(This book review is long and rather rambling, because I have many things to say about postwar Japan but no real thesis here.)
The first book I read by John Dower was Embracing Defeat, which is about the incredible diversity of ways in which the Japanese rebuilt and redefined their devastated country and national psyche after their defeat in WW2. As I recall, a chapter had been assigned reading in one of my classes, and the professor kindly photocopied it for us but upon finishing the chapter I immediately went out and bought the book itself.
It is a virtuoso piece of history writing — exhaustively researched, but leavened by Dower’s style which is compelling and incredibly humanizing to its subjects. Judging from my bookshelf, one might conclude that I have three interests: queer academia, prostitutes, and postwar Japan. Embracing Defeat was the book that sparked my interest in the third — specifically, in the period of the American occupation that immediately followed Japan’s surrender. There was so much that could have gone so badly, but it didn’t. It would have been so easy for America to flub Japan’s reconstruction the way we’re flubbing Iraq’s, and leave the region in a state that would only lead to more bloodshed and oppression, but we didn’t. For once, we got it right. The postwar occupation is one of the very few moments in history that you can look back on and be justifiably proud of how America acquitted itself.
Not so much during the war, however.
Dower’s premise for War Without Mercy is that it was racism, on both sides, that led to the Pacific theatre atrocities that outstripped even the carnage in Europe, not to mention the catastrophic intelligence failures, on both sides, that sprang from underestimating the enemy. If you doubt either premise (that the Pacific theatre was more brutal than the European, or that racism was the reason for it) then I do recommend reading Dower, because he might well convince you.
(Example: Pearl Harbor happened, among other reasons, because (A) Americans actualfax believed that the Japanese as a race were myopic and poor engineers, totally incapable of building or flying planes, even though the Mitsubishi Zero was already known to be the most advanced fighter plane in the world, and (B) the Japanese were convinced that Americans were effete degenerates who wouldn’t find the balls to fight back after their navy got sunk.)
The beliefs that Dower identifies are interesting in how deeply entrenched they are, aren’t wholly dissipated even today, and that some of them are still considered facts, rather than “facts.”
Shortly before I moved out, I found myself in a rage-making conversation with my father about the atom bombs, which were a goddamned war crime, end of story, this is not a subject I stay civil on, but he was just as convinced that he was correct in asserting that they were justifiable. His reasoning — and he’s not the only one — was that the Japanese would have fought an invasion of the homeland to the bitter end (as indeed their militarist leaders exhorted them to do), with the same staggering losses on both sides that the fighting in the south Pacific had produced. Hence, the atom bombs were not only saving the lives of American soldiers (which America put an understandably higher price tag on), but ultimately fewer Japanese too would die from the atom bombs than they would from a full-scale invasion. (An argument which always struck me as invented on after the fact, not to mention condescending. I beg your pardon, “We nuked you for your own good“??)
It sounds like a flimsy argument, but it doesn’t sound like racism, until Dower starts to dissect exactly what the rhetoric around that rationale was saying — which is that the Japanese were fanatics, above and beyond the normal mobilization of the civilian populace in a state of full scale war, that they weren’t human beings to be reasoned with, that they were incapable of rational behavior, of knowing when they were beat, that they were frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics and there was no possible way to end the war except to kill every last one of them.
And since Dower isn’t one to make assertions without backing them up, he brings an absolutely staggering amount of primary sources to bear — in a particularly good chapter called “Primitives, Children, Madmen,” he identifies those as being the three distinct ways that not only the media but also official government policy characterized the Japanese. Example after numbing example — quoting everyone from random letters-to-the-editor to psychologists and social scientists to Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman — calling the Japanese savages, primitives, barbaric, tribal, feudal, aboriginal, fanatics, hoodlums, adolescents, children, babies, apes, rats, vermin, monkey-men, louses, neurotics, psychotics, schizophrenics, with penis envy, delusions of grandeur, stunted development, Napoleon complexes, Oedipus complexes, etc etc etc.
If these sound familiar, that’s because it’s the same rhetoric applied to any racial “other” when people are trying to dehumanize them.
When I was a child, I once asked my mother why we’d dropped the atom bombs on Japan. She explained (“explained”) that it was a warning, of sorts, that we’d flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the threat that “…and unless you surrender, we’ll do the same to Tokyo.”
I have no doubt that she was telling me the truth as she understood it, but she was incorrect. An atom bomb on Tokyo today would be a potent threat indeed, but Tokyo in 1945 had already been reduced to rubble by wave after wave of incendiary bombing — there was no Tokyo left to nuke. The truth is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and a few other cities) had been intentionally spared the worst of the incendiary bombing, the better to measure the precise damage inflicted by the atom bomb. This is not a secret.
The Japanese hadn’t failed to notice that Hiroshima was being left alone in a way that couldn’t be anything but deliberate; they thought it was because of Hiroshima’s reputation for having the highest concentration of Japanese Christians, and the city’s population had actually swelled in the months prior to the bomb, refugees who thought they would be safer there.
If you’re going to watch a movie about it, fuck Grave of the Fireflies and their emotional button-mashing — Barefoot Gen is a story that will break your heart, all the more for being true.
In a memorandum of January 1942, in the early moments of the war, we find Admiral Leahy quoting the common belief that “in fighting with Japanese savages all previously accepted rules of warfare must be abandoned.” Three-and-a-half years later, as the war neared its violent end, President Truman learned of the successful test of the atom bomb while at Potsdam and immediately decided to use it against Japan. This was regrettable but necessary, he wrote in a makeshift diary he was keeping at the time, because the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.”
With seventy years of hindsight, such biases are ridiculously easy to recognize as the gross racism they were; harder to spot your biases when you’re living right in the middle of them. Dower’s bias leans very slightly in favor of Japan (as does mine), in that he seems to be just a hair quicker to refute American propaganda charges levelled at Japan than he does the reverse. (Which could also be a function of his target audience, English-speakers, who are likely to already lean pro-America and thus need more convincing of the opposite case.)
It’s a hard subject to treat with honesty and impartiality. Human nature is to take a side and then throw down the gauntlet on their behalf, to defend them against criticism, to mitigate or try to justify their bad behavior. It’s hard to look directly at the horrors committed by both sides and not try to argue that one was better or worse than the other, that one side had a good reason for it, that what they did wasn’t really ~so~ bad.
Because it was. Atom bombs notwithstanding, American soldiers routinely mutilated the dead and dying for gold teeth, or for trophies, or just for the hell of it. Japanese soldiers did, oh, CHINA. Neither side had any much use for POWs, because when you don’t see your enemy as fully human, you’re not much motivated to try to take them alive, or make an effort to keep them that way.
You can’t make excuses for that, and you shouldn’t try to. No matter how much you love America, or love Japan, you have to step back and look at what they did without flinching and acknowledge that the country you love did that. It’s fucking hard, cognitive dissonance like whoa.
On the whole though, Dower does a very good job keeping a balanced viewpoint on an explosively polarizing issue. And to paraphrase a line from the book: “It wasn’t that either side was lying about the atrocities committed by the other; the lie was pretending that they themselves behaved any differently.”
War Crimes, Inherited Guilt
How can anyone raised in American post-1945 be expected to understand and appreciate that war crimes are NOT ALRIGHT when the prevailing wisdom still maintains that the atom bombs were justified at the time, justifiable now, and that we as a culture aren’t obliged to carry any sort of collective guilt or regret about that?
Granted, I’m not sure that inflicting a burden of guilt for the sins of the fathers on the next generation is very effective in bringing about the needed social change. Contemporary Germans haven’t been allowed to forget their country’s actions during the Holocaust, but as far as I can tell, it hasn’t led to any real integration of Jews into the mainstream, and produced tolerance but not acceptance. (If you have better insight into this issue, please share.) Schoolkids in America are somberly taught about slavery and the civil rights movement and the most blatant forms of discrimination, but aren’t made to understand that racism is not a dead issue, and not always so obvious. (For my money, Ellis Cose’s Rage of a Privileged Class should be required reading.)
But Japan, curiously, has been allowed to forget. This was facilitated in large part by the Americans during the occupation, because they had a vested interest in getting the Japanese to renounce their actions of the war and redefine themselves as a peaceful people, as quickly as possible. If pretending those atrocities had never happened was what it took, then so be it.
(This is a subject of bitter contention with China, because many officially-sanctioned history textbooks omit or gloss over the atrocities in occupied China to an astonishing degree, and there are a number of high-ranking Japanese politicians who are the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers. Accordingly, a lot of the younger generation knows absolutely nothing about Japan’s conduct in the war, to the point where TV crews interviewing sidewalk traffic in Shibuya can find teenagers who thought that America and Japan were allies during the war.)
Redefining the Japanese as peaceful worked though, astoundingly well. Anecdotes are not evidence, but everything I saw and heard when I lived in Japan supported the belief that the Japanese have wholly embraced their new status. People telling me that Japan was “the Switzerland of Asia,” that they were unique in being the only modern nation to have completely renounced war. Never mind that their constitution was written entirely by the Americans, that Article 9, the no-war clause, was inflicted on them by their conquerors, not the result of any indigenous, grassroots movement. But it stuck, it’s become part of the national identity now, and any attempt to amend or nullify it is met with fierce resistance. A frequent sight in front of major train stations is petition takers with signs reading “Uphold Article 9.”
But that’s really more what Embracing Defeat is about.