John Dower was “Dower the Tower” during my years as a correspondent in Japan. He was a giant in his field, one of the few scholars who were required reading for anyone covering a nation notorious for its opacity, its complex history, and the ideological shroud Americans draped over it during the Cold War decades. Dower held fast against that corruption of scholarship in everything he wrote over a career that now spans five decades. I rank him with Chalmers Johnson and Herbert Bix as one of the great Asia scholars of his generation.

Dower’s first masterpiece, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, was published in 1986 and lifted the lid on the astonishingly raw racism that infused American war propaganda just as much as it did Japan’s. The book also signaled Dower’s future trajectory. He has never lost his habit of exploring popular culture, media imagery, and the like to get at history’s true core. Nor has he ever ceased insisting on the need to see from the perspectives of others. This culminated in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Another of Dower’s masterpieces, it won a Pulitzer Prize when it was published in 1999 (and was reviewed in these pages shortly before the award was announced).

Like Johnson, Dower eventually became one of those scholars who apply themselves to questions beyond their academic specialties. In Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (2010), Dower makes superb use of his many years of trans-Pacific explorations on a global scale. Last year he published The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, a title that requires no explanation.

I had wanted to interview Dower for years. When we finally met in the dining room of a Boston hotel, the occasion was even more exceptional than I had anticipated. There at the table with Dower sat Herbert Bix, whose Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2000) was another groundbreaking masterwork (and another Pulitzer winner). Anyone who knows the Asia scene will understand what an extraordinary moment this was.

Bix’s interjections during our exchange are marked. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his conscientious work transcribing the audio recording. This is the first of two parts.

Patrick Lawrence: John, I see a remarkable trajectory in your work. It’s not quite right to say you began strictly as a Japanist, in that village studies and such topics were not what you were after. You were a student of the Pacific War, primarily, and then the postwar surrender settlement. But from there your work, especially the recent books, has opened up to subjects far broader than Japan. Cultures of War seems a culmination of that. Japan was a kind of springboard, I would say. Do you agree, and if so, was this your design from the beginning?

John Dower: I don’t think there was ever a grand design. I don’t think early in our careers I could have projected where we would end up and where things would take us. My initial attraction to Japan began when I went over when I was 20, as a college student for a summer. This was 1958, and my initial attraction was aesthetic. I was very drawn to the visual cultures of Japan—the landscaping, the painting, and other things. I didn’t really understand what I had seen, so I came home and did a very general program in East Asian studies at Harvard. My background was literature. Japanese literature’s what really attracted me.

PL: It’s indeed extremely rich.

JD: I started graduate work at Harvard in 1965. That’s when Herb Bix came, too—and when the Indochina war was heating up, although I was extremely nonpolitical at the time.

At Harvard the expectation was that I would do a PhD on a writer named Mori Ogai, who was famous as a literary figure in the Meiji period [1868–1912]. Mori Ogai was fascinating because, as you know, when you’re immersed in a culture like Japan, partly you become immersed in the culture and partly you become immersed in rethinking your own culture. It’s never that you go to Japan and just become a Japanophile; you also are reflecting on your own culture.

PL: Japan as mirror. I came to that realization myself over time.

JD: Japan as a mirror. That was a period when “national character” and cultural difference were very strong. National character studies came up in World War II, with “Know Your Enemy” and the “national character” of the Japanese. You always, in national character studies, focus on what makes people different from you. You don’t dwell on similarity, you dwell on differences.

It’s not just Americans or Westerners who are ethnocentric. Japanese love to do this: “What makes us different?”

PL: “Americans or Germans or whoever do this or that because that’s what Americans or Germans or whoever do.” That has always been my summary of the national character argument, which of course I reject.

JD: It’s called nihonjinron in Japanese. [National-character studies based on Japanese uniqueness. Literally, “the theory of the Japanese.”]

I had lived in Japan a number of years by this time. My wife was Japanese, I had a child who at the time was less than 2 and speaking only Japanese. Herb came back the same year. He, too, was married to a Japanese woman. I had spent a great deal of time with my wife’s family—lots of siblings, mother and father—and I didn’t spend my time thinking about how different these people are from me. I had no sense of us/me, self and other, of a big divide. And I also had no sense that they were all the same, that you could generalize about the Japanese, because I couldn’t even generalize about my in-laws’ family.

PL: You’ve anticipated my next question. If I wanted to describe your work in a single phrase—there’s no need to, but if I had to—I would say your irreducible theme is exactly what you just said: self and other.

JD: It’s self and other, but it is trying to see the many similarities between ourselves and others. I began by loving the culture. One of my first books is called The Elements of Japanese Design. I love Japanese culture and I love the distinctiveness of it. I was always interested in how much we share. The sharing is not just positive and soft, big phrases like “we all love and grieve.” It becomes more precise. They behave badly or atrociously in war; so do we. I never was seeing “them and us.” I always tried to see myself and others in a comparative way.

PL: This is a very essential point.

JD: But suddenly Herb and I are in the midst of the anti-war movement. I had no politics and I came from a fairly conservative family. And those were the years that shaped us.

I said to myself, “Wait a minute.” As students we read about this horrid war with Japan that ended only 20 years ago. We talk about Japan engaging in such atrocious behavior—the Rape of Nanking, the abuse of prisoners, and so on…. And here we are two decades later: America is in its second war in Asia. When we looked out as young people, we said, “How do you explain this? How do you explain that America and Japan are such close friends now and that war was so bitter back then? How do you explain the fact that what America is doing in Vietnam is very similar to what Japan had done in China and Manchuria?”

PL: Again, a very significant recognition—part of what one means in saying “Japan is a mirror.”

JD: “I can’t get this by studying literature,” I said to myself. That’s when I switched to history. And Herb thought the Occupation of Japan was an interesting period. I had never thought about the Occupation. But that’s where you can get the bridge between prewar-postwar, enemy-friend, how you can be such bitter enemies and then become truly close friends…. Now Japan was supporting the US in this atrocious war. So that’s when I switched and took up the Occupation. It seemed too big a theme at the time, so I focused on Yoshida Shigeru, the postwar prime minister, because he bridged the prewar period and the postwar period and he was conservative. He became America’s man in Japan….

I’m pretty naive politically at this time, but the [Indochina] war was appalling…. In the Harvard community of people related to Asia, all sorts of people were saying—we’re now around 1966 or so—this is insane and we’ve got to stop it….

Herbert Bix: The Freedom House Statement, do you remember all of that? [The statement was an effort by conservative scholars to enlist support for the war.]

JD: People were saying, “Those who really know Asia know we’ve got to be there and fight the Commies.” That wasn’t what we were hearing, and that’s when I became active and said, “Well, let’s mobilize.” That’s when we organized. Around the country what was happening in the Asian field was the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, and we spoke up. At Harvard we mobilized and we eventually did a little book. I was part of an editorial group of five or six…

HB: Tom Engelhardt… [Engelhardt was a fellow graduate student who went on to a long career in publishing. He now publishes and edits TomDispatch.com.]

JD: It was called The Indochina Story, and we put in all the expertise we could mobilize. We demanded “total, complete, and immediate withdrawal” and we came at it as scholars. Here’s what I didn’t understand: When Herb and I were trained as historians and specialists in Japan at Harvard, no one ever taught us historiography. No one ever taught us what in Japanese is known as mondai ishiki, which is problem-consciousness [putting questions in historical and social context]. How do you think about these things?

Those of us in CCAS really upset some of the older scholars. The key at that time, when Herb and I came up in the late 1960s and were being trained, was Modernization Theory. Modernization Theory was all about how Japan was the appropriate model for the less-developed world, not China. It was a very ideological theory. How everyone was converging to the same capitalist model, and so on. I didn’t buy all that.

PL: There are a lot of ways you show Japan to be a kind of postwar template. You just mentioned one: Modernization Theory cast Japan as the model to be emulated. You find patterns there that come through over many years. Can you talk about that?

To take one example, I love the dialectic you identify in wartime propaganda: To demonize an enemy is to idealize oneself. In the case of Japan, the diabolic superman and the underdeveloped, incompetent weakling are merely two forms of the same exercise in dehumanization. We, it is implicit, are strong and thoroughly humane.

PL: Please talk about Japan as a prewar and post–Cold War template or paradigm. It’s illuminating to recognize it and follow it through postwar history. People may not understand this very well.

JD: The model when we were coming up was that Japan was on the right track and was a model of capitalist development. This meant you studied modernization and how Japan became Westernized, industrialized, internationalized, and so on. The 1930s and 1940s in Japan were dismissed—either as an aberration, or you simply weren’t encouraged to study that period. You were encouraged to study trends that led to the modern, successful, more democratic Japan, and this was done in the name of empirical, “value-free” scholarship. We were saturated with the rhetoric that Modernization Theory was this entirely pure thing.

HB: And to climb out of it, to rid ourselves, we had to embrace concepts such as imperialism.

PL: Japan studies during the Cold War is the absolute classic case of scholarship corrupted by ideology—and far from least at Harvard.

JD: Well, you never talked about imperialism involving the United States, so it didn’t ring true to people like me and Herb. In glorifying the modernization of Japan, you were also glorifying the whole trajectory of Western development without discussing imperialism or colonialism or racism or any of those things. Things were missing.

We were doing this at a time when the civil-rights movement is making us aware of racism—the deep racism of America. But racism as a subject of study concerning America and its view of others, or Japanese racism vis-à-vis others—these were not proper areas of study.

Because I tried always to see things in different ways, it was easy to talk about white racism vis-à-vis nonwhite peoples, white supremacy, and so on. But to get at Japanese racism vis-à-vis others and how it’s different, whether they’re looking at Chinese or whether they’re looking at Westerners—those questions were what struck me as unanswered.

HB: Another key notion that arose among us was that American war crimes should come to center stage, and we have to look at American war crimes just as we have to educate ourselves about racism. Because we knew very little about the literature of race in America.

JD: I think that’s true, because if you were coming up, as Herb and I were, and you were into Japanese history, and I into the Occupation, you get into the war crimes of the Japanese. That’s a very complex subject. Is it victors’ justice? Is it genuine justice?

But then you look at the American war crimes in Vietnam. Had Japanese top leaders in the ’30s or early ’40s pursued policies the US was implementing in Vietnam, they would have been condemned as war criminals. So all of these questions, I think, led some of us to step back and say, “How do we understand these matters in a truly comparative perspective?”

PL: Not to diminish anything else you’ve done, but Chapter 7 in War Without Mercy, “Yellow, Red, and Black Men,” is the pithiest piece of writing you have ever done, in my view, because it draws together the question of race in Africa, in slave-owning America, and across the Pacific in Asia. This wasn’t remarked upon before 1986 [when War Without Mercy was published].

Anyway, next question. Empire and Aftermath, [1979], your book on Yoshida. [Shigeru Yoshida, Japanese premier, 1946–47 and 1948–54, who negotiated Japan’s postwar settlement with the United States.]

JD: Inspired by Herbert Bix, that book.

PL: When I was a correspondent in Tokyo we used to talk about the “Yoshida Deal,” as shorthand. I’ll have to simplify it here, but it came down to the surrender of some aspects of sovereignty in exchange for very advantageous economic and trade arrangements. When I was covering Southeast Asia, an earlier time, I used to call it the “Cold War Contract”—you saw it everywhere, in Singapore, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Do you see Japan as the Cold War pattern-setter here?

JD: It’s sometimes called the Yoshida Doctrine and was basically that Japan’s future lies in a close alliance with the United States. In Asian Studies it’s often referred to as the San Francisco System, and it goes back to the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951, when Yoshida was prime minister and countries around the world gathered to work out the terms by which sovereignty would be restored to Japan, which had no sovereignty between 1945 and ’52.

The deal on the part of Americans was: We’ll support you in a peace treaty with many countries—48, 49, depending on whether you count Japan—but the quid pro quos are several. You must agree to enter a bilateral security treaty with the United States. You must agree to house American bases indefinitely. You must agree to rearm Japan in the anticommunist crusade. You must agree, as it became clear, not to establish relations with the People’s Republic of China, but on the contrary, to engage in the containment of China. All of these agreements exclude Okinawa, because Okinawa will be retained as a major American neo-colony.

But nobody in our field used words like “neo-colony” at that time, so the phrase that I used in the Yoshida book that really upsets Japanese government officials, foreign ministry officials, and more establishment officials in the US was “subordinate independence.” The San Francisco System locked Japan into a relationship with the US that was one of subordination to Cold War US policy. This is true of almost all relationships the US establishes, but in the case of Japan it’s egregious.

PL: That was my point. Your phrase “subordinate independence,” with many variations in detail from one circumstance to the next, describes the American approach to all Cold War alliances.

JD: Yes. But it was particularly egregious, because what America and our conservative populists in the Japanese government agreed to was to sacrifice Okinawa. What they did to Okinawa is really, really horrendous.

PL: With echoes today, of course.

Embracing Defeat seems to stand as a kind of capstone achievement, the most penetrating work you’ve done on Japan and the Japanese. In War Without Mercy, you hint it was over 20 years from conception to publication. What were you after? What made you decide to go so deeply into a kind of national psychology at so specific a moment in the nation’s history? The ambition of that book is extraordinary. You’re purporting to explain how people’s feelings and attitudes evolved. I’m very interested to know what made you do that and what you were attempting to get done.

JD: Let me preface this with one of my regrets in life. My working title for the book that came out as Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, and it did take a very long time to write, Starting Over. When the book was done, the publisher’s publicity people came in and said, “No, you can’t use that title because it sounds like a guidebook for people who have just undergone divorce.” So I dropped the title and we ended up with Embracing Defeat, but the real title, which I wish I had used—and the regret is that I didn’t think of it then—it should have been titled Starting Over in a Shattered Land. It was the “starting over” that interested me.

I had worked on War Without Mercy before that. I had done quite a bit of work on the atomic bombs before that. I used to lecture on the bombs and Hiroshima. And the book that became Embracing Defeat was probably the most gratifying book I had written, because all of the early chapters are about the Japanese. They’re not about the Americans coming in and giving the Japanese democracy or something—as in standard accounts of the Occupation.

By this time I was fascinated by the diversity of Japanese society. Everyone talks about Japanese homogeneity. But people like Herb and I were more sensitive to the diversity. It goes in every single level. It’s not just left and right or radical and conservative. It’s gender, it’s status, it’s urban and rural.

PL: It is the making human of those not previously understood as three-dimensional people—in the Japanese case previously dehumanized people. It’s something we Americans need to do in many, many cases—a 21st-century task. This is among the things I found so good in the book.

JD: When I got into Embracing Defeat, I probably took the most pleasure in writing that book because it was people who were struggling to make a new life and a better life. In the process of doing that, they reflected on what went wrong. “What is it in the past that we’ve got to avoid?” You don’t do this if you win. Americans don’t come out of World War II and say, “Let’s have some self-reflection about our own culture.”

PL: There’s a wonderful book called Culture of Defeat by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. He talks about this. All the victor has to do is say, “We got it right, let’s continue what we were doing.” The defeated need to say, “What did we do wrong? Our worldview didn’t prove out.” The defeated emerge as a stronger people because they had to go through this process, while the victors don’t have the benefit of… what’s my word?… self-examination.

JD: And so the lack of self criticism of the West: “It was a good war.” I think it was a good war in fighting Nazism. I think it was a good war in that you had to fight against Japanese aggression. But it was also a horrid war in many ways, which ended, of course, in strategic bombing and nuclear weapons.

In doing Embracing Defeat, I spent a great deal of time going over massive materials with my wife. We would read together. Yasuko, when World War II ended, was 9 years old. She remembers the war years, and she lived through the Occupation. So this was not just abstract history to her. We would sit down and go over materials and just chat. What’s going on? What do we need to find more of?

I was trying to see it through the eyes of the elites, but the eyes also of ordinary people coming from all sorts of directions. Not necessarily all idealists or optimists or good people, but people really striving to make a new society.

PL: Perfect, John. To see from the perspective of others: another 21st-century imperative.

JD: I was impressed, and I hope that came through it the book. Because their energy and diversity and complexity, and the conflictual nature of the society and the ambiguities of American policy and the double standards of the war crimes trials and the double standards of America’s preaching about democracy while we have a Jim Crow America—all of this came out.

I think something happened in that book such that I could wrestle with the kinds of things I wanted to, which were pop culture, ordinary people, grassroots as well as elite activities, and do it from Japanese perspective and then bring the Americans in on it.

PL: We’re talking about method now, and it happens to be my next question. Only when I read Embracing Defeat did I realize that you’d long had a preference for everyday materials as revelatory of history. Radio broadcasts, films, cartoons, editorials, memoirs, notebooks, army manuals. When I reviewed Embracing Defeat I invoked the Annales school, and now I have a chance to ask you: Can you talk about method in your idea of writing history?

JD: I think I’m more of an intuitive writer than a methodological writer. I actually really came out of literature, as I mentioned, and some of the concepts influenced me. I use the word “tragedy” a great deal. I have a sense of contradiction, a term we’re not supposed to use anymore since Marxism has been discredited.

Empire and Aftermath, the Yoshida book, was my first, and I was doing traditional history. I was deep in the diplomatic archives, I was reading Yoshida’s letters, I was reading written materials mostly from elite individuals or institutions and putting it together as policy.

When I got into War Without Mercy, I said, “There’s a whole realm here of more visceral types of hatred, racism, idealism, and so on. I want to wrestle with those things, too, but I’ve got to go to different kinds of sources. I think as we’ve worked, Herb and I have been sensitive, in the postwar period in Japan, to a vigorous antimilitarism, antiwar sentiment. That didn’t come because the Americans gave them a constitution that said “no war.” It came because they were sick of war and they thought about why it had happened. They mistrusted military leaders. They mistrusted those solutions. You couldn’t get at that sentiment at the upper levels because they had made the deal with America and accepted the San Francisco System. So both of us became sensitive and associated and identified with Japanese who were critical of both Japanese history and contemporary Japan.