Modern America, Postwar Japan and Modern Iraq: western values in a post-colonial world

Charles Allen Glenn


In the summer of 2001, a little-known and largely ignored group of prominent Japanese toured 32 U.S. cities. They were all members of the "A50 Project," a group of current and former Diet members, ambassadors, industrialists and scholars who had just attended a solemn ceremony in Tokyo marking the passage of 50 years since the 1951 signing of the Peace Treaty between Japan and 49 other nations. That this event was barely mentioned in the American press by no means diminishes its significance.

Food, medical supplies, clothing, blankets, and millions of dollars in reconstruction materials and expertise had already been flowing into Japan from the U.S. by the time the 1951 treaty was signed. Almost immediately after their surrender in 1945, the Japanese began seeing Americans swarming all over their country – but carrying more briefcases and hard-hats than rifles.

Much the same scene can be found virtually everywhere in Iraq today, with the most significant difference being that the pace at which we are currently able to help Iraq rebuild is much higher than what we were able to do for post-war Japan. Hundreds of multinational corporations, relief agencies and non-governmental organizations are working feverishly to turn Iraq into the prosperous, successful nation it ought to be, given its resources and citizenry. None of this, however, has even been so much as a speed-bump on the media’s road to discredit the war in Iraq, and thus discredit the Bush administration.

In 1989, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Keizai Doyukai, a group of Japanese executives, and had this to say about America’s role in the reconstruction of postwar Japan and in its ultimate success:

"What in the world allowed so small and resource-poor a nation as Japan to develop to its present state? Naturally, the answer is partially owing to Japanese diligence. However, when all is said and done, I believe that Japan's success is directly linked to the generosity of the American Occupation policy."

Thatcher’s remarks, as can be imagined, did not go over well with some, but most Japanese knew she spoke the truth. Many of them, such as the members of the A50 Project, are ready to express gratitude even in the face of rising anti-American sentiment in East Asia, not to mention efforts here in the U.S. to force reparations on Japan for humanitarian violations during the war. The Japanese businessman behind the project, Hirotsugu Iikubo, expressed just this kind of sentiment in a recent article in The Tokyo Weekender:

"... I remember[ed] the food aid from the United States when I was a boy. People were dying of hunger in Tokyo after the war. One thousand tons of wheat flour arrived in Tokyo Bay from America on Jan. 26, 1946, to begin relieving that suffering. Even if the U.S. postwar strategy in Japan was designed to be in line with its overall global strategy, many things were done besides American food aid and humanitarian support that made the Japanese people feel relieved and content—even happy. The Americans did not demand postwar reparations; they did not occupy Japan with a policy of 'divide and rule'; they did not impose forced labor or the detention of Japanese prisoners of war. They laid the foundation for Japanese postwar industrial rehabilitation by encouraging the cooperation of top industries throughout the world creating the modernization of Japanese industry. America founded the Fulbright Scholarships, slated to help and educate hundreds of deserving young Japanese into international commerce and higher educaton."

As a quick review of generous terms in the 1951 treaty will reveal, it’s not surprising that such sentiments would be expressed by modern Japanese 50 years later. Likewise, a review of our current policies in Iraq will demonstrate a high likelihood such sentiments will be shared by Iraqi’s of future generations. In 1951, the U.S. set the standard for magnanimousness in victory – a standard the world had never seen before (or since, except when it recurs in U.S. post-conflict policy).

Yet circulating around the web and in the minds of many people on both the left and the right is the concept that the U.S. is doomed to fail a-la Vietnam, and that perhaps Arab culture isn’t suited for democracy. The first part of this view is utter nonsense – for while we may not be nearly as informed as we ought regarding the success of U.S. policy in Iraq, there is a limit to how long the distortions of the media can remain effective. Ultimately, no amount of pessimism and political opportunism can hide the great strides that have already been made and continue to be made in reconstructing Iraq and building the foundation for its future success. As to the second part of that view: it is short-sighted and not a little bigoted when examined objectively. In those few instances where democracy has failed, it was the victim of wrong-headed policies or corrupt individuals rather than cultural incompatibility.

While there may be a myriad of specific cultural differences between Iraq and Japan, there are two very compelling reasons for believing Iraq will become a successfully free nation. History tells us that the pre-industrial Japanese had a strong warrior ethos and a violent tribal history; and that their postwar ancestors were beset by outside influences determined to derail their path to democracy. Despite these forces, the Japanese were able to make the transition to democracy with brilliant success, which they achieved by redirecting their cultural tendencies away from imperialism in response to limited resources and toward free-market capitalism. By rejecting both the reasoning that had led them to war as well as the ideology that tempted them away from democracy, they set themselves on a path that history would later recognize as an economic and social success-story.

In the centuries prior to the 20th, the Japanese were known as isolationists. While they held aggressive and often brutal control of the traditional islands of their homeland, they did not often seek to acquire resources elsewhere and were content to be left alone. Their culture was provincial, with family and clan ties taking on an almost spiritual significance. With the evolution of the elite warrior class of nobility from the 11th through the 14th Centuries, the Samurai, Japan became a full-fledged feudal monarchy, and remained so well into the 19th Century.

Though much of Japanese history is full of internal conflict, the Japanese always retained a fiercely nationalistic streak, and were largely successful in resisting outside influence. Likewise, the Arabs living in Mesopotamia through the long centuries of Ottoman rule remained independent-minded, although culturally dispersed. Ironically, it is the British and French who are mostly responsible for the rise of Arab nationalism. Prior to the Ottoman Turk’s fatal decision to oppose Britain and France in World War I, there was no such thing as Arab nationalism. It was created and fueled by the British and French in order to undermine the Ottomans and later to secure oil resources. As we now know, that plan eventually backfired.

Either way, pan-Arab nationalism is a reality in today’s world. In itself, it’s harmless, but it has been co-opted as the cause du-jour by Middle Eastern terrorist groups. On the surface, this may seem a reason to dismiss Arab nationalism as useful to the purposes of spreading freedom, but the same was once true in Japan. Japanese nationalism had been "hijacked," so to speak, by militarists and expansionists prior to WWII, and yet this didn’t destroy any chance of Japan ever becoming a free nation. Eventually, it morphed into the driving force behind Japan’s postwar economic success.

The same possibility exists for Iraq, and because of this, it may be far more likely that Iraq succeeds vis-a-vis Japan, circa 1945. Iraqis have a great deal of cultural diversity, which extends to its well-educated strata of civilians who are likely to become the middle class in the future Iraq.

Far from a detriment or a hindrance, the highly-religious nature of average Iraqis will greatly contribute to the stabilization of their society in the coming years of turmoil. The morals and ethics of Islam (and to a much lesser extent, Christianity) which pervade Iraqi society, when divorced from Islamic militancy, can be every bit as influential as was Christianity in the early years of the United States for deterring crime, legislating laws, and providing economic stability.

Western-style secularism, as it relates to government, will probably not be a reality in any Middle Eastern nation any time in the near future, but it’s not necessary to achieve success and stability. In the case of the United States, secularism is a relatively new idea and was not, as many Americans believe, a basic foundational idea behind the Constitution. Most of the laws and infrastructure of modern America were heavily influenced by Christian values and teachings. The same will be true for Islam and Iraq.

The fact the United States and Japan took very different paths toward freedom and success, combined with the fact that they could hardly be more different socially and culturally, is a reason for hope in Iraq. Despite the obvious bigotry inherent in such sentiments, many on the left and in the media are eager to forecast a gloomy future for Iraq. Iraqis, meanwhile, are putting together a new nation despite the pessimism and bigotry – one that, like the U.S. and Japan, will be conceived in liberty. The violence will eventually end because the Iraqis will not tolerate it indefinitely, and once they have the means to deal with the barbarians at their gates, Iraq’s future will be bright, indeed.