(VICTORS against the DEFEATED – continued)

home | 1945-21st century

VICTORS against the DEFEATED (4 of 7)

previous | next

The Occupation of Japan

According to the Potsdam Declaration, Japan was to be occupied until all of its war-making potential was destroyed and peace and security were established. Japan was to be divested of its overseas empire. Japan's industry was to be restricted sufficiently to prevent rearmament. All obstacles to the development of democratic tendencies were to be removed. "Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights" were to be established. The leaders meeting at Potsdam declared:

We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners.

Japan was obliged to give up Formosa (Taiwan) – its first colony, gained in 1895. According to the Allied agreement, the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands went to the Russians.

After Potsdam, the Truman administration and the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, resisted arguments by the Russians that they be allowed to take part in the occupation of Japan. President Truman agreed.

One week after Emperor Hirohito's announcement to his subjects that Japan was quitting the war, defiant airforce officers at Atsugi airforce base near Tokyo rebelled. The following day, Japan's military command, in line with the emperor, restored order. Five days later, on August 28, in agreement with the Japanese, US forces began flying into the Atsugi airbase. General MacArthur arrived on the 30th, and a motorcade took MacArthur and his entourage to his temporary headquarters. Hirohito's imperial soldiers lined the route with their backs facing the motorcade – a gesture of respect and a security measure that had been employed for the emperor now employed for MacArthur.

On Japan's home islands were "roughly 3.5 million Imperial troops under arms," writes the preeminent historian Takemae Eiji, "producing in Allied commanders a 'terrific psychological tension.'" A conflict as to who was to control the Japanese people developed. Army units, writes Takemae, had been instructed "to established full-fledged military governments in the areas they secured." On September 2, a Japanese liaison officer saw a draft of MacArthur's proclamation that called for the imposition of direct US military governance and for the posting of this proclamation in public places by the Sixth and Eighth Armies as they fanned out across Japan. This disturbed Japanese authorities. They believed that rules established at Potsdam required Japan's forces to surrender unconditionally but recognized that Japan would continue governing its own people. Japan's government had convinced the public that the cessation of hostilities would leave Japan's paramount social and political institutions, notably the emperor system, in place. Contrary to this, MacArthur's decrees placed the whole of Japan, including the Throne, under military administration, and this threatened to discredit the authority of the emperor and the promise of self-government.

Japan's Foreign Minister Shigemitsu met with MacArthur on the morning of September 3 and entreated MacArthur not to institute military government. It would, he said, remove from the government its "responsibility of seeing that the Occupation policy is faithfully carried out." The scholar Takemae writes that Shigemitsu spoke of "the Emperor's determination to implement the Potsdam terms and assured the Supreme Commander [MacArthur] that the government stood ready and eager to do his bidding." And Shigemitsu asked MacArthur "to work through the government under the Emperor's directions." On September 3, MacArthur dropped his plan to institute direct military rule. That same day, MacArthur responded to a protest from Japan's central government by ordering Eighth Army commander, Brigadier General Julien W. Cunningham to retract his instructions to his troops to disarm Japanese soldiers and to impose controls over commodity prices, salaries, education, currency, local courts and more. Japanese government agencies were to continue exercising a sovereign authority. The Allied Supreme Command was to exercise indirect rule, officially adopted by MacArthur's headquarters on September 26.

The softer approach worked well for MacArthur. Japan's military leaders appreciated MacArthur's gesture of letting them disarm their forces. And on October 16 MacArthur said that "Approximately seven million armed men...have laid down their weapons. In the accomplishment of the extremely difficult and dangerous surrender in Japan, unique in the annals of history, not a shot was necessary, not a drop of Allied blood was shed."

Further Developments

Japan's military establishment was demobilized, but unlike in Germany a central government was allowed, with MacArthur behind the scenes appearing as giving "suggestions" and "advice" and as a benevolent overseer. Emperor Hirohito was still looked to as the nation's chief of state, or at least father figure. MacArthur and the US State Department saw MacArthur's job as ensuring domestic stability.

MacArthur made rules in Japan in the name of all the Allies as head of what was called the Far Eastern Commission. But in fact it was the US that was in charge, the US seeing this as its right given the contribution it had made to defeating the Japanese. He remained concerned about both democracy in Japan and the ability of Japan to maintain a healthy economy. Japan was economically devastated. People were hungry and many were desperate. US leaders believed that reparations payments were impractical – while Stalin was criticizing the US for being too lenient with the Japanese.

Sixty-seven percent in Britain and thirty-three percent in the United States had favored the execution of Hirohito, and most Americans, focusing on the righteousness of their cause and the evil of Japan's efforts, did not want to see Hirohito continue as emperor. This righteousness ignored, and Hirohito allowed to remain as emperor, helped create an image among the Japanese of US benevolence.

The strategy of hearts and minds worked well. US troops were not roaming about intervening in local politics. Local government had remained intact. The Japanese were relieved. People who had seen the Americans as devils and barbarians now saw them as quite human. This was helped by foreign troops levels in Japan remaining low – at less than 200,000 after 1945 and before the Korean War.

Democracy was seen as a winner, as it had been among the Japanese at the close of World War I. Democracy was again winning support among the Japanese, and Americans were winning respect for their belief in democracy, political freedom and the dignity of common people, including peoples of other nationalities. The belief in empire and militarism was rapidly evaporating. Ordinary Japanese were criticizing wartime leaders – who were being blamed for the war more than was the Emperor. Cooperation was now seen as the more workable way for the nation to conduct itself vis-à-vis other nations. Darwinism applied to international affairs – the view also of the Italian and German fascists – was dissipating, as was respect for the old military virtues.

Stories of atrocities by Japanese soldiers returned with Japan's soldiers from China and the Pacific. Veterans confessed. Men who had fought for their country, many of them walking the street in their old uniforms, were disturbed by looks of disrespect and disgust. Some Japanese continued to be unaware of atrocities committed by their military. Some who had served as camp guards chose not to remember the brutality there. And some Japanese made the excuse that people would hear elsewhere in the world: that during war occasional brutality was to be expected.

One of the first things that MacArthur did in Japan was to have political prisoners released, thousands of them, including Communists – some of whom were returning from exile. Everyone was to be free to participate in politics, to run for office and campaign. Over 300 political parties were in the making.

Labor unions had been outlawed in Japan, and MacArthur reversed this. From no labor unions in 1945, by the end of 1946 Japan would have 17,265 different unions. And much of the labor union leadership fell into the hands of those who believed in class struggle: the Communists.

A new constitution was in the making, written behind the scenes by a group of Americans selected by MacArthur. In its preamble was the prohibition of restoring war as a means of resolving international disputes – a "renunciation of war" tailored for a defeated aggressor nation. The Emperor presented the draft of the constitution to Japan's parliament. Women were given the vote, and the voting age was lowered from 25 to 20. In April 1946, campaigning for seats in parliament was enthusiastic. And thirty-nine women were elected to seats. Japan's Communist Party won six seats and 6.3 percent of the vote. The conservative Liberal Party won the most seats – 148 of a total of 464 – and it formed a governing coalition with the Progressive Party, which had won 110 seats.

MacArthur had already been working on reforms. In early November 1945 MacArthur's command had moved to reduce the power of Japan's business conglomerates – the Zaibatsu – shocking Japanese business elite. Land reform, meanwhile, was underway, initiated by the Japanese themselves – something the Japanese had been toying with during the war. The reform took land from absentee landlords and gave it to those who had been tenant farmers. Lands with tenant farmers were to be divided into no larger than 2.45 acre plots and given to the tenants.

MacArthur did impose censorship on the Japanese. Newspapers and radio broadcasting were censored, including news that censorship existed. No unfavorable opinion about the occupation was allowed. Discussions on the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were forbidden. Motion pictures were censored, including the work of filmmakers whose movies had been forbidden during the war years. By January 1946, 670 newspaper articles had been banned. And US military authorities had textbooks screened.

A directive from MacArthur's headquarters in December 1945 ordered the deletion of all references to Japan's Shinto religion from school textbooks, and school trips to Shinto shrines were forbidden. The Americans disliked Japan's mix of state and religion, and Shinto had been a state sponsored religion – much as Christianity had been in Europe, except that the religion was headed by what had been believed to be a living divinity – the Emperor. In his 1946 New Year message, Hirohito proclaimed that he was not divine and that rather than his reign resting on ancient myths it was based on "mutual trust and affection."

The downgrading of Shinto was no boon for Christianity. MacArthur's command welcomed Christian missionaries to Japan, and Bibles were widely distributed, but the number of Japanese Christians by December 1948 – 342, 607 or six percent of the population – remained the same as before the war. (Paul J. Bailey, Postwar Japan, p 29)

Moves to punish militarism in Japan resulted in MacArthur making all who had been officers in Japan's army and navy since 1930 ineligible for appointive or elective office in any branch of government. So too were those who had belonged to ultra-nationalist organizations and had held office while the militarists were in power. Also, those who had held positions of responsibility in leading industrial, commercial and financial corporations during the reign of the militarists had to resign from their positions and were debarred from politics. All teachers were screened and their wartime activities investigated. By April 1949 over 942,000 had been investigated and over 3000 found unacceptable.

To fulfill the agreement at Potsdam, war crimes had to be punished. Tomoyuki Yamashita was tried in Manila and hanged on February 22, 1946. He had been one of Japan's brightest generals and had opposed going to war against the United States. After Yamashita's victory in Malaya, Prime Minister Tojo, who did not like him, had put him at a desk job. After Tojo was dismissed in 1944, Yamashita was sent to the Philippines. There he struggled with chaos and against MacArthur. He saw Manila as strategically unimportant and ordered troops out of the city, but a subordinate commander did not obey. It was this band of more fanatical troops that committed the atrocities for which MacArthur held Yamashita responsible – responsible, too, for the atrocities at Singapore early in the war. Yamashita was one of the more humane men who commanded troops in World War II. He was a forthright and responsible man who claimed that the atrocities had occurred without his knowledge or control. But MacArthur had decided that Yamashita had to be punished for having "failed utterly his soldier faith." MacArthur dismissed arguments supporting Yamashita. "The results," he said, "are beyond challenge."

Trials of those who had taken part in the brutalities involved in building the rail line from Thailand to Burma resulted in death by hanging of thirty-two officers and enlisted men. Numerous others were sent to prison.

The war crimes trials for "Class A" war criminals began in May 1946. Eleven justices, representing the eleven victorious Allied nations, charged twenty-eight Class A war criminals with crimes against humanity and conspiracy to wage aggressive war. Among the prosecuted was the wartime prime minister, General Hideki Tojo and fourteen other generals, three admirals and five career diplomats. The commander at Nanjing at the time of the atrocity there, General Iwane Matsui, was among them. From the US State Department, George Kennan went to Japan to evaluate the trials. He found them procedurally correct but ill-conceived, with a lot of procedural nonsense. He saw the trials more as victor politics than good international law. Acquittals and punishments left the Japanese confused as to where whimsy was divided from justice in international law.

On December 24, 1948, Hideki Tojo and six others, including Matsui, were hanged.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.