National Book Award
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in the non-fiction category this year was John Dower, for his book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.” Drawing on a vast range of Japanese sources, Dower tells the story of the intense interplay of victor and vanquished during the U.S. military occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952. John Dower is Professor of History at MIT. He has written many other books about Japan, including “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Congratulations and thank you for being with us.
JOHN DOWER, National Book Award, Nonfiction: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m interested in the word “embracing” in your title. It’s not a word that you usually use with the word “defeat.” Why did you choose it?
JOHN DOWER: Well, it has a certain ambiguity that captured a lot of things that I was after. From the Japanese side, the Japanese were really coming out of war and defeat into a new period, into a new life. And what they embraced was the end of suffering and violence on their own part; 66 cities had been destroyed, about three million people had been killed. And there was a sense of embracing the opportunity to start over, but also embracing the moment when the killing and the destruction ended. I once spoke to a Japanese person and talked about this experience of obliteration after the war, and they said, you know, the first thing we were liberated from was death; that there was a sense that the killing would now come to an end. The other side of it was that at tend of the war, the Americans and Japanese entered into a remarkable period of… here are these bitter enemies that come together with remarkable amity very quickly. And there was a sense that together they could seize this opportunity to create a better society, more peaceful, more democratic. So they embraced each other in a way, and they embraced the opportunity, and it spun off in many, many interesting directions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Professor Dower, was a key goal to tell the story from the Japanese point of view? I’m really struck by how many different sorts of Japanese points of view you give us in this book.
JOHN DOWER: One of the things I was drying to do here was to recapture Japanese voices and to, in a way, destroy the image that there were one kind of Japanese, there is one kind of Japanese response. In fact, it’s a very heterogeneous society, and so I was trying to understand how the defeat and the beginning over affected many, many different kind of people. Usually we historians deal with the policy makers and the elites. And I was trying to capture the voices of ordinary men, ordinary women, returned soldiers, even children, to a variety of Japanese sources and to move into popular culture, as well as elite culture. And so it does come through, I hope, with the multiplicity, which is quite surprising and quite engaging if you’re not prepared to encounter that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit about how you worked. You took about ten years to do this, right? How did you get all these voices? I mean, you’ve got everybody from prostitutes to the highest government officials in here.
JOHN DOWER: Well, I got the voices from, as you might imagine, a terrific variety of sources. The Japanese have published a great deal about this period themselves, and as scholar I have been looking at aspects of society that previous historians perhaps sometimes overlooked, like films– films, popular songs. One of the ways of getting out what people were thinking is what they were writing in letters to the editor. They were pouring out their feelings in letters to the editor during the occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1952. They sent over a half million letters and postcards to the American occupation authorities. And we can get at those. People wrote poems expressing their feeling, and many of these have been assembled or you can get at them. There was a huge burst of publishing, and one of the things I got into was top ten best-seller lists. I tried to see what ordinary people were reading. And we now have access to diaries. There’s just a multitude of sources coming from all sorts of different directions. And another thing that the Japanese published with great diligence was little dictionaries every year of new words and new expressions in the Japanese language. And it’s kind of a little cultural social history, wonderful to look into.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write that much of what we think of in this country as culturally or historically Japanese actually could be a result or is a result of this interplay between conquered and conqueror. For example, Japanese bureaucratic capitalism, which some people call the Japanese model, tell us about how the occupation and General McArthur – what he did during that period — helped create this bureaucratic capitalism.
JOHN DOWER: That’s a wonderful question and a big problem. I’m leery of the explanations that look to deep, cultural values to explain Japanese behavior. I think we can understand them more in terms of historical experience and the experience that was really decisive was the experience of war, defeat and occupation. Now, it was liberating because the Americans went in and cracked open a very repressive system and pushed new laws in, but the Japanese played a terrific role and often took the initiative in promoting some of those reforms and new laws. And what really mattered was the way the Japanese adopted them, responded to them or adapted them. So there is this terrific sense of the Japanese really taking part in democratization. The other side of it is more negative, and this is that when we think of Japan in the 20th century, we think of a period of militaristic rule from the early 1930′s to 1945, which is true– a repressive militaristic rule. But they were also under military government from 1945 to 1952, because they were not a sovereign nation. They were an occupied nation and the occupation was dominated by General McArthur and his staff. And that was a military government that could not be criticized, that had to approve every law and that chose to operate in Japan through the Japanese bureaucracy. And what happened from 1945 to 1952, one of the anomalies is that the Japanese bureaucracy got stronger under the Americans than it had been even during the bar years. So what we get, what I call in the book “Hybrid Japanese- American Legacies” that explain much of what we today look at as peculiar Japanese models or ways of doing things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You also write very interestingly about the refusal of some Japanese to take responsibility for crimes committed by some Japanese during the war. Briefly, explain how the occupation may have played a role in that.
JOHN DOWER: That’s one of the great problems. The overwhelming feeling of the Japanese when they came out of the war was of victimization, that we have suffered so greatly, and once again they look at the three million Japanese who have died in the war in their ruined cities and the hardship they faced after the war. This sense of victimization makes them look at their own suffering rather than the suffering they cause to others. They don’t see themselves so much as victimizers as victims themselves. Then this became compounded because the Americans controlled the occupation. The greatest number of victims of the Japanese were the Chinese, the Indonesians, the Korean people; they were Asian peoples. They really were invisible during the occupation, and the Americans simply so overwhelmed the scene that the Japanese didn’t get a good look at what they had done to others. In the war crimes trials that the Americans pursued, they’re very flawed trials and they’ve left a problematic legacy to the present day, because what happened was they exonerated the emperor without ever investigating him to really see what his responsibility was. And they didn’t even let him take moral responsibility for the war by abdicating, which was proposed by the emperor’s own entourage. The Americans vetoed it. This they said, “we need this man.” So they left him out of the war crimes trials. They focused on a small number of leaders almost arbitrarily chosen, showcase trials. And then by the time the trials ended in 1948, the Cold War was… had erupted. The Americans didn’t want any more trials. We began to rehabilitate some of these old people. And so the question of responsibility became blurred.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. I’m going to have to interrupt. That’s all the time we have now. But thank you very much and congratulations again.
JOHN DOWER: Thank you.