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A SUNDAY IN DECEMBER : CHAPTER 4 : When Cultures Clash

December 03, 1991

It was cool. The day was dark. The battleship Missouri lurked like a bad dream 18 miles off Yokohama in Tokyo Bay. It was a day of national mortification. Sept. 2, 1945.

On this day aboard the Missouri, Japan surrendered to the United States and submitted to occupation for the first time. To the U.S. commander in charge, it was a time of rare opportunity.

"It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind," proclaimed Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, "that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past--a world founded upon faith and understanding--a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish--for freedom, tolerance and justice."

So began seven years of U.S. sovereignty that intruded into the affairs of Japan unlike anything Commodore Matthew C. Perry had ever imagined. Its purpose was to remold Japan into a peace-loving society--democratic and free. The American occupation sought to remake Japan into the image America had of itself. It was nothing short of a revolution. The results inspire in the Japanese, even today, an enduring gratitude. "If it had been left to Japanese only," says Toshifumi Tateyama, a postwar labor leader, "democratization would not have been possible."

A few of the reforms succeeded so well that younger Japanese cannot imagine what the old days were like. Under MacArthur, for example, the emperor, once a god-like sovereign, was reduced to such a figurehead that when Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 many university students were genuinely mystified by the grief of older Japanese.

Over time, however, the Japanese have staged a second revolution. In many ways, they have embraced the form of American democracy; but at the same time, they have overwhelmed its substance with Japanese-ness. The effect has been to give American values and institutions a distinctively Japanese character. So it is that some of the ways the Japanese adopted during the occupation have been restructured and reshaped--changed to suit a people who are as different from Americans as sake is from Kentucky bourbon.

For instance:

* Nonaggression. For a period of time, the Japanese military was abolished. Now Japan again has armed forces. But they show no sign of aggression. Indeed, Japan has become so apathetic to security concerns that it frustrated the West by refusing to send troops to help the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf War to free Kuwait, which provides much of Japan's own oil.

* Democracy. A prewar parliament that lacked power to check the government has been made the nation's supreme lawmaking body. But the ruling party has such a grip on power that some scholars wonder aloud whether Japan has, in fact, become a democracy. Today women can vote. And some hold office. But only once have women exerted decisive influence on an election outcome. In or out of office, women are still the ones who pour tea.

* Fairness. The great prewar, family-controlled banking and industrial combines, called zaibatsu, have been broken up. But they have been replaced with closely cooperating groups of companies, called keiretsu --some organized by cross-shareholding and interlocking directorates, others built upon longstanding customer-supplier relationships. The Japanese still favor cooperation over competition. And Japan to this day is very much inclined to keep most foreign competitors out.

* Schooling. Japan took to heart MacArthur's order to improve. It has produced what is perhaps the best-educated populace anywhere in the world. But the Japanese have returned to a prewar habit of saving the best for the elite. They have made scholastic competition among students so intense that only children from families who can afford private classes get into the top schools.

Despite these modifications in what MacArthur and the occupation originally intended, Japan's legacy from Pearl Harbor has been positive--so positive that some Japanese are glad America ended up defeating them. "When Emperor Hirohito died, some of the maintenance staff at my school said that if we hadn't lost the war, we couldn't be living such comfortable lives," says Takako Kiba, an English teacher at a Tokyo high school. Japan today is a happy place. Laughter fills society. People take personal pride in the way they do their jobs. Crime rates are among the lowest in the world. Most of the 10 million Japanese who travel abroad each year come home more convinced that they are fortunate.

Everywhere Americans are treated with courtesy--even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities destroyed by U.S. nuclear bombs. Nowhere is there any lingering desire for revenge.

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