History professor John Dower, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his study of post-World War II Japan, is dispelling stereotypes that have made it difficult for Americans and Japanese to understand each other and is revealing how we are more alike than we are different.

Dower studies modern Japan and US-Japanese relations, and he bases his research not only on official documents and the writings of famous people, but also on popular culture — such as everyday language, photographs and films, letters to the editor, cartoons and songs. “The lives of ordinary people matter not only because they are the greater part of human experience,” says Dower, “but also because by knowing what they say and experience we gain a richer, more accurate understanding of the great as well as the small currents of history.”

Relations between the so-called East and the West, Dower explains, have been burdened by the superficial concept of ‘clash of civilizations.’ “When you try to examine cultures in all their complexity, however, looking at examples of authority, patriotism, protest, creativity, or kindness, you also come to see how much we share, whether in the basic characteristics of human nature or in responding to the challenges of the modern world.”

Dower was first attracted to Japanese studies as a student by his interest in Buddhism. “Understanding this tradition is certainly essential to appreciating Japanese culture,” Dower acknowledges, “but to understand modern Japan and US-Japanese relations, it is more important to come to grips with shared cultures, such as rapid technological change, state-sponsored violence, like war, and the long struggle for democracy and social justice that we see in Japan as well as in the United States.

Focus On Differences

Much of our inability to grasp the complexity of non-Western societies, Dower says, comes from a tendency to pay inordinate attention to the differences. “It is complicated because people do not just embrace simplistic images of other groups,” he says. “They also cherish gross stereotypes about themselves. We still tend to see a purportedly contentious, individualistic, rationalistic ‘West’ confronting a consensual, group-oriented, and largely intuitive ‘East.’ In the process, we lose sight of both the persistence of conformity, oppression and irrationality in our own Western history, and the dynamism and diversity of others.”

Dower talks about a collection of archival photographs that he found of labor strikes in early 20th-century Japan. “From early on, most Americans have regarded Japan as fundamentally harmonious and homogeneous,” he observes. “But these photos capture an industrializing nation wracked with conflict and tension. Many of the demonstrators are women. In Western eyes, Japanese women are at home arranging flowers or serving tea, but in fact they always were a major part of the work force. Pre-war Japan had a woman’s movement, a labor movement, and a Communist movement. Western images of Japan have no place for such conflict and turmoil,” he says.

Many other examples of popular culture also undermine such stereotypes. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, Dower shows Japanese men, women and even children of all economic classes welcoming the opportunity to “start over” after years of devastating war. The popular culture that he explores — ranging from children’s games to decadent urban subcultures, from best-selling books to political activities and passionate political and philosophical debates — provides a sharp contrast to conventional images of obedient people devoted to serving the needs of the state.

Stereotypes Endure

However, overcoming these stereotypes is difficult, Dower says, for in spite of contradictory experiences, they tend to endure. American cartoonists for example, from before World War II to the present routinely associate Japan with archaic and fundamentally demeaning images. “Right after the war, for example, we find cartoons of stalwart Americans pointing a finger at men in kimonos,” says Dower, “yet these were people in the early part of the century who had industrialized, militarized, mastered imperialism, and mobilized their nation for modern war. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when Japan was admired and feared as an economic superpower, political cartoonists continued to use the imagery of the menacing samurai or an obese sumo wrestler. These images can be entertaining — they are cartoons, after all — but all too often public perception doesn’t go much deeper.

“This shallow perspective doesn’t just affect our relations with Japan,” says Dower. “Just think about American difficulties today understanding the diversity and complexity of Arab and Islamic societies. Studying the similarities instead of just focusing on the difference will help us overcome a very parochial view of the world.”

To help make modern Japanese history and culture more accessible, Dower, in collaboration with professor of linguistics Shigeru Miyagawa, has developed a new subject, called “Visualizing Cultures,” which they are putting online. The course will make available a large collection of graphic images, ranging from images from Japanese scrolls, to posters, lithographs and photographs that provide a visual record of modern Japanese history. The first part, which is nearing completion, deals with Commodore Matthew Perry and the mid-19th century opening of Japan. Using hundreds of images, it shows what the Americans and the Japanese thought of each other.

“This material is great,” Dower says. “It enhances our historical appreciation of other people as well as of ourselves.”