Thursday, January 10, 2013

Post WWII Changes in Japan

The Barnes and Noble history book club met last night to discuss Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower.

The book deals with the way in which the Japanese dealt with the defeat in World War II, the U.S. occupation, and the changes in Japanese society that occurred between 1945 and 1952 when the occupation ended.

The meeting opened with two members expressing outrage. One was offended by Dower's failure to recognize the pain of the women enlisted by the government as prostitutes to service the American occupation forces and the desperation that must have driven them to such work. The other was outraged by the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war and the failure of the Japanese to acknowledge the magnitude and despicable nature of what they had done.

We discussed the meaning of the title, "embracing defeat". The point was made that the Japanese did not simply submit to being defeated, but accepted the defeat emotionally and embarked on a program to correct the faults that had led to that defeat.

The point was made that the Japanese were very good in defeat and the Americans were good in victory, offering a helping hand to the conquered. It was suggested that the Japanese had been very bad in victory during the war -- exploiting and abusing conquered peoples -- while the Americans would quite probably have been bad in defeat.

Japan was devastated at the end of the war. When the Emperor broke precedent to announce the surrender, people were stunned to learn that they had been lied to for years. Millions of its people had been killed or were stranded abroad. The cities had been bombed into rubble, including by atomic bombs, and millions of the residents had evacuated to find refuge in the rural areas. Its colonies had been removed and with them its sources of raw materials; its shipping had been destroyed. The crops failed that year. Huge stockpiles that had been built to support an all out effort to defend against invasion were stolen by the former ruling elite. Most Japanese were fully occupied for years simply trying to survive. Added to the physical problems, there was a general depression and hopelessness.

In a brief period after the war, among other things the Japanese:
  • Demoted the Emperor from a living god to a human monarch,
  • Changed from militarism to a pacifism,
  • Revised their governmental structure. became more democratic, and introduced women's suffrage,
  • Carried out a land reform,
  • Broke the power of large scale land owners and of the families owning the industrial combines,
  • Made the economy much more competitive, and
  • Reformed the education system.
Strikingly, although not mentioned in the book, the Japanese were very consciously maintaining many portions of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage while making also making all of these social, political and economic changes. 

We discussed the nature of Japanese culture that facilitated rapid change after defeat. It was noted that Japan made comparably major social changes both in the change from the time of the warring states to the Tokugawa Shoganate and following the Meiji Restoration. The changes in all three cases came from the top -- in the case of the post WWII changes from an imperial General MacArthur as well as from Emperor Herohito.  It was also suggested that the Japanese have a nearly uniquely strong cultural value of conformity with group norms; even in cases of manga fans and dance crazes individuals conform to the norms of their group if not the larger society.

They also show remarkable loyalty to institutions. The example was given of the closing of the auto factories during the oil shock of the early 1970s. Drivers who could not get gasoline were not buying cars, and the demand for new autos dried up. Japanese factories closed, but management informed workers that they would be paid even while staying at home. The workers broke into the factories to sit by the still production lines, passing time singing company songs.

The Japanese had an important asset in making the change -- the media. There were thousands of publications, many started new after the war serving the highly literate population (in spite of  the difficulty of reading Japanese characters). The film industry produced more than 1000 motion pictures during the occupation. Radio was widely available and very popular. With the end of wartime censorship and a much lighter occupation censorship, there was a very lively public debate on reform as well as entertainment and art to help in the adjustment.

The U.S. and Allied policy had been focused on pacifying the Axis powers and obtaining reparations in the first couple of years after the war. The United States quickly responded to the likelihood of famine in Japan with food aid in 1945, and then provided significant development aid as the fear of Communist expansion developed with the beginning of the Cold War. With the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, huge purchases were made in Japan in support of the war effort. One of our members who had worked in the Department of Commerce described the continuing favoritism of Japanese imports over domestic production for many years. Thus American demands helped to fuel the rapid economic expansion of Japan that continued through the mid 1970s.

We noted, however, that the United States was unprepared in many ways for the occupation. There was not only ignorance of Japanese culture but a lot of prejudice based on racism. Policy makers in Washington were perhaps less effective than they might have been. General MacArthur -- described as an icon for Americans in 1945 -- has been reassessed by modern historians and some of his decisions now look more questionable than they did at the time.

Japan had in a brief historical period in the early 20th century gained colonies in Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan. It had been fighting for decades to gain colonies in China (comparable to those held by European imperial powers) and to influence Chinese government policies, especially trade policies. It continued invasions of other Asian lands to gain resources, in the belief that as the strongest Asian nation they could create a greater sphere (and because they thought they could). And they over reached! (Many Japanese came to wonder how their leaders could have been so stupid.)

The club members discussed why it is that some empires manage to stop expansion in time and hold on for centuries while others over reach and crash. Why did Tojo's Japan attack Pearl Harbor, or Hitler attack Russia, or Napoleon invade Russia while the United States stopped after reaching the Pacific Ocean and half of Mexico? How did the British maintain a huge, complex empire for so long, or the Romans or Incas manage huge empires. One suggestion is that it is easier to do so when the empires exist on a contiguous land mass. Another suggestion was that it was important to have a counterbalancing power in the capital that could restrain the military leaders from over extension.

The new Japanese cabinet headed by Shinzo Abe is very conservative, and there was mention of the possibility that some of the reforms on the Occupation period might now be reversed.

18 members attended the discussion which was quite lively. In general it appeared that the book was well received. One of the members mentioned that he was quoting a book a great deal given that he had thought he didn't like it that much.

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