Saturday, 5 March 2011

Embracing Defeat by John Dower

How do you civilise a modern, advanced nation which has proved itself to be uncivilised?

This is the job the Americans gave themselves in Japan after World War Two. Like Germany, it was a country gone mad, but the roots of that madness ran much deeper than with the Nazis - at least that was the thinking.

Dower's history looks at the things from the other side - how a catastrophic defeat affected people and the way they thought about themselves. How being occupied by a different culture - a different race! - for the first time in the history of Japan changed them. And what their hopes were for the future.

Now, in a self-fullfilling prophecy I only got halfway through the book. This part deals with the social history in the first couple of years after the defeat, but it is a great read. It looks at issues like depression and poverty, prostitution, the black market and politics through things like pulp novels, cartoons and (of particular interest to me) radio. The average household listened to five hours of radio every day. There was a regular show trying to re-unite families with returning soldiers and featured a section called "Who am I" for those solidiers who couldn't even remember if they had families.

The impression I got was of the Americans doing their best, through old fashioned colonialism, to drag the Japanese into freedom. It wasn't always pretty, but it could've been so much worse. And it certainly wouldn't have worked if large numbers of Japanese hadn't been keen so create a new democratic, free and pacifistic nation. In fact one of the themes of the book is whether forcing Hirohito to resign would perhaps have been more acceptable to his subjects than the Americans assumed, and whether it would've led to a more mature and honest acceptance of their collective war guilt.

That seems to be a big issue in the second part, which deals with the emperor and the war crime trials. I may get it back out of the library, but the first half is a fascinating snapshot of life in a country halfway between defeat and rebirth, east and west, past and future. And unlike so much history, it makes you feel pretty good about the human race.

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