Book: Embracing Defeat

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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Author: John W. Dower
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Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

The first definitive history of the transformation of Japanese society under American occupation after World War II. This major new work by America’s foremost historian of modern Japan draws on a vast range of Japanese sources to offer an extraordinarily thorough, complex, and rich analysis of how shattering defeat in World War II followed by over six years of military occupation by the United States affected every level of Japanese society-in ways that neither the victor nor the vanquished could anticipate. Here is the history of an extraordinary moment in the history of Japanese culture, when new values warred with old, and when early ideals of “peace and democracy” were soon challenged by the “reverse course” decision to incorporate Japan into the cold-war Pax Americana. Embracing Defeat chronicles not only the material and psychological impact of utter defeat but also the early emergence of dynamic countercultures that gave primacy to the private as opposed to public spheres-in short, a liberation from totalitarian wartime control. John Dower shows how the tangled legacies of this intense, turbulent, and unprecedented interplay of conqueror and conquered, West and East, wrought the utterly foreign and strangely familiar Japan of today.

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Embracing Defeat tells the story of the transformation of Japan under American occupation after World War II. When Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces in August 1945, it was exhausted; where America’s Pacific combat lasted less than four years, Japan had been fighting for 15. Sixty percent of its urban area lay in ruins. The collapse of the authoritarian state enabled America’s six-year occupation to set Japan in entirely new directions.

Because the victors had no linguistic or cultural access to the losers’ society, they were obliged to govern indirectly. Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided at the outset to maintain the civil bureaucracy and the institution of the emperor: democracy would be imposed from above in what the author terms “Neocolonial Revolution.” His description of the manipulation of public opinion, as a wedge was driven between the discredited militarists and Emperor Hirohito, is especially fascinating. Tojo, on trial for his life, was requested to take responsibility for the war and deflect it from the emperor; he did, and was hanged. Dower’s analysis of popular Japanese culture of the period—songs, magazines, advertising, even jokes—is brilliant, and reflected in the book’s 80 well-chosen photographs. With the same masterful control of voluminous material and clear writing that he gave us in War Without Mercy, the author paints a vivid picture of a society in extremis and reconstructs the extraordinary period during which America molded a traumatized country into a free-market democracy and bulwark against resurgent world communism. —John Stevenson

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