Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Japan: past defeat and present recovery

The images from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were devastating, that wall of water crashing through houses, highways, entire towns. I found myself wondering not only about the the ongoing crisis at the nuclear plants and the people killed, but also about the survivors. What does it mean to people to survive in a place where friends, family and even most familiar structures have been swept away?

Someone suggested John W. Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the wake of World War II. Dower is an historian I've read before. His War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War is, as far as I'm concerned, the indispensable history of that conflict, showing conclusively that for all parties it was a race war.

Embracing Defeat didn't actually tell me much about how Japanese will adapt, respond and recover from the current horror. But it is quite fascinating. Among other insights, Dower emphasizes that if there was one experience postwar Japanese were socialized to expect, it was being subjected to involuntary changes. Constant change had been the texture of Japan's modernization and imperial ambitions since its "opening" to the West in the mid-1800s.

For almost a century, the Japanese had been socialized to anticipate and accommodate themselves to drastic change. When World War II ended, they were well prepared -- not merely by the horrors and manifest failures of the war, but also by the socialization of the past and even the psychic thrust of wartime indoctrination -- to carry on the quest for a "new" Japan.

The arriving U.S. military occupiers, expecting an exotic, hidebound and feudal society, were astonished by the unexpected flexibility of Japanese responses to defeat, responses which were far more creative than just putting on a show of compliance for the conquerors. I wonder if some of that resilience may still be available to the survivors in Fukushima Prefecture?

General Douglas MacArthur's army of occupation threw itself into the contradictory project of creating a democratic "revolution from above" -- the original instance of George W. Bush's mad fixation on implanting his idea of democracy in other peoples' countries. Oddly enough, according to Dower, a remarkable synergy between indigenous Japanese impulses and an uncomprehending imperial authority, did leave Japan with a governmental system very much its own and partially democratic.

Some Japanese even liked the strange experience of U.S. occupation. This contemporary Japanese cartoon, according to Dower not intended to express irony, shows that, for at least a short season, those conquerors were greeted as donors of a welcome gift of democracy.
Dower-Embracing Occupation001.jpeg
As pure curiosity, this history would be hard to beat.

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