with the virulent ideology of “Yamato race” superiority than Hirohito. This was the essence of the “Imperial Way” indoctrination that marked his reign’s first two disastrous decades.

At the same time, the American decision to absolve Hirohito of all responsibility whatsoever for the horrendous war that had been waged in his name, and with his close personal involvement – even of moral responsibility – undermined severe public debate about war responsibility in Japan until he died in 1989. On this critical issue, Hirohito’s retention may be said to symbolize irresponsibility – a non-accountability – that continues to the present day. And finally, with support from the Americans and continuing as formal Japanese policy to the present day, the intimate records of Hirohito in the Imperial House, in general, are closed to outside scrutiny. Here we have a perfect symbol of secret governance, or non-transparency, in our present-day parlance.

several women stand at voting booths
Women voted, for the first time, in the general election of 1946. The granting of woman suffrage was sometimes referred to as “the vote received from MacArthur” Photo: Kyodo Tsushin (Kyodo News Agency)

All this contradicts the grassroots spirit of “peace and democracy “that I found impressive in the years following the Defeat. At the same time, the lingering taboos on discussing Hirohito’s war responsibility play into the hands of those present-day conservatives and neo-nationalists who seek to sanitize the record of aggression and atrocity that took place under Hirohito’s ages between 1926 and 1945. To have made the Emperor the “symbol “of the country and retained Hirohito as the predominant embodiment of what that symbol implies has warped domestic debates on Japanese identity in unfortunate ways. This is apparent in contemporary right-wing rhetoric, in which “postwar democracy” is a pejorative term and ideal Japan is defined in much more the same language that characterized Hirohito’s first two decades of sovereignty: as an “emperor-centered land of the gods. “Us vis-a-vis Them, with a minor in common and little to share; this is hardly an inauspicious way to define one’s identity in the twenty-first century.

Lynn: You argue convincingly that Japanese from all segments of society were ready for a change and thus embraced the Defeat and the changes introduced by the occupation forces. Yet many Americans adhere to the idea that because Japanese democracy was imposed from outside and is practiced differently than in the United States, Japan is not a true democracy. Most Americans recognize that the occupation staff drafted Japan’s postwar constitution and that it was adopted reluctantly by the Japanese government, but how and why did the Japanese make this constitution their own during the occupation and postwar period?

JWD: Many Japanese I talk to nowadays also feel they don’t have “true “democracy. I agree. But Americans don’t have a  perfect democracy either. Who does? We must step back and say, “Wait a minute, we can’t judge Japan by rarefied ideals that we and others haven’t attained or don’t practice, either.” One of the things I think we must do as teachers and educators is understand that “democracy “is an ongoing struggle. These rights, liberties, freedoms, and values have been evolving and are constantly being struggled over and worked out. I believe Japan has emerged as one of the strong democracies of the postwar period. It has a free press. It has strong protections of the law. Its electoral system is no more corrupt or ruled by big money than ours. Proportionally, it has as many – or more accurately, as few – women in its parliament as we do in our Congress: around 11 or 12 percent. It even has socialist and communist parties, and in this regard, a more excellent range of political debate and choice than we do. Japan is also a genuinely non-militaristic society, as far as such a society can be said to exist today. It is a flawed democracy, and it is constantly being pushed in the direction of creeping re-military remilitarization under the Eagle’s wing. Still, much of what we see is admirable – a far cry from the author, the authoritarianism and militarism of pre-war Japan.

Now, what can we say about the Constitution? Shortly after the war ended, the victorious Allied powers, led by the Americans, announced a “demilitarization and democratization” policy for Japan. The Americans said the Meiji Constitution 1890 was “feudalistic” and fundamentally undemocratic. It restricted human and civil rights. It did not give sovereignty to the people. It did not establish a separation of powers and allowed the military and other anti-democratic elements to usurp authority. Early on, the Americans told the Japanese government to change the constitution: the government, which was very conservative, set up a committee of legal experts to investigate the matter. Predictively, they came up with minor and cosmetic proposals for revision. And so General MacArthur called the head of the Government Section in his occupation command and said, “Look, they are not going to do what is necessary. We’ll write a model constitution for them. “MacArthur gave Government Section one week to do this, and their draft eventually became the national charter that governs Japan today.

a person holding up chains with scissors in the background illustrations
In one of Kato’s numerous renderings of the liberation brought about by the early occupation policies, giant American shears cut the chains that had held down “the people.” At the same time, old-guard power brokers and militarists fled in the background. The specific reference was to the SCAP’s “civil liberties” directive of October 4, 1945. From Kato’s 1946 booklet Okureta Kukumei, published by Kobarutosha

The constitution the Americans birthed, the so-called MacArthur Constitution, is also known as the Peace Constitution. It is a very progressive document with three distinguishing features. It establishes popular sovereignty and defines the Emperor as a “symbol “(rather than “sacred and inviolable, “as in the Meiji Constitution). It renounces belligerency as the state’s right (not only in the famous Article 9 “no war” clause but also in the preamble). And thirdly, it codifies an impressive list of civil and human rights (even including what Americans would refer to as an “equal rights” provision, explicitly stipulating that men and women are equal before the law).

This constitution was enacted in 1947 after extensive discussion in the Diet or parliament. To the present day, not a word of it has been revised. As can easily be imagined, it has been a primary target of conservatives, who argue that it is an alien document that does not reflect true Japanese spirit or sentiment. In their view, this is simply the most blatant and embarrassing of many egregious acts of cultural imperialism imposed by the victors upon the vanquished.

My argument in Embracing Defeat is a little different from the standard view. I make a distinction between the Japanese government and the Japanese people. While the government and the committee it appointed to look into the revision were very conservative, private groups produced many drafts in 1945 and early 1946. When the Americans announced that Japan should revise its constitution, different organizations, political parties, and even some individuals devoted themselves to writing what they thought would be an excellent new national charter. The Americans had access to the results of all this activity, and, with a few exceptions, these drafts were decidedly more liberal than anything the government was willing to entertain. There’s a lesson in this for everyone who deals with Japan, whether as educators or writers. We must be careful not to take whatever the government says or does as representing “the” Japanese perspective. That is the fallacy of a monolithic “Japan.” Where constitutional revision was concerned, right from the beginning, there was a conspicuous gap between the conservative government and grassroots opinion.

I also trace out how, in the process of being translated by the government, changes took place in the American draft. It went through several versions and then was debated for over one hundred sessions in the parliament. The legislators introduced some changes, including progressive ones, and the public followed these debates closely. One of the most far-reaching constitutional “reforms “stemmed from an initiative outside the political process when an informal group of individuals successfully urged that the revised constitution be written in language everyone could understand. This was a genuinely revolutionary grassroots proposal. Up to that point, official documents were written in a formal language called bungotai that differed from everyday Japanese and was difficult for the average person to understand. With this reform, which came entirely from the Japanese side, the entire corpus of written law eventually became more accessible. These things went back and forth and closely watched ways. None of this challenges the fact that the Americans wrote the primary draft. But it caused attention to the other side of the picture – the fact that there was much more Japanese, and put that is conveyed in the usual story of the constitution being forced on a passive and reluctant populous.

Right from the beginning, the Americans assumed that the Japanese would, in time, make revisions to the new charter as they deemed appropriate. They never did. Not a word has been changed since it went into effect in 1947. Why? Not because it is a perfect document but because a large percentage of the Japanese people still cherish the fundamental ideals of democracy and anti-militarism that the constitution so clearly exemplifies. For over half a century, this is their constitution. Nothing in the law prevents them from changing it. I would anticipate that there will probably be changes made shortly. If nothing else, the ongoing dilemma of maintaining military forces under a constitution that seems to prohibit this is pushing sentiment in that direction. But they will never return to anything resembling the conservative, absolutist type of constitution they had previously. Despite its undeniable genesis in Government Section, the so-called MacArthur Constitution did – and still does – reflect ideals embraced by a great many Japanese.

Lynn: You devote several chapters to the war crimes trials in Japan, which is also controversial. As you have discussed, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials seem to offer a powerful historical analogy to help students examine contemporary controversies over international crimes and justice. What did the Tokyo War Crimes Trials tell us about the issue of war crimes trials generally and international war crimes trials today?

JWD: Two chapters in the book address war crimes and war responsibility. One, titled “Victor’s Justice, Loser’s Justice,” looks at the way the victorious Allied powers conducted war crimes trials of the Japanese and how Japanese, particularly at the elite level, actively contributed to these trials. The second chapter, titled “What Do You Tell the Dead When You Lose?” looks at such concepts as “guilt” and “repentance” entirely from the Japanese side. This is another example of my attempt to understand Defeat and occupation as a Japanese experience, not a Western one or one defined in the vocabulary of the victors.

Where the Tokyo trials are concerned, my critical approach is conveyed in the notion of “victor’s justice,” – but the spin I give this is to note how much the showcase trials in Tokyo coincided with the interests of Japanese conservatives. The most obvious example is the political decision to exclude the Emperor from the tests. Not only was he not indicted, he was never interrogated. More egregious yet, the American-led prosecution took care to ensure that the Emperor’s role was never mentioned negatively in the course of the trial. There were other deplorable omissions, such as the American decision to cover up the notorious “Unit 731” activities in Manchuria, which had conducted gruesome medical experiments on prisoners. In this instance, the American secretly granted immunity from prosecution to the scientists involved in exchange for information about the details of this ghastly experiment. They also chose not to address the terrible exploitation of thousands of so-called ianfu, or “comfort women,” who performed sexual services for the imperial forces. In other words, in many respects, “Victor’s Justice” actually involved covering up the true nature of Imperial Japan’s war crimes.

The other side of “Victor’s Justice” is more familiar. I support the ideals behind the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials – namely, that the aggressor should be accountable for their deeds under international law. But the Tokyo trial was flawed in many ways. The high-level former officers and officials brought to the dock in Tokyo (25 of them at the end of the problem) were a somewhat arbitrarily selected “representative” group. A high level of notion was involved in deciding who would – and, ipso facto, who would not – be indicted for “class A” war crimes. The accused were then tried for committing “crimes against peace” – an important legal concept that did not exist in international law before the war ended in 1945. This is what we call ex post facto law. As legal scholars often point out, it violates the fundamental legal precept that “without a law, there can be no crime; without a law, there can be no punishment” (nullum crimen sine lege, nulla poena sine lege).

The key charge in the Tokyo trial was that Japan’s leaders had been engaged in a conspiracy or “common plan “to commit aggressive, or that dated back to 1928. Every act after that, every response to developments abroad – to the global depression, anti-Japanese activities in China, whatever – was simply part of a master plan to commit aggression. No serious historian today would accept this argument, but “conspiracy “was the key to the prosecution’s case. In addition, defendants were found guilty of committing crimes like breaking treaties or abusing prisoners. They had indeed done so, but so also had some of the victorious nations represented on the bench. The argument here, of course, involves the perception of “double standards” by the victorious powers. Where “crimes against peace” or “crimes against humanity” are concerned, for example, the Japanese could (and still do) bring up Allied behavior, such as the American terror bombing of civilians that culminated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the abuse and killing of a considerable number of Japanese POWs by the Soviet Union (which only Entered the war in Asia in its final week, and did so in violation of its neutrality pack with Japan).

The charge of double standards goes far beyond this. Even as the Japanese defendants in Tokyo were found guilty of “aggression” in Asia, the British, French, and the Dutch – with American support – were forcibly attempting to reassert control over their colonial possessions there. The Soviets were clamping an iron hand on Eastern Europe, China had plunged into the final, violent vortex of its Civil War, and the wartime Allied alliance – serenely represented all together on the bench in Tokyo – had been sundered. The Cold War was in full swing – while, in Tokyo, the prosecution was still unthinkingly arguing that when the Japanese defendants asserted that they had been sincerely concerned by the threat of “Red peril” in Asia, this was merely self-serving propaganda in inadmissible as a legitimate defense. The majority judgment at the Tokyo trial endorses this argument. And, of course, none of the nations that sat in judgment of the Japanese and Germans over a half-century ago subsequently dreamed of allowing the apparent precedent of international accountability to be applied to itself. 

schoolchildren crowd around a soldier passing out candy from his jeep
The most effective “gifts from heaven” purveyed by the occupation troops were often the simplest: sweets, cigarettes, and chewing gum, accompanied by offhanded friendliness. “Give me chocolate” became a catchphrase for children’s approach toward the conquerors within days after the first GIs arrived. Schoolchildren crowd around a soldier passing out candy from his jeep in September 1945. Photo: National Archives

This poses severe challenges to us as concerned citizens and educators today. Japanese neo-nationalists have seized upon the flaws and hypocrisies of the Tokyo trial to throw a smoke screen over the truly aggressive and atrocious behavior that Imperial Japan did engage in. Non-Japanese commonly condemn these critics out of hand and dismiss them as irresponsible “deniers “of Japan’s war responsibility. But this is only half true, and those who hold the Tokyo trial up as some faultless judgment of history are also “deniers” in their way, refusing to acknowledge what a lousy trial this was and what a problem it has bequeathed to us.

Kathy: How might educators bring these issues into the classroom?

JWD: I hope educators can turn these polemics about and use the Tokyo trial as a case study for examining any issues that concern us today. This would include not just the fascinating problem of “war and memory “in contemporary Japan but also broader issues, such as the language of “law “versus the language of “history “– why, that is, the black-and-white, admissible-or-inadmissible, guilty-or-innocent language of the courtroom is rarely compatible with the vastly more ambiguous and intricate analysis of the historian. Or one could use the trials as a basis for addressing the volatile issue of hypocrisy and double standards in international relations–the challenge of doing “comparative” history. Obviously, for anyone interested in whether it is possible to mount international severe war crimes tribunals today– and I support this in principle – there is a great deal to be learned from the negative lessons and legacies of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial.

As I approach it in Embracing Defeat, the other side of this coin is to look at how the Japanese themselves addressed the concepts of guilt, responsibility, repentance, and atonement. It is only natural that these words meet meant something different to them than they did to the victors. However, we rarely put ourselves in other people’s shoes and try to see the world as they do. For Americans, for example, the Japanese were “guilty” of the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor and “guilty” of the Bataan Death March and the more extensive practice of seemingly systematic atrocity this symbolizes. This is understandable, but it doesn’t get us very far. As educators, indeed, we must face the fact that before all else, all people more than their war dead. We Americans certainly do this, and dramatically so, in monuments such as the Vietnam War Memorial, where the only did that matter our own and the nature of the war itself is banished from representation.

Approximately 3 million Japanese, including nearly a million civilians, were killed during the war in Asia and the Pacific. The numbers are imprecise. In part, it also depends on whom you choose to count. (Do you include the vast number of Japanese civilians who died trying to return from Manchuria in the terrible winter of 1945-6, for example, or the many tens of thousands of POWs who died in the Soviet gulags?) When you win, you can tell the dead that their sacrifice was not vain. There can be a sense of closure. But what do you tell the deceased when you lose?

People all over Japan faced questions in the week of the Defeat – especially teachers, who had to return to classrooms with many empty seats and discuss the loss positively. There were many different responses, but several general themes emerged, at least in my own listening to these voices. Most apparent is the general sense of victimization on the part of most Japanese– and here, we have a theme that is undoubtedly of public interest in our classroom discussions today. Doesn’t virtually everyone tend to see themselves as “victims” and rarely as “victimizers”?

In postwar Japan, “victim consciousness” has played out negatively as it overshadows collective acknowledgment of how brutally the Emperor’s soldiers and sailors victimized others. What I found more provocative and exciting, however, is the positive and constructive directions that subconsciousness discusses. Put oversimply, most educators, alongside many public intellectuals, accepted that the war had been both stupid and immoral. At the same time, they argue that those who died had believed they were fighting for a noble cause – the defense of their country, for example, or the liberation of Asia. They, and the Japanese populace as a whole, were victims – but victims of whom, or of what?

The answers came at many levels. The Japanese, it was argued, were victims of war itself, or of their leaders, who had led them so disastrously, or of their ignorance, for having allowed themselves to be misled. The way to avoid this in the future was to create a country devoted to peace–and this, in turn, required establishing a society in which open debate and political participation would prevent irresponsible and militaristic leaders from ever seizing control again. At the same time, this would give those who survived a consoling message to convey to the dead:  that they had not died in vain, for a better nation would arise from the ruins. Only in this way could one atone for the terrible war.

This is subtle – and, to me, quite fascinating, for it helps explain the deep commitment to “peace and democracy” that arose in Japan after the Defeat. As an academic device, it is also a way of getting a more intimate sense of how others may use a shared experience (here, “World War II”) or seemingly common words (“guilt,” “repentance,” “atonement,”) in different ways. And, once again, the Japanese case can be used very effectively as part of a project in comparative studies – set alongside, for example, the American South after the Civil War, the Germans after World War II, or the Americans and the Vietnam War.

Lynn: Thus far, we have talked about Japanese occupation experiences. Throughout Embracing Defeat, you remind readers that the occupation was dynamic and multidirectional. Most readers are probably more familiar with the occupation forces’ impact on Japanese political, social, and economic institutions. Still, you have emphasized that the Defeat during the occupation process also altered the victors. How were American and U.S. foreign policies changed due to the Allied occupation of Japan?

JWD: Another big question, and here we get into a different dimension of “doing history.” We don’t really do much “diplomatic history” anymore, in the old, elitist sense of looking at top-level formal documents. But many historians still work on U.S. “foreign policy” or such, relying primarily on the English language alone and focusing on “the American impact” abroad in one form or another. It’s a valid and vital area of inquiry. We still have a lot to learn about America’s enormous political, economic, and cultural influence – its seemingly voracious “hegemonic” expansion.

In Embracing Defeat, however, I made a concerted effort to avoid seeing these international, intercultural relationships as a predominantly one-way street. I know the period of Defeat and starting over as a fundamentally Japanese experience. This experience cannot be separated from the war’s vast material and psychological impact on Japan and its people. I approach the “occupation” as a genuinely dialectical interaction and a multidirectional one – moving and all sorts of directions, horizontally and vertically. As a result, it is full of contradictions – and full of surprises.

I know that terms such as “dialectical” and “contradiction” are out of fashion these days. It’s too bad. They can help us open particular doors of perception. Be that as it may, we might begin with how the war-shattered Japanese lives and war Time stereotypes on both sides. Virtually every American wartime commentator agreed that the war in Asia was more vicious than that in Europe and more saturated with outright racial hatred and abuse. In American and British eyes, the Japanese were subhuman. Most commonly, they were derided as “monkey men.” In turn, white men were demonized in Japanese propaganda. The favorite Japanese epithet for the enemy was “devilish Anglo-Americans. “Then, with the Defeat and surrender, all this essentially disappeared on both sides. The invading American force was primarily composed of big, confident, well-fed men who were frequently generous and kind (and certainly not remotely as rapacious as Japan’s occupation forces had been throughout Asia). Erstwhile bestial Japanese proved, in Defeat, to be not only courteous but also remarkably receptive in many circles to the kinds of reforms the Americans had in mind. Almost from the very outset, this established the ground for an epoch of very complex give-and-take on the part of Victor and Vanquished.

At the level of court circles and the government, the Japanese side was also speedy to recognize the Western fascination with monarchy; Americans, they discovered, love celebrities. They love royalty. They are quickly bought off by access, however brief, to the exotic and the luxurious. I have a humorous riff on this in the book, where I talk about the various activities that the Imperial Palace sponsored for high-ranking members of the occupation forces– moon viewing parties, for example, and cherry blossom viewing, and, most famous of all, “imperial duck hunts.” Virtually “everyone” who was anyone got invited to these affairs – including, appallingly enough, even the Tokyo War Crimes Trial chief prosecutor. Usually, they all came away with a little souvenir embossed with the imperial chrysanthemum crest – a treasured memento, years later, of a passing moment when they, too, trod on royal ground.

At the middle echelons of the occupation command, the Americans were seduced by geisha parties and the like and by receiving elegant “Oriental “gifts. There is a whiff of corruption in all of this, of course. One of the sardonic famous sayings among Japanese looking for business contracts with the occupation forces, for example, was that the key to getting them was the “three Ps “– petitions, presents, and parties. The larger picture, however, is entertaining and instructive. We observe how the Japanese went about conquering the conqueror, and we behold an astonishing and remarkably rapid transformation of usable stereotypes: from beast to courier/geisha and from Demon to patron/benefactor.

The more familiar transformation of images in relationships came with the Cold War and was less entertaining. We tend to find the origins of the Cold War in terms of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Europe, but of course, the Asian dimension of this involved the victory of communism in China. As China emerged as the new Asian enemy in American eyes– As a new “orange peril,” as it were (both Yellow and Red) – yesterday’s Japanese enemy quickly became regarded as an essential Cold War ally. Japanese conservatives played the anti-Communist bogey to the hilt, and within a few years, it had become clear that they were destined to be America’s new “free world” clients and partners in Asia.

From 1947 on, the Americans began to retreat from the radical agenda of “democratization “they had introduced in the wake of Defeat. By late 1949, they were collaborating with a conservative government and promoting a McCarthy as “read, purge “of communists and other “troublemakers “in the ranks of organized labor and public enterprises. Before the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, the Americans were already discussing remilitarization and permanent U.S. bases in post-occupation Japan with the Japanese government. Within days after war engulfed the Korean Peninsula – Japan’s tragic former colony – the Americans moved to initiate Japanese rearmament and extend the “Red Purge” to the private sector, including the mass media.

This became known as the “reverse course” in the Japanese media, and I created a strange situation that has carried over to the present day. When the occupation ended in early 1952, the United States was firmly allied with the conservative elites in politics, big business, and the bureaucracy, which had been leased receptive to the early reform agenda. The conservative Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, who was the Japanese counterpart to Konrad Adenauer in postwar Germany, was the prime symbol of this. On the other hand, those who were most outspoken in defending the early occupation ideals of “demilitarization and democratization” – and most adamant in opposing any revision whatsoever of the “Peace Constitution” – were now also the most outspoken opponents of the Cold War U.S.-Japan relationship.

There is a lot of gray in all this. The political left had severe problems and liabilities in postwar Japan, and the conservatives were hardly ogres. In the following decades, they built a prosperous economy – and, indeed, one characterized by more equitable income distribution than in the United States. Perhaps most interestingly, the conservatives – led initially by Yoshida– successfully resisted U.S. pressures for more rapid remilitarization both during and after the Korean War. Still, one conspicuous legacy of the reverse course and America’s vigorous patronage of the conservatives ever since has been the essential persistence of “one-party “control of the Japanese government since late 1948, when Yoshida got back in the saddle.

There’s another pernicious legacy, which I call the “binational “sanitization of Japanese war responsibility. Once China replaced Japan as the perceived enemy in Asia, and Japan’s remilitarization within the Pax Americana became a basic U.S. policy objective, the last thing leaders in Washington and Tokyo wished to see publicized was how atrocious and irresponsible the old Imperial Army had been. Non-Japanese talk much about a Japanese “cover-up” of its war responsibility, but I would qualify this on several counts. First, a great many ordinary Japanese, including the mass media as well as a substantial cohort of courageous scholars, have publicized Japan’s war crimes in great detail over the last three decades – including the Rape of Nanking, the murderous experiments of Unit 731, and the terrible abuse of the ianfu. Second, where “amnesia” and outright sanitization have occurred at the official level since the late occupation period, it is important to remember that this has jibed with official Washington interests. The constructions of “memory” – like the manipulations of Cold War intrigue more generally – are more contorted than we usually acknowledge.

Lynn: Your research and analysis connect so many complex issues and questions – about the occupation period for Japan, as well as broader international policies and events. We have only touched on some of these issues. Do you have suggestions for how teachers might address these classroom issues?

JWD: I think you always try to help students see things through the eyes of others – to get as close as we can to the actual words and deeds of others, as well as “ourselves.” This doesn’t mean excusing what one sees or hears. I’m not promoting some moral relativism. But I think we have to teach young people to think critically and comparatively – to listen carefully to various “voices.”

a crowd of people stand in front of vendors with all sorts of goods
“blue-sky” black markets flourished in every major city. In this 1946 scene near Tokyo’s Ueno Station, vendors sell metal household utensils. Photo: Asahi Shimbunsha

If we are dealing with young people in the classroom, it certainly makes sense to expose them, where possible, to intimate examples of the thoughts and experiences of individuals close to their age. This works across national, cultural, and class boundaries, and, indeed, it also works across time. This is a bit off-track from our conversation. Still, one of the books that university teachers of Japanese history usually find extremely compelling with non-Japanese students is the translation of Natsume Soseki’s 1914 novel Kokoro. Soseki is modern Japan’s most beloved author, and a reissue of his “collected works” became a “top 10” best seller in Japan for three years immediately following the Defeat. Kokoro is probably his most famous novel. It deals with love, friendship, betrayal, suicide, and generational tensions within a family. It is narrated in part by a young university student who is none too sure of the meaning of life. It’s incredible how such a book can cross the boundaries of time and place.

We have access to the early postwar Japanese perception of World War II through vivid, intimate writings available in translation as well two of the most searing novels dealing with the Japanese experience in World War II, for example, are Ooka Shohei’s Fires on the Plain, about dehumanization and death in the Philippines, and Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain, about a young girl who dies of radiation sickness from the atomic bomb. Another well-known reflection on the war is Takeyama Michio’s Harp of Burma, which presents, in simple story form, a Buddhist notion of repentance. All of these novels are highly readable, and all have been made into Japanese feature films that are available in video with English subtitles teachers. Compare these with, for example, the best American novel to come out of the Pacific War, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which also exists as a film. Or, again, on the Japanese side, it is possible to get at the atomic-bomb experience through animated films such as Barefoot Gen, which originated as a comic book that is now available in an English language version.

Developing “intimate” everyday materials from the immediate postwar period is a little more complicated. That is part of the reason why I found it so imperative to try to re-create as many “voices” as possible in Embracing Defeat (and to present them, in some cases, and snippets or vignettes that might be lifted and photocopied by teachers!). Some excellent Kurosawa films capture the ambiance of this period – especially No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), and Stray Dog (1949). Dazai Osamu’s 1947 novel The Setting Sun is a decadent little gem. The best fictional recreation of American and Japanese interactions during the occupation is Donald Ritchie’s witty and neglected Where Are the Victors? (originally published in 1956 under the title This Scorching Earth). For a brilliant and now all-but-forgotten memoir by the wife of an American officer in occupied Japan, teachers might find Margery Finn Brown’s 1951 book Over a Bamboo Fence applicable.

The challenge, in any case, is always to break through the stereotypes of “East” versus “West” and, where the Japanese, in particular, are concerned, the stereotype of a peculiar and peculiarly homogenous people. They are not abnormal, and they are not homogenous. The problem is that the Seen-One-Seen-Them-All cliché is not just a product of racist stereotyping. We can indeed find the notion that “a Jap is a Jap is a Jap” in wartime American writings. (General DeWitt, who headed the wartime incarceration of West-coast Japanese Americans, said this.) It is also true that the most famous characterization of the Japanese by the purported Asia experts in the United States and Britain during the war was that they were “an obedient herd.” But the other side is that it is always possible to find some Japanese “expert” who says the same thing. In wartime Japanese propaganda, the analog to “the obedient herd” was “the hundred million”— as in “one hundred million hearts beating as one” (Ichimoku isshin), perhaps the most ubiquitous self-caricature of the war years. Present-day Japanese ideologues, often posing as academics, still love to evoke this homogenous Yamato-race imagery. Consensual as opposed to conflictual. Group-oriented as opposed to individualistic. A vertically-oriented as opposed to horizontally-oriented society. It’s nonsense—on both sides of the equation. 

Someplace—I can’t remember where—I call this “collusive Orientalism.” Naturally, the other side of the coin is “collusive Occidentalism,” the colossal myth of an individualistic and democratic “West.” As teachers, we’ve got to return to the human, the personal, and the individual in various societies and circumstances—and to the acknowledgment of “plurals” that I started talking about here in our conversation (cultures, traditions, Japanese). It’s more interesting. And we can do this most effectively if we recognize that “popular” and elite cultures must be brought into the discussion—and that all this must be placed in the context of constant, often turbulent, historical changes.

Kathy: Embracing Defeat has received wide recognition, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. As a final question, John, why do you think the book has had such appeal to a broad spectrum of readers?

JWD: It won seven or eight prizes, which was gratifying and unexpected. Except for one of these – the Fairbank prize – the competitions had nothing to do with writings on Asia per se. I’m not sure how to explain this, but I hope it has something to do with everything we’ve been discussing here. That is, I was trying to capture the multiple voices of Japan and trying to recreate what I see as a complex, heterogeneous society with real people who are not exotic – people to whom we can relate because they are wrestling with problems we all struggle with and one way or another, at one time or another. War, peace, loss, starting over, asking what a “good society” might be, focusing on private, as opposed to public life – all of this. But I’m not concerned with evoking high ideals, which isn’t very realistic. I also deal with despair, corruption, decadence, hypocrisy, whimsy, humor, and plain raunchiness. I suppose I’ve broken some taboos that usually encumber academic writing on such subjects as the Emperor in the war crimes trials. The book is something of a kaleidoscope.

I imagine that giving “the Japanese” many voices caught people’s attention. I was trying to convey a sense of both complex dynamism and accessible complexity. It’s cliché to say that popular English language books and Japanese usually fall into one of two categories – atrocity or exotica (The Rape of Nanking and Memoirs of a Geisha are the most recent best-seller examples of this). Embracing Defeat is written for a general audience but defies this rule. Most everything in the book comes as a bit of a surprise. This sort of social/cultural/political panorama isn’t so rare in European and American history, and that may be what caught the attention of various prize committees. Whatever the explanation, they certainly surprised me with their generous response.

Lynn: John, you’ve generously shared your research and reflections on Embracing Defeat. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with Education About Asia readers?

JWD: Just one thing, perhaps. I will hope you can factor “Japan “and “the United States “out of what I have been saying and still see why the subject so engaged me and addressed issues that we all confront, or should confront, as citizens and educators – war and peace and social justice; Defeat and starting over; racial stereotyping and its modulations; cultural complexity and transcultural transcendence; human foibles; pluralism almost everywhere we look. Of course, what I wrote about, was peculiar to a certain time in place. But in the big picture, I don’t think it was “peculiarly Japanese.”

It’s tempting for all of us to speak of Tradition or Culture with a capital “T” and a capital “C” – and from this, of course, to speak about East and West and how never the twain shall meet. I am not trying to belittle the so-called Great Traditions like Buddhism, Confucianism, or Christianity. They are also fascinating, but I don’t find them monolithic either. They are open to genuinely comparative (not just “contrasting”) analysis. Beyond this, I believe that when approaching any society, you should look for pluralized, uncapitalized, and constantly changing “cultures” and “traditions.” You can open new vistas this way—whole new worlds.

Kathy: You have done a remarkable job of capturing those perspectives in your book and our conversation. Your comments today have offered a wealth of ideas to help teachers enrich and expand teaching about this complex period. On behalf of Education About Asia readers, Lynn and I again want to thank you.


Throughout May, AAS is celebrating Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Read more