Japan's new day after WWII

Culture: An upbeat exhibit at Central Enoch Pratt explores American influences on the nation as it recovered from war.

November 24, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Theirs was a nation ravaged by war. But after defeat, the Japanese were eager to rebuild, inspired in part by an unlikely couple: Dagwood and Blondie.

The cartoon makes an appearance in New Beginnings: Japan in the Immediate Postwar Years, 1945 -- 1949. The exhibition, on display at Central Enoch Pratt Free Library through Dec. 29, uses vibrant illustrations, photographs and thoughtful commentary to show how the process of democratizing an ancient nation went hand in hand with introducing its citizenry to modern American culture.

Translated into Japanese, the comic strip Blondie became a postwar primer on domesticity.

"To many Japanese, Dagwood and Blondie's lifestyle and the many electric appliances that filled their home served as a window to the American way of life," exhibit notes explain.

And yet, even as Japanese citizens embraced Western life, they preserved an insular sense of racial identity, a dynamic addressed in the exhibit and quite evident in contemporary Japan.

The show is the first on American soil to draw from the Gordon W. Prange Collection, 21 million pages of books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, news agency photos, posters and maps produced in occupied Japan and housed at the University of Maryland, College Park.

American troops and civilian workers led the Allied Forces' effort to demilitarize and democratize Japan following World War II. Prange, a UM historian, was serving in the Navy with the occupied forces. After his Naval service, he remained in Japan and worked as the chief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's historical staff.

"The occupation period really was a pivotal time in Japanese history and in our relationship with the Japanese," says Amy Wasserstrom, manager of the Prange Collection.

As she planned the exhibit, Wasserstrom concentrated on how the postwar period set "the course for the Japan of today in very major ways, and that the occupation and occupation forces really overhauled so many different aspects of the culture."

The Prange Collection is the world's most complete compilation of its kind. Charged with enforcing a Japanese press code, the Allied Forces' Censorship Detachment accumulated and reviewed all printed materials published during the occupation.

When censorship ceased in 1949, Prange arranged to ship the enormous file home to U of M. Prange, who continued to teach until shortly before his death in 1980, is perhaps better known as the author of Tora! Tora! Tora!

New Beginnings offers a decidedly upbeat view of life in occupied Japan, in deference to the 20th anniversary of the Maryland-Kanagawa Sister State Committee that the exhibit celebrates.

Pictured are young men and women enjoying a beer, joyful American and Japanese children at a gift-giving ceremony, eager-to-please homemakers. Missing are grim images of a country devastated by war: war orphans, dispossessed widows and abject poverty that afflicted much of the country.

Yet, the exuberance that illuminates New Beginnings is not a false front, Wasserstrom says. "The sense of cheer was very genuine." The country had a "desperate need to move on and get back to normal, and I think there was also a sense of, `OK, you're the victors; we have lost the war. We respect you for that.' "

Judging by the colorful images of American movie stars, the translations of American classics and other displays of affection for Western culture in the show, Japan readily absorbed a multitude of new traditions and became reacquainted with others that were banned during the war.

While the exhibit only skims the intricacies of overhauling a country, it does suggest a political strategy respectful of Japan's heritage.

"I have to say from everything I've read about the occupation, [the Allied Forces made an effort] to come in and democratize but allowed the Japanese to find their own path to democracy," Wasserstrom says. "I think many of the intellectuals in the occupation advised MacArthur not to purge Japan of all of its history and tradition."

Paternalism reared its head, of course, but New Beginnings demonstrates that in numerous ways, the Japanese, even as they soaked up American culture, retained their essential sense of creative identity. On display, for instance, is the Disney-influenced work of Osamu Tezuko, who conceived the tale of The Lion King and is considered one of the giants of manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese animation), which have become wildly popular around the world.

The exhibit also makes clear that traditional kabuki theater, folk art and sumo wrestling also thrived in Japan's postwar cultural renaissance, side by side with baseball and American movies.

That Japanese women were granted suffrage in 1947, as noted in the exhibit, also suggests that nation-building can have indisputable benefits for the nation in question. Imagine an Afghanistan where women again have the right to go to school and to vote, as they did before the Taliban took over in 1996.

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