Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

As a kid growing up in Taiwan, I was taught to look on Japan with both admiration and abhorrence. My mom, who had lived in Japan, tells me of the bullet trains, the clean streets, the quality products. On the other hand, the history teachers would tell us of the terror of the Nanking massacre and the violence during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. It was difficult to reconcile both descriptions for me – how does a people go through military conquest during WWII, suffer defeat, then rise so quickly economically? What in the nation’s spirit could be seen in how it confronted defeat? These questions prompted my reading of this book.

Japan's mourning and rebuilding began after the emperor announced the surrender over the radio to his people. The country had to recover from being in war for longer than many of the European countries involved in WWII. Of the victors asserting control, America reigned supreme - its authority represented by General MacArthur. Even with American food aid, people's next meal still could not be guaranteed. They ate whatever they could find. Work attendance dropped as urban workers go to the country side in hopes of finding food, often in the black market at exorbitant prices. The government’s official food guidance included eating of grain husks, peanut shells, used tea leaves. As for protein, the recommendation was silkworm cocoons, worms, grasshoppers. Keeping fed became an obsession.

Childhood in the immediate post war was much affected. As many as 123,510 kids were homeless or orphaned. Many had to be tough – they shined shoes or delivered newspapers to get by, while some formed gangs for pick pocketing or prostitution. The cultural air is also reflected in kids' play, which included role playing games like American GI and the prostitute, mimicking black market activities and overcrowded trains.

Aside from physical hunger, the Japanese yearned for new philosophical framework for solace and to interpret the turmoil. Many formerly suppressed news publication flourished under American rule. In anticipation of a new work from philosopher Nishida Kitaro, readers started camping out in front of the bookstore and lining up 3 days before the expected publication date. The need for spiritual and moral thought was visceral.

Overall, the national mood was one of mourning, disillusionment, and self reflection. Many felt the need to grieve their deceased spouse, son, parent, and colleague, yet it couldn't be done officially for Japan bears the cause of the war and the government wasn't allowed politically to honour the dead.

The post war recovery split in two directions. As the emperor had been deified and the Japanese had been repeatedly taught that they live to serve the emperor, MacArthur and his administration believed the emperor must stay on the throne at all cost to maintain social stability during the recovery period. As such, while MacArthur championed the “demilitarization and democratization” ideal of transformation that sought to dismantle large government ministries and break away from the past, it also kept the emperor’s throne intact, representing historical, cultural, and social continuity. MacArthur’s team did much to exonerate the emperor from being implicated in war crimes, blaming the subordinates for the war conduct. This was seen by many Japanese as unfair – for they believed such duties were performed in service to the emperor.

The exoneration of the emperor and the way the Tokyo tribunal was run led some Japanese to view the conquerors as hypocritical. Many felt their wars of conquest weren’t much different from what the victors had done in the past with impunity. This became one of the major legacies of the time and an international political sore point to the present day. Japan had not formally apologized for their war conduct including the Nanking massacre. They believed such an apology would justify and cede to the Tokyo tribunal view of the war, which is unfathomable.

The second thorny question is defense. The Japanese constitution was rewritten to reinforce the idea of demilitarization (Article 9). Under it, Japan is to keep forces for only self defense purposes. But this has brought international criticism for its failing to act with its allies when the times call for it. At the same time, no Japanese had forgotten the horror of the war (including the Nanking massacre) and increasing the military’s reach even slightly would provoke wide domestic protest. Japanese politicians are between a rock and a hard place, and with ever powerful neighbours and mixed signals of American support, these questions are all the more pressing and relevant.

Under MacArthur’s reform, Japan did become vastly more open politically, but the Americans weren’t seen as faultless. When the cold war began, efforts to demilitarize Japan stopped and American government quickly and quietly reinforced powerful Japanese ministries it meant to dismantle so as to support the Korean war effort. Such actions made clear to the Japanese that American interest overrides their own.

Ashamed of defeat and the futility of the war, driven by the need for catching up to the world, feeling vulnerable and subservient to the west, and knowing any political or military rise would have alarmed the world, Japan threw itself fully towards economic development. In the 60’s, high quality Japanese products burst onto the world stage – it was a land of cheap and clunky goods no more. Japan’s quick rise surprised the world and itself, and the “Japan Number 1” ideal emerged that touted the model of government planned economy and a fostering of collectivism rather than individualism being the core of what made Japan successful.

At the wake of the Asian financial crash in the 90s, however, the Japanese model is shown not to be perfect and the nation has seen little economic growth since. Many elements of Japan’s rise is now unfortunately discredited wholesale.

I found the book to be helpful in answering some questions as to Japan’s reluctance to offer apology for the war, the political and economic climate that catapulted their economic status, and gave new light to the complex picture of how one people wrestles with its dark past.

Japan had reinvented themselves in 1867 with Meiji restoration, then again after WWII ended in 1945. The rise of this far east island had often surprised the world, bringing renewed energy to areas such as transportation, electronics, and architecture. I hope to see Japan rise again, and in a fashion that brings peace, prosperity, and enlightenment to all.