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America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy
by Naoko Shibusawa
Harvard University Press, 2006, 397 pages

Naoko Shibusawa's Ph.D. dissertation at Northwestern University dealt with "race, gender, and maturity" as key factors in reconfiguring the Japanese enemy in American society between 1945 and 1964 after the end of the Pacific War. America's Geisha Ally expands her dissertation topic into a book, which turns out to be quite fascinating and readable although considered an academic work with 75 pages of endnotes. The book's seven chapters explore distinct aspects and events of how American views of Japanese people changed in the postwar period. Shibusawa argues that postwar public discourse in the U.S. regarding America's relationship to Japan assumed two universally recognized hierarchical relationships—man over woman and adult over child. She explains, "Portraying Japan as a woman made its political subjugation appear as natural as a geisha's subservience to a male client, while picturing Japan as a child emphasized its potential to 'grow up' into a democracy." She explores how many Americans after the end of the Pacific War "began seeing the Japanese not as savages but as dependents that needed U.S. guidance and benevolence" by conceiving of the relationship between the two countries in the mutually reinforcing frameworks of gender and maturity, which helped to reduce and minimize intense racial hostility prevalent during World War II.

Each of the seven chapters supports Shibusawa's argument but can also be read independently or in any order. The first two chapters give an overview of how American attitudes changed toward Japan in the first few years after the war's end. Chapter 1 explains how the notion of Japan as childlike and feminine reframed America's relationship with Japan and helped Americans see the recently disparaged enemy as a valued ally in the Far East. Chapter 2 describes how Americans considered Japanese people as needing guidance and teaching due to their immaturity. General MacArthur's statement in 1951 summarizes this attitude along with the belief that the Germans, although an enemy in World War II, were equal to Americans in terms of cultural achievement (p. 55):

If the Anglo-Saxon was say 45 years of age in development in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite mature. The Japanese, however, in spite of their antiquity measured by time, were in a very tuitionary condition. Measured by the standard of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of 12 as compared to our own development of 45 years.

The last five chapters discuss specific aspects or events that changed Americans' view of Japanese people: transformation of Emperor Hirohito to a peace-loving and model family man, trials of Tomoya Kawakita and Iva Toguri d'Aquino (Tokyo Rose), postwar scholarships for Japanese students to attend American universities, the Hiroshima Maidens project of 1955-6 that provided plastic surgery for 25 women disfigured by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and several Hollywood films that depict Japanese characters such as Sayonara (1957) and Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) starring Marlon Brando and Geisha Boy (1958) starring Jerry Lewis.

Chapter 5 discusses postwar scholarships for Japanese students to attend American universities, including the Johnstone scholarship, whose first Japanese recipient was Robert Yukimasa Nishiyama, described as a veteran of the Japanese Imperial Navy who had been assigned to the Kamikaze Corps during the war. Life magazine covered Nishiyama's story as a freshman at Lafayette College in an article entitled "Kamikaze Goes to College" in the edition dated October 4, 1948. The magazine article and Shibusawa's book do not provide any details about Nishiyama's service in the Kamikaze Corps, so this aspect of his background possibly could have been exaggerated for publicity purposes.


Robert Nishiyama (third from left)
with fellow Lafayette College students

The scholarships provided to Japanese men had the overall goal of re-educating the Japanese in the areas of peace and democracy. The scholarships were created "not only to educate Japanese students but also to teach Americans to confront their intolerance by dealing with Japanese students in their midst" (p. 184). Nishiyama turned out to be an excellent selection in that he "extolled the generosity, openness, and goodwill of the Americans he had encountered" and was "a grateful pupil of American altruism and wisdom" (pp. 201, 203). Nishiyama appealed to American audiences as a "polite, earnest, grateful, and complimentary" student, and he challenged "readers or listeners to rethink their preconceptions about the Japanese, but did so modestly and judiciously" (p. 205). Shibusawa concludes on the effects of the scholarships to send Japanese students to American universities, "The scholarships no doubt benefited individual Japanese, but instead of fulfilling their stated mission to promote pro-American sentiments in Japan, these programs were more effective in allowing some earnest Japanese individuals to show their people in a better light" (p. 212).


Image of a geisha bowling served as cover picture for Life
magazine's special issue on Japan in September 1964

America's Geisha Ally provides a wealth of information from popular culture related to how Americans perceived Japan and its people in the postwar period. The author focuses exclusively on American viewpoints, but it would have been interesting to contrast these with how Japanese people considered the Americans during the country's occupation and the period after the American's left in 1952. Shibusawa explains in captivating detail how history's truths can be reshaped to serve the victor's objectives.