'Forgetting' Colors How We Understand History In Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, historian John Dower examines how culture and propaganda have shaped politics in the U.S. and Japan. He also explores the idea that how and what we remember can affect how we view history and the present.

'Forgetting' Colors How We Understand History

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush argued that an occupation could work because history provided an example in a non-Christian, non-white, non-Western country: the United States' occupation of Japan during World War II.

He cited the work of historian John Dower, the pre-eminent scholar of post-war Japan, who promptly published an op-ed to protest a misuse of history. His work should have led President Bush to the opposite conclusion.

In a new collection of previously published essays, including that op-ed, John Dower argues that remembering inevitably involves neglecting and forgetting, which can lead to such misuses. Dower also reflects on the role and work of an historian, what it means to remember and document the recent past with sources that include popular music propaganda, even comic strips.

Historians, how do we use and misuse history? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Eric Auld on his Craig's List experiment, but first John Dower, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history and professor emeritus at MIT. His new book is called "Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World," and he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. And John Dower, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN DOWER: Hi, Neal, thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: I actually wanted to start with another op-ed you wrote back in 1995, after the uproar over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, that of course is the plane that dropped the first atom bomb. The collateral damage from the great changes that were forced onto the Smithsonian included cancelation of scholarly lecture, by you among others, and a TV documentary on the firebombing of Tokyo was also canceled.

We castigate the Japanese when they sanitize the war years and succumb to historical amnesia, you wrote, yet at the same time we skewer our own public historians from deviating from Fourth of July historiography. And this is something that comes up every time a Japanese prime minister visits the shrine to the war dead in Tokyo.

DOWER: Well, I think there's a double standard there. I think it's absolutely true the Japanese often sanitize the history. They also remember it in many, many ways that doesn't get coverage in the U.S. press. But we tend to talk about historical amnesia, the Japanese sanitization, and of course we do the same things ourselves.

And it gets particularly interesting when we get into public education in publicly funded places here. What happened in 1994-'95 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was that they wanted to do an exhibition and did do one on the Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb. And then it became very controversial because to talk about the atomic bombs is more than just a heroic story of the end of World War II; it's also a tragedy.

And it didn't work out. And the upshot of that was that there was big fallout in the Smithsonian, and we're never going to see, that I can imagine, in these public places, major exhibits on some of our other conflicts: the Korean War, certainly the Vietnam War. We can't have them because there will be controversy, and the politicians and the very patriotic lobbies will get very upset if anything that violates the standard narrative is introduced.

And I was very sad because we're a democracy. People who go to museums of this nature go there to learn things. They can handle complexity. They can handle the mix of the tragic and the heroic and all of this, but the politics doesn't permit that anymore.

CONAN: And it comes up in so many contexts, that history is wheeled out by partisans on all sides, I mean no one is exempt from this I don't think, to make their points at various times, whether that history is apt or not.

DOWER: Well, you know, doing history, we all know what we focus on. It means we're not focusing on other things. We tend to look at the past through the eyes of the present, which is perfectly appropriate. People always say let history be the judge, or time will tell, but they don't really mean it. Let history be the judge means let people of a later time look at this past event with what we know since then, with the perspective we had, the new documents that may have come up and give us a revised version of that.

When the Enola Gay came up, Congress passed a resolution, which said basically we cannot revise this kind of history, and we cannot do anything that in any way is critical of the behavior of America's heroic soldiers and sailors. And - but the notion is that as time passes, we do see things differently. We do ask different question, and they're very important.

And I think by not asking those questions, it affects our present-day response to current crises.

CONAN: You begin the book with an essay on another history, a man whose work sadly I was not aware of until I read this particular essay, and this is about the - some might consider the obscure debate over the modernization of Japan that happened after Commodore Perry's ships arrived and the Meiji Restoration and whether the - there were some inherent flaws in this modernization or whether in fact Japan was doing modernizing very rapidly and very efficiently, and something terrible then went wrong in the late 1920s.

But you point out that we need to understand this history because if we fail to understand this history, we fail to see the parallels between pre-World War II Japan and post-World War II America.

DOWER: The early - the opening essay was almost the first thing I wrote. I got my degree in Japanese history in the very early 1970s, and that was the introduction to a book I published in 1975. The scholar that I brought back, it was an edited volume, was a man named E.H. Norman(ph). He was a Canadian scholar, grew up in Japan, fluent in the Japanese language, had degrees from both Canada - he was Canadian - Canada and Cambridge College in England in European history, then went on to get a Ph.D. in Japanese history and published the great book on Japan at the time, 1940, called "Japan's Emergence as a Modern State."

And Norman went on to become the ambassador, Canadian ambassador to Cairo during the Suez crisis in 1956, and that was when McCarthyism was really heating up in the U.S. and focusing on people who dealt with Asia and so on. And Norman was accused in congressional hearings in the U.S. of being a communist sympathizer because as a young man in the '30s, he was sympathetic to the Republican movement in Spain and to communist anti-fascist policies.

And Norman committed suicide in 1957 in Cairo. Some of the work he had been doing as the Canadian ambassador was to try to diffuse the Suez crisis, and the prime minister of Japan, prime minister of Canada, his patron, Lester Pearson, got the Nobel Peace Prize for introducing a U.N. peacekeeping force there.

That was my introduction. I was so naïve. I was - encountered him later, much later, as a graduate student, and that was my introduction to McCarthyism in America and how these witch hunts had really gutted my own field, the Asia field, how there were things you couldn't ask, there was scholarship you couldn't do.

And when I was doing scholarship as a young man in the '60s and '70s, I was just beginning. The vogue was modernization theory, and what you had to do was talk about Japan as a capitalist model for development in Asia, and modernization theory was this was the model. It was an anti-communist model. It was very, in my view, ideological, but it was presented as empiricism. And that was where the money was. That was what you had to write.

And Norman's work, as a result, was forgotten, but it had been very influential. It was really pioneer work. It shaped the way people thought about what to do in Japan after the war. So what I asked, Neal, basically I started to ask, as this young scholar, well, what are the questions you ask as a historian? It's not just the answers, but it's the questions you ask.

And Norman's generation, 1940s, was saying what went wrong in Japan, Americans in the 1960s and '70s, scholars and the funders were saying what went right in Japan. And I thought historians should be a little more subtle.

CONAN: I just wanted to read a short excerpt from your book: The discrepancy between rhetoric and reality is blatantly apparently in both cases. Indeed, post-war American policymakers have used essentially the same slogans of liberation, self-determination and co-prosperity for Asia under which the Japanese launched their earlier aggression while, if anything, enlarging those crimes against humanity of which they had only recently accused the Japanese.

Japan and China, like the United States and Indochina, grossly misperceived the limits of technology when confronted with the concerted will of nationalistic resistance. Both countries were trapped in a logic of escalation, of rhetoric and commitment, of inevitable military expansion as lines of defense were redefined and in turn created new buffers - or dominoes - to defend, of increasing political and economic intervention abroad as military involvement made, imperative, expanded control of strategic resources.

Tactically, the actions of both countries bear striking parallels and reliance upon puppet regimes of military incidents as pretext for accelerate aggression and of negotiations as an umbrella for escalation and official sanction of war crimes. Scorched earth, bombing of civilians, biological warfare, abuse and killing of prisoners, pacification and strategic hamlets were all resorted to by the Japanese.

Both also sought to promote national interest through neocolonial, regional integration. Just one of the points that John Dower makes in his new book "Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World." And the importance of remembering the questions to ask and remembering the answers, too, those will turn out to be important.

He's going to stay with us as we talk about the uses and misuses of history. Historians, call and tell us: When do we use and when do we misuse history? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In his new book, "Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering," John Dower describes what he calls an American obsession with the uniquely evil nature of the Japanese during the second world war.

He writes: A few weeks after being posted to the Pacific, Ernie Pyle, the most admired of American war correspondents, told millions of readers that in Europe, we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here, I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something sub-human, as repulsive, the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.

Pyle went on to describe his response on seeing Japanese prisoners for the first time. They were wrestling and laughing and talking just like normal human beings, he wrote, and yet they gave me the creeps, and I wanted a mental bath after looking at them.

We've posted a link to an excerpt from the book on our website, that's at npr.org. Historians, how do we use and misuse history? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And John Dower, that kind of language from Ernie Pyle, you find an almost precise parallel. A few pages later in your book, you write: In a book of war reportage called "Bataan" Hino Ashi Heyi(ph), one of the best known Japanese wartime writers, described American POWs as people whose arrogant nation once tried to unlawfully treat our motherland with contempt.

As I watch large numbers of surrendered soldiers, he continued, I feel like I'm watching filthy water running from the sewage of a nation which derives from impure origins and has lost its pride of race. Japanese soldiers look particularly beautiful, and I feel exceedingly proud of being Japanese. Those soldiers, of course, had just inflicted the Bataan Death March on those American prisoners.

DOWER: Well, you know, Neal, I got into that subject almost through the back door. I was - this was in the 1980s, and I was going to do a book on post-war Japan, and I wrote this sentence saying, you know, it was amazing how the two sides, Japanese and American, reconciled, became amicable after such a bitter, racist war, such bitter race hates.

And then I said well, I'd better explore this a little, and I expanded that sentence, and it became a paragraph and then a chapter and then a book. I always tend to work comparatively, that is the U.S. side and the Japanese side. So what was interesting was the racial dimension on both sides.

And what interested me in part was how this affects war behavior. I never argue that's the reason for the Pacific war, it was just a contributing factor, but it helps you to kill the other side. It helps pump up the military esprit and the killing instinct. It also distorts what is really taking place, including intelligence evaluations.

The Japanese totally, because of racist perceptions of the Americans as decadent, egoistic, individualistic, totally underestimated the American response to the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Americans completely misunderstood Japanese capabilities before and even after Pearl Harbor.

So it's - it has many dimensions. And then the other side was when the war ended, bang, it ended. But it didn't go away. The racism is always there, but it's very malleable, and so I was very interested in trying to see how this works in a comparative perspective and how language works. And that's where I got into a lot of popular culture and looking at everyday language, looking at not just the formal documents but the vulgar language of everyday, or the language of the press or whatever, and tried to see it from both sides.

And it's very depressing, and it's also the fact that it can be overcome, as it was in the case of U.S.-Japan after the war, overcome so quickly for all practical purposes, is not depressing.

CONAN: Let's get Patricia(ph) on the line, Patricia's with us from San Antonio.

PATRICIA: I have several questions. In 1951, I was married to a serviceman. We went directly to London. It looked like the war was yesterday, all these bombed out cavities. Jump ahead, in 19 - two years later, a year and a half later, I'm in Tokyo, and I saw things for the first time. The Takashimaya Department Store had a zoo on the top. It had an escalator. And I never stopped to ask anyone who paid for this.

Was it just the industry, the psyche of the Japanese, or what was it? Can you explain that?

DOWER: Well, there's a lot of dimensions to your question. If you read about Japan after World War II, it's a devastated country. Sixty-six cities had been really devastated, ending in Hiroshima, Nagasaki. And so the country is a country of ruins. And this is - if you read Europe, almost everywhere in Europe, Soviet Union, Europe, England, we find devastation also.

So the devastation immediately after the war is very great. It continues in Japan until the early 1950s. Until 1949, 1950, in Japan, the black market is the major economy, and people are struggling just to get along. What happens in Japan after that is they begin to take off. Even in the early '50s, they're talking about a shallow economy, but they do not get aid in the sense of Marshall Plan aid - that that doesn't go to Japan.

There is aid to Japan, but it's nowhere near the Marshall Plan. In 1950 in Japan, the Korean War boom leads to a big boost to the Japanese economy because they begin to produce various items: tires, blankets, barbed wire and some military vehicles for the U.S. military. And that is a huge boon to the Japanese economy.

And the Japanese leaders call it - the Korean War - a gift of the gods, and - which is very sad commentary, but that's the way our world works. And by the mid-'50s, when I suppose you were in there, they begin to recover by the mid-'50s. It's not American money. It's not American investment, and in fact, they keep out American capital quite effectively with American support during that period.

It's Japanese, grassroots - Japanese investment and development. And they are coming along by the 1950s, although where you really begin to see Japan take off and look good is beginning around 1960. That's when they introduce what's called income doubling and so on.

So you got there at a very interesting moment, when they were just pulling out, beginning to get together. Takashimaya, you know, in the department stores, what you see there is these are great department stores that went back to the pre-war period that obviously suffered, didn't have a consumer - didn't have many consumers for domestic goods during the war years - but they had a great background.

And they come back, they pull together, and they reconstruct and take over. But you got there at a very interesting moment because it's after that that the real growth takes place, and it's done pretty much on indigenous resources.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alice(ph) and Alice with us from Pacifica, California.

ALICE: Hi, as a medieval historian, I've had a lot of problem with the use of the Crusades, in particular. There's a tendency to project the relations of modern, particularly European, imperial ventures in the Middle East and other non-Western cultures onto the Crusades and the medieval period in general, and to simplify very enormously.

It was really the other way around in that period, from about the seventh century until the 17th century. It was the West - although they would have thought of themselves as Christendom at the time - that was largely the victims of expansionist imperialism by Muslim forces. And the Crusades, in particular, started because of an enormous land grab by a new Muslim force, the Seljuk and other Turkish dynasties, against the Byzantine Empire, and the Byzantine Empire asked for help by the Crusaders to help regain some of this territory, at least shore themselves up.

And there's a tendency to simply portray the Crusades as, you know, something like the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish, you know, completely unprovoked.

CONAN: The Byzantines would come to regret that.

ALICE: Well, that's a - not in the beginning.

CONAN: Not in the beginning.

ALICE: Not during the First Crusade. You're talking about much later in the 13th century, and it is wrong to project what happened in the 13th century on to the relations of the Byzantine Empire with the Crusaders in the late 11th and early 12th century.

CONAN: OK, but the - it is the politics of the present that pollute the perceptions of the past.

ALICE: Correct. Like I say, there's a tendency - there's simply an assumption that, you know, the relations between, you know, the West - or, as I would say, we used to be Christendom - and the modern Middle East of the last 150 years are assumed to be true in the 11th and 12th century, and that's more or less backwards because the power relations were definitely in favor of the Muslims. And in that period, they were being the imperialist-expansionist against Christendom, both the east - eastern and western half of Christendom.

CONAN: Alice, thanks very much for the call.

DOWER: This is a little bit distant from what I'm dealing with in the book, which is 20th century Japan and the world. The subtitle is "Japan in the Modern World." And I think what one thing you're pointing to that interests historians very much is the uses of history.

How do we use history now? Certainly the Crusades are used by critics, Islamist critics of the West in very, very effective propaganda ways. Certainly, we use the Crusades and our sense of clash of civilizations in our own ways. I think we have to be careful with that.

But, you know, there was a - if I can make kind of a connection to the kind of things I deal with in the book, I'm dealing with Japan's modern war, the - in this case, we're talking about the wars of the mid-20th century, World War II and then the Americans' wars in Iraq and so on.

And one of the mistakes is that people in, usually, in dealing with Japan of World War II, see it as a backward, undeveloped country that wasn't modern, wasn't Western. It came out of this samurai past, this feudal past, and that's what led it to the aggression and atrocities and things that it did. And that's simply about history because what was taking place was the world was collapsing. And Japan was a modernizing country, and we see it very differently now.

As we look at Japan, the reasons for - this does not exonerate them. This does not excuse what took place. But we see it in the context not of some atavistic Japanese aggression, but rather as a nation that was modernizing, Westernizing very rapidly, was quite cosmopolitan in the interwar years, was caught in the global - the collapse of the global capitalist economy, the Depression and the collapse of the economy that followed. And we see it as part of, now, the world war.

And I - as I - as we go back now as scholars, you know, we can go back and we can look at the documents of Japanese meetings and war planning and so on, and they're very familiar kinds of documents. In a - for another book that I did, I went back and read all the Japanese documents of 1941, leading up to Pearl Harbor. And then I was reading as much as we could reconstruct the Bush administration, leading up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

And then they're more similar than dissimilar, the things they talk about and the things they fail to talk about, and the hubris and the failure to understand the other side. And I find that kind of comparison to be where I went in my trajectory as a historian, constantly trying the ways of understanding the past.

CONAN: Our guest is John Dower, his new book "Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Robert's with us from Punta Gorda in Florida.

ROBERT: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ROBERT: Yeah. I was just calling to make a - just a basic comment. I'm a military historian, and I'm also a guide at the military museum here locally. And part of the problem is, I think, with the educational system, I have kids almost every day of even college age that will come in and see the Japanese flag hanging on the wall in the museum, and they'll ask me what it's there for.

And they have no idea that we even were at war with Japan in World War II. And that's obviously not all of them, but that - we get that a lot. And we have visitors from around the world that will come into the museum, and there's so little education when it comes to some of these conflicts and just some of the things happening in the world.

You had made a comment earlier in the show about the political correctness of sometimes discussing and displaying what happened with the atomic bomb being dropped. And we get that a lot as well, and we try and explain to people if that atomic bomb was not dropped, how many more people actually would have died? And I think, like you discussed, the political correctness sometimes - there's really very, very few college-age and under people that we run into that have knowledge of anything to do with World War II.

DOWER: Well, you know, I've been a teacher for many years - I just recently retired - and you can say the same thing about the Vietnam War. And we're getting people now who don't have any recollection of 9/11. Even if the history is off the agenda, partly it's our educational systems now are becoming so practical, business-oriented practical courses that history is falling by the wayside.

But, you know, I think the museums such as you're associated with are really important, and the people who come to those museums are people looking for education. And what I found in some of the outreach work that I do - I do online things, and I've worked with secondary school teachers - there's a marvelous cadre of teachers at the middle school and particularly high school level, who are doing world history and so on who really take these matters seriously. And they train themselves and bring it into their classroom. And that's one of the things we have to try to do. And one of the ways of doing it is to do more sophisticated stuff online now.

The other thing is, and this came up in the Enola Gay controversy in the mid-1990s that Neal mentioned. One of the things they originally planned to do in that museum exhibition at the Smithsonian was to put up little wall boards saying: Controversies. And they would then say, you know, and pick your example of the atomic bombs. You know, there's this argument, there's this argument. There's this fact, there's this fact. This is what any teacher does with their students. You lay out...

CONAN: And I'm afraid, professor Dower, we're going to have to end it there. Thanks so much. This is NPR News.

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