** war and social upheaval: World War II -- aftermath in Japan

War and Social Upheaval: World War II Aftermath in Japan

Figure 1.--I think this is a photograph of orphaned Japanese children after World War II. They look healthty and well fed, so the photograph may have been taken a few years after the War was over. They are also well clothed in what seems to be school clothes. Perhps their orphanage had a uniform. What we do noy know is why they are on a U.S. Navy vessel. Could it be that this Navy unit was supporting an orphanage? The children hold a life preserver with the name of the Navy vessel, but I can not make it out.

The United States after World War II oversaw an occupation which fundamentally changed the nature of both German and Japanese society. The American occupation in Japan rooted out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of a democratic political regime and social structures. Women were enfranchised and labor unions allowed to organize. The results by all practical measures have been an overwhelming success. Japan today is one of the most prosperous and democratic societies in the world. There were, however, major differences in the occupation policies pursued in Germany. The Imperial Government was not dismantled. Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Details on his involvement in the War suggest a participation that was far more extensive than admitted at the time, although he certainly acted with considerable courage to end the War. Japan did not and does not today admit the full extent of its responsibility for launching World War II. Many Japanese attempt to hide the extent of their country's war crimes. Here the list is long, led by the launching of aggressive war first against China (1937) and then the United States and Britain (1941). Specific examples include the terror bombing of undefended Chinese cities (Shanghai); massacres of Chinese civilians (the Rape of Nanking), use of biological and chemical weapons, mistreatment and massacres of Allied POWs (the Bataan Death March), abuse of civilian internees, use of slave labor, conscription of civilian women for prostitution (Korean comfort women). Many Japanese today attempt to portray Japan in the role of a victim of the War as a result of the atomic bomb. Right wing groups in Japan today are promoting a new curriculum about the War.

American Strategic Bombing Campaign

American after seizing the Mariana Islands and deploying the new long range B-29 bombers initiating a devestating strategic bombing campaign against Japan in 1944. Early efforts to target specific targets as in Europe proved ineffective. Gereral Curtis LeMay introduced new tactics of fire bombing Japan's cities with mostly wooden structures. The tactics devestated Japanese cities killing countless civilians. The camapaign was climaxed with the two atom bombs in August 1945, finally forcing the Japanese to surender. While it is the atom bombs that are looked on with special terror today, some of the fire bomb raids caused more causualties. This campaign would have before World War II been looked on as war crimes as it would be today. It is the atom bombs and the strategic bombing campaign that the Japnese use to portray themselves as victims. HBC can but look on the impact on civilians with horror. We note, however, that Japanese writers addressing this issue rarely put it in context or address the many complicating issues associated with the strategic bombing issue. It was Japan which initiated the tactic of terror bombing civilians after invading China. Can a country which bombs civilains then raise moral objections when its own civilians are subjected to the same tactics? It is true that the American bombing campaign was on a larger scale, but this is only because of Japan's more limited industrial base, not because of any Japanese moral objection to limiting civilain casualties. Then there is the question of it was Japan who began the War. First by invading China and then by attacking the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. None of these countries attacked Japan militarily, although it is true economic actions (boycotts and embargoes) were used to convince Japan to end its unprovoked invasion of China. Again the question, can a country which invades other countries and carries out war crimes on an unprecedented level honestly portray itself as a victim when the war goes against it? There are other major considerations. Japan developed and used chemical and biological weapons in China during the War. They also had a delivery system which could have carried biological weapons to America (high altitude baloons). Did not America not have a right to preempt such an attack by ending the war as soon as possible? Then there were the POWs and civilian internees. As a result of Japanese mistreatment and brutilization, many of the depressingly small number of survivors were near death as a result of starvation, torture, and sickness. If the War had continued even a few more months--few of these unfortunate people would have survived. Give the scale of the attrocities perpetrated aginst POWs by the Japanese, it can be argued that America had a moral commitment to save as many as possible. Then there is a question of the loss of life that would accompanied an American invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Given the example of Okianawa--casualties would have been enormous, especially Japanese civilians which the Japanese military on Okinawa deprived of food and urged to commit suiside. As terrible as the atomic bombs were, ending thw War in August in fact saved millions of Japanese lives, not only Japanese soldiers but also countless civilians. We recognize that many of the issues have far greater ambiguities and sublities than we are able to discuss here. Our basic point is that in Japan today none of these issues are seriously discussed, only the horror of War--usually meaning the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan. Rarely does the horror of war that the Japanese brought to millions in Asia enter into Japan's discussion of the War.

Emperor Hirohito's War Time Role

A militaristic party rose to dominate the Japanese government during the early era of his reign. His complicity with the milatarists is a not well researched subject. Not every authority agrees with the widespread belief that Hirohito had no hand in Japan's conduct in World War II. Far from it. One example is Imperial Conspiracy written by David Bergamini (1971) who reports that Hirohito was involved in all the major decisions in the war, but that his role was covered up, and that General MacArthur knew, but went along with the whitewash for pragmatic reasons. Loyal Japanese officials and military commanders, unwilling to see the Emperor soiled by association with crimes committed in his name, saw their honorable duty as taking the punishment. What ever Hirihito's role, the militarists during his reign pursued expansionism, war with China (1937-45), and military alliance with the Axis powers (1940). The alliance led to Japan's participation in World War II and its attack on the United States in 1941.

Emperor's Role in the Surrender

Toward the end of the war Hirohito sought peace, and in August 1945 he broadcast the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies. While there is considerable controversey concerning the Emperor's war-time role, there is general agreement that he acted with considerable courage to end the War. At the time not only was he endanger from units of the Japanese military determined to resist, but he had ever expectation that he would be arrested and tried for war crimes by the Americans.

Japanese Surrender (August 1945)

Most Americans believe that the Japanese surrendered because of the American development and use of the atmonic bomb. The bomb was certainly a factor, but not the only factor. The decesion to surender is far more complex and impossible to know with any surity. The American Pacific Island invasions, naval power, and in particular the Soviet declareation of war and starteling sucess of the their invasion of Manchuria all played major roles. The Allies at in the Potsdam Declaration demanded that Japan surrender (July 27, 1945). The Japanese military despite the fact that the Allied bombing had destroyed major cities, were determined to resist, hoping that the cost of invading Japan would deter the Allies. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9). The Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria (August 8). There is reason to believe that the Soviet declaration of war and rapid seizure of Manchuria was more important in forcing Japan to surrender than the atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito finally decided to surrender unconditionally (August 14). The success of the Soviet Army convinced even Imperial Army officers and the Ministry of war that defeat was inevitable. Emperor Hirohito on August 14 decided to surrender unconditionally. Even after the atomic bombs and the debacle in Manchuria, there were hardliners that were opposed to surrender. A group calling themselves the Young Tigers seized the Imperial Palace grounds and tried to prevent the Emperor's surrender broadcast. The attempted coup almost succeded. On what has become called "Japan's Longest Day" the attempted coup, bombing raid blackout, intrigues, killings, and sepukus determined fate of millions of Japanese people. It iwas a complicated series of events involving both great heroism and treason by officers convinced that they were behaving honorably. The Commander of the Eastern Army, however, remained loyal to the Emperor, dooming the coup. [PWRS] The formal surrender was held underneath the big guns of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Not knowing just what the Japanese were planning, the American carriers were standing on station at sea just off Japan.

Repatriation of Overseas Japanese

One not extensively discussed topic is the repriation of overseas Japanese following the surrender. Many of the people involved were soldiers. Unlike the Germans at the end of the War, the Jaspanese still held territory throughout the Pacific, Southeast Asia, China, and Korea. In adition to the military, there were also large numbers of civilians. German civilians repatriated after the War encountered the hatred of people in neigboring countries and suffered terribly. I am less certain about the experience of Japanese civilians. Japan began building an empire with the seizure of Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895 and Korea (1910). Part of Japan's colonial policy involved installing Japanese administrators, but there were also efforts to establish a Japanese population as well as to establish Japanese culture. The local population was, for example, required to learn and speak Jpanese. The Japanese Government after seizing Manchuria (1931), promoted Japanese settlement, but with only limited success. Most of the civilians repatriated came from Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria, but smaller numbers came from other countries as well. Some of these countries (Korea/Manchuria were liberated or partially liberated by the Soviets. Japanese soldiers surrendering to te Red Army suffered for years in the Siviet Gulag. I am not sure how civilians fared.

American Occupation

American troops landed in Japan immediately after the Imperial Government surrendered on September 3. The American occupation was completely unlike the Japanese occupation of the countries that it had conquered. Most Japanese were stunded by the final year of the War and the massive destruction. There was also widespread hunger because the American destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet as well as the domestic transportation system made it impossible to import and distribute food. Many Japanese had been led to expect a brutal American occupation. There were no Batan death marches, slave labor, or mass slaughters like the Rape of Nanking. The United States oversaw an occupation with fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese society, rooting out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of democratic political regimes and social structures. Militarists were removed from power. 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. Women were enfranchized and labor unions allowed to organize. Japanese reader Fujioka Keisuke writes, "I am very pleased to hear that you are preparing a section on the post World War II American occupation of Japan. I was born in 1934 in Tokyo. I and my family were in Tokyo during the American bombing. The terror and destruction were overwealming, just like Dresden. I think most Japanese were surprised with American occupation policy. I was second son of a publisher. My father was a socialist in pre-World War II Japan but there were strict Government controls. After Japan surrendered and the American occupation began, father enjoyed freedom to publish Marx, Engels, and Lenin under Macarthur's regulations." [Keisuke] We wonder how many countries enjoyed more freedom under a foreign military occupation than they had enjoyed under their own government. Among the major accomplishments of the American occupation was a new democratic Constitution.


The results by all practical measures have been an overwealming success. Japan today is one of the most prosperous and democratic societies in the world. The military no longer has a political role. Japan's foreign policy borders on pacifism.

Imperial Government Retained

There weremajor differences in the American occupation policies pursued in Japan and Germany. The Imperial Government was not dismantled as was the NAZI Government and Japan was allowed to retain the monarchy--the longest line of any monarchy in the world. Emperor Hirahito was allowed to remain on the Crysanthumum Throne. Details on his involvement in the War suggest a participation that was far more extensive than admitted at the time, although he certainly acted with considerable courage to end the War. American occpation officials concluded thar retaining the Emperor would facilitate the peaceful occupation of Japan and the acceptance of the American imposed reforms. [Beatty] As in Germany there were trials of war criminals, mostly Imperial Army officers.

War Crimes and Attrocities

Japan did not and does not today admit the full extent of its responsibility for launching World War II. Many Japanese attempt to hide the extent of their country's war crimes and prefer to view their country as a victim of the War. The list of Japanese attrocities and war is very long, involving the deaths of millions, mostly innocent civilians. The list in its entirity is too long to list here, but we need to mention some of the most grevious attrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces. The primary war crime is the launching of aggerssive war first against China (1937) and then the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands (1941). Specific examples include the terror bombing of undefended Chinese cities (Shanghai); mascres of Chinese civilians (the Rape of Nanking), use of biologcal and chenical weapons, mistreatment and massacres of Allied POWs (the Batan Death March), abuse of civilain internees, use of slave labor, conscription of civilian women for prostitution (Korean comfort women).

War Crimes Trials (1946-48)

The Tokyo War Crimes Trial cinvolved a select group of generals, admirals and diplomats. Many Japanese believed that after these trials, war criminals had been justly tried and punished. The Tokyo Trials had, however, been much more narrowly focused than the comparable abnd better known trials in Germany. General Douglas MacArthur commaded the occupation force ans substantially influenced the judicial priceedings. He concluded that it was necessary to maintain governmental continuity in the form of the Emperor. This became official U.S. Government policy. As a result, the procedutors in the War Crimes trials scrupulously avoided any mention of Emperor Hirohito. The defendants out of loyalty to the Emperior did the same, despite the fact that it would have helped their defenses to claim that they were following his orders. When Tojo told his lawyer that "the subjects of Japan can never say or do anything against His Majesty's will," the prosecutors convinced him not to say that on the stand. The U.S. Goverment decesion to exempt Emperor Hirohito from culpability for the War and ensuing war crimes lessened the need for serious examination in Japan of individual and national responsibility. Many Japanese continued to believe that the Wat was a legitimate attempt to defend the country. Few Japanese were informed of the full extent of the crimes commotted by the Jpanese military in occupied countries. Most Japanese citizens immediately after the War were focused on the immedite task of survival and challenges of rebuilding Japan after the sestructive Allied bombibng.


A Dutch reader writes, "The Japanese have not even ever offered an official apology, let alone restitution to the many Dutch citizens who were interned by the Japanese duriung World War II under inhuman conditions. We Dutch were treated worse than the Americans and more Dutch than Americans were murdered by the Japanese. I assume this was because because the Japanese knew that we were not a military threat." This was true. Another fctor was that fewndonesians were sypathetic toard the Dutch in contrast to the Philippines where the Filipinos were ot only sypathetic but were the mainstay of the guerilla campaign that was organized. It was one reason the Japanese destoyed Mania nean the nd of the War.

Japanese View

Many Japanese today attempt to portray Japan in the role of a victim of the War as a result of the atomic bomb. Undernaeth Japan's pacifist surface a debate rages in the Japanese psyche as to whether their country was truly responsible for the War. The issues surfaces annually on August 15 centering on the Yasukuni Shrine honoring the 2.5 million War dead. Each year the Japanese prime minister has to decide whether or not to visit his shrine. Each visit is received with anguished cries from China. Korea, the Philippines, and other countries which suffered from Japanese brutalities during the War. Many other Japnese politicians visit the shrine annually. The most Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi has been able to muster is, "During te War, our country inflicted great damage and pain to the people of many countries, especially in Asia. As the representation of this nation's people, I again reflect deeply and express humble condolences to those people who lost their lives." This view of the War is widely held today by many Japanese, in part because of the failure of Japanese schools and scholars to address the history of the War and the scale of Japanese attrocities. Japan each year conducts ceremonies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to highlight the horrors of war. It is understandable and fitting that they shoud do this. The focus of the ceremonies is on Japanese killed and Japanese suffering. Compleletly absent is these condemnation of war is the much larger number of people killed by the Japanese in China and other countries by both conventional means and biological and chemcal weapons. The impression one gets is that in Japan it is only Japanese suffering that merits attentioin, not the terrible suffering the Japanese caused throughout Asia. An example of this is a 2001 doumentary broadcasted by Japanese public television (NHK) on the "comfort women" during World War II. The comfort women were foreign women (mostly Chinese, Korean, Indoesia) forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese Army. The important Ashai newspaper (December 2004) charged that Japanese politicans close to the Prime Minister forced NHK to soften the program. Gripping testimony of women enslaved by the Japanese was deleted and A Japanese academic was added who claimed that the women volunteered to be prostitutes. [Faiola]

Foreign Views

The bland statements issued by Japanese officials clearly acknoledge no responsibility for causing the War and is seen as wholly unacceptable by neighboring countries brutalized by Japan during the War. These statements are especially insulting to the Chinese who are well aware of the monsterous proportions of the Jpanese attrocities perpetuated against their people. Many other countries, however, suffered at the hands of the Japanese. A Dutch reader writes, "I am glad that HBC is addressing Japan's denial of any guilt during and before World War II. HBC is correct: the Japanese consider themselves victims instead of aggressors and perpetrators. But the world (and history) knows otherwise. It is unfortunate that Japanese children do not learn the truth about the many crimes their grandfathers committed. This "au contraire" of the German attitude. Germany (that is the Federal Republic, not the DDR) had plunged itself into repentance, shame and the will to compensate as much as possible ("Wiedergutmachung") after the War. Both countries now are prosperous, democratic societies, however, with a different mentality when it comes to modern history. One should not expect the Germans to fall on their knees forever when Auschwitz is mentioned. A more independent attitude is already present in the refusal to back Bush's desire to start a war on Iraq. [HBC: objects somewhat to the phrasing here, but does not want to change the writers text. The issue of Iraq is one that we need to address as other HBC readers have raised the issue.] As far as the Japanese are concerned, they really could try to face the facts in a more honest way. The Japanese-Americans don't stop to publicize the wrongs done to them by the American government (and it was wrong of course!), but one would expect at least some honesty and remorse from Japan itself for the atrocities the imperial Japanese committed."

Right-Wing View

Right wing groups in Japan today with a revionist history are even promoting a new curriculum about the War. The Right-wing rejects even the bland appolgies such as those given by a series of Japanese prime ministers. They argue that America in 1941 forced Japan into the War, conveniently forgeting that the War was infact launched in 1937 when Japan invaded China as well as a 1939 engagement with the Soviet Union. The are right in that President Roosevelt put grerat pressire on Japan in 1940-41 to stop the war in China. That however can hardly be seen in as forcing Japan into war. An exhibit to Japan's wars at the Yasukuni Shrine charges that FDR plotted to "force resource-poor Japan into war" as a way of reviving the American economy. [Struvk] (The use of the term "resource-poor" is telling. The solution of the militarists who launched this was to seize the resources of other countries.) Of course, only in the minds of Japanese militarists intent on conqueing China and southeast Asia can this logically be sen as being forced into war. Japanese editorial writers compose essays with amazingly twisted views of te War. The Yomuri Shimbun tells readers, "It is true that Japan's military operations also resulted in various types of brutalities, but Japan never intended to persecute any particular race. In this context, what Japan did during the war is fundamentally different from a 'crime gaianst humanity'" [Yomuri Shimbun in Struck.] Of course launching aggressive War in itself is a crime against humanity. Additionally some of the most serious Jpanese attrocities wre not associated with military operations, the bombing of Shangjhai, the Rape of Nanking, the Batan Death March, the reprisals against hundred of thousands of Chinese civilians for aiding the Dolittle flyers, the comfort women, the abuse of POWs and civilian internees, and many other incidents. Even the claim of the lack of racial persecution is inaccurate. The Japanese view of the Chinese people resulted in some of the worst attroicities in human history. The same editorial had the afrontery to add that the claims of the "comfort women" were "fabricated history" and the women volunteered--despite well documented evidence to the contrary.

Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine is located in central Tokyo and is Japan's most revered memorial to the country's war casualties. Most countries have memorials to their war dead. The Ysaukuni Shrine, however is like no other. Visis my Japanese prime ministers are very controversial and have generated anti-Japanese riots in China and Korea. The Shrine was founded in 1869 as a resting place for Japanese soldiers killed in the civil wars which began in 1853 and led to rise of the Emperor Meiji, The Emperor named the shrine in 1879. Yasukuni translates as "peaceful country". Today the Shrine is dedicated to Japan's 2.5 million war dead, the great majority of which fell in World War II. The shrine is controversial in part because of the terrible attrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during World War II, In addition, among the individuals venerated at Yasukuni are 14 Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo World War II tribunal (1948). After the American occupation ended the names were added (1978). Also troubling is the fact that the Yasukuni Shrine comple includes a museum that offer a very stilted view of Japanese history. The museum does not identify any enemy country, rather the main theme of the museum is that Japan especially in World War II has made heroic efforts to liberate Asia. [Breen] The assessment of Yasukuni is complicated by the status of the Shrine. It was fonded by the Smperor at the time that Shintoism was the Japanese state religion. This changed in 1945. Japan's Constitution, drafted ny McArthur's staff, separated religion and state. This made Yasukuni a private religios shrine rather than a state military shrine. The problem is that the Shrine not only contibues to be associated with the emperor and is generally seen by most Japanese as the country's primary war memorial. The Government maintains a war cemetary at Chidorigafuji, but Yasukuni for many if not most Japanese is more important.


Beatty, William. Beatty was on MacArthur's staff. After the war he taught anthropology at Fresno State.

Breen, John. "Yasukuni Shrine: Ritual and Memory," Japan Focus website (June 2005).

Faiola, Anthony. "Scandals force out Japanese TV chief: Critics say network bowed to pressure to soften conroversial WW II program," Washington Post (January 26, 2005), p. A15.

Keisuke, Fujioka. E-mail message, December 24, 2002.

Pacific War Research Society (PWRS). Compiler Kazutoshi Hando. Japan's Longest Day.

Struck, Doug. "Increasingly, Japanese look back in anger," Washington Post (August 16, 2002), pp. A15 and 17.

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Created: November 7, 2002
Last updated: 8:37 PM 1/28/2018