This Space Occupied A scholar examines Allied activity in postwar Japan

and its implications for modern Japanese history.


Japan in the Wake of World War II.
By John W. Dower.
Illustrated. 676 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company/
The New Press. $29.95.

The Allied occupation of Japan was by almost any standards an extraordinary exercise of power by victors over vanquished. Even if Gen. Douglas MacArthur's assessment, ''an unprecedented revolution in the social history of the world,'' is regarded as hyperbolic, the ambition that underlay the whole enterprise -- at least in its earlier phases -- was no less than to reshape alien and Oriental Japan on the model of a Western democracy.

In ''Embracing Defeat,'' a magisterial and beautifully written book, John W. Dower, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, throws light into darker corners (sometimes very dark corners) of Japan between August 1945 and April 1952 and tries to assess the broader meaning of the experience in the context of modern Japanese history. In a formulation reminiscent of Eric Hobsbawm's ''short 20th century'' idea, he sums up his perspective in terms of ''a cycle of recent history that began in the late 1920's and essentially ended in 1989. When this short, violent, innovative epoch is scrutinized, much of what has been characterized as a postwar 'Japanese model' proves to be a hybrid Japanese-American model: forged in war, intensified through defeat and occupation and maintained over the ensuing decades out of an abiding fear of national vulnerability and a widespread belief that Japan needed top-level planning and protection to achieve optimum economic growth. This bureaucratic capitalism is incomprehensible without understanding how victor and vanquished embraced Japan's defeat together.''

In other words, unlike some in Japan and elsewhere who have tended to shrug off the occupation experience as full of sound and fury but in the long perspective of history a temporary diversion from unidirectional Japanese history, Dower sees it as much more than that: Japan and the United States were (and are) inextricably intertwined. On the other hand, he has little time for the view that MacArthur and his subordinates bestowed democracy on Japan and the Japanese lived happily ever after. Indeed, much of the book is devoted to dissecting the occupation's pretensions, as well as many of its practices.

He is scathing about the manifold absurdities of the censorship regimen maintained so rigorously in the early years by the occupation bureaucracy. The occupation itself could not be criticized. Nor could the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be mentioned in any publication or performance. Ironically, even criticism of the Soviet Union -- an Allied power, after all -- was banned in the early years. He acknowledges that censorship during the occupation was much less harsh than it was under the Japanese military regime in the 30's and early 40's but points out that all publications were forbidden to refer to the existence of censorship, or to indicate deletions by a sequence of circles and crosses. The curious logic of promoting freedom of expression, so central to a working democracy, by liberal use of the censor's blue pencil is explored lovingly by Dower, who uncovers astounding examples of bureaucratic idiocy.

Like many others, he is also highly critical of the Tokyo war crimes trials, and he weighs the complex moral and legal conundrums involved in administering ''victor's justice.'' While even the most lenient view of the trials would regard their conduct as a shambles in many respects, Dower is particularly concerned with one aspect that also seriously exercised the president of the court, the Australian judge William Webb. In Webb's view, the trials were inevitably flawed because of the absence of the man whom he was inclined to regard as the principal defendant, from whom he thought the actual defendants took their orders: Emperor Hirohito.

On the spectrum of opinion relating to the Emperor's war responsibility, in a controversy that has raged within and beyond Japan in recent decades, Dower is inclined to hold that he bore a considerable burden of guilt, whether personally acknowledged or not. But it is possible to argue that the Emperor had little or no de facto capacity to influence events, and, given the absence of crucial evidence and the suspicion that some evidence reasonably attracts, it may well be that this issue will never be firmly resolved. What Dower shows expertly is that as a matter of deliberate occupation policy the Emperor was protected from criticism, dissuaded on several occasions from abdicating and established as a constitutional, ''symbolic'' monarch. I think that perhaps Dower makes rather too much of this. As the left-wing Japanese political historian Osamu Watanabe has shown, most of the electorate lost interest in the Emperor between the onset of high economic growth in the late 50's and Hirohito's illness and death in 1988-89, when there was a flurry of mass grieving, some of it artificially created.

"The villagers had gathered around the single local radio over which the single state-run station was received. Reception was poor. Static crackled around the emperor's words, and the words themselves were difficult to grasp. The emperor's voice was high pitched and his enunciation stilted. He did not speak in colloquial Japanese, but in a highly formal language studded with ornamental classical phrases. Aihara was just exchanging puzzled glances with others in the crowd when a man who had recently arrived from bombed-out Tokyo spoke up -- almost, she recalled, as if to himself. 'This means,' he whispered, 'that Japan has lost.'"

-- from the first chapter of 'Embracing Defeat'

Dower's writing is graphic and extremely moving when he describes what it was like for an ordinary person living in Japan between August 1945 and about 1949, when economic conditions improved. The book includes many amazing documentary photographs; one, picturing two street urchins near Ueno Station in Tokyo in 1946, is almost unbearable to look at. Photos of Allied prisoners of war and of Japanese servicemen at the end of the war indicate more clearly than words could what is meant by malnutrition. Where is the difference, one wonders, for a starving soldier, between victory and defeat?

Another area where Dower is at his descriptive best is in his chronicling of the outpouring of free expression immediately following the collapse of the stifling militaristic ideology of surrendering one's whole being to the service of the state. A negative and pervasive aspect of this was widespread corruption and black-market activity. At the other end of the spectrum of respectability was the appearance of huge numbers of magazines publishing poetry and other kinds of literature -- despite a dire shortage of paper, the fact that few of those involved had enough to eat and, later, the dimwitted interventions of the occupation censorship. And then there was the sudden emergence of widespread sexual license; large numbers of panpan girls catered to American servicemen (and Japanese men) with a shocking nonchalance that, in Dower's view, reflected both economic necessity and an excited savoring of the sweets of long-denied freedom.

The book is particularly interesting on what Dower regards as the deliberate policy of the occupiers to ignore the advice of ''old Japan hands,'' who by and large assumed a culturalist approach, skeptical of the chances of reforming the Japanese system except by building on indigenous institutions and styles of interaction. Quite the reverse of this, the occupiers greatly preferred those who were not constrained in their outlook by past experience of how Japan had operated but who were dynamic and prepared to think of new futures for Japan.

The most graphic example of this was the way in which the draft of the 1946 Constitution was written within a week in February 1946 by a committee of the Government Section of MacArthur's headquarters. A supreme arrogance, one might well argue, for foreigners to presume to rewrite entirely the basic law of a sovereign state in a single week and then virtually impose it on the Government of that state. However controversial the origins of the 1946 Constitution may be, it remains unamended 53 years later; ironically, it is Americans who have often been its harshest critics.

In general, Dower adopts a critical view of the occupation, but, interestingly, he is plainly enamored of the sheer democratic panache of that Constitution and of the largely -- though not wholly -- successful efforts of Government Section bureaucrats to prevent the Japanese Government from subtly undermining its key provisions. He incidentally describes how one most unusual old Japan hand who was a member of the committee, a young woman called Beate Sirota, far from expressing skepticism at this enterprise, helped give the Japanese the most advanced set of human rights of any people at the time.

The occupation of Japan was full of ambiguities, inconsistencies, bad policy- making, bureaucratic bungling and arrogance. Part of the inconsistency resulted from the onset of the cold war while the operation was still in midcourse. There is much to deplore, no doubt, about its legacy, but also much to applaud. John W. Dower both deplores and applauds in this richly nuanced book, which is such a pleasure to read.

J. A. A. Stockwin, the Nissan Professor of Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford, is the author of ''Governing Japan.''