What exactly did General Douglas MacArthur, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, or SCAP, mean when he likened the Japanese nation to a twelve-year-old child? He made the notorious comparison on May 5, 1951, to a joint committee of the Senate, after being fired by President Truman for wanting to “roll back” China from Korea (with nuclear bombs if required). He had left Japan some weeks before, where he received a hero’s farewell: hundreds of thousands of weeping Japanese lined his route to the airport, the public radio station played “Auld Lang Syne,” the Mainichi newspaper cried, “Oh, General MacArthur—General, General, who saved Japan from confusion and starvation,” and the liberal Asahi paper gushed that
it was General MacArthur who taught us the merits of democracy and pacifism and guided us with kindness along this bright path. As if pleased with his own children growing up, he took pleasure in the Japanese people, yesterday’s enemy, walking step by step toward democracy.
Is that what the old soldier had meant?
Here is what he actually said:
If the Anglo-Saxon was say 45 years of age in his development, in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite as mature. The Japanese, however, in spite of their antiquity measured by time, were in a very tuitionary condition. Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of twelve as compared with our development of 45 years.
From today’s perspective this suggests an objectionable racial, or at least cultural, bias. Some, particularly in Japan, saw it that way already in 1951. There is no doubt that MacArthur, like most people of his age, thought the “Christian West” was superior and therefore duty-bound to educate the unenlightened East.
But MacArthur’s remark was not meant to be hostile. On the contrary, as John Dower, who is never slow to spot racism among his fellow Americans,1 observes in his superb history of Japan’s occupation, it had been “MacArthur’s intention to argue that the Japanese could be trusted more than the Germans.” The Germans had committed their crimes as adults, so to speak; they already knew right from wrong, but had willfully disregarded the distinction. The Japanese had to be taught, and MacArthur, the supreme teacher, was proud to point out what keen, loyal, diligent pupils they had turned out to be.
SCAP believed in the White Man’s Burden. Before turning his mind to Japan, MacArthur had taken a paternal interest in the Filipinos, whom his father, General Arthur MacArthur, had ruled as military governor earlier in the century. MacArthur père, too, had testified to a Senate committee, in 1902. He remarked that America’s “wonderful” thrust into Asia was the destiny of the “magnificent Aryan people,” whose duty it was to initiate a “stage of progressive social evolution that may be reasonably expected to result in the unity of the race and the brotherhood of man.”2 SCAP would not have expressed himself quite in that way, and racial unity was not his ultimate goal. But the manly American “thrust” into a pliant Oriental body politic certainly was. Now that we live, once again, in an age when Western intervention into the affairs of others who have made a mess of things is defended on moral grounds, Dower’s book comes as a timely reflection on what must be seen as one of the most remarkable, and benign, manifestations of the White Man’s Burden.
The history of SCAP in Japan is particularly fascinating, because it raises so many questions that are still debated with varying degrees of good faith in Asia and other parts of the non-Western world today. Can Western-style democracy be grafted onto societies with long authoritarian traditions? Is Western promotion of human rights and liberal institutions a form of disguised imperialism? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? Some boosters of so-called Asian values argue that the West is “imposing” democracy on countries which have an alternative, perhaps better way of arranging their public affairs. One of the received opinions among social scientists, government hacks, newspaper pundits, and other experts in East and West who explain the modern world to us is that liberal democracy can be successfully constituted only under specific conditions. These invariably include a “civil society,” that is, a stable society of free, independent civic associations, supported by a large, prosperous middle class with a sophisticated knowledge of individual rights and duties. Without such conditions any attempt to build democratic institutions will end in chaos and despotism.
When General MacArthur descended from his plane on August 30, 1945, at Atsugi air base, near Yokohama, corncob pipe photogenically clenched between his determined jaws, squinting at the press corps through his aviator shades, the conquered nation lying prone at his feet could not have been further removed from the conditions described above. Years of militarist mobilization had crushed all forms of free civic association. The first associations to thrive after the war were criminal gangs operating in the slums and black markets of Japan’s totally ruined cities. “Civil society” was a joke. The economy had been destroyed by war and what was left over from the carnage was looted by former Imperial Army officers and well-connected bureaucrats who got rich by supplying the black markets. City people had to sell their belongings to peasants in exchange for pitiful rations of rice or potatoes.
Thousands of abandoned children lived in bombed-out railway stations, scavenging for scraps of food and cigarette butts. Kamikaze pilots who had failed on their mission to die became hoodlums for hire. Huge numbers of soldiers and settlers arrived from the Asian continent with nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. Many of them had lost not just their relatives and material possessions, but arms and legs too. I can still remember seeing the last of these human wrecks in the 1970s, dressed in white kimonos, playing maudlin wartime ballads on old accordions in front of shrines or railway stations. Still, they were better off than their colleagues who had frozen to death in the Siberian gulag.
Dower brilliantly captures the louche, squalid, but extraordinarily dynamic mood of the postwar years. His interest is not just in the politics, but also in literature, the movies, and popular songs. This was the time of the “hooligan” writers, who wallowed in cynicism and got drunk on a lethal drink called kasutori shochu; the time of striptease theaters, swing bands, boogie-woogie, and magazines with names like Sex Bizarre and Grotesque. The most symbolic figure of the early occupation was the so-called panpan girl, the prostitute catering to Allied soldiers. With their garish makeup, high heels, and hair tied up in brightly colored scarves, the panpan were, in Dower’s words, “the exemplary pioneer materialists and consumers of the postwar era.” They were despised, but envied, too, and exuded enough glamour for children to emulate their mannerisms in “panpan games”: one child played the panpan and another, usually the taller of the two, the swaggering GI.
“Figuratively as well as literally,” writes Dower, “these tough, animated young women were closer to the Americans than anyone else.” But this closeness was also a symbol of Japanese defeat, of the American “thrust,” of a grotesquely unequal relationship between rampant conquerors, casually tossing out chewing gum from their sexy jeeps, and abject losers whose erstwhile military heroes had to play step and fetchit for Yankee soldiers and petty gangsters, while their women were to be had for the price of a Hershey bar.
That, at any rate, is how many Japanese men saw it. The humiliation of defeat could be brutally erotic. One of the best novelists writing on the period, Nosaka Akiyuki, had been one of the boys running after jeeps. He has written about the shock of seeing the size and rude health of well-fed American soldiers. No wonder Japan lost the war, he thought with a certain sense of relief, for how could you beat a nation of giants? One of Nosaka’s best stories is about a Japanese man of his age who feels obliged many years after the war to entertain an American acquaintance by taking him to a sex show. The American is older; he has fond memories of the occupation. The show features a Japanese performer known as Number One for his sexual prowess. But this time poor Number One fails to rise to the occasion. The narrator assumes it is because he spotted the American. When memories of begging for gum, of big GIs kissing panpan girls, of running after jeeps for scraps of chocolate, when all that comes flooding back, even Number One is rendered impotent.
Fraternization between Americans and their former enemies was not confined to prostitution. Nor was it without problems. Between 1947 and 1949 it was actually forbidden. This has led some researchers of the occupation period to conclude that SCAP policies were fundamentally racist. The author of a recent study tries to make the case, based mostly on anecdotal evidence, that the US occupation authorities deliberately connived with Japanese officials to promote not only racial purity but a racial hierarchy that put the white man in first class, as it were, the Japanese in business class, and all other Asians in steerage.3 This was done to encourage the Japanese to fight Asian communism as the white man’s deputy. Now it is not hard to find examples of Americans and Japanese who believed that kind should stick with kind. And it was clearly in the American interest to foster a pro-Western attitude among the defeated Japanese. The fact that Japanese had long wanted to be accepted as honorable whites, superior to other Asians, might have helped the Americans to do so.
Still, the existence of “nonfraternization” policies is insufficient evidence that racism was ever an official US aim. The failure of nonfraternization in occupied Germany had prompted SCAP initially to favor quite the reverse. MacArthur, not much of a fraternizer himself (despite rumored dalliances with Filipino and Japanese movie stars), told one of his aides that he “wouldn’t issue a nonfraternization order for all the tea in China.”4 It certainly wouldn’t have been a popular move. A former SCAP official reckons that up to 40 percent of the men at MacArthur’s headquarters had Japanese girlfriends in 1946. And there were thousands of mixed marriages as well. The temporary change in policy in 1947 was less the result of deliberate racism than of a puritanical fear among new army officers freshly out of the US of indiscipline and loose morals. I believe Dower is accurate when he writes that “fraternization between the occupation forces and Japanese women—both within and outside the structures of prostitution—also became, for some, a starting point for interracial affection, mutual respect, even love.”
Loose morals were, in any case, a minor problem for SCAP, compared to the economic catastrophe which threatened Japan for years with destitution. Under the chaotic circumstances of the late 1940s, and given the fact that Japanese had little or no experience of democratic governance, you would have expected a hawkish military man to take the view that only firm authoritarian rule would stabilize the situation. Small reforms, in keeping with Japan’s ancient traditions, might be inevitable, but radical measures would surely end in fatal disorder. That, indeed, was just what conservative Japanese officials—not former war criminals, but sound bureaucrats and politicians, former Harvard men, “liberal” law professors, and Anglophile diplomats; in short, the established nonmilitarist Japanese elite—advocated. They associated radical democratic reform with Communists and other leftists, whom the Americans had been unwise enough to let out of jail. This was reason enough to nip such dangerous ideas in the bud. Dower mentions the example of Yoshida Shigeru, the former ambassador to London, who modeled his style, cigar and all, on Winston Churchill, and served as Japan’s prime minister twice after the war. Yoshida was convinced that the Japanese were incapable of self-government and people who thought otherwise were the dupes of left-wing propaganda.
Dower describes the arguments, often of an obscurantist cultural nature, used by the conservatives to hold off democratic reforms, with a kind of deadpan humor. When it was pointed out to “liberal” Japanese legal scholars that a barely revised Meiji constitution would not do as the basis for a functioning democracy, they spoke of that nineteenth-century document, copied from Prussian law, as though it were hallowed by sacred Japanese traditions. One distinguished lawyer pointed out the dangers of democratic legislation to one of SCAP’s officials by stating that the American way of getting to a point is direct, like an airplane route, while the Japanese way is “roundabout, twisted and narrow.” To illustrate this, he helpfully sketched a winding mountain road on a piece of paper. It would be most indelicate, in other words, to encode civil rights in the constitution.
That Japanese conservatives should choose these lines of argument is not really surprising. Such views are still around, not only in Japan, but particularly in those parts of the Chinese-speaking world where authoritarian rule is promoted as an ancient cultural value. Perhaps it should come as no surprise either that the Japanese conservatives found their most loyal Western allies among the experts, the “old Japan hands” in the State Department, or intelligence officers who had studied “the Japanese Mind.” Joseph Grew, for example, ex-ambassador to Tokyo and undersecretary of state in 1945, told Truman that experience clearly showed that democracy would never work in Japan. Since such reasoning is still current, especially about China, Dower’s put-down is worth quoting:
Many Western experts, diplomats in particular, had spent a good part of their careers ingratiating themselves in upper-class circles in Japan. When they spoke disdainfully of the capacity of ordinary Japanese to govern themselves, they were reflecting not only their own elitism but also the reverential monarchism and fearful contempt for “the masses” they had heard their Japanese counterparts express time and again.
The surprise is that Douglas MacArthur chose to ignore much of this and turned instead to liberals, leftists, and New Dealers with no special cultural knowledge to carry out his radical plans to remake Japan as a pacifist democracy. These plans reduced conservative Japanese officials quite literally to tears. Within months of SCAP’s arrival, political prisoners, mostly Communists, were released from jail, women were promised legal equality and the right to vote, industrial monopolies were dissolved and labor unions encouraged, and the education system was reformed—in the beginning by inking out all textbook passages deemed to be feudal or militaristic.
These measures were followed by sweeping land reforms and a revised constitution which established the principle of popular sovereignty and outlawed war.5 If Dower appears to admire constitutional pacifism more than I do, he is not blind to its defects. As he says at the end of his book, Japan’s dependence on US security consigned the country to “military and therefore diplomatic subservience to Washington’s dictates.” In effect, the famous Article 9, in which Japan renounces its sovereign right to go to war or even maintain armed forces, treats the Japanese like twelve-year-olds, too immature to be trusted with such adult responsibilities as defending themselves, let alone their neighbors.
Why did MacArthur do it? Why did this conservative Republican act like a radical democrat? Dower argues that he did it precisely because of his racist views. “Unlike Germany,” he writes,
this vanquished enemy represented an exotic, alien society to its conquerors: nonwhite, non-Western, non-Christian. Yellow, Asian, pagan Japan, supine and vulnerable, provoked an ethnocentric missionary zeal inconceivable vis-à-vis Germany. Where Nazism was perceived as a cancer in a fundamentally mature “Western” society, Japanese militarism and ultranationalism were construed as reflecting the essence of a feudalistic, Oriental culture that was cancerous in and of itself.
This explanation fits nicely into a modish critique of “Orientalism,” and is fine as far as it goes. But it is incomplete. The difference between Germany and Japan was not only ethnic or cultural. Their political histories were different too. Japan had embarked on a murderous war, driven by a racist ideology focused on the imperial institution. But Japan had no ruling Nazi Party. It had no Hitler. No gang of thugs had taken over the government. There was no equivalent of what happened in Germany in 1933. It is hard to tell exactly when the Japanese war began: with the installation of a puppet regime in Manchuria in 1931? With the invasion of China proper in 1937? With Pearl Harbor in 1941? If military aggression was the problem, one might say it all started with the war against China in 1895 or Russia in 1905 (much applauded in the West). Militant emperor worship had already been institutionalized in the nineteenth century. And Japan’s modern imperialism was always justified to the Japanese themselves by spurious claims to ancient traditions. The reason, then, that the Allies identified the Japanese sickness with a flawed civilization was less a function of racial or cultural prejudice than of the absence of anything else to pin it on. I think ignorance, rather than “ethnocentricity,” would be a better word to describe it.
It is true, perhaps, that the missionary zeal to remake Japan owed something to SCAP’s Christian view of the world. Like the leftist liberalism of some of his subordinates, MacArthur’s Christianity was a universalist belief; he saw no reason why the Japanese should not be “civilized” along Western, that is, Christian lines. But I don’t think that was his main motivation. Japan had gone off the rails because of its political system, or its national polity, as Japanese conservatives called it. That is why the system had to be overhauled. One of Dower’s more provocative statements is that this could not have been done if the Japanese surrender had not been unconditional. He argues, I think rightly, that the Japanese government, if it had been conceded a conditional surrender, “might have been in a position to cut American reformers off at the knees.” Does this mean that Hiroshima was a first, inevitable step toward postwar Japanese democracy? Dower does not come out and say this, naturally. But the logic of his argument points in that direction.
In a curious way the story of SCAP reminds me of Chris Patten’s governorship in Hong Kong. Of course, Patten had little room for maneuver, while SCAP was practically almighty. But there were parallels. Like MacArthur, Patten was a man of strong Christian convictions who knew little about the local culture or tradition, but felt that since all men are created equal, they should all thrive under liberal institutions. His chief opponents, as was the case with SCAP, were local conservatives and Western diplomats with regional expertise. In their efforts to explain the Chinese mind, they sometimes tended to forget how much Hong Kong Chinese wanted the political liberties Patten could only grant them in small measures. To say that he “imposed” democratic reforms, or acted as an imperialist, is to miss the point, for he was only trying to satisfy a popular demand. The same was true in Japan under SCAP.
The defeated Japanese, liberated by their conquerors from their own government’s oppression, were hungry not just for salacious entertainment but for politics, intellectual ideas, foreign literature, theater, and films. It was as though a dam had burst and ideas came flooding back in. To show the hunger for print, Dower uses a photograph of crowds sleeping in the street outside a highbrow bookstore in Tokyo, waiting to buy a new edition of the collected works of a famous and rather impenetrable Japanese philosopher. It is a fine illustration of the fact that many Japanese may have been dressed in rags and living in ruins, but they were still a highly educated people. There was censorship under the American occupation, to be sure, especially of anything deemed to be critical of the occupation itself—the very fact that censorship existed could barely be mentioned in public. And yet there was far more freedom of expression than before, perhaps more even than in the relatively freewheeling 1920s.
Intellectually, Japan was of course nothing like a twelve-year-old. Before the militarization of society in the 1930s, more serious foreign books were translated in Japan than in France or England. Political rights were hardly new either. There had been suffragettes in Japan before. Marxism had been a standard subject in some university departments, especially economics. And even though few intellectuals had had the civil courage to oppose militarism openly in the 1930s, there was a great deal of critical reflection on recent history after the war was over. The sickly self-pity, the refusal to face unpleasant facts, the xenophobic apologetics came later, partly, as Dower points out in devastating fashion, because of SCAP’s own policies.
Democratic reforms, then, were extremely popular. As was pacifism. The conservative attempts to stave off the constitutional changes were ridiculed in the Japanese press. Even the harsh verdicts meted out to Japanese wartime leaders by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal found popular support. Why then did so many leftists and liberals, who had saluted SCAP’s Americans as liberators in the early postwar period, feel cheated only a few years later? The usual explanation is the so-called U-turn. When China fell to the Communists in 1949, and the cold war began in earnest, hawkish policies replaced the New Dealers’ idealism: workers’ strikes were crushed, leftists were purged from public office, men classified as war criminals were allowed to resume their careers, and the newly pacifist nation was pressed into service as a military base for allied forces in Korea. With the active connivance of the US government, a new conservative order took shape, designed to enforce stability and marginalize the left. Henceforth Japan would be governed by a conservative elite with overpowerful bureaucrats to guide it and gangsters to keep the unions down. The closest thing to what has been termed, rather misleadingly, “the Japanese System” was Italy under the Christian Democrats—and the mafia.
That the cold war had much to do with this is beyond doubt. But the betrayal of Japanese democracy, if that’s what it was, came well before the cold war got going. The main irony of Japan’s occupation is that MacArthur decided to perpetuate some of the main causes of Japan’s political illness which he had set out to cure. For in fact, despite all the idealistic talk of “remaking” Japan, and SCAP’s “ethnocentric missionary zeal,” Japan’s political institutions changed less than Germany’s. For one thing, Germany was under direct Allied military rule, whereas SCAP left the Japanese government in place. Although the government was purged of its more egregious warmongers, the bureaucracy continued pretty much as it was. Ministries changed names, but methods, especially those fostered by the wartime economy, remained the same. As Dower has written on an earlier occasion: “In the chaos of the early postsurrender transition, the United States even transferred to the bureaucracy some of the economic regulatory functions which the private sector had struggled to maintain all the way through the war.”6
There were rational reasons for SCAP’s policy. Few Americans had enough knowledge or experience to run the daily affairs of Japan. Most didn’t even speak the language. Then there was the fact that Japan had had no equivalent of the Nazi regime. It was relatively simple in Germany to remove Nazi leaders from public life, or even from life altogether. Whom, apart from token military figures, would you tackle in Japan? Those gray government officials, who kept things running while soldiers ran amok? And how could you seriously deal with Japanese war responsibility if you weren’t prepared to settle accounts with the man who was formally responsible for the whole thing, Emperor Hirohito himself? Dower’s book reveals in great detail how SCAP, by protecting the emperor at all costs, falsified Japanese history, manipulated politics, rigged the war crime trials, and by doing so, created many of the problems which plague Japan to this day.
MacArthur’s attitude to the Japanese emperor reflected a kind of political schizophrenia in his administration that must have confused the Japanese no end. He enabled liberals to promote democracy in Japan, but he also listened to the most reactionary members of his staff, such as General Charles Willoughby, his intelligence chief, and Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, his military secretary. Fellers, who was active after the war in the John Birch Society, had made a name for himself as an expert on the Japanese Mind. It was Fellers’s advice that appears to have convinced SCAP to protect the emperor. The idea was to “drive a wedge” between the emperor and the “militarists” by presenting the emperor as the peace- loving victim of a military clique. Thus the whole sorry enterprise of Japan’s war in Asia could be neatly blamed on bad generals who had misled not only the peace-loving Japanese people, but their pacific emperor as well. The emperor was transformed into a symbol of Japanese innocence, which all his subjects could share.
The reason for presenting the facts in this way was sentimental, as well as tactical, based on the experts’ view of the Japanese Mind. In the spring of 1945, Fellers issued a memorandum in Manila, stating that “the people of Japan, who believe themselves to be gods, are unaware of and absolutely cannot understand either democracy or American political idealism.” Hence his view, expressed after the Japanese surrender, that “if the Emperor were tried for war crimes the governmental structure would collapse and a general uprising would be inevitable.”
Not at all surprisingly, Fellers and his fellow conservatives got along fine with Emperor Hirohito’s courtiers. In their case, fraternizing was assiduously cultivated at imperial duck hunts and geisha parties. Fellers, as well as his boss, were reported to have “very warm feelings towards His Majesty.” And so SCAP decided, against the wishes of the other allies, not only to shield the Emperor from prosecution as a war criminal, but not even to call on him as a witness. Worse, the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo was told to make sure that witnesses and defendants did not implicate the emperor in any way. When General Tojo did so anyway, in a careless moment of honesty, by stating that no Japanese would ever go against the imperial will, he was told to change his testimony. The Emperor announced that he was human. SCAP called him the “first gentleman of Japan,” who had always wanted peace. And the American censors pounced on any criticism that suggested otherwise. One critical examination of the Emperor’s wartime role, a documentary film made in 1946, The Japanese Tragedy, was actually passed by SCAP’s censors. But when it was shown privately to Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, with General Willoughby in attendance, the two gentlemen made such a fuss that the film was banned after all.7
It is possible to argue that MacArthur’s maneuvering made a certain tactical sense. He was doing what authoritarian rulers in Japan had done many times before: he used the Emperor as a figurehead for his own policies. Like the Meiji-period oligarchs, MacArthur dressed up political change in a show of continuity. Perhaps this was a smart move. But the consequent contradiction in SCAP’s policies undermined the very thing he was trying to achieve. For if it was true that the Japanese were cultural and political twelve-year-olds, blinded by pagan emperor-worship and as yet incapable of understanding democracy, and if it was the sacred American mission to take that twelve-year-old by the hand and raise him to Western democratic standards, then the blatant manipulation of the imperial institution and the stifling of critical debate were not only dishonest and illiberal but an insult to the Japanese. It was MacArthur himself who treated them as children. How could one expect the Japanese to respect the principle of equality before the law if men were hanged for war crimes in a rigged trial, while their supreme commander could not be held to account? The more we have come to know since about the emperor’s active involvement in wartime policies, the more outrageous SCAP’s policy looks.8
Was MacArthur at least right to assume that the Japanese would rebel if their emperor had been made to step down, or, worse, put on trial? There are good reasons to doubt it. We know that Communists and leftists were hostile to the “emperor-system.” It is perhaps less well known that some of the Emperor’s own confidantes thought he should abdicate. Prince Higashikuni, Hirohito’s uncle and the first postwar prime minister, advised such a course. So did Prince Konoe, who had been prime minister in 1937. Konoe spoke openly of the Emperor’s guilt in having unleashed the war and failing to end it sooner. For this, one of the American interrogators called Konoe a “rat.”
When the Tokyo war crimes trials reached their conclusion in 1948, the Emperor’s role was openly discussed once again. The chief justice of Japan’s supreme court agreed with a famous constitutional scholar that the Emperor should have taken the blame for the war. And Dower mentions speculation at the time that at least half the population would have approved of abdication, if it had been put to the vote, and probably much more than that if the emperor had expressed his wish to step down. But SCAP and his aides who knew the Japanese Mind decided it was out of the question.
Dower quotes at some length from a journal kept in 1945 and 1946 by a young ex-soldier called Watanabe Kiyoshi. Watanabe had worshiped the Emperor. He never doubted Japan’s divine mission to go to war. But when he saw how his godlike supreme commander simply washed his hands of the past by declaring that he had never been divine after all and leaving his subordinates to take the rap, Watanabe went into a prolonged rage. Shouldn’t a captain be responsible for the loss of his ship? How could General MacArthur praise this irresponsible figure for helping to turn Japan into a democracy? Surely only the people can create a democracy. That is why it is called minshushugi, “the principle of rule by the people.” Dower is right: Watanabe had traveled a long way for a recently devoted emperor-worshiper with only eight years of formal education.
It is in fact not so hard in Japan to meet men like Watanabe. One person who comes to my mind is Azuma Shiro. Azuma was a young soldier in Nanking during the infamous massacres in 1937. He had not spoken of these events until his wartime diaries were published a few years ago. The response of right-wing zealots to his diaries, which contained honest and graphic descriptions of the war, was so ferocious that Azuma decided to air his feelings in public. He was disgusted by the inability of many Japanese to face the truth and take responsibility for what they had done.
He was particularly disgusted with the late Emperor. As he put it to me at his house: “We went to war for him, my friends died for him, and he never even apologized.” For the last ten years Azuma has been a tireless campaigner for historical truth. When he tried to come to the US to speak on the anniversary of the Nanking Massacre, he was denied an entry visa as a suspected war criminal. When Emperor Hirohito visited the US in 1975, he was warmly welcomed by President Ford and Mickey Mouse.
The cloying image of postwar Hirohito, with his (twelve-year-old?) taste for Disney characters, set the tone for a pervasive mawkishness about the past. Sometime in the early 1950s the national mood began to shift from self-criticism to self-pity. The story, first in words, then on film, of a saintly doctor who died of radiation after the bombing of Nagasaki became (and still is) a huge popular success. The biggest hit song of 1952 was written by two Japanese soldiers waiting to be executed for war crimes in the Philippines. “Ah, the Night is Deep in Monten Lupa,” in which the two war criminals cry to the moon while weeping for their gentle mothers, who are also crying, like cuckoos in search of their lost ones, brought tears to the eyes of the “class-A” generals and wartime leaders in Tokyo when it was performed for them at Sugamo prison.
Self-pity comes easily. That is why there are many more Japanese movies about the American occupation of Japan than there are about the Japanese occupation of Asia. Some of the most interesting ones were made at or near the time, such as Kurosawa Akira’s superb Drunken Angel (1948). But for the typical view of a man who was only a little more than twelve years old himself at the time, one should see Shinoda Masahiro’s film MacArthur’s Children. It was made in 1984. The story takes place during thefirst years of occupation. The main characters are a group of twelve-year-old boys who love to play baseball. Baseball, a popular sport in Japan before the war, had been banned by the Japanese military authorities, but was revived as soon as the Allied troops arrived in 1945. Tragedy comes in the form of a dignified figure who is executed for war crimes. After all the stock images of the occupation have been exhausted—jeeps racing ahead of screaming little boys, panpan girls, swing music, Japanese putting a brave face on things, GIs stomping all over tatami mats without taking their boots off, etc., etc.—we get the climactic moment: the big game between the twelve-year-old Japanese and an “All Star” team of huge American soldiers. The boys are in danger of losing, but then, like a deus ex machina, a dog appears, who grabs the ball in its mouth and helps the Japanese boys to claim their victory. The dog, it is suggested, carries the spirit of the executed war criminal.9
Like most people of his age, the director, Shinoda, looks back at the 1940s with a mixed sense of gratitude, nostalgia, and resentment. He will always associate the Americans with liberation—baseball, free speech, Glenn Miller, sex—as well as national defeat. From the point of view of a twelve-year-old in 1945, America remained like a father: a figure to admire, to emulate, to depend on, to rebel against, and perhaps even to beat, if only by getting richer. This attitude has spurred Japan on to great economic achievements. It has also provided a basis for a paternal East Asian Pax Americana. How long this can last, after a new generation takes over in Japan, a generation which has no memories of American largesse or overbearing superiority, is the question. My feeling is that more and more Japanese are realizing it is time to grow up.
October 21, 1999
In his best-known book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, reviewed by me in these pages (The New York Review, August 14, 1986), Dower stressed the brutalizing effects of American as well as Japanese racism during the Pacific War. In my view he overplayed American racism to suggest a kind of moral equivalence, which might seem fair and was certainly well received, but is not necessarily always right. ↩
Quoted by Stanley Karnow in his book In Our Image (Random House, 1989), p. 171. ↩
Yukiko Koshiro, Trans-Pacific Racisms and the US Occupation of Japan (Columbia University Press, 1999). ↩
Theodore Cohen, Remaking Japan: The American Occupation as New Deal (Free Press, 1987), p. 123. ↩
There were absurdities in the American promotion of “demokurashi” too. Not only were baseball (already a Japanese passion long before the war), and kissing scenes on the cinema screen deemed to be marvelously emancipatory and democratic values, but some American officers were also convinced that square-dancing offered the key to a democratic transformation. See Herbert Passin’s essay, “The Occupation—Some Reflections,” in Showa: The Japan of Hirohito, edited by Carol Gluck and Stephen R. Graubard (Norton, 1992). ↩
Passin, “The Occupation—Some Reflections,” in Showa, p. 64. ↩
For a full description of this episode, and others, see Kyoko Hirano, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation 1945-1952 (Smithsonian Institution, 1992). ↩
See the seminal article by Herbert Bix, “The Showa Emperor’s ‘Monologue’ and the Problem of War Responsibility,” in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Volume 18, No. 2 (Summer 1992). ↩
For a closer analysis of this film, see Linda C. Ehrlich’s chapter in The Confusion Era: Art and Culture of Japan During the Allied Occupation, 1945- 1952 (Smithsonian Institution, 1997). ↩