Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35

George Davies, The occupation of Japan: the rhetoric and the reality of Anglo-Australasian relations 1939-1952, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, 2001, xviii + 391 pp., soft cover, $34.95

Reviewed by: Dr CHRISTOPHER WATERS, Deakin University, Melbourne.

The last fifteen years have seen a major revival of scholarly interest in the British Commonwealth's participation in the Allied occupation of Japan after the Second World War. The diplomatic, military, social and personal dimensions of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) have all received attention in a series of books, journal articles and documentary volumes. No longer can BCOF be considered a forgotten force.

The most recent addition to this growing literature is by George Davies, himself a member of the New Zealand component of the Force who later enjoyed a distinguished academic career in the University of Queensland. Davies' approach to the subject of BCOF is not in the form of a personal memoir, but rather as a scholarly study. He adopts an innovative and interesting framework for describing and analyzing the contribution of BCOF. His book is divided into three main sections: first, a survey of relations between Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States during the Second World War; second, a description of the work and life of BCOF on the ground in Japan; and third, the tale of the aftermath, including the drawing up of the peace treaty and an overall evaluation of the performance of the Force.

Davies' book is thoroughly researched, well-written and clearly presented. He deals adequately with the major diplomatic and military events during the war, the diplomacy surrounding the Japanese surrender, and the decision to establish BCOF. The work and life of the men and women who made up BCOF is presented in informative detail, backed by his own firsthand experience. The subjects covered include the problems of command; the living conditions of the troops; the role of women; health issues, including the impact of venereal disease; relations with the Japanese people; the work of disarmament; the reception of repatriated Japanese soldiers; the implementation of political, economic and social reforms; and relations between the different national components of the Force. We are reminded of the difficult conditions experienced by the Force, particularly in the early days of the occupation. All these topics are covered with admirable thoroughness and clarity. At times, though, the structure of the book - designed to deal with each issue in a separate section - gives the impression of being a list of topics, and the reader is in danger of losing sight of the author's overarching arguments and themes.

One other criticism of the book is that insufficient connection is made between the first part, entitled the "Rhetoric" and which covers the war, and the other two parts. These, entitled "Reality" and "Retrospection", cover the occupation. The survey of events during the war is useful, but the author does not fully succeed in explaining how the actions and events during the war shaped BCOF's task, or the Commonwealth-Imperial relationship upon which BCOF's structure was based. There is too much of an unexplained gulf between "the rhetoric and the reality". At times, too, the book reads a little like the case for the defence; that is, as an answer to some of BCOF's contemporary and historical critics. Davies, though, does not shy away from dealing with these criticisms, including the sensitive, but important, issues of high rates of venereal disease and the level of involvement in the black market.

Davies' overall argument about BCOF's worth is well-made. He neither claims too much nor too little in his assessment of its contribution to the overall success of the American-dominated occupation. Indeed, his evaluation in the final section is perhaps his most valuable and original contribution to the historiography of this important subject. His persuasive conclusion is that, given the limited size of the force and the magnitude of the area it was allocated, and given the hegemonic control of the American authorities under General MacArthur, BCOF's contribution to the success of the occupation has been "consistently underrated".

This is a book rich in detail, and accordingly will be of more interest to the specialist rather than the general reader. But Davies has succeeded in making a significant contribution to our understanding of the origins, experiences and the aftermath of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan.