Exposing Western Myths of Japan

SINCE Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his warships into a harbor south of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 and compelled the insular shogunate to accept a commercial treaty with the United States, fear and animosity, mingled strangely with respect and fascination, have characterized relations between Japan and America.

Finding each other alien and threatening, the two countries have often based policies toward each other on racial and cultural stereotypes. This typecasting, exacerbating both the hatreds of war and the tensions of peace, seems particularly pernicious, since no relationship is more important to the peace of East Asia, or the prosperity of the world, than the alliance between these two formerly bitter enemies.

In ``Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays,'' John W. Dower looks critically at several aspects of Japan's history during World War II and its aftermath. Although most of the essays have appeared previously in academic journals, they are lucidly written and accessible to nonspecialists. Dower exposes prevalent stereotypes about modern Japan as half-truths and falsehoods, and provocatively questions much of the scholarly consensus about wartime Japan. While the pieces cover a broad range of topics, a few cohesive themes emerge that share this iconoclastic quality.

For instance, in contrast to scholars who attribute Japan's vaunted postwar ``economic miracle'' to structural political changes wrought by the American occupation, Dower ascribes the nation's astounding economic growth to continuities in Japanese history.

In his opening essay, ``The Useful War,'' Dower persuasively argues that the war stimulated Japanese science and engineering, enhanced the competitiveness of some industrial sectors, and forged partnerships between the government bureaucracies and huge corporations that dominate Japanese society even now. In another essay, Yoshida Shigeru, prime minister of Japan for much of the occupation, emerges as a profoundly conservative force who tried, largely successfully, to create a Japanese state along the lines of the bureaucratic and autocratic Meiji Japan of his youth, and who instituted Japan's policy of concentration on economic growth.

Dower also challenges the popular theme that Japan's political business organizations have historically functioned according to unique principles of group-oriented harmony and consensus. Instead, Dower argues, Japan in this violent century, at least, has experienced remarkable internal dissent and turbulence.

In one essay, Dower analyzes wartime Japanese films and finds that they ``contain strains of humanism and even pacifism that bespeak the filmmakers' roots in less militaristic and repressive times, and constitute strong legacies to the years following Japan's defeat.'' In another, Japanese scientists working on the (rather pitiful) Japanese atomic- bomb program use their status as research scientists to escape unwanted military service. Dower discusses at length the suppression by wartime authorities of antiwar sentiment, and details the unforgettable antiwar images created by witnesses to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, essays that focus on US-Japan relations during and after the war expand on the theme that racial stereotyping had distorted what is already a complex relationship between the two countries, thereby intensifying world war and trade war. Dower examines racism on both sides during the war, explains how cold-war politics quickly transformed the Japanese in American eyes from fanatical enemies to freedom-loving allies, and shows disturbingly that the racist imagery of the war has continued to deform relations between Japan and the US in the postwar period. Collections of Japanese and American cartoons graphically demonstrate how readily, in war and peace, both peoples have resorted to demonization of and contempt toward the other.

Well-reasoned and insightful, ``Japan in War and Peace'' challenges Americans to rethink the troubled history of US-Japan relations. Dower demonstrates the importance of ridding our thinking of stereotypes about Japan, and underlines the dangers of allowing ignorance and fear to shape policy toward that country.

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