How did the Japanese public come to admire U.S. culture, post WWII?
July 1, 2013 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Japan and the Japanese public are often portrayed as being admirers of the culture of the United States. But within living memory the two countries were involved in a brutal war, which culminated in conventional and nuclear bombings targeting Japan's citizenry and devastating their country. In Japan's case, how did a societal contempt sufficient to wage and sustain total war turn, in such a short time, into a societal affinity sufficient for some to embrace many parts of the culture of the nation that had dealt them destruction on such a massive scale?

I am from the U.S., and have an average-if-unspectacular grasp of (Western) 20th-century history. On the other hand, I have little (if any) familiarity with the culture and people of Japan, and I will require remedial-level help with answers that addresses this in complex ways. I can -- and gladly will -- read long-format or detailed papers/articles/etc. that address my question.

I'm approaching this with significant and acknowledged personal ignorance, and I welcome any insights; even those that would re-frame, challenge, or refute any of my original assumptions.

Not at all interested in idle conjecture or bullshit "just-so" easy stories/answers; looking for nuanced perspectives into what is, no doubt, a complicated issue. Many thanks for your time and for your expertise.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Embracing Defeat is a great book on this subject.
posted by something something at 10:08 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think your understanding of pre-war Japanese culture is a bit off. I recommend "Soldiers of the Sun" to get a better understanding of what was going on.

The Japanese weren't contemptuous of America, not really.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:18 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some aspects of American culture were already seeping in before the war.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:19 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

More or less around the anniversary of the first atomic bombing, Hiroshima is not a popular place to be an American. No one gets killed or mugged, from what I understand, but thoughts are thunk.

At the same time, we liked Germans and tolerated Hitler and his shenanigans before Pearl Harbor, our soldiers apparently preferred the defeated German country folks and ways to the supposed allies of France and Italy. We admire their engineering (think Audi and Mercedes) and recognize its moral limitations (think Auschwitz). Lindbergh loved them right up past Pearl Harbor, and only shut up because it was futile once Germany had declared war on us.

Country-to-country issues are larger scale. As they say, it's hard to hate up close, where real people dwell.
posted by FauxScot at 10:35 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

And now I'm going to write a long answer:

We start with the Tokugawa Shogunate. For 250 years it was Shogunate policy to lock out the rest of the world, and during that time Japan largely stagnated. That all ended after Perry's visit in 1853, where he pretty much ordered the Shogun to open the doors. As a result, the Japanese suddenly realized that on the world stage they were totally outclassed.

The Shogun lost a lot of face as a result of that. Rising discontent led eventually to a revolution. On paper the Shoguns pledged themselves as underlings of the Emperor, but in practice the Shoguns ruled Japan and the Emperor was effectively a prisoner. The revolution has come down to us as the "Meiji Restoration" because one goal of the revolutionaries was to restore the Emperor to his rightful place as ruler of Japan.

Those in charge after the revolution had as their primary goal to make Japan competitive with the Western powers. To that end they adopted practices they saw as being the best in the world. So, for instance, their new government was patterned after the British, and the Emperor consciously adopted the behavior of Queen Victoria (who reigned but did not rule). The Japanese embarked on a program of heavy industrialization, similar to the Western powers. The legendary school uniforms were consciously patterned after European practice, with boys wearing uniforms based on German designs, and girls wearing "sailor suits" patterned after the Royal Navy.

And another thing they imitated was establishment of a foreign empire. The whole process was amazingly quick and surprisingly successful: by the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China, Japan was one of the eight foreign powers involved in putting down the rebellion, and was treated as an equal by the other seven. (Albeit with a bit of resentment, and a lot of racism.)

They had also built (or bought) a modern navy, and their total victory at the Battle of Tsushima was seen as another proof that Japan had arrived. The Russian fleet wasn't all that good, and to reach Tsushima they had sailed around Africa and then across the Indian ocean, and their condition when they arrived was even worse. The Japanese slaughtered them.

That got deflated a bit when Teddy Roosevelt sent out the "Great White Fleet" for a world tour, including Japan. The visit was completely friendly, but the contrast between it and the Russian fleet at Tsushima was stark. The American fleet was in excellent shape, and the ships were drastically better. It was apparent to everyone that if it had been the Americans at Tsushima, Japan would have lost.

The industrial and military build-up continued, and as part of their imperialism they conquered Korea, then Manchuria, and eventually made a serious attempt to conquer China outright.

Which was what brought them into conflict with the US. The Nationalists were American allies, and Roosevelt supported them by a Japanese trade cut-off, assisted by the British and the Dutch. It was the latter which was the biggest problem, because most of Japan's petroleum came from Dutch possessions in Indonesia.

A hidden point of all this is that during the period from the Meiji Restoration to the end of WWII, the Japanese did not feel contempt for the Western powers. They did feel a great deal of pride in their own men, and felt they were better than anyone else, but they didn't feel the kind of contempt you seem to be expecting for everyone else (except for the Chinese and Koreans). Instead, they were imitating the success of the West -- and trying to do it one better.

No one in Japan thought that a war with America would be an easy fight. But their strategy was to take a huge amount of territory early and reinforce it, in hopes that the Americans wouldn't be willing to pay the price in treasure and blood to take it back. But that wasn't contempt. It was "They're good, but they aren't as good as we are."

After the war, Japan still tried to imitate West. Forbidden to engage in imperialism and militarism, they instead embraced Mercantilism -- and they still do so, to this day.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:50 AM on July 1, 2013 [20 favorites]

It also didn't hurt that the US didn't fuck up the occupation of Japan (or Germany) the way it did the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The day to day experience of Japanese civilians with in-the-flesh Americans would have been much more likely to be "reasonably well-disciplined people who are trying to fix stuff" than in Iraq/Afghanistan, and a whole fuckload less "Cowboy thugs shooting up the neighborhood" or "Cowboy thugs picking the other side in our long-standing dispute."

(Or that Japan and Germany were probably easier to occupy and reconstruct without gross fuckups -- better developed civil societies, fewer internal serious internal ethnic/religious clashes, not nearly so many IEDs or other attacks, etc)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:03 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

to add on to Chocolate Pickle's excellent answer -- within the professional ranks of the Japanese military, there was a lot of respect for America, and getting into conflict with them over WWII was less about "we must pick a fight with the West" as it was "we must build an empire beginning in China, and we're willing to bet that the West will go along with this."

At the time, early 1930's, it was widely believed that the Allies (US, UK, etc.) would actually not go to war with either Japan or Germany. The wounds and scars of The First World War still ran deep among the Allies, and the League of Nations was proving to be a very weak international organization. Hitler had been unilaterally invading Austria and Czechoslovakia with a few shameful fingers wagged his way but nothing more. Japan had been knee deep in a brutal invasion of China for three years before Hitler invaded Poland and instigated WWII.

There was a strong belief within the Japanese hierarchy that a fight with the US was optional, and that the Americans were too isolationist to get involved. When the US started siding with the UK and started getting more aggressive, the Japanese were already too invested in their war against China and rather than back off, basically laid in the groundwork for an early, decisive knockout punch to cripple America before the war started. Admiral Yamamoto, the Supreme Commander of Japan's Navy, famously said about war with America "I can run wild for six months ... after that, I have no expectations for success."

This wasn't about contempt. This was about a deep and full respect of America's Pacific Navy and the realization that if Japan got into a war with US, it had to win early or it would be destroyed.
posted by bl1nk at 11:03 AM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that Japan lost about 3-5 percent of its pre-war population. (Compared to 0.32 of the U.S. population). This number is probably an underestimate, but it pales in comparison to the Soviet Union's 13-14 percent.

Like all countries, while every segment of society was affected, the 5 percent largely came out of the group that actually did the fighting -- the soldiers. Of the deaths, about twice as many soldiers died as civilians.

How did the Japanese public come to admire U.S. culture, post WWII? Many of the soldiers that fought for the emperor were killed, and the ones that weren't received a fairly benevolent post-war occupation.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:18 AM on July 1, 2013

Keep in mind that Japan lost about 3-5 percent of its pre-war population.

More than that considering that they lost the entire population of 23 prefectures!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:42 AM on July 1, 2013

The slightly simplistic answer — at least in the part of southern Japan I was in — was food. As an elderly man in Kochi explained to me, all the food had to go to the war effort, so when these well-fed chaps appeared bearing things to eat, it was the best thing ever.
posted by scruss at 11:56 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's even a more simple answer, but a more sobering one alas...


The very same motivation that served to motivate a more recent, diametrically opposed enemy, the Soviet Union. This unfortunately means, we here in the United States serve increasingly more as the ultimate representation of consumerism -and our liberty, moral compass and freedom serve less and less towards as points of emulation. Only one 'type' of people have resisted this rather successfully in the modern period, and they are the Islamic peoples. For whatever reason, they have shown most unwilling to bend towards the arc of unprecedented consumerism exemplified by the US, going so far as to die and kill. No coincidence where we currently find ourselves embroiled in.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:30 PM on July 1, 2013

Japan and the Japanese public are often portrayed as being admirers of the culture of the United States.

I think it would help your case to find actual evidence (not just "portrayals", most likely by Americans) of Japanese admiration for American culture -- over and above, say, baseball or Titanic receipts or trips to Disneyland or KFC outlets. I'm not saying it's not there, but that Japan is a modern country, in many respects more modern than the United States, is not equivalent to saying that it admires American culture.

To name just one example, postwar Japanese literature (Americanized Murakami excepted) is pretty much sui generis and was hardly a celebration of things American.

And there's always the Stockholm syndrome.
posted by seemoreglass at 12:37 PM on July 1, 2013

You also have to consider that after World War II, Japan could have been occupied by the US, or it could have been occupied by the Soviet Union or China, and those would have been a lot worse for the country. There's a bit of a carrot and stick dynamic going on with post-WWII reconstruction.
posted by furiousthought at 12:58 PM on July 1, 2013

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of the Allied occupation of Japan and its reconstruction. MacArthur spearheaded many reforms, including democratic government and more rights for women. There's a decent summary here, but if you want to really dig into MacArthur and Japan, I'd recommend reading the appropriate chapters in the excellent American Caesar by William Manchester. MacArthur certainly had many faults, but he made a lifelong study of Asian culture and philosophy, and the post-war governance of Japan was probably his finest moment.
posted by Shoggoth at 1:15 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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