New College of the Humanities

Modern Japan

Richard Sims | Published in History Today

Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Its Legacy

by Takemae Eiji

Continuum xlv + 751pp £40 ISBN 0 8264 6246 4

Japan: A Modern History

by James L. McClain

W. W. Norton Co. xxiii + 724pp £27.50 ISBN 0 393 04156 5

Few, if any, countries have experienced more dramatic change in the last century and a half than Japan, and in the whole of its history no period saw a more cataclysmic transformation in Japan’s position than the period immediately following its defeat in 1945 when American occupation forces under General MacArthur sought, by imposing fundamental reforms, to ensure that Japan would never again follow the course which had led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is not surprising, therefore, that many general histories of modern Japan and even more studies of the American Occupation have been published. Voluminous as the literature is, however, the two books under review both add to it significantly.

Of the two, McClain’s faces the most direct competition. Apart from numerous older surveys, the last two years have seen, in particular, the appearance of major assessments by Totman (A History of Japan) and Jansen (The Making of Modern Japan). Both of the latter are well written and thoughtful, and both draw heavily on the numerous scholarly monographs and articles which have enriched and extended our understanding of Japan in recent decades. McClain’s account fully shares these virtues, and if his treatment of the pre-1850 period is less substantial than that of his rivals, he makes up for this by his more detailed coverage of the modern era, where he has the opportunity to justify his claim that his students at Brown University have encouraged him to ‘scorn simplicity and make his analyses more complex’. For the most part, the claim is fully vindicated but, like almost all authors of general histories, he is occasionally guilty of over-simplification.  To take a prime example, the fact that the outcome of the Meiji Restoration remained uncertain for over three years after the 1868 coup is glossed over, while the question of how a precarious new central government which depended on feudal domains for military support was able to abolish all such domains in 1871 is not even posed.

There are also some noticeable omissions, perhaps the most surprising, since McClain is concerned to see things from the bottom up as much as from the top down, being the first Constitutional Protection Movement, in which huge numbers of Japanese throughout the country participated in successful demonstrations against oligarchic government in 1912 and 1913. The absence of any discussion of the cabinet of Katayama Tetsu, the first of only two socialists to head coalition governments, and of Nakasone Yasuhiro, a controversial prime minister for an unusually long (by Japanese standards) five years in the 1980s, arouses the suspicion that the author wishes to correct the tendency to give primacy to politics. It has to be added, however, that literature and the arts receive less attention than in most comparable surveys, and that one of the least satisfactory sections is that dealing with religious developments in the late nineteenth century.

It would be quite wrong, however, to emphasise the negative aspects of a book which does so many things well. Perhaps its most outstanding merit is the breadth and depth of its treatment of social history.  Particular attention is paid to once-marginal topics such as the role of women, Koreans in Japan, and the Ainu, but more conventional topics are not neglected and are mostly presented in a fresh way with unusual information, perceptive insights or lively anecdotes. Moreover, partly because of the wealth of detail but also because of the great attention clearly paid to presentation – each chapter begins with an apposite vignette and the writing is consistently lucid – the book is exceptionally readable. 

Japan: A Modern History is obviously a product of many years of reading and teaching. Inside GHQ is even more evidently the fruit of an academic lifetime. Since its initial publication in Japanese in 1983, when it ran to only 214 short pages, the book itself has grown – despite the author’s loss of sight – to more than three times its original length. Though not so brilliantly written as McClain’s volume, it is exemplary in its clarity and in its concern for factual accuracy. Takemae does not, however, hide his view that the outcome of the Occupation would have been better if its original reformist impulse had been sustained for longer, and he has a particularly sharp eye for the limitations and inconsistencies of American policy. Nevertheless, he convincingly refutes the view that the members of MacArthur’s GHQ were ill-equipped for their extraordinary task (though he is careful to note that there were significant Japanese contributions to reform), and his overall verdict on the Occupation is favourable.

Apart from his obvious deep feeling about his subject, however, what makes this book stand out from previous studies is its comprehensiveness. While this may well make it less suitable for casual readers, its systematic coverage of every aspect of American policy, including less familiar areas such as public health reform, gives it a near-definitive character; and its value is further enhanced by its introductory survey of the wartime background and its concluding review of the present-day legacy of the Occupation. Together with Dower’s recent Embracing Defeat, which focuses on the Japanese response to the Occupation, it takes its place as one of the most important studies of the post-1945 years. 

Both Takemae and McClain argue convincingly that the Occupation changed Japan in significant ways (though neither raises the intriguing question of whether democracy might have taken stronger root if Japanese peasants, workers, and women had had to mount sustained campaigns instead of having new rights bestowed upon them by a benign outside force). Neither author pulls his punches when dealing with the issue of Japanese wartime atrocities. But among their foremost merits is the fact that both – and McClain in particular – provide abundant evidence of the common humanity which the Japanese share with all other peoples – and which the all- too-persistent stereotypes of racial difference ignore.

Richard Sims is Senior Lecturer in History of the Far East, S.O.A.S., University of London.

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