Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 November 2020
This book is about the American Occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, seen through the lens of culture. It tells the story of how during WWII a handful of brilliant and dedicated scholars, based at the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) headquarters in Tokyo, made it their mission to protect the cultural property of a hated and recently defeated enemy from chaos, destruction and even the rampages of their own troops. The book describes the long road travelled by Americans and Japanese alike – not just scholars but also politicians and policymakers, military personnel and ordinary citizens – before and throughout the war, who made the safeguard of cultural heritage under the occupation possible.
Three distinct but intertwining principles of the American Occupation of Japan inform this narrative throughout. The first was the attention paid during its planning to ‘cultural understanding’ – in this case creating an environment which allowed diverse individuals and programs specialized in or devoted to Japanese studies across various branches of the United States’ government to exercise influence and undertake what was possible and necessary to know the enemy. Why and how this could be done, considering how many other pressing priorities there were, and how spectacularly absent such a stance has been in more recent military occupations, was one of my initial queries.
The second was the importance of preserving the enemy's cultural heritage in war and even more compellingly during the Occupation, as did the United States in Japan. Why did the most powerful nation on earth go to the trouble of doing so? Again, one short answer is that the planners understood that pride in cultural heritage bestowed dignity, and an enemy or an occupied nation without dignity is far more hostile, desperate and therefore difficult to govern than one that feels its culture respected, or at least not destroyed, by the occupier.
Third and last, it was a matter of responsibility. An occupier is bound, by international law and by simple ethics, to preserve the cultural heritage of the occupied – not just so as to placate its former enemy but because cultural heritage of any nation is the heritage of all of humanity.