The Allied Occupation of Japan

The Allied Occupation of Japan

Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educators, "Journey through Japan," in 2003.

The Allied Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) remains a highly contentious period in Japanese history. Commentary varies from those who think that the relative success of the Occupation can serve as a model for future United States interventions, through more critical historians who lament an alleged “reverse course” in American reform efforts midway through the period, to more conservative thinkers who worry that the Occupation undermined the national sovereignty and moral underpinnings of the nation. Historians are also divided on the extent to which the fundamental aspects of Japanese society changed, and the degree to which change would have occurred naturally without a period of foreign occupation.

1. Ending Militarism

US policy was limited. For most of the period, General Douglas MacArthur served as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, or “SCAP,” a term that was also used for the roughly 5,500 non-Japanese bureaucrats who served under him. Because of language problems as well as the complexity of the tasks before SCAP, many of the traditional Japanese ministries were kept in charge of running the country. Indeed, Japanese bureaucrats tended to increase their powers by helping to design and implement so many new SCAP policies.

Alleged militarists were quickly punished. Under SCAP edicts, roughly 200,000 prominent military, political and business leaders were “purged” or barred form public office. This number was proportionately rather smaller than the number purged in the case of Nazi Germany, but it obviously raised questions about the possibility of punishing innocent people simply because of the office that they held; others objected to the fact that the Purge was later used against both critics of the Occupation and, after they started condoning violent protests against SCAP rule, members of the Japanese Communist Party. The Purge thus raised contentious issues, but also allowed a new leadership to emerge.

Similarly, War Crimes Trials were set up in Allied military courts for about 5,700 “Class C” war criminals (over 4,400 of whom were convicted of individual atrocities), and 20 individuals accused of “Class B” war crimes or responsibility for crimes committed by soldiers under their command. In the end, only two soldiers, Generals Honma Masaharu and Yamashita Tomoyuki, were tried for Class B crimes. General Honma was accused of “command responsibility” for the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March of Allied and other prisoners, while General Yamashita was held responsible for the “rape of Manila” by retreating Japanese troops in 1945. After a futile appeal to the US Supreme Court which said that it had no jurisdiction over the case, both were executed. While no one doubted that the guilty needed to be punished, many felt that both C and B suspected war criminals deserved fairer trials by more impartial judges.

Most contentious of all were the trials of 28 “Class A” war criminals.” These men were accused of engaging in a conspiracy to commit crimes against peace and humanity. Critics were upset by the fact that all of the 11 judges were from nations that had fought Japan, and only 3 were Asian. They argued that the legal definition of a “conspiracy” was found only in Anglo-Saxon law, and that waging war (“crimes against peace”) had not been illegal prior to 1945. If “crimes against humanity” were being tried, they argued, both the US decision to drop two atomic bombs on civilians and the Russian decision to declare war in violation of their treaty with Japan should also be considered. Particularly after Justice Radhabinol Pal issued a book length opinion arguing that all of the defendants should be acquitted, many asked if this trial was not what General Tojo Hideki called “Victor’s Justice.”

More liberal commentators, on the other hand, were concerned that the Emperor was not brought to trial. Some suggested that the Emperor had been far more active in pressing for war than his defenders claimed; others said that even if he was only supposed to reflect the consensus of his cabinet, could he not have spoken out more forcefully for world peace? Some thought that the trials placed too much emphasis was placed on the struggle with the United States, rather than with China in particular and Asia in general. Others have become concerned that issues such as the forced recruitment of “Comfort Women” (prostitutes) and the ghastly biological experiments on humans by Japan’s “Unit 731” were not addressed; it has even been argued that punishing a few of Japan’s leaders had the unfortunate effect of excusing the rest of the nation from examining its conduct.

When the Class A trials concluded in 1948, 7 individuals, including Tojo Hideki, were hanged, 16 received life sentences, and two were sentenced to terms in prison; 2 of the remaining 28 accused died during the lengthy trials, and one was declared insane. After the Occupation ended, the ashes of those who died were taken to the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine for the war dead. This in turn suggests that while the trials, as in Germany, were meant to show common citizens how allegedly evil leaders had led their nation in to an unjust war, most Japanese tended to think that the militarists’ decision to ally with Nazi Germany had been stupid rather than immoral.

2. Building Democracy

Attention quickly shifted to more positive reforms. After US officials secretly prepared an initial draft, the Constitution of 1947 was adopted. Technically an amendment of the Meiji Constitution of 1887, the new work specified the Emperor was now merely a symbol of the state, and thus reinforced a 1 January 1946 speech by the Emperor and more informal tours designed to establish that the Emperor was more human than sacred; particularly as the Emperor’s public appearance showed that he was noticeably stiff and shy, these measures undoubtedly diminished the Emperor’s authority while also making the average Japanese feel more compassionate about his majesty’s humiliation. Other clauses set up a British style Prime Minister system that placed almost all authority in the lower house of a bi-cameral Diet (Parliament), and thus avoided the behind the scenes power brokering that had so crippled pre-war democratic movements. Election procedures were set by law; in later years, not least because these unduly favored rural districts, conservative politicians such as Yoshida Shigeru were in power for most of the period.

Other sections of the Constitution guaranteed basic human rights. One article (Article 14) ended the hereditary peerage and banned discrimination against Japanese because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin; subsequent legislation gave women hitherto unheard of privileges such as the right to vote, own property and divorce.  Another provision, Article 9, claimed to “renounce war as a sovereign right of a nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and declared that “land, sea and air forces, as well as war potential, will never be maintained.” The meaning of this clause was debatable – some claim that no constitution can outlaw the inherent right of self defense – but for the moment, this clause seemed especially sensible. Indeed, since – in the thinking of the day – women were thought to be the gentler sex, it was hoped that all three of these policies (limiting the Emperor’s authority, banning war and giving women the vote) would further the cause of world peace.

Economic policies were even bolder. Conscious that Western style democracy required a stronger middle class, an ambitious Land Reform Program bought land (at what turned out because of inflation to low prices) from landlords, and distributed it to tenant farmers; soon roughly 90% of all Japanese farmers owned more than half the land they cultivated. Similarly, labor union laws modeled on US New Deal legislation gave workers the right to strike and increased union membership from a mere handful to almost 5 million workers. The holding companies of the zaibatsu (business combines) were outlawed, and ambitious plans were made to outlaw firms whose size was thought to discourage competition. A stock market was encouraged to spread the ownership of major companies, and a relatively favorable exchange rate of 360 yen to the dollar was started to encourage foreign trade.

Cultural reforms aimed at training Japanese to accept their new Western style democracy. After a visit by a US educational mission, Japan’s K-12 schools were changed from a single sex, multi-track system with only 6 years of compulsory education to a co-educational, single track system with 9 years of compulsory school. Japan’s complex characters (kanji) were simplified and the number normally used limited to 1850. Universities increased in number, and were asked to spend more time on general education. Mention might also be made of other programs such as public health; while most of these were so uncontroversial that they have been forgotten by historians, they helped Japanese through the hard times that occurred at war’s end. General MacArthur’s encouragement of Christianity was less successful. Christians continued to be influential, but the number of converts did not significantly rise.

3. Rethinking Reform

The longer the Occupation went on, the more the world changed. Anti-colonial uprisings in Asia, Communist China’s 1949 victory on the mainland and the subsequent outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 seemed to many Americans to herald a dangerous new era in which potential Japanese militarism was far less of a threat than Communist “Wars of National Liberation.” Domestically, the Republicans recaptured Congress in 1948, which in turn encouraged new criticisms of New Deal politics and government programs. Within Japan, the Japanese government discovered that it could take advantage of growing tensions between reformist members of SCAP and those more concerned about national security. The Japanese Communist Party added to the tension by dropping its notion that SCAP was a positive force helping to complete a bourgeois revolution, and now condoned active resistance that led to several shockingly violent incidents. Adding to all this was a general feeling by both Americans and Japanese that the Occupation had gone on long enough.

As problems developed in implementing reforms, therefore, the United States ordered SCAP’s policy changed in ways that have now been lumped together as the “reverse course.” On 1 February 1947, for example, General MacArthur outlawed a proposed general strike on the grounds that it would have too great an impact on the struggling Japanese economy; a more basic reason was that Japanese union leaders were more interested in radical political change than “bread and butter” issues of wages and benefits. The planed breakup of certain large business corporations (zaibatsu) was also stopped, and various austerity measures were taken under an economic stabilization plan. Later legislation made it clear that civil servants could not strike or bargain collectively. While bitter labor unrest continued after the occupation ended, somewhat less radical union movements also emerged. Japanese firms quickly took advantage of all these changes to form business relationships (known as keiretsu) that were normally based on interlocking bank loans and stock ownership as well as personal ties. Capitalism was in back in command.

Similarly, when the Japanese Communist Party changed from supporting the Occupation to criticizing it, some of its leaders were barred from public office under the Purge legislation originally meant to target militarists. This was legally possible – the Purge legislation could be applied to anyone who criticized the Occupation – but it obviously combined with ongoing censorship and other legislation to anger Japan’s left wing politicians. Educationally, ongoing battles over SCAP’s demand for locally elected school boards, textbook reforms and the abolition of ethics courses (moral education) continued for much of the Occupation before being substantially changed after the Occupation ended. Socially, general constitutional encouragement of equal treatment for all citizens failed to solve more deep seated prejudices against Koreans resident in Japan and a special group of Japanese “untouchables” or Burakumin.

Most shockingly of all, Japan began to modify the famous Article 9 “no war” clause. The first step was the creation of a National Police Reserve in July 1950, just after the outbreak of the Korean War; this would later be the foundation of the controversial Self Defense Force. Prime Minister Yoshida (Prime Minister 1946-1947, 1948-1954) had not wanted such a force, in part because it made the rest of Asia – not to mention the progressives in Japan – nervous, and in part because it was expensive. The United States insisted, however, arguing both that Article 9 did not – could not – deny a nation the right of self-defense, and that Japan’s security had been too weakened by the Occupation’s earlier insistence on a decentralized police force. While the government tried to distinguish between legitimate self-defense and a more offensive force by limited the budget to roughly 1% of GNP, the issue remained contentious for years after the Occupation had ended.

Japan also agreed to side with the US in the emerging Cold War. By 1951, Japan had agreed to ignore Communist bloc protests and negotiate the San Francisco Peace Treaty with 48 non-Communist nations. Prime Minister Yoshida was also pressured to deny recognition to the Communist government in mainland China, and to sign a Mutual Security Agreement allowing US forces to continue to use its bases in Japan. Many disliked the tawdry bar and sex culture that sprang p near US bases, and/or worried that the presence of such bases would make Japan vulnerable to enemy attacks. Indeed, both the alleged “Reverse Course” and the Japanese government’s decision to back the US in the Cold War were deeply disappointing to many left wing Japanese.

The signing of the US-Japan Security Treaty in the San Francisco Presidio on September 8, 1951.
Credit: Donated by Corbis-Bettmann

4. Summing Up

In accessing the impact of the Occupation, it is important first of all to remember that for the vast majority of Japanese, day to day issues were far more pressing than matters of high policy. For most of this period, the economy was in bad shape; SCAP estimated that 2.5 million Japanese had died in the war, another 6 million had returned from overseas, and perhaps one third of Japan’s total wealth had been destroyed. As recovery efforts were slow in part because more US aid went to Germany than Japan, many ordinary citizens led a so-called “onion skin existence,” peeling off (selling) their possessions while they cried to the despair of both conservatives and liberals, black marketers and other unsavory types profited, labor unrest led to violence, gangs flourished and a number of women were forced into prostitution. On the positive side, life for most Japanese slowly returned to normal. Helped in part by American procurement during the Korean War (1950-1954), Japan’s economy slowly began to improve. There was a great deal of pleasure in being able to speak more freely and also watch newly uncensored movies, as well as lessons to be learned from the cheerful – if often naïve – soldiers of the occupation army. Even President Harry S. Truman’s 1951 decision to relieve General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination was a useful example of how the military should be subject to civilian authority.

In 1952, the Occupation officially ended. Major “reverse course” issues remained highly contentious, but several reforms that had the backing of a majority of Japanese were kept largely intact. Japan developed a Self Defense Force, for example, but Article 9 and the Constitution as a whole remained. Land reform stayed, unions, despite changes, now had more power and women, if hardly equal in an American sense, now had more options. While it was impossible to say how many of these changes would have occurred without SCAP’s occupation, there was a general consensus that US reform efforts had helped to speed up a general process of social development. As Japan once again began to run its own affairs, an era of profound changes perhaps has important as the Taika Reform of the 7th century and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was now coming to an end.  Determined to eliminate Japanese militarism, the United States quickly made sure that the Occupation was largely American. Despite the 27 December 1945 Moscow Agreement that set up an 11 (later 13) member Far Eastern Commission in Washington and a 4 power Allied Council for Japan in Tokyo, Japan, unlike Germany, was not divided into zones of occupation, and the abilities of the Allied powers to check


Type,Article; Topic,Government; Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Topic,International Relations; Topic,Politics; Theme,Postwar Japan; Topic,War & Conflict;
imperial Japan, government, war