Harnessing the Rising Sun

Harnessing the Rising Sun

Americans aren’t much for history these days. History is for Europeans–for Germans, with their thickets of theory, and the French, who are forever going on about their revolution.


Americans aren’t much for history these days. History is for Europeans–for Germans, with their thickets of theory, and the French, who are forever going on about their revolution. Who needs any of it? At millennium’s end, when a glance back makes for good entertainment, we turn to such eminent authorities as Peter Jennings (The Century), Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation) and Harry Evans (The American Century). Now there’s a lineup of heavy hitters: two television news anchors and a Briton who has kindly come to help Americans cheapen their books, magazines and newspapers. They know how we like our history: trials, tribulations, a triumphant ending and plenty of pictures.

It amounts to a pathology, this refusal to look squarely at where we have been and what we’ve done. We like to think that living without history is somehow part of the American character. It has to do with our frontier heritage, we tell ourselves, or absorption in a dynamic present and a promising future. The attitude is an excellent example of the problem.

Yet repudiating the worth of the past has nothing to do with character. In my view, we can name the day the seed of this national neurosis was planted. It was April 30, 1898, when Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay. At that moment, the United States committed itself to empire abroad at the expense of self-knowledge. Were ours a more honest nation, we would study that event with a microscope, for it is the key to what we have become–our character, if one can speak of such a thing. Manila and the war that followed against the Filipinos began our American Century. And we have never since found the courage to examine the century we named after ourselves.

Earlier this year, the FBI was forced to acknowledge its years of cooperation with the six Latin American dictatorships that organized Operation Condor in the seventies. Condor was a secret agreement to join forces in exterminating political dissidents. When Paraguayans opened five tons of Condor archives–“archives of terror,” they named them–they found a trove of evidence detailing Washington’s encouragement and support. Asked to comment, a State Department official brushed the matter aside as “ancient history.”

It can take your breath away, except that there is another way forward. But it will have to stand upon authentic accounts of the past, which implies a new understanding of history’s place in American life. We can’t go on treating it as trivial entertainment at best. Knowing the past is essential if we are to repair our severed connections to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of the world. Before you dismiss this as so much wishful thinking, consider the two books under review. Embracing Defeat and Tokyo Underworld take very different approaches to the same befogged subject, the American occupation of Japan. But they share one important feature: They both argue that it’s time to put away the airbrushes and look at ourselves as we have been.

Nobody talks about our seven-year occupation of Japan anymore–not on this side of the Pacific anyway. That’s more ancient history, obscured to the point of invisibility–which is a reliable sign that this was a crucial episode in America’s postwar history. Washington began sanitizing accounts of American conduct as soon as the Germans and Japanese surrendered. But it was in Japan that America made its cold war template. For one thing, responsibility in Germany was divided, while occupied Japan was an American enterprise in all but name. There was another factor at work here, as John Dower makes bluntly clear in Embracing Defeat. “For the victors,” he writes, “occupying defeated Germany had none of the exoticism of what took place in Japan: the total control over a pagan, ‘Oriental’ society by white men who were unequivocally engaged in a Christian mission. The occupation of Japan was the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as ‘the white man’s burden.'”

What do we know, or think we know, about the occupation years? It doesn’t come to much. Under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Japan was demilitarized. Somebody called Tojo–easy name to remember–was tried and hanged for war crimes. Emperor Hirohito was a kindly fellow who wore a porkpie hat. He was a man of peace, but he was powerless against Tojo and his smartly uniformed friends. GIs gave out lots of Hershey bars and Lucky Strikes, and in much the same way, Americans gave the Japanese democracy.

Some of this is true. Hideki Tojo was executed as the wartime prime minister, and many ordinary soldiers were indeed generous during their tours under MacArthur. But there are big problems with this ramshackle collection of “facts.” It’s a victor’s version of events. Some of it is frankly false, and the rest is destructively misleading. Hirohito’s complicity in the war, a point of scholarly contention for almost half a century, is now established beyond argument. The Tokyo trials were a judicial farce by any measure. The imperial army was disbanded, but as the cold war gathered momentum, Japan was drafted as a frontline spear carrier. Most of all, there is the matter of democracy. As Dower points out, ordinary Japanese were quick to embrace the principles of democratic government. But Americans didn’t give them democracy. Democracy is a universal ideal, but its roots are always indigenous–as Americans once understood.

Which brings us to the more fundamental problem. It has to do with human agency. There is no room for any Japanese in standard American accounts of the occupation years–no thinker, no popular leader, no ordinary citizen. As we remember it, the Japanese supplied a few character actors for our heroic tale, and the rest were extras–stick figures and (invariably) passive recipients. There is no texture in our victor’s narrative–no place to consider what the Japanese were thinking and saying and doing–and no notion, certainly, that 50,000 Americans and 80 million Japanese were interacting at close quarters. “Until recently, it has been difficult to imagine the occupation as an ’embrace,’ or to consider what effect the losers might have had on the victors and their agendas,” Dower writes. “It has been difficult, certainly for outsiders, to grasp the defeat and occupation as a lived Japanese experience.”

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.

Embracing Defeat unfolds with an unmistakably cinematic quality, which Dower complements by salting many photographs and illustrations throughout his narrative. It makes the book, among its many other attributes, a compelling read. The same can be said of Bob Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld. Whiting doesn’t aspire to Dower’s sweep, depth or method. He takes a piece of the big canvas–the monumental scale of corruption between Americans and Japanese during and since the occupation–and dollies in. Whiting is a sportswriter by trade. His previous books–The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, You Gotta Have Wa–tell you about the Japanese by telling you how they play baseball. Now he tells us about Americans and Japanese together through the career of one colorful, crooked-to-the-core American Marine who jumped into the huge demimonde of buying, selling, pimping, spying and so on that opened up in Japan the instant the victors and the defeated set eyes on one another.

Nick Zappetti was using confiscated yen to finance a commandeered geisha house even before he was demobilized. From there it was on to everything from illegal banking to black-market gumball sales. And that was just during the occupation. Once it ended, Zappetti went on to a career–sometimes legal, as often not–that spanned forty-six years of postwar history. As Whiting notes, he can claim the entire Roppongi bar district as his legacy. When he died, in 1992, he had just sold his last restaurant, an establishment called Nicola’s that was still part of the scene. Zappetti was called Koizumi by then, having changed his name and taken Japanese citizenship.

It’s an extraordinary story, well told, and one part or another of it will be eye-opening, I would expect, even for most Japan scholars. Whiting has done some superb research, not only into Zappetti’s life and times but to explore the larger context. He acknowledges all the great men and great events. “But there is another side to the U.S.-Japan equation that is far less known if inextricably bound up in the whole,” he writes. “It is an alternate, separate layer of reality, a shadowy universe of characters–gangsters, corrupt entrepreneurs, courtesans, seedy sports promoters, streetwise opportunists, intelligence agents, political fixers, and financial manipulators–who perhaps have done as much in their own right to influence U.S.-Japan affairs as their more refined and respected peers.”

Living and reporting in Japan gives the peculiar sensation of walking atop a world one cannot actually see but in glimpses. This is the soft, opaque, grimy underbelly that bears within everything from high-priced Western hookers serving Tokyo’s top pols to the Lockheed bribery scandal of the mid-seventies. Whiting has taken the plunge and written well about it. He has always had a practiced hack’s sharp eye for a story. In Tokyo Underworld, he applies it to an essential dimension of our ties to Japan, one as rare in most of our histories as the Prussian-style uniform Hirohito once wore.

These are large books, each in its way. I read them in a larger context still. A piece at a time, it seems to me, we Americans are rising to the occasion the cold war’s end presents us with. You can’t quite see it for all our celebrations of the American Century. But our best thinkers and historians are rewriting what amounts to an indefensible version of the past–a false record that has harmed us and offended others. A corner has been turned.

It’s now possible to describe this phenomenon in a little detail, which is encouraging. Among the first flares on the horizon was Tom Engelhardt’s 1995 book, The End of Victory Culture, which in a better world would be a classic already (and part of which was published in The Nation of May 11, 1992). Engelhardt–who edited Embracing Defeat between Dower’s desk and the publisher’s–broke new ground, not by way of facts so much as by identifying a new consciousness. The postwar narrative of triumph is dead, he declared–an unacknowledged casualty of Vietnam and the only one we can welcome from that war. A year later came Carolyn Eisenberg’s Drawing the Line, a courageous work that demonstrated with the same precision Dower brings to Japan that Washington, not Moscow, must bear responsibility for Germany’s division and the cold war that ensued (see Kai Bird, “Stalin Didn’t Do It,” December 16, 1996). Eisenberg forced the most intellectually corrupt of cold war scholars into silence on this fundamental point of departure.

These books are of a piece, it seems to me. I almost wish their bindings matched. Together, they make it possible to assert that we may have launched ourselves upon an undeclared era of historical revisionism. Read in this good company, Dower has claimed a huge, important passage in this collective work, Whiting a more specific but no less interesting one. Not all of us are prepared to tell the world that the lived past is ancient and unimportant. We haven’t forgotten entirely the value of a vital connection to history–not all of us. The world will welcome these kinds of books from Americans. So, someday, will Americans.

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