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Japan, Occupation after World War II

On 2 September 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, acting in the capacity of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), gained control over Japan upon its acceptance of unconditional surrender after World War II. Initially, the Americans sought to demilitarize and democratize Japan to prevent a revival of militaristic imperialism. In 1947, however, the reverse course in U.S. policy began to transform Japan into a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia. Early assessments viewed the U.S. occupation as positive, benevolent, and enlightened, building on prewar changes to produce a democratic society in postwar Japan. Later historians would criticize the so-called American Interlude because it integrated Japan into a Cold War strategy in Asia that sought to defeat the goals of revolutionary nationalist movements.

MacArthur seemed to rule Japan like a Tokugawa-era shogun, but in fact Washington had decided upon basic occupation policies beforehand. Moreover, SCAP worked through existing parliamentary institutions and the bureaucracy. General Order Number One assigned the task of demobilizing the armed forces to the Japanese themselves, which they completed in two months. As in Germany, trials punished war criminals, but more significant was the purge of 200,000 military, government, and business leaders who had supported the war. Under SCAP's pressure, the Japanese government abolished the Ministries of War, Navy, and Home Affairs. But MacArthur and his staff were not about to let the Japanese determine the nature and scope of subsequent reform. Japanese leaders prepared a draft providing for modest revisions in the Meiji constitution, for example, but U.S. officials instantly rejected it, formulating a new document and permitting only cursory changes. Effective in May 1947, it swept away all vestiges of elitism, militarism, and authoritarianism.

Five areas of reform would bring fundamental and permanent changes in Japan's economic, political, and social system. First, in October 1946, SCAP forced the Diet (the legislature) to pass a plan for sweeping land redistribution that sought to eliminate large landowners and foster the emergence of yeoman farmers who would be the "bulwark of democracy." Under its provisions, 2.3 million landowners were forced to sell their land to the government at undervalued prices, often for the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes. By 1950, about 4.75 million tenants had bought roughly 5 million acres of land on generous credit terms and at very low prices. Huge demand for food and raw materials in postwar Japan, especially after the Korean War began in June 1950, resulted in rising prices that spurred production, creating an independent, prosperous, and conservative farmer class.

A second thrust of reform established labor unions, again to encourage democratic tendencies. The Trade Union Law of December 1945 made staging strikes legal and mandated joint collective bargaining. Two years later, another law set minimum standards for working hours, safety provisions, and accident compensation. Japanese unions were a startling success. By 1948, there were 6.5 million members comprising about half the workforce. Labor leaders acted with increasing assertiveness to control occupation policies that contributed to a growing pattern of violence and acts of sabotage when U.S. officials would not cooperate. Beginning in 1948, SCAP, in cooperation with Japanese leaders, took strong steps to limit labor's power, gaining passage of a new law aimed at restraining the unions and implementing a new purge of communist leaders.

Third, the United States wanted to eliminate the zaibatsu (financial cliques), believing that Japanese megafirms in banking, shipping, international trade, and heavy industry had been willing partners with the military in leading Japan to war. SCAP implemented reforms requiring the sale of zaibatsu stock and the dissolution of holding companies, expecting that a more equitable division of wealth and economic power would foster democratization. Freezing the assets of zaibatsu families, SCAP purged family members and top executives from management with prohibitions against resuming work with the same firms. Fears of economic stagnation and growing complaints from U.S. business and financial leaders about alleged socialist schemes caused SCAP to abandon plans to break up remaining monopolistic companies.

Education was the fourth area of reform, with the objective of encouraging individualism and creating a genuinely egalitarian society. SCAP abolished educational practices aimed at molding students into willing servants of the state, especially the teaching of morals and history courses that indoctrinated youths to embrace extreme nationalism. Many old-guard teachers were purged after SCAP investigated prewar activities. Militarist propaganda as well as references to Shintoism disappeared from new textbooks in an effort to foster democracy and civil rights. No longer were students confined to prewar channels of vocational, normal, technical, or university training. Insufficient teachers and funds limited the reach of wider educational opportunities, however.

Finally, a new constitution assigned sovereignty to the people, while the emperor became the symbol of the state. Citizens at least twenty years of age had the right to vote for members of the Diet without regard to gender, income, or social status. Primary power resided in the lower house, which controlled the budget and ratified treaties. It could override the decisions of the upper House of Councilors. The lower house elected a prime minister, who named cabinet members. The cabinet selected and voters confirmed justices of a supreme court with the power to determine the constitutionality of legislation and name judges to sit on lower courts. Thirty-one articles guaranteed an assortment of "fundamental human rights," among them respect as individuals, freedom of thought, education, sexual equality, and "minimum standards of wholesome and cultural living."

Some reforms were abandoned after the U.S. occupation ended in May 1952, but the Japanese constitution survived without major alterations despite periodic conservative attempts at revision. Those on the Left and the Right acknowledged especially the benefits of Article 9 outlawing war, despite disagreement on how to interpret it. But SCAP's reforms delayed economic recovery. Widespread destitution forced the United States to provide more than $2 billion in food, fuel, and medicine to prevent mass starvation and disease. The termination of war reparations payments in 1949 and the Dodge Plan brought economic stabilization before recovery turned into prosperity in response to the Korean War. During that conflict, the Cold War partnership between the United States and Japan became concrete in 1951 with the Japanese Peace Treaty and the United States–Japan Security Treaty.

James I. Matray

Further Reading
Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: Norton, 1999.; Finn, Richard B. Winners in Peace: MacArthur, Yoshida, and Postwar Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press 1992.; Matray, James I. Japan's Emergence As a Global Power. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.; Schonberger, Howard B. Aftermath of War: Americans and the Remaking of Japan, 1945–1952. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1989.

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