Japan. A country of law, order, duty, respect, cleanliness, tradition, an extraordinary work ethic, low crime rates, and a strong sense of family and national identity—what’s not to like? This is a remarkable nation populated by a remarkable people.
Japan is a great post-Second World War success story. A feudalistic, emperor-worshipping, and militaristic society prior to the American occupation in 1945, they emerged from the ashes to become not only a great democracy, but a great ally. How did that happen?
In the 1930s, the Empire of Japan was expanding at an extraordinary rate building—conquering, really—what they euphemistically called, “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The armies of Imperial Japan marched across Manchuria, Korea, China, and the islands of the Pacific. The United States, isolationist and preoccupied with the Great Depression, largely ignored Japanese ambitions until Pearl Harbor.
History has shown all too well how that event awakened the American people. Indeed, Japanese Admiral Tojo Yamamoto, planner of the Pearl Harbor attack, said afterward: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible awe.” Churchill had a similar, if more positive, assessment. Upon receiving news of the attack, he said that he returned to bed and “slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful.” With that event, Churchill would later say, he knew the war’s eventual outcome was sealed.
After some early setbacks, U.S. Armed Forces, in a bloody “island hopping” campaign, systematically pared away territories in Japanese possession until all that remained was Japan itself. M.R.D. Foot, a British intelligence officer and, later, a much-celebrated historian (and something of a mentor to me), was given the task of estimating Allied casualties were they to undertake a conventional attack on the island. His estimate? 1.5 million.
Bear in mind, these are just Allied casualties. Japanese casualties would likely be infinitely higher. In the three-month battle for Okinawa, for instance, U.S. casualties numbered roughly 14,000 while Japanese losses were 60,000. Both were dwarfed by the losses suffered by the Okinawans themselves—130,000. If the Japanese would defend such islands tooth and nail—only 7,000 Japanese soldiers surrendered at Okinawa—their defense of the home island would be even more ferocious. These figures made the decision to drop the atomic bombs a no-brainer.
The late historian Stephen Ambrose argued that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved Japanese lives because it gave the Japanese High Command the excuse to do what it otherwise could never do—surrender. They could justly say to the Japanese people that continued opposition in the face of America’s whole city-destroying “wonder weapons” was utter madness. On September 2, 1945, Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. Writing about this monumental event, Japanese Foreign Minister, Toshikazu Kase, who was given the difficult task of signing the surrender on behalf of his prostrate nation, wrote this:
Stunned by defeat, [our people] seemed, for a while, to have lost all hopes for the future. But they soon recovered from the initial shock…. I believe, however, that our quick recovery would not have been possible without the generous help accorded by the United States. We were indeed most fortunate that General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, for he demonstrated a farsighted vision in shaping the destiny of Japan.
I recall still vividly the short but eloquent speech he delivered at the ceremony. He emphasized repeatedly that he would be guided by “freedom, tolerance and justice” in executing his duties. As I expected the worst humiliation, this was a complete surprise. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck. I returned to Tokyo feeling much relieved. I jotted down hurriedly my impression of the ceremony, dwelling upon MacArthur’s superb address.
Shigemitsu took this report to the Imperial Palace where the Emperor was anxiously waiting. In my paper, I raised the question whether it would have been possible for us, had we been victorious, to embrace the vanquished with a similar magnanimity. Clearly, it would have been different. The Emperor sighed in agreement.
We must recognize the fact that we were defeated not by dint of superior arms but were defeated by a nobler ideal. The real issue was moral—beyond all the powers of algebra to compute. Hence the precious lesson that a new Japan, spiritually rejuvenated, must be so guided as to enhance the moral behavior to the benefit of humanity.
Were the situation reversed, the settlement “would have been different.” Without doubt. It is estimated that in the Rape of Nanking alone the Japanese murdered a quarter of a million Chinese civilians. This is to say nothing of horrors wrought elsewhere in Asia and Oceania. Instead, Kase says he was given a glimpse of a “nobler idea.” That nobler idea was, quite consciously, Christian in nature.
In his magnum opus biography of MacArthur, An American Caesar, historian William Manchester writes that one of the great problems confronting America as it prepared to occupy Japan was the ideological vacuum left by the war. The Japanese people, having been failed by both their Shinto religion and their faith in their emperor, were left with nothing—“[W]hat faiths would support them now?”
Discussing the post-War future of Japan with Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, MacArthur argued that “the idea of liberty and freedom and the idea of Christianity” would be key to preventing Japan from falling under the influence of communists. “The more missionaries we can bring out here and the more occupation troops we can send home, the better,” the Supreme Commander implored.
MacArthur’s success was mixed. Although ten million Bibles were imported on his recommendation, the Japanese people did not convert to Christianity en masse as he had hoped. They did, however, enthusiastically embrace its ideals as set forth in a constitution written by MacArthur and his staff—a constitution that was thought to be incompatible with Japanese culture. So successful was MacArthur’s political metamorphosis of Japan that the country was, in a sense, “spiritually rejuvenated” as Toshikazu Kase had hoped. The “moral behavior” of a nation every bit as fanatical as ISIS was enhanced “to the benefit of humanity.”
Japan is a post-War miracle and model. One wonders what the Middle East might look like now had our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan been infused with the same steely resolve, consistency, and principled conviction. At best, those policies have been bipolar; at worst, they have been a betrayal of the people we claimed to liberate.
As for modern Japan, interestingly, what is missing is that doctrine which is central to the Christian faith—grace. A culture of shame, Japan has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world. “Japan has no history of Christianity,” says Wataru Nishida, psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University. “So here suicide is not a sin. In fact, some look at it as a way of taking responsibility.”
Spiritually, America is (now) libertine where Japan is legalistic. Perhaps we would both do well to embrace the whole of the Christian faith, rather than part of it?
Larry Alex Taunton is a cultural commentator, freelance writer, and the author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and The Grace Effect. You can follow him at larryalextaunton.com or on Twitter @larrytaunton.