The Destruction, Resurrection, and Eclipse of Japan

By PAUL SIEGEL

John W. Dower’s “Embracing Defeat” won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for 1999 non-fiction. These prizes were richly deserved.

“Embracing Defeat” explains much about what has made present-day Japan what it is-and indeed, although Dower does not explicitly draw such conclusions, about what has made the contemporary world what it is. Marxists and other radical critics of capitalism can learn many valuable lessons from it.

Dower, generally conceded by scholars in the field to be the foremost historian of post-war Japan, has engaged in extraordinary research, using Japanese archives, academic studies, and forms of popular culture-newspapers, films, song lyrics, best-selling books, private correspondence-to exhibit swift-changing currents and cross-currents of Japanese thought and feeling under the American occupation.

Acclaimed by fellow historians, his book, vividly written, makes fascinating reading for the non-specialist as well as the specialist.

The American occupation authorities were utterly taken aback by the enormity of the destruction that had been wreaked on Japan and marvelled that the Japanese government had held out as long as it did. They were equally surprised by the response of the Japanese people, not at all in keeping with the notion put forward by their “experts” of a people that had been thoroughly robotized by the governing militarists and incapable of acting on its own.

Their lives shattered, exhausted, despairing, disgusted by the plunder of military stockpiles and the diverting of public resources by members of the military and civilian elite in the wake of defeat, the Japanese masses rejected the ultranationalistic concepts with which they had been indoctrinated. A Japanese police report expressed fear of the mass mood as one of “grave distrust, frustration, and antipathy toward military and civilian leaders.”

The Japanese, therefore, welcomed as liberators the Americans-who, determined to smash the Japanese military machine, promised peace and democracy. The occupation authorities, however, while maintaining absolute power, ruled through the existing governmental and social elite, purged of the militarists.

Although the occupying authority, intent on “rooting out” militarism through “democratization,” instituted many democratic reforms, the huge occupation force by its own existence negated these reforms.

“While the victors preached democracy,” Dower points out, “they ruled by fiat; while they espoused equality, they themselves constituted an in- violate privileged cast. … [A]lmost every interaction between victor and vanquished was infused with intimations of white supremacism.”

At the same time that the Supreme Commander, as General MacArthur was called, spoke about freedom of the press, his headquarters maintained a tight censorship of the Japanese media. They were not permitted to criticize occupation policies, to say anything negative about the victors, or even to mention that the censorship existed.

When a newspaper editorial stated that “the way to express the gratitude of the Japanese people toward General MacArthur for his efforts to democratize the nation is not to worship him as a god,” the newspaper was, although it had gotten through the censorship, confiscated by the American military police.

The Supreme Commander ruled in a kind of double sovereignty with Emperor Hirohito. During the war MacArthur had been governed in his propaganda directed to the Japanese people by an internal memorandum that counseled “the driving of a wedge between the Emperor and the people on the one hand, and the Tokyo gangster militarists on the other.”

In this way, it continued, “calm-minded conservatives may see the light and save themselves before it is too late.” The “calm-minded conservatives,” Dower explains, is a reference to “elderly conservative elites, including titled scions of the high nobility, who had controlled the country before the military gained ascendancy.”

Now MacArthur was governed by a memorandum that counseled that “in the interest of peaceful occupation and rehabilitation of Japan, prevention of revolution and communism, all facts … be marshalled … to establish an affirmative defense” and “prevent indictment and prosecution of the Emperor as a war criminal.”

To defend the Emperor for the occupation authority’s purposes, the ancient means by which monarchs through the centuries had shrugged off responsibility for their actions-they had been deceived by “bad advisers”- was to be used.

Actually, there was by no means the single-minded popular devotion to the Emperor that MacArthur’s advisers, alleged experts on “the Oriental mind,” claimed. Field-level intelligence agents stated in the early months of the occupation: “People are more concerned with food and housing problems than with the fate of the Emperor.” Other intelligence reports said things to the same effect and observed that the Emperor “has even become the `point’ of many jokes.”

Toward the occupation itself popular feeling was mixed: there was gratitude for the Allies having ended the nightmare of war and having ejected the militarists from the government, mixed with resentment for the arrogance of the lordly conquerors.

This resentment emerged after the occupation in articles in mass-circulation magazines that recounted instances of such arrogance. In one notorious incident American MPs boarded a commuter train and subjected the women on it to a humiliating examination for evidence of venereal disease, as if to proclaim that they regarded all Japanese women as whores.

In response to the democratic reforms of the occupation authority, the Japanese almost immediately, to the dismay of the authority, went far beyond them. Unions grew extremely rapidly, from 380,000 members at the end of 1945 to one million a month later to 5.6 million at the end of 1946 and to 6.7 million in the middle of 1948. Two-thirds of the unions were dominated by the Communist Party and the rest by Socialists.

Even more alarming was the “production control” movement in which, independently of the trade-union officialdom, workers seized control of factories and continued production without turning the products over to the owners until the owners acceded to their wage demands.

However, “production control”-which Marxists have traditionally called “workers’ control”-was more than a means to get higher wages; it reflected a suspicion that factory owners were purposely holding back production to contribute to the economic crisis and thereby sabotage democratization.

The economic crisis and food scarcity brought forth a huge demonstration of 250,000 people on “Food May Day,” 1946, on the plaza in front of the imperial palace. May Day demonstrations, stimulated by the Russian Revolution, had been held from 1920 until 1936, after which they were suppressed.

The Communist Party of Japan and the Marxist intellectuals had almost entirely succumbed to patriotic hysteria during the war. Only a small number of Communists-in prison or in the Soviet Union or the Communist-held areas of China-had maintained their opposition to the war.

Now there was a resurgence of Marxist influence, but the Japanese Communist Party, while denouncing “militarists and war criminals,” proclaimed that it was taking as “its immediate and fundamental goal the achievement through peaceful and democratic methods of our country’s bourgeois democratic revolution, which is already in progress.”

In accordance with this orientation, the organizing committee of “Food May Day” expressed its “sincerest appreciation for the measures taken by the Allied Powers to liberate the people” and petitioned the Emperor, as “the holder of sovereign power” and “the highest authority,” to repudiate those who had driven Japan to destruction.

Hirohito refused to accept the petition, and MacArthur issued a statement condemning the “excesses of disorderly minorities,” in a phrase that recalled the war-time laws that his headquarters had annulled six months before. Mark Gayn, an American journalist on the scene, reported: “There was consternation in union headquarters and in the offices of the left-wing parties. In conservative quarters, there was undisguised jubilation.”

Even after the statement by MacArthur, however, the unions, responding to a galloping inflation and government threats to dismiss large numbers of public employees, made plans for a general strike. MacArthur now announced that he would not allow “the use of so deadly a social weapon” and forced the unions to call off the strike.

A “Red purge,” in which the occupation authorities, the Japanese government, and corporation managers worked together, was embarked on. Eleven thousand activist public employees were dismissed, and after the Korean war began 10-11,000 workers in private industry were also dismissed. “Side by side with the ‘Red purge’ came the ‘depurge’-the return to public activity of individuals previously purged ‘for all time’ for having actively abetted militarism and ultranationalism.”

A particularly egregious case was that of Colonel Tsuji, who had played a leading role in “the Bataan death march” of American prisoners of war in the Philippines. Tsuji lived in hiding with the knowledge of General Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief of counter-intelligence and the former commander of American troops in the Philippines, who was gathering together a corps of anti-communist officers. He was pardoned in a “Christmas amnesty.”

The “Red purge” and the “depurge” weakened labor and the left parties. Moreover, the economic crisis was resolved by the boom resulting from the U.S. “special procurements” policy during the Korean war and the post-war reconstruction of South Korea.

The United States had earlier intended to restrict the Japanese economy to the production of non-competitive cheap knickknacks, but now it promoted the growth of heavy industry, production that doubled in two and a half years.

The “Japanese model” of capitalism-governmental “administrative guidance” of business-had its origin in the Japanese war-production of World War II, but it was given impetus during this later period by the occupation authority, which permitted the bureaucracy to remain an unaccountable power and key banks to control the financing of industry.

“In later decades,” comments Dower, “when alarm concerning ‘the Japanese threat’ arose in the United States and elsewhere, the binational genesis of this state-led, keiretsu [powerful business and banking concentrations] dominated economy was all but forgotten.” So is it now forgotten when the industrial policy of Japan, once feared, is being assigned the blame for Japan’s long recession.

Reading Power’s book brings out sharply a number of things. We all know the immense destructiveness of modern war, the potential of which is now far greater than it was in World War II, but “Embracing Defeat” exhibits it in human terms, not merely in statistical terms.

At the same time it shows the great resilience of the human spirit and the rapid changes in mass consciousness that are possible. Even after radicalism has been pronounced dead, it revives in response to major events.

“Embracing Defeat” shows, furthermore, how modern technology and technological know-how can revive the economy of a nation that has been plunged into the utmost devastation. But it also shows how this “miracle” does not eliminate the contradictions of capitalism that drive it to a new impasse.

And, finally, the book shows, through the negative examples of the Japanese Communist Party and other left parties, the need for a revolutionary party, steeled in struggle and possessing the confidence of the workers, to evaluate the situation correctly and lead the masses to victory.