The Garn LeBaron Writing Project

Scholarly Articles About Interesting Subjects

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II — A Review

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by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 2012, all rights reserved

The postmodern philosophers have made us aware of the fact that we are enmeshed within rhetoric, a sort of cultural symbol system from which we cannot easily escape. Embracing Defeat is the story of what happens to a culture when it breaks down completely and stands, utterly defeated, upon the ash heap of history. When Japan embarked on the adventure of growing its empire, it developed a particular rhetoric, one of natural exceptionalism; which it then used to convince the population to make a growing litany of sacrifices in order to insure the success of said empire. When the adventure came to an end after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the rhetorical structures which had sustained the society through all the years of expansion and sacrifice were now obviously hollow, corrupted, and thoroughly bankrupt. Bruised, crushed, and defeated, Japanese society stood facing the void of being a population that no longer had a viable culture. There are several major concepts that Dower develops throughout this narrative. Each is illuminated through a combination of probing historical analysis, cultural and social analysis, and linguistic analysis. These ideas include: the great changes brought by the US military and imposed by the victors, both for better and for worse; the search by the Japanese people for new cultural forms to replace those found to be bankrupt; the drama surrounding the guilt, purification, redemption, and rebirth of Japanese society stemming from the loss of the war; the continued corruption and venality of the old elite; and the story of the competing interests which all crowded this stage, each with their own agenda and interests, each attempting to make their vision the future of Japan.

Dower spends the first three chapters of Embracing Defeat illustrating this void facing the US military and the surviving Japanese population. He details the extent of the devastation to Japan by citing the statistics: 2.7 million soldiers and civilians killed, a loss of 1/3 of total national wealth, over 40 percent of the major urban areas destroyed and over 30 percent of the urban population homeless. Immediately after the war, millions of Japanese spread throughout their former empire had to be repatriated to their homeland. Several hundred thousand never returned after the war and were never accounted for. The years of 1946 through 1949 were extremely difficult, characterized by extreme poverty, lack of food, and disease epidemics caused by the lack of sanitary conditions. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation and from communicable diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, polio, and tuberculosis. Amidst this backdrop of overwhelming devastation and deprivation, the great drama that accompanied the rebuilding of Japan took place.(1)

It is clear from the outset that the most powerful actor in this drama is the US military. The atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although barely mentioned in this book, insured that US policy would dominate the reconstruction. Based on the ideas set forth in the Potsdam Proclamation, the US is determined to demilitarize and democratize Japan. The list of accomplishments is impressive. During the six year period of the occupation, the US managed to institute universal suffrage and human rights, ensure equal rights for women, release all political prisoners, allow for labor unions and collective bargaining, eliminate the domestic security apparatus and replace it with a proper police force, breakup the zaibatsu conglomerates and implement sweeping land reforms, liberalize the education system, purge the military and insure that former military officers could not hold public office, and present the Japanese people with a new constitution that functions admirably to this day. All the people of Japan were transformed from subjects into citizens.(2)

For all the success that the US had in its rebuilding program, it’s apparent Dower thinks there were lots of problems with the US strategy, and that the results could have turned out far better. The US wanted democracy and demilitarization in Japan, but it was imposed with military force, accompanied by censorship, bureaucracy, and authoritarian governance. Although the US occupation was far less restrictive than the former regime, it is very difficult to achieve real democracy when these structures inhere. Combined with the realities of the emerging cold war and the desire to leave the emperor on the throne, true democracy was not a viable system.(3)

One of the first signs that the new society would not be the envisioned utopia was the widespread looting of military supplies which began immediately after the war. Almost a hundred billion yen worth of supplies disappeared and promptly made their way onto the black market. Dower states that, “Despite the enormity of the scandal, no major perpetrators were ever indicted.”(4) Neither the US nor the Japanese were able to stem the tide of corruption and cronyism. Even today this is a major feature of the Japanese economy.

The US was taken by surprise with the rapid rise of the left in Japan. Communism, socialism, and attendant labor movements quickly became popular. The terrible shortages and poor living conditions contributed to the strikes and protests. The US military moved quickly to put down most of the resistance. As the military became more authoritarian, the left acted out further. By 1948, MacArthur withdrew the right of public employees to strike, and by 1949, the military conducted a purge which effectively ended the power of the labor movement.(5)

The drama of redemption and rebirth is one of the central themes of Embracing Defeat. When the discourse of a culture becomes polluted, the ritual of redemption must occur in order for the culture to remain viable. When the pollution is so great that the entire basis for the culture stands exposed as bankrupt, then the process of purification must occur. Purification is achieved through the identification and punishment of scapegoats. Once the scapegoats are identified, the greater society can be presented as victims of the scapegoats. Once the blame is shifted to the scapegoats, they can be punished, purged, or destroyed. Now the society has been redeemed and can emerge, guiltless, and free to create a new rhetorical structure with which to sustain itself.(6) This drama would have been much simpler and more concise if the US had chosen to sacrifice the emperor and all his henchmen as the scapegoats. Instead, the US took great pains to preserve the emperor. This choice gave the tragedy far less power and led to a variety of unexpected outcomes.

Dower reserves some of his harshest criticism for the US decision to retain the emperor. As he explores the reasoning given for why the US military wanted to keep the emperor in power, it quickly becomes apparent that all their arguments are based on “cultural knowledge” of the Japanese people which is demonstrably false.(7) He also points out that there was widespread agreement among Japanese society at large that the emperor should abdicate.(8) The fact that the emperor chose not to abdicate and that the US actually decided to prop him up, not only undermined the opportunities to reform Japanese society much more thoroughly, but it also left the scapegoating process a shambles. It seemed those who were actually convicted of war crimes were far too few, and the choices of those who were sacrificed appeared far too arbitrary.(9) Not only did it turn the war crimes trials into a farce,(10) but it opened the door for many in the old political elite to ritually wash themselves off and once again grab hold of the levers of power. Dower provides several examples of those who should have been imprisoned or executed as war criminals, but instead returned to the halls of power and influence.(11) Because the guilt was not fully purged, the revolution was never really complete.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Embracing Defeat is the way Dower uses rhetorical artifacts to perform social and cultural history. He examines poetry, literature, philosophy, comics and manga, cinema, magazines, language, and other pop culture artifacts as a means to illustrate the societal search for a new culture. He describes some of the new social and cultural forms that emerged as people tried to survive. Two of the most prevalent were the rise of the black market and prostitution. Everyone used the black market because money was worthless and regular businesses weren’t really functioning, but the Yazuka gangs always had the necessities, albeit at exorbitant prices. People bartered what they had in order to feed themselves. Prostitution flourished as American soldiers with all kinds of material possessions could provide everything that a starving girl needed. Prostitutes developed their own unique panpan culture, which was widely mirrored in popular literature of the time.(12)

A direct response to the loss of imperial shackles was the rise of Kasutori culture, which might be expressed as Japanese hedonism. Kasutori culture was the open celebration of sexuality and decadence in art, literature, and lifestyle. It was also reminiscent of the nihilism of 1920’s Europe. None of these subcultures became a permanent part of Japanese society after the occupation, but were representative of people searching and trying on new cultural forms. Each found wide expression in the various cultural artifacts of the time.(13) Dower’s examination of these myriad cultural artifacts not only reinforces his thesis that a uniquely Japanese culture emerged despite the efforts of the Americans, but also shows how the Japanese were able to construct a new symbolic structure to underpin their new society.

There were other, less decadent attempts at fashioning a new culture as well. The liberal reforms instituted in the educational system, with a strong emphasis on science were adopted quickly by a society which had come to feel that attention to scientific progress was the main reason for a US victory. Several influential thinkers, the most prominent being Tanabe Hajime, put forth Buddhism as a path to repentance and reform, as well as a way to transcend the materialism of western philosophy. These same thinkers were also adamant that the only path to true repentance included the abdication of the emperor.(14)

However, the old guard elite, including the emperor himself, were determined to hold and maintain power. Dower goes into great detail over the course of several chapters, exploring how the emperor and his advisors were able to use appearance of incompetence, apologies, foppishness, and the Japanese language itself to avoid having to step down or relinquish their hold on power.(15) It didn’t hurt that the US military seemed to think that the only mechanism to successfully form a new society ran through the old organs of the bureaucracy and the imperial house.(16)

Into the void left by the war jumped a number of different competing interests. Each wanted their “story” to emerge. Some of these interests were more powerful than the others. It was the most powerful who were able to make their story stick. The result was an amalgamation of stories. Koreans, Taiwanese, Indonesians, and Chinese got no say at all. The poor and the destitute also got nothing. The general populace got a large assist from the US with a new democratic constitution. The left initially got US assistance, which waned with the rise of the cold war. The old power elites were scapegoated, sacrificed, but many of them emerged from the process with power and control and wealth once again, albeit at a reduced level. The same is true of the emperor. By making concessions, he was able to maintain power and continue to steer the ship of state until his death. Of course the US Military was the one most able to impose it’s story. But the Japanese were able to use their culture and language to keep that story in check and emerge from the occupation with a culture that was uniquely their own.

The size and scope of the book is truly breathtaking. The reader will find it difficult to hold in memory all of the ideas presented here. There are so many intersecting major themes covered, it is often difficult to see all of the causes and effects. It is a crowded stage indeed. The amount of research presented as the backdrop to this work is amazing. The sheer variety of different artifacts used to support the various claims is rarely seen in a single work. As a reader, I often found myself wishing the book had been ordered one different way or another, but as I kept turning the various ideas over, placing them each in different places, I noticed that the sheer complexity of the situation being described led to organizational difficulties regardless of the approach taken. This is a winner of major prizes, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. These awards are deserved. Any reader of this work will emerge far more knowledgeable about post-war Japan, and it is a book to which you will find yourself referring time and again.


(1) John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), pp. 45-58, 103.
(2) Dower, pp. 80-84.
(3) Dower, pp. 206-213.
(4) Dower, pp. 112-118.
(5) Dower, pp. 259-277.
(6) James Jasinski, Sourcebook On Rhetoric: Key concepts in contemporary rhetorical studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2001), pp. 503-505.
(7) Dower, Embracing Defeat, pp. 280-289.
(8) Dower, pp. 303-308, 320-322.
(9) Dower, pp. 449-454.
(10) Dower, pp. 460, 474.
(11) Dower, pp. 511-515.
(12) Dower, pp. 121-148.
(13) Dower, pp. 148-162.
(14) Dower, pp. 490-504.
(15) Dower, p. 333.
(16) Dower, pp. 277-339.


Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Jasinski, James. Sourcebook On Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2001.

Written by Garn LeBaron

September 17, 2012 at 9:14 am

One Response

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  1. Nicely done. Very good.


    November 27, 2014 at 1:07 am

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