** World War II : American occupation of Japan Japanese people

World War II Aftermath: American Occupation of Japan

Figure 1.--The Japanese people based on what they were told about the Americans during the War. What occurred was nothing like they expected. At first the streets were largekly deserted, people stayed in their homes. The Americans behaved, however, not only correctly, but humanely. The chikldren especially the boys were often the first to venture out and make contact fiurst out of curiosity. Then because they soon found out that candy was on offer. And candy was something that had disappeared from Japan during the War. Here an Americn GI is passing out Candy for some reason on the Riku Highway. We think this was probsbly toward the end of the occupation when the economy had begun to recover (Early-1950s).

The Allied occupation began September 1945 and lasted through 1952. The Allies set up a Far Eastern Commission made up of 11 members of the victorious coalition. An Allied Council set up in Tokyo was to supervise overall policy. Difficulties with the Soviet Union which wanted to land an occupation force in Japan made the Council unworkable. It was the United States which occupied the country which essentially took control of occupation policy. President Truman appointed General MacArthur to be the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). MacArthur launched a comprehensive reform program. It proved to be a demanding task. Few Americans knew anything about Japan and fewer still could speak Japanese. For Japan it was also a starling experience. Few Japanese had ever been exposed to Western culture. The American occupation was completely unlike the Japanese occupation of the countries that it had conquered. The United States oversaw an occupation with fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese society, rooting out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of a democratic political system and social structure. The goal of the occupation was to establish "a peacefully inclined and responsible government." Militarists were removed from power and the country was demilitarized. The Japanese had to turn in all weapons, including Samari swords, that were often revered family treasures. The swords were not serious military weapons, but they had emense symbolic value to Japanese militarists. The sword was so valued that in the Japanese warrior tradition it had become known as the "soul of the samari". Among the major accomplishments of the American occupation was a new democratic Constitution. Women were enfranchized and labor unions allowed to organize. Major changes were made in the economy. Industries with a war-making capability were prohibited.

Yoshida Shigeru

A key figure in the Japanese government during the occupation and in the post-War era was Yoshida Shigeru, a remarablly undiplomatic diplomat. He had the rather un-Japanese characteristic of clearly stating his opinions even when he disagreed with an individual. He retired in 1939 because of his antt-militarist views. He was even imprisoned by the military late in the War. Yoshida was appointed foreign minister in the government formed after the Japanese surrender to the Americans (1945). He became prime-minister (1946) and held that post for most of the occupation period. He was the single most important Japanese official during the occupation and has left us a penetrating view of the American occupation policies and Japanese politics. [Yoshida] He was essentally pro-American and British and believed in the objective of the American occupation to democratize Japan, but represented conservative forces. He got on well with MacArthur, but the two had differences. MacArthur came to increasinly rely on him to oppose the Socialists. Yoshida advised the Japanese as the ocupation began to be 'good losers'. [Schaller] This comment reflects his view of the War. It sounds like something one might say after a cricket match, not what the leader of a country that launched a war resulting in the deaths of millions of people (only a small fraction Japanese) might say. While he he had opposed the War and the militarists, he did not see the War in the sence of a criminal endevor conducted by the Japanese people and government. His attitude was very different than that of Chancellor Adenauer in Germany. Yoshida never fully accepted responsibility from the war and his attitudes and policies continue to reverberate in Japan today. Many Japanese see their country as a victim of the War and not a country largely responsible for the War.

Interpersonal Relations

Very few Japanese people before the Pacific War had ever seen an American, except in the movies. And the number which had a personal relastionship with an American was miniscule. The Japanese people had no idea wasto expect after the Emperor announced that they were forced to surrender to the Americans. They had been told that the Americans were vicious monsters. That they would rape women and kill children. Civilians including children were being trained to resist the Americans to death. Now they were told that they had to surrender. They were never told what their soldiers had been doing in the countries that Japan occupied, nor do most Japanese fully understand this even today. The Japanese people based on what they were told about the Americans during the War were justfiably apprehensive. What occurred was nothing like they hadbeen ledto expect. At first the streets were largely deserted, people stayed in their homes, peering out the windows. he Americans behaved, however, not only correctly, but humanely. The children especially the boys were often the first to tentavily venture out and make contact, first out of curiosity. This is reflected in the photographic record. Then because they soon found out that candy was on offer. And candy was something that had disappeared from Japan during the War. What ensued was a form of culture shock, both for the Japasnese and the Americans. Because of the disaster that the military had brought on Japan, the people were unusually open to new ideas. Suddenly all things America were popular. Given the intensity and barbarity of the Pacific War, this was something that no one had anticipated. The Americans insisisted on economic and political reforms, but not on the adoption of American culture. This the Japanese eagerly adopted on their, but without letting go of their own rich cultutal heritage. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) orderedan official non-fraternization policy, primarily aimed at contact with women. American sevicemen were forbidden from soliciting Japanese prostitutes and impediments were instituted to marrying Japanese women. After 4 years, SCAP issued a new pro-fraternization (1949). Subsequently the U.S. Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act (1952). It permitted Japanese spouses of occupation personnel to immigrate to the United States. Some 50,000 Japanese women immigrated to the United States as war brides (1937-65). [Douglas, 2013.]

Reforms (1945-47)

The United States largely controlled the Allied occupation and rehabilitation of the Japanese nation. The American ocupation authorities headed by General Douglas A. MacArthur, enacted widespread series of modern military, political, economic, and social reforms that swept away a still almost feudal society (1945-52). Japan had built an industrial economy on an almost feudal social base. General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of both reforming Japan rebuilding the devestated country. Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China had an advisory role as part of an Allied Council, MacArthur had the authority to make final decisions. He acted as a virtual proconsul. Hisdecisions required no Congressional approval. Unlike Germany, the Soviet Union which entered the war in the final weeks did not play a role. This is surely fortunte for the Japanese people and East Asia as a whole. The Korean peple are still suffering from the Communist regime the Soviets installed in North Korea after the War. The Soviets demanded an occuption zone, but were basically ignored by MacArthur and U,S. officials. The dveloping situation in Germany undoubtedly influencd U.S. policy. MacArthur oversaw the most fundamental transforation of Japanese society the country's history, in many ways more fundamental than the Meiji Restoration and he did it in a very short period (1945-47). MacArthur's war time military record has been sharply criticized by many historians. His role in transforming Japan during the occupation is roundly praised, by both American and Japanese historians. SCAP dismantled the Japanese militry and banned former military officers from playing a role in the post-War political leadership. SCAP implemented land reform with the goal of turning tenant farmers into land owners and reduce the size of large esttes. This was primarily a social rather than an economic reform, althoughthe food issue was a major concern. Many of the virtully feudal landowners were nobels who had been advoacates of expansionism and war. MacArthur also attempted to dismantel the zaibatsu (large indutrial conglomerates). Here he had more mixed results. He did largely succeed in transforming the economy into a free market capitalist system. MacArthur capped the vrious reforms with a new constitutiion in which the Japanese had virtually no input (1947). The Emperor was transfomed from a demi-god to a figurehead, ceremonial monarchy. The parliamentary system was given more importance and true democracy was introduced. One of the most starling changes, at least for the Japanese, was equal rights for women. The new constitution also renouncing the right to wage war. The military was converted into a defensive force. General MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito

Civic Values

Besides changing Japanese institutions, the Americans wanted the Japanese people to understand better the idea of democracy. To do this, the occupation government used its control of newspapers and magazines to explain and popularize democracy. They used American democracy as a model to be copied. The complete defeat and devastation of Japan after the war had left many Japanese shocked and disillusioned with their own military leaders, and they were open to the new ways of their American conquerors. To ensure that Japanese children learned democratic values, the Americans insisted that the education system and the laws regulating families be revised. "Moral training" in schools was abolished, and instruction in democratic ideas was begun. Control of education and censorship of textbooks were taken from the central government and given to local administrations. The laws giving the head of the household complete control of every family member (for example, he could withhold his consent when his children wished to be married) were changed to make each family member more equal and thereby more democratic. Support for Change Within Japan After the Americans left, the reforms that did not find strong support within the Japanese system were discontinued. The anti monopoly laws were weakened, and new giant businesses appeared. The central government assumed control of the schools, although the democratic school structure and curriculum remained. The ruling conservative party suggested other changes, including re-introduction of "moral training" in the schools and abolition of the "peace clause," Article 9 of the constitution, but these were not adopted. In sum, there was great popular support for most of the changes, and the changed system thus continues to the present.


A critical issue for the occpation was food. As a result of the War, when the Americans arrived (September 1945), the Japanese had begun to starve. Domestic food production had declined by over 25 percent as the Government prioritized needed farm inputs like labor, fertilizer, and metal equipment to the military. And as a result of the American blockade, food cargos could no longer reach the country. One of the highest priorities for the American occupation authorities was rebuilding the country's transport system destroyed by the America strategic bombing campaign. This was necssary to get the food produced in the countryside into the cities. Here the rail system was a high priority. And steps were taken to increase food production. We see people in the cities growing crops on all available land, including parks. One Japanese expert writes, "From 1944 on, even in the countryside, the athletic grounds of local schools were converted into sweet potato fields. And we ate every part of the sweet potato plant, from the leaf to the tip of the root. .... For protein, we ate beetles, beetle larvae, and other insects that we found at the roots of the plants we picked, which we roasted or mashed. Even in the countryside, food was scarce." [Ayao] This could, however, go so far. In the best of times, Japanese farmers did not meet domestic demand. Japan was not self-suffient in food production even in a good year and the 1945 was a disappointing year. Thus it was important to get the ports working again. Food had to be imported. The United States also moved to revitalize the fishing fleet and to found a new whaling fleet. A stringent rationing system was in place when the Americans arrived. The U.S. authorities upheld sanctions against outdoor food vending and preserved Japan's wartime food rationing system. American occupation authotities quickly got involved in the process. Decisions by the authorities had lasting impacts on the Japanese diet, even how the Japanese ate sushi. [Shimbo] There was, however, just not enough food to go around. American food aid began arriving. But the only real fix to the food crisis was to get industrial Japan working again so that Japan could purchase needed food as it had been doing before the War. And this was a huge challenge because was stripped of it colonies it had bee exploiting.


The Allies did not punish Japan after the war, despite the enormous war crimes committed including killing and destruction. When the Emperror met with General MacArthur, without any promting he told Gen. MacArthur that it should be he was punished and not his county. MacSArthur replied that he was not here yon puish Jpn, but to get the country on its feet agasin. The Allies did conduct war crimes trials against individuals. There was also some payments to victims, although issues like the comfort women have been a continuing issue. And some of the attrocties such as using live individuals to test chemical and biological weapons were covered up. Many guilty men escped justice. But the American occupation forces did not punish or attempt to punish Japan or the Japanse people. They did institute major reforms.

Cold War Policies: The Reverse Course (1948-50)

The nature of the American occupation changed dramatically after aeries of dranatic social and political reforms (1948). The increasing awarneness of the Soviet threat brough about the realization in America that a Cold War was underway. This was something the Soviets began even before the War nded, but the American public did not become aware of until later with Soviet actions in Eastern Europe and Berlin (1948). This coincided with an conomic crisis in Japan. Japan could not feed itself, it had to import food. Before the War, food imports were paid for by industrial exports. Japan's cities and industries, however were in ashes and thus Japan did not have the ability to financ needed food imports. This fed into American concerns about the spread of Communism. The Democratic political reforms and the constitutional guarantees of a free press and free expression meant that the Communit Prty could organize and compete in elections. The SCAP thus shifted its emphasis from social reform to economic reform. This period of the occupation is sometimes referred to as the "reverse course." The economic rehabilitation of Japan became the primary goal of the occupation SCAP was concerned that a poor Japanese economy would increase the appeal of the Communists. And with Communist successes in the Civil War, the future of Japan took on increasing importance. SCAP initiated a range of policies to promote economic recovery. SCAP intridyced a tax rform and attempted to control inflaion. A mjor problem that Japan faced was that it needed raw materials, but wthout finished goods to export, it had no way of importing needed raw materials. The economic problems wre not relly resolved until the Korean War (1950). The Korean emergency created all kinds of jobs and business opportunities as the United States and its allies rushed mikitary forces to Japan and Korea. Japan became the principal supply depot for U.N forces attempting to save South Korea. The United States military commitment to Korea had amajor impact on Japanese strategic thought. The commitment to Korea meant that the United States would also protect Japan. This assured the Japanese leadership that the country's security was not threatened by de-militarization. And the Korean economic boom helped generate the rebuiling of Japan and the esuing Japanese Economic Miracle.


Douglas, E. Sleeping with the Enemy: Japanese War Brides and the American Occupation of Japan (2013), 96p.


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Created: 5:45 AM 4/29/2018
Last updated: 6:27 AM 4/13/2022