August 15, 1945: Japan Surrenders

This past Monday, August 15, in 1945, after suffering from two devastating atomic bomb explosions, the imperial Japanese government broadcast its intent to surrender to the Americans and their allies.

The surrender of the Japanese, after the surrender of the Italians and the national socialist government of Germany, was transformative.  The victory of the allied powers set in motion the “liberal world order” humanity has been living under for 77 years.  Efforts by the Soviet Union and communist China to challenge the hegemony of that order and marginalize its norms and institutions failed.  With its foundation in capitalism and the rule of law for government, that order has produced the most prosperous era in human history.

The role of the American people after the end of World War II was remarkable and egregiously “moral” in pulling together ideas, resources and willing governments to create that order and make it successful for decades.  Most remarkable, perhaps given the time immemorial human norm that “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must,” was the decision supported by the American people not to make the peoples of Japan, Germany and Italy suffer for the aggressive war waged by their governments.

I have a particular personal connection with this very American sentiment of concern for others, which I recall from time to time.

On December 7, 1941, news of the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached Cambridge, Massachusetts, about lunchtime or a little thereafter.  My paternal grandmother, Marion Hunt Young, immediately asked my father and uncle, “Where is Fumihiko?”

Fumihiko Honjo, later Togo, was a Japanese student at Harvard and a friend of my father.  In 1943, Fumihiko would become the son-in-law of Japan’s Foreign Minister, Shigenori Togo, who had, on December 7, 1941, declared war on the U.S. on behalf of his government.

My father and uncle did not know where Fumihiko was.  Grandmother said, “Go find him and bring him back here.  We will take care of him.”

I recall that my uncle found him and brought him back to grandmother’s apartment off Cambridge Street.  Grandmother said: “Don’t worry.  We will take care of you.  Governments declare war on one another, but that doesn’t mean that peoples have to hate each other.”

Some six months later, I think Fumihiko and other Japanese citizens caught by the outbreak of war in the U.S. were exchanged for Americans similarly caught in Japan.

Fumihiko’s sons are still good friends of mine.

Later, my father served in the U.S. State Department with a focus on Asia.   I remember his telling me about the book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, written during World War II by Ruth Benedict about the Japanese.  Benedict was an American anthropologist who did not speak or read Japanese.  Using her very American open-mindedness, she nevertheless from readings in translation, watching movies and talking with a few Japanese Americans arrived at insights as to the special Japanese national character, which were most accurate.  Dad used her book as a model for his outreach to Asian cultures.  So have I.

The Wikipedia entry for her book says:

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture is a 1946 study of Japan by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict.  It was written at the invitation of the U.S. Office of War Information, in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese in World War II by reference to a series of contradictions in traditional culture.  The book was influential in shaping American ideas about Japanese culture during the occupation of Japan.

Although it has received harsh criticism, the book has continued to be influential.  Two anthropologists wrote in 1992 that there is “a sense in which all of us have been writing footnotes to [Chrysanthemum] since it appeared in 1946.”  The Japanese, Benedict wrote, are:

both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways.

My dad told me that because of Benedict’s book, the American government decided in 1946 not to depose Japan’s imperial house as part of their occupation of Japan after the war, but work with Emperor Hirohito to bring out the Chrysanthemum in Japanese culture, not the sword.

In 1966, I took the course at Harvard on modern Japanese history.  One class was a lecture by a visiting Japanese woman professor.  Her talk belittled Benedict’s effort as falling short of really understanding the Japanese.  Her premise was that an American (or any person from a foreign culture) was temperamentally prevented from understanding a very different culture, such as the Japanese.  A bit annoyed and still an undergraduate, I asked her, “How much of Japanese national character did Benedict get correct?”

The Japanese professor replied, “80%.”

I was stunned.  If I could really understand 80% of the values, motivations and thoughts of another person, say, my girlfriend of the time or my roommates, I would be able to easily work with them or befriend them with sincerity and appreciation for their qualities.

At this time of war in Ukraine, threats to Taiwan, rising populist nationalism and intolerant sectarianism, I would recommend to all whatever it is that some Americans have had and some may still have, which encourages and permits them to try to understand and care about others who come from very different cultures.  I find the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, very much in harmony with this approach to the “other.”