Going into the war in Iraq, President Bush invoked the American occupation of Japan after World War II, an occupation that transformed a feudal society into a democratic nation:
America has done this kind of work before. Following World War II, we lifted up the defeated nations of Japan and Germany, and stood with them as they built representative governments. We committed years and resources to this cause. And that effort has been repaid many times over in three generations of friendship and peace. America today accepts the challenge of helping Iraq in the same spirit -- for their sake, and our own. (September 7, 2003)
Now, historian Takeshi Matsuda presents a vivid description of the American occupation of Japan in Soft Power and its Perils (2007). He explains why the Japanese consented to the changes the American occupation brought, while we have seen the Iraqis become increasingly hostile to an American presence in their country.
One of the primary differences, in his view, is that the United States approached Japan with a genuine interest to understand Japanese culture and to create mutual understanding between the two nations. Matsuda argues that, while the American occupation was certainly geared toward a certain level of cultural imperialism, the US also prepared huge reserve of knowledge about how Japanese and American cultures would interact well before the occupation began:
“In contrast to the current situation in Iraq, the U.S occupation of Japan was a democratic experiment supported by American soft power, as well as hard power…U.S. preparation for the occupation of Japan began immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—that is, four years before the actual occupation of the country.” In addition, “intergovernmental agencies in Washington also spent a great deal of effort defining the general objectives of the occupation of Japan and formulating programs need to meet the specific objectives of the United States.”
Matsuda argues for the importance of academics in shaping the perceptions of both countries of one another. Following World War II, there was an explosion of Japanese Studies in the US and American Studies in Japan, the latter often heavily subsidized by the US. According to Matsuda, this facilitated understanding between the two cultures, such that “U.S.-Japan cultural relations flourished and became full blown in later years in ways that few people would have ever dreamed.”