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Japan Book Reviews

General Douglas MacArthur and The Occupation that Changed Japan

Author : Bert McBean
Publisher : Touka Shobo


Reviewed by :

Henry Hilton
( Japan Today )

Only once in a blue moon do you get an English-language book arriving on the door mat with an endorsement by a Japanese prime minister.

Bert McBean certainly deserves his good fortune as the blurb by former premier Tomiichi Murayama states very fairly that here is a decent textbook on the postwar occupation that "should be very useful to help Japanese students learn the history of that period, in addition to learning English."

What Prof McBean has done is to write a biography of General MacArthur in 14 brief chapters. He has also supplemented his clear text with vocabulary points, discussion themes and a decent bibliography for those whose appetite has been whetted for further detail.

The work was written to coincide with the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of Imperial Japan's surrender and the start of MacArthur's lengthy rule as the American shogun in occupied Japan.

"Any seminar room would be enlivened by debating topics raised at the end of each chapter."

McBean began out of concern that his students at Oita University in Kyushu had precious little awareness of MacArthur and the occupation. He reckoned that this needed to be corrected both because the students he polled said that they would like to know more and that it would also conveniently serve "as an English language textbook -- the first of its kind in Japan."

The result is in fact much wider than merely a rehash of MacArthur's doings during the occupation. We get seven chapters by way of build-up to MacArthur's famous arrival at Atsugi on Aug 30, 1945, where he stands imperiously on the steps of the "Bataan" with that everpresent corncob pipe in his mouth. This provides a useful reminder that MacArthur was already 65 years old by the time the occupation got underway and that his family links to Asia - particularly the Philippines - stretch back to his father's years there at the turn of the century.

Any seminar room would be enlivened by debating topics raised at the end of each chapter. Take, for example, important questions such as "how do you think the people would have reacted?" to an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands in the autumn of 1945 if the atomic bomb had not been deployed or "do you think General MacArthur should have prohibited all executions?" of those found guilty at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.

The paperback can be used by both Japanese and native speakers as an introduction to MacArthur's life and times, though with the slight caveat that it's often pretty sympathetic to the man whose career was packed full of controversy from his West Point days to his final dismissal by President Harry S Truman during the tense months of the Korean War.

It begins in Little Rock, Arkansas in January 1880 Å\ the improbable birthplace of Douglas MacArthur, thanks to his father's posting there in the era when the U.S. military's role was to guard what was left of the frontier. It ends as recently as January 2000 by noting the burial of MacArthur's widow next to her husband in the central rotunda at the neo-classical MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. It is not every five star general whose final resting place is in a major port of the U.S. Navy, though the explanation is simply that this is where his mother hailed from.

The heart of the book centers on MacArthur's undoubted role in setting much of the agenda for the occupation. The challenges facing the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers called for immediate leadership of a high order in order both to work with reformist groups who wanted a new Japan and to ensure that the nation's blitzed economy could get back on its own two feet as quickly as possible.

We need also to be reminded that MacArthur's "magnanimity" toward defeated Japan was poles apart from revengeful public opinion among the other victor nations and the initial hatred back in the United States for the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent treatment of prisoners of war and internees.

McBean devotes considerable space to his hero's determination to work with and through the emperor, arguing that "MacArthur's strategy of protecting Emperor Hirohito - in the face of strong criticism which has persisted to the present day - was a major reason why the Occupation achieved its goals." He ends his chapter on MacArthur's support for a modified imperial system by claiming that this "was probably his most important decision during the Occupation."

As the starting point for an account of MacArthur's career before and during his years in occupied Japan, Prof McBean's work deserves Murayama's praise. MacArthur - "born on an Army base and died in an Army hospital" - ought to be better known in contemporary Japan, given the impact of his constitutional, educational and rural reforms. But then, perhaps, he ought also to be better known in his home country, too, where his far-sighted handiwork in promoting U.S. goals in east Asia is increasingly forgotten. Students everywhere might learn a great deal from this text and its accompanying CDs.



World Today