Japan in the World Since 1945

Japan in the World Since 1945

Background Information.

Japan’s “special relationship” with the United States since the end of World War II has profoundly shaped Japan’s international posture as well as American policy in East Asia.  Even after the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the end of the occupation, the 1951 Bilateral Security Treaty ensured that American military forces would remain stationed in Japan, providing insurance against the Communist threat from without as well as potential radical activism from within.  Not surprisingly, many Japanese—especially those on the political left—decried this situation as “subordinate independence,” although Japan’s conservative political establishment embraced the asymmetric relationship with Washington.  Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, one of the architects of the Liberal Democratic Party’s postwar dynasty, believed that Japanese political subordination to American military and political leadership served Japan well, allowing the nation to save on defense costs, prioritize economic growth, and benefit from rising international trade.  Thus, in the decades following the occupation, the Japanese government was generally content to keep a low military and political profile globally, deferring to the United States in most matters of policy and determinedly pursuing its economic advantage internationally.

Although Article 9 of the postwar constitution expressly stated that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” the process of remilitarization had begun even before the end of the occupation.  Japan developed “Self-Defense Forces,” a substantial military establishment by international standards that finessed the provisions of Article 9 by professing a purely defensive orientation for the Japanese units.  Constitutional restrictions and a general societal tendency toward pacifism did keep Japanese forces off of overseas battlefields, and even though Japan did host American operations during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, U.S. pressure for accelerated Japanese rearmament has consistently been strong.  Japan faced significant international criticism for its “checkbook diplomacy” during the First Gulf War, providing cash rather than troops to the allied effort, and subsequently began to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations and contributed units for the occupation of Iraq following the Second Gulf War.

In East Asia, Japan’s relations with some of its closest and most strategically and economically significant neighbors, notably China, South Korea, and Russia, have long been strained.  The complex politics of war responsibility and memory have often caused political tensions with China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese imperialism and colonial domination remain fresh.  Although economic integration and cultural interchange have drawn Japan, China, and South Korea closer together in recent decades, ongoing controversies over the depth of Japanese contrition for the war and war crimes, official visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and the content of Japanese history textbooks continue to inflame passions (and spark diplomatic incidents) throughout the region.  Meanwhile, Japan and Russia have yet to sign an official peace treaty bringing World War II to a close and the nations continue to contest ownership of a small group of islands off the coast of Hokkaido.  At the start of the twenty-first century, Japan thus faces ongoing challenges in managing its longstanding alliance with the United States, in defining its military role in an unstable world, and in moving its regional bilateral relationships beyond the contentious legacies of World War II.

Learning Goals.

 1. Explore U.S.-Japanese relations since 1952 and what some commentators have described as Japan’s “subordinate independence.”

2.  Understand postwar Japanese military policy and Japan’s place in the politics of international independence.”

3.  Analyze Japan’s sometimes strained relations with its Asian neighbors since World War II.



Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 9.  Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. 
  • Standard 10.  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing
  • Standard 7.  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Standard 9.  Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 4.  Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 
McRel Standards
Language Arts

McRel Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.


McRel Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

McRel Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.


World History

Standard 43.  Understands how post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.

Standard 44.  Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.

Key Concept.

Japan's close and complex relationship with the United States after the Occupation shaped its military policy and had many economic and social reprecussions.

Essential Question.

Primary Source.


Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution.

第九条 日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。
二 前項の目的を達するため、陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない。国の交戦権は、これを認めない。

The official English translation of the article reads:

“ ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized." 

Selections from the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and “Bilateral Security Treaty Between the United States of America and Japan” (in Wm. Theodore deBary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume II 1600-2000, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp.1068-72). 

The full text of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty can be found at wikisource.  Of particular use are: "Chapter 1: Peace"; Chapter 2: Territory," Articles 2 and 3; "Chapter 3: Security," Articles 5 and 6; "Chapter 4: Political and Economic Clauses" Articles 10 and 11.

The full text of the “Bilateral Security Treaty Between the United States of America and Japan can be found at The Avalon Project at Yale University.

Thought Questions.

1. Did Japan achieve true and full independence with the end of the Occupation? What benefits and what disadvantages has the “special relationship” with the United States brought Japan and the Japanese people? What does the balance sheet look like from the American perspective?

2. How do you think Japan and the Japanese people reconcile the substantial military capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces with Article 9 of the Constitution?

3. How have unresolved issues from the era of Japanese imperialism and war shaped Japan’s postwar relations with the other nations of Asia? Can the nagging concerns over memory and war responsibility be resolved in a manner acceptable to both Japan and its Asian neighbors?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Individually or in pairs, have students repond to the following questions: Is it necessary for every nation to have a military?  What are the pros and cons of having no military vs. a small/medium/large military?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

1. Read and discuss Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution (see primary source section, above), the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, and the “Bilateral Security Treaty Between the United States of America and Japan.” 
  • Are the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1951 Security Treaty consistent with the spirit and the letter of Article 9? Why or why not? 
  • How would you characterize the relationship between the United States and Japan under the Security Treaty? 
  • How was this treaty in the interests of the United States? Of Japan? 
  • What was the explicit function of the U.S. troops stationed in Japan to be? Note that maintaining domestic order, and not just defending Japan from the presumed Communist threat, was part of the American forces’ charge. 
  • Given the provisions of the Security Treaty, is it any surprise that many observers have argued that Japan had only “subordinate independence” after the end of the Occupation? 
  • You might ask your students to evaluate the positives and negatives for Japan of having a close, even dependent relationship with the United States during the Cold War. Economic factors (access to markets, technology transfer, etc.) should be considered in addition to the political and military angles.
2. Ask your students to list the major wars since World War II (Korean, Vietnam, First Gulf, Second Gulf, and, of course, the Cold War) and detail the role of Japan in each of them, using online and print sources. They might also research Japan’s record of military participation in United Nations operations. 
  • What trends are apparent in Japan’s pattern of engagement in major world conflicts? 
  • What was the impact of these conflicts on Japan, economically, socially, politically, and culturally? 
  • Be sure to consider the importance of Japan as a forward base for American operations in the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars.
3. Using online sources, chart the basic statistics on the Japanese self-defense forces since 1952: number of personnel, total military spending, military spending as a percentage of GDP. Compare these figures to the statistics for other nations, such as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, U.S.S.R./Russia, China, Great Britain, and France. How does Japan stack up, at least on paper, compared to these other nations?

4. Japan’s relations with other Asian nations (particularly South Korea and China) are intimately tied up with questions of memory, commemoration, and acknowledgement of war responsibility. Prepare a lecture or have students do group research on either (1) the controversy surrounding the coverage of Japanese imperialism and World War II in Japan’s school textbooks, or (2) the contention over Yasukuni Shrine and the commemoration of World War II in Japan. Students could be assigned the project of becoming textbook writers and drafting an “objective” passage on Japan and World War II in Asia. Students could also hold a debate on whether official visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians are an appropriate form of remembrance or an affront to the victims of Japanese imperialism. Either of these projects will demonstrate the difficulties in separating history from politics when it comes to such emotionally charged international disputes.
*Suggested websites for this activity can be found in the "Resources" section.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Have students answer the following question and give three reasons: Has Article 9 been beneficial to Japan?

Possible summative project or test question: Orally or in essay form, have students redesign and justify Japan's policy after the Occupation towards the United States, China and South Korea.  Would they agree to the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the Security Treaty?  Would they modify Japan's relation with the United States in any way?  How would they relate to South Korea and China?  What would the reprecussions of these decisions be?  


 A standard overview of U.S.-Japanese relations written in an accessible style is Walter Lafeber’s The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (New York: Norton, 1998).
A  thoughtful introduction to issues such as the textbook controversy, the Yasukuni Shrine issue, and debates over the Rape of Nanjing (Nanking), now unfortunately a little out of date, is Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

On the Rape of Nanjing, a useful overview is Daqing Yang, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing,” American Historical Review 104:3 (June 1999). 

The  Textbook Controversy
A short survey of the textbook issue is David McNeill, “History Redux: Japan’s Textbook Battle Reignites,” JPRI Working Paper 107 (June 2005).
Okinawa slams history text rewrite. The Japan Times (2007-06-23).

Huge Japan protest over textbook. BBC News (2007-09-29). 

Japan  textbook angers Chinese, Korean press. BBC News (2005-04-06)

Japan textbook angers neighbors. BBC News (2001-04-01)

President Roh urges Japan to face up to historical truth. Korea.net (2007-03-01)
A transcript of President Roh's speech in which he mentions the textbook controversy and Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine

The  official Yasukuni site. Notice the justification given in the "Dieties" and "Worshipping" sections of "About Yasukuni Shrine." 

Curtin,  Sean.  Yasukuni Shrine: Old wounds still fester.  Asia Times (2005-07-05)
An article clearly outlining both points of view.
English-language editorials on these topics from Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean newspapers are plentiful online and make excellent primary source documents for classroom use.
About Japan Resources
A photo of the signing of the US-Japan Security Treaty.
An essay by Peter Frost on the Allied Occupation of Japan.
An essay by Peter Frost on postwar Japan, 1952-1989.