Friday, July 31, 2020

Review of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower (1999, Penguin)

Starting with Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast to the nation to announce Japan’s surrender, Dower’s account provides a detailed account of Japan under the American occupation post-World War Two until their departure in 1952. In particular, the account focuses on the influence of the US administration on Japanese life in the immediate post-war years and its long-term effects on politics, culture and economy, covering in particular the rejigging of the political system and the introduction of democracy, the reshaping of public governance, strong censorship of the media, communications, literature and entertainment, the black market, the hardship faced by families trying to make ends meet in a country destroyed by aerial bombing and suffering the trauma of defeat, and the war crimes trials. What emerges is a fairly balanced picture told from the perspectives of the US administration and the Japanese elite and ordinary citizens, set within the wider context of a changing world order as the Cold War emerges and the Korean War starts. In particular, there is an interesting discussion of the strategy employed by the US and Japanese officials to exonerate the emperor and maintain his position, and colonialism and imperialism in Asia and the duplicity and hypocrisy in the war crimes trials. While the book is strong on the administrative and politics aspects, it pays less attention to recovery of the economy (just one chapter to bookend the history), the plight of ordinary families, and US military bases and effects on local communities. Moreover, the context leading up to the occupation is quickly sketched and scattered in the text. This is kind of inevitable – it is already a large tome and to insert these to the same level of detail would require an additional volume. Nonetheless, it is thoroughly readable, balanced and detailed overview of the period of American occupation of Japan.

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