Harnessing the Rising Sun
That observation can stand as the starting point for both of these books. And addressing the problem is what makes them both immensely readable and valuable. Embracing Defeat and Tokyo Underworld are written very close to the ground. They are not merely long on texture--actuality, as broadcast journalists say, the grit of daily life. They are made of it. Bob Whiting makes no claim to scholarship and advances no theories of history. He's a spinner of yarns. In Tokyo Underworld, the tale of a small-time Mafia hood from East Harlem who became a proficient black marketeer within days of the surrender, Whiting puts the story in front; the challenge to the orthodoxy is implicit.
As to Dower, well, he is a scholar, and a fine one, and he knows very well what he's up to. He subverts not only our popular perceptions of the occupation; this is also a sweet victory over a half-century of mangled cold war scholarship and all the disgraceful books and images that have left Americans so sadly ignorant of the Japanese and themselves. One senses that Dower set out to write the most important Japan book in a generation (and perhaps more). The uplifting news is that he has succeeded. Embracing Defeat is a masterpiece.
Dower, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, seems to be one of those writers who simply doesn't let lousy work off his desk. Empire and Aftermath (1979) is a masterful study of modern Japan and the roots of the tragedy it led Asia into. War Without Mercy, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987, ripped away the veil in its blunt treatment of race as a motive--on both sides--in the Pacific War. Embracing Defeat is of a piece with Dower's other work--scrupulous but not dispassionate, cant-free and fresh, limber and limpid in its delivery. But as Dower acknowledges, this book is also an intellectual departure.
Dower does his scholarly chores well, and in postwar Japanese history there are many of them. There's no more mystification as to the nature of the occupation. In character it was essentially neocolonial, a "revolution from above," with all the contradictions this implies. At its best, which was at the beginning, the occupation might have given the Japanese a chance to start over among themselves. But as the cold war engulfed policy, MacArthur chose the "reverse course"--a phrase still familiar to every Japanese but never found in mainstream American accounts. It's all here, finally. The democratic revolution became an exercise in appearances. MacArthur didn't simply censor the press he briefly freed after the surrender; more perniciously, he censored the censorship, making it an offense to mention it.
There was never any question that the occupation needed the Japanese to run the country. There was no other way to carry out the task, as Dower acknowledges. The questions have to do with the choices made and the consequences. Reinstalling the prewar elite condemned the Japanese to "a domestic conservative hegemony of politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen that remained dominant to the end of the century." Rehabilitating the emperor while his former subjects wrestled with individual and national guilt produced what Dower and others call the culture of irresponsibility. "The emperor's role in Japan's aggression was never seriously investigated," Dower states flatly. "He was dissuaded by the Americans from acknowledging even moral responsibility for the repression and violence that had been carried out in his name and with his endorsement." Those last four words mark a significant triumph, one for which Dower and other Japanese and American scholars, notably Herb Bix (whom Dower acknowledges), fought hard over many years.
Embracing Defeat is definitive in these and other matters. But what gives it its singular power is a larger ambition. Dower has remade himself as a pointillist of everyday life, like Fernand Braudel, the French master of the Annales school. And like R.G. Collingwood, who laid out his thinking in The Idea of History (1946), Dower distinguishes between the "outside" of events--people, places, things--and the "inside," meaning the thoughts, emotions and motives that push humanity forward. "I have tried to convey 'from within' some sense of the Japanese experience of defeat by focusing on social and cultural developments as well as on that most elusive of phenomena, 'popular consciousness,'" Dower writes. "To put it a little differently, I have tried to capture a sense of what it meant to start over in a ruined world by recovering the voices of people at all levels of society."
The result is a glorious profusion of songs, signboards, rhymes, movie plots, comics, letters to the editor, radio dialogues, bestsellers, official bulletins, diary entries--the list is more or less endless. Dower tells us what scholars discussed and what games children invented, what panpan (prostitutes) charged and the price of a black-market sweet potato. Through it all comes the hunger of the time, along with the aspiration, anxiety, hope, idealism, corruption, selfishness and (pervasively) that peculiar condition the Japanese called kyodatsu, a combination of exhaustion and despair that enveloped much of the nation for many years after the occupation ended. Dower has dug deep and found the bottom. You finish this book marveling at his ability to make the Japanese so completely and ordinarily human--and at Dower's humanity in recognizing what needed to be said and going the distance to say it well.