Embracing Defeat Review

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By Matt Hazel

John Dower’s Embracing Defeat may seem like a daunting read at first glance. It won a Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award. It’s about the occupation of Japan. It’s close to 700 pages long. So it’s not exactly light-reading in both senses of the word. But those expecting a dry, academic re-telling (as I was), are in for a surprise. The strength of this fascinating book is that Dower focuses on individual stories of the occupation. Meticulously researched (150 of those pages are notes and an index), he has culled through an amazing amount of research material to give both Japanese and American perspectives on the occupation of Japan by Allied Forces that lasted from 1945 to 1952.

Major figures of the occupation like Hirohito and MacArthur are discussed at length, but Dower also writes about people like Beate Sirota, an American who was the first civilian woman to arrive in Japan after the war, eventually helping to draft the new Japanese Constitution and fighting for the inclusion of legal equality for men and women in Japan, and Dr. Takashi Nagai, a physician and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivor who devoted the last years of his life to writing hugely popular essays about the spiritual crisis arising from living in the nuclear age.

The book starts with the shock that regular people experienced on hearing Emperor Hirohito’s voice for the first time, as he announced the unconditional surrender of Japan. Dower has combed through diaries, newspapers and other primary source documents to give first person accounts of what it was like to experience this paradigm shift. What emerges is not for the faint of heart; the Japanese suffered through a horrible ordeal during the war, but after it they faced mass starvation and a sense of displacement, as everything they had been told to fight for had been turned inside out. Soldiers were stranded thousands of miles from home, facing imprisonment or death; the economy was in shambles, with food and other provisions controlled by black-marketers; and the government that had led the people to war was being propped up by the Allied forces to stave off complete anarchy. Ironically, this suffering was coupled with a sense of hope, since the occupation did create a chance for a more open, democratic culture, one that was sadly only partially realized.

After reading the book, I begin to think more and more about the older people I see everyday: had they had to face starvation, loss of their families, their homes or their livelihoods? I’m sure many of them did and the fact that they survived through it to make Japan what it is today is all the more amazing.