Sign up for our free newsletter
At first glance, it’s a leftist, anti-colonial narrative whose blame-America-firstism would give Christopher Hitchens nightmares. At second, it’s a well-researched history of one of the most successful foreign-policy projects in U.S. history. Look again, and it’s standard grist for the academic mill, by turns deeply insightful and mind-numbingly boring. But the element of Naoko Shibusawa’s America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy that reverberates after the last page seems incidental, almost unintentional: its forceful indictment of America’s—not Japan’s—discomfort with its own masculinity. After a World War II in which Japan and the United States traded feats of dumbfounding savagery, American political and economic leaders had a problem: how best to turn the defeated Japanese nation into a liberal capitalist democracy and ally without outraging the American populace, which had for four years been indoctrinated to hate its “treacherous, myopic, bucktoothed” rival. Geisha recounts the effort, largely uncoordinated, by the American government, “occupation personnel,” and the media to feminize and infantilize the Japanese as a culture, rendering them less threatening to the folks back home. Shibusawa makes much of how amenable the American populace was to the task, especially after its “warm response to Japanese women and children.” Memoirists like Lucy Herndon Crockett were all too willing to tell stories of passive, eager-to-please “Baby-sans,” Japanese women who seemed to fall somewhere between China doll and blowup doll. Japanese children mobbed American soldiers, reporters, and tourists, or so the news went, demanding “chocoretto” and “chuingamu.” The Pocket Guide to Japan for U.S. GIs celebrates the country’s “woodcarving, lacquer, and cloisonné,” suggesting that though the Japanese “were talented in the arts, they were dangerous and incompetent in worldly, manly affairs.” It worked. By 1950, though pockets of deep resentment of “bloodthirsty Japs” lingered, Americans viewed their former enemy as a juvenile, backward nation that, with our help and some patience, would one day be a trusted ally in the burgeoning war on communism. But the public-relations work had a darker underbelly. “The notion of Japan as a ‘butterfly in amber’ waiting for American assistance attempted to erase the recent past,” writes Shibusawa. Japan didn’t wait like a butterfly as it prepared for regional and world domination, she writes, and attempts to suggest otherwise “obscured Japan’s aggressive, imperialist ‘penetration’ of Asia and the Pacific Islands.” And she all but spells out, Pearl Harbor. Japan has turned out to be our last no-hiccups attempt at nation-building, partly because it started us down the road of uncomfortable self-reflection that recent misfires in the Middle East show wasn’t as fruitful as one might have hoped. Just as Americans were influenced by the postwar propaganda, we were also learning subtle lessons about the limits of U.S. exceptionalism, not to mention run-of-the-mill racial prejudice. As man of the house in global politics, America has been dogged by those lessons ever since.