Westernization narratives re-examined: Through the eyes of Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank
Jon Th ares Davidann
The Westernization paradigm’s basic premise that Europe, and later the United States, transformed East Asia has been one of the most durable ideas of the twentieth century'. Recently however, it has come under scrutiny and begun to crumble like a sandcastle. Westernization received sustenance from Eurocentric assumptions of superiority' and the idea of American exceptionalism. Scholars began to express more skepticism in the postwar period, however. Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen identified the same problem in discussing the impact of the development of East Asian modernity' in their work, The Myth of Continents.
As anyone with familiarity' with East Asia’s development will aver, that region’s stunning economic, technological, and scientific success in the twentieth century cannot be ascribed to cultural Europeanization; nor can East Asia’s role in the creation of the modern world be downplayed.1
Even as it was increasingly' criticized by' academics and commentators alike in the post-sixties era, Westernization survived, albeit with a tarnished image. The culmination of American success in East Asia, its occupation of Japan, brought with it the idea that Japan was becoming just like the United States. The occupation essentially ensured that Japan would emerge from the war westernized as an American style democracy, after veering off course in the 1930s, a period referred to as a dark valley' in Japanese politics. As leftist scholars began to find this version of modernization theory' unpalatable, they replaced it with another theory' that left the power of Westernization intact, Western imperialism. While there is no doubt that imperialism played a major role in shaping modern East Asia, the argument simply switched the hats of westerners from white to black. Westerners no longer brought light but darkness, hegemony to East Asia. The power of Westernization remained intact. Today, the entire edifice of Westernization has begun to be questioned, both positive Westernization (modernization theory) and negative Westernization or imperialism. I devoted an entire book called The Limits of Westernization: American and East Asian Intellectuals Create Modernity, 1860-1960 (Routledge, 2019) to the project of unwinding the Westernization narrative. The chapter below is from this book with permission from Routledge to republish it here.
How did Westernization and Americanization in the postwar period become such a ready-to-use, ubiquitous argument? This chapter examines two prominent intellectuals, Edin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank to discern their role in promoting the idea of Westernization before during and after World War II.
The war’s impact on intellectuals
World War II in East Asia became a cataclysm, like World War II in Europe. Amid the physical ruin, the death toll rose to unimaginable heights. The Chinese suffered total war deaths of more than 20 million people, on a scale similar to Soviet Russia. In today’s terms, this staggering number is the equivalent of one megacity-Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, or New York City, simply gone, obliterated. Japan suffered far fewer casualties at approximately three million war dead, but the bombing of its infrastructure flattened almost all of its major cities. To travel among Japanese cities is an eerie experience. With the exception of Kyoto—the American military decided to leave Kyoto alone—all wood structures were destroyed in the spring 1945 firebombing by American warplanes. Today, the landscape of Japanese cities is steel and concrete, shiny and new. One notices not just the newness of the structures but also the absence of older buildings. Japan’s cities’ prewar history at least in its visual panorama has been obliterated.
Just as the war destroyed lives and the physical landscape, it also destroyed old ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking cropped up to replace them. In Japan, intellectuals Takeuchi Yoshimi and others had to face their worst fears as the Westernization they despised now reared its hydra heads in the American occupation and reconstruction of Japan. Japanese thinkers could no longer take solace in a Greater East Asia Community since their loss in the war had destroyed that potentiality.
In China, the intellectual atmosphere was despoiled by decades of chaos and violence. Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist program of modernization, the New Life Movement, failed miserably in 1934-5, and then with the outbreak of war in 1937, the opportunity to shape a nationalist modernity in China was lost. After the war, the Nationalists, crippled and shot through with corruption, lost legitimacy with the Chinese people.
In the United States, the massive victory emboldened Americans to shape a postwar world in their own image in East Asia. Their occupation of Japan allowed them to tear out the page of history upon which Japan’s alternative vision of modernity was written and write a new page with a westernized version of modernity. From the occupation forward, Japan’s wartime history would be known as a dark valley on its path to modernity, an unfortunate detour from its path of Westernization. Their smashing victory in Europe and the Pacific allowed Americans to dream big.
As American conquerors began to occupy much of East Asia, they did not, however, land in large numbers in China. China under the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and Chiang Kai-shek, its leader, had been a staunch ally of the United States in the war. The Americans, on the other hand, had considered
China to be a third rank ally behind Great Britain and Russia and gave resources and attention only grudgingly to China. The American military' leadership in China under General Joseph Stilwell treated the Chinese as inferior junior partners. Stilwell constantly pulled rank on Chiang—commandeering Chiang’s army' for a campaign in Burma that served no purpose—and became a divisive and dangerous factor in United States-Chinese relations. Claire Chennault, in charge of American air power in China, was also a divisive leader.2
There was also more than a little American racism and ethnocentrism targeted at East Asians. Stilwell was part of the landing force in Japan after the war, and as he toured the streets of Yokohama in the early hours of the morning of September 1, 1945, he stated,
What a kick to stare at the arrogant, ugly, moon-faced, buck-toothed, bow-legged bastards, and realize where this puts them. Many newly demobilized soldiers around. Most police salute. People generally' just apathetic. We gloated over the destruction & came in at 3:00 feeling fine.3
As much as it changed the situation on the ground, the American victory' in the Pacific War and its occupation of Japan also transformed historical writing about United States-East Asian relations.