Japan 1945 to 1955 - a new sphere for prosperity
Humphrey McQueen

But treaty words in themselves have little power to compel action. Treaties of alliance and of mutual aid mean little except as they spell out what the people concerned would do anyway.
John Foster Dulles, Foreign Affairs, 30 (2), 1952, p. 183.

The presentation will concentrate on diplomatic, military, and trade issues. For the majority of Japanese, the prime concern was getting enough to eat, medical treatment, housing, a job or re-establishing contact with family members. (see R. P. Dore, City Life in Japan, A Study of a Tokyo Ward, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1958).

The stresses from surviving added to support for Communists, Socialists and labor unions, thereby affecting the circumstances in which high policy was made.

1. Almost unconditional surrender
Much attention has gone into why Truman dropped the atomic bombs. One assumption behind this debate has been that these weapons were so terrible that their use must have compelled the Japanese to admit defeat. Built around this view is a presumption that the white man “acts” and little brown brother “reacts”. In reality, a handful of men in Tokyo decided to surrender in order to maintain their Emperor system and to exclude Communists, domestic and foreign, from the Japanese polity. (See Leon V. Sigal, Fighting to a Finish, The Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1945, Cornell, Ithaca, 1993, chapter 5) Japan’s top leadership made its own decisions, although not in circumstances chosen by its members.

2. Tennis or bowls?
One metaphor for the differences is that Europeans converse like a tennis match while Japanese talk like a game of lawn bowls. “Maybe” is often Japanese for “NO!” (see Imai, Masaaki, Never Take Yes for an Answer, Simul Press, Tokyo, 1975). The relationships were complicated because the defeated saw themselves as “unique” while their U.S. conquerors knew their country to be “exceptional”.

The U.S. Office of War Information commissioned anthropologist Ruth Benedict to provide a manual to alert the occupation forces to cultural differences. Although she presented a multi-faceted account of Japanese thought and behaviour, her approach to most questions was binary. She got stuck in dichotomies, for instance, between the exquisite and the cruel. (see The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Patterns of Japanese Culture Meridian, Cleveland, 1967 edition.) A book which had alerted the occupiers to their own mores might not have stopped the erstwhile Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP), General Macarthur’s declaring in 1951 that the Japanese were like twelve-year olds.

Marketing later advanced Japan’s embrace of North American mores, for which see George Fields, From Bonzai to Levis, Mentor, New York, 1985.

3. Social reforms
Of the several transformations launched by the occupying powers, the reallocation of land was the most thorough-going, and the one subject to least reversal when the Cold War set in. The creation of a class of small land-owning farmers provided a social base for the conservatives, whereas as the children of landless peasants had backed the “Red fascists” of the 1930s. (For the latter see Richard J. Smethurst, A Social Basis for Prewar Japanese Militarism, The Army and the Rural Community, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974).

The legalisation of trade unions had a parallel effect on urban workers but this reform was crimped by SCAP’s determination to control Leftists. Macarthur forbade a general strike in 1947. Leftists were purged from public life after 1948.

4. Popular sovereignty
The constitution drafted by the U.S. occupiers secured adult suffrage, removing property and gender barriers. Rather than thinking of the constitution’s democratizing Japan, it is more rewarding to consider SCAP as installing popular sovereignty. However, the definition of “people” did not extend to the indigenous Ainu, Korean forced immigrants, or to the untouchables, the burakumin. Power no longer flowed down from the Sun Goddess through the emperor to the army. In addition, battlefield defeat and surrender put paid to the view that the military embodied Japaneseness. Truman’s sacking of Macarthur in April 1951 is widely taken as a lesson to the Japanese that the civil power should prevail.

5. Ideological divisions
Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru referred to “a 38th parallel” between the Leftists versus the old militarists and the conservatives. This division flared in disputes over how to tell the Japanese about the history of U.S.-Japanese relations. Should textbooks stress that the Japanese were the victims of U.S. imperialism from 1853 or that they copied Western ways by turning aggressor against their Asian neighbours?

In 1960, radicals and pacifists prevented the visit to Tokyo of President Eisenhower to sign the renewal of the Mutual Security Treaty. Those demonstrators confronted Yakuza gangs marshaled by Kodama Yoshio as the ‘Shadow Shogun’ and intimate of fellow A-Class war criminal, prime minister Kishi Nobusuke. (see David E. Kaplan & Alec Dubro,Yakuza, Futura, London, 1987).

6. Never an ally
The occupation did not end in 1952. Thousands of US troops remained under the Mutual Security Treaty. Sovereignty of Okinawa did not revert to Tokyo until 1972. More generally, the Japanese were told what to do in foreign relations and trade. The replacement of Yoshida as Prime Minister late in 1954 marked the transition from the pre-war conservatives to the heirs of the pre-war “Red fascists” headed by Kishi. (see Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, The Growth of Iddusrial policy, 1925-1975, Tutle, Tokyo, 1986.)

7. Six diplomatic triangles
Although the relationship between Japan and the United States has been the dominant one since 1945, if not earlier, those connections make sense only in terms of intersecting third parties: a. the British; b. the Soviet Union; c. the so-called two Chinas; d. the Koreans; e. south-east Asia, primarily Indonesia; and g. Australia and New Zealand.

a. The British Commonwealth Occupying Force, which SCAP sidelined in disputes over trade policies as well as over the War Crimes trials.  

b. Washington was even more determined to marginalise - indeed to exclude - the USSR from any say in the making of post-war Japan. Moscow soon had nothing more than a scatter of islands to the north.

c. Interwoven with the anti-Soviet drive was the future of China. From 1947, Washington accepted that it would itself be marginalised by the rising power of Mao’s communists. In the lead up to the establishment of the People’s Republic in October 1949, trade between China and Japan had been on the rise. Yoshida had expected to expand economic relations and to acknowledge its “Red bandit” government. Congress blocked those prospects, funded by the Taiwan Lobby. Tokyo had to recognise the Republic of China.

d. Korean hatred of the Japanese meant that Tokyo could never play a direct part in conflicts on the peninsula. The provisioning of the U.S. and U.N. forces gave the Japanese economy what Yoshida called “Divide Aid” (a play on the “Divine Wind”, kamikaze, which had preserved Japan from invasion in 1281.)

e. By 1947, US officials had accepted that South-East Asia would be the way to revive the Japanese economy. On 2 June 1948, George Kennan presented NSC13 which advocated an export-led recovery. The Departments of State and Defence accepted that Japan would have to have its co-prosperity sphere restored.  (For the case of Indonesia, see Nishihara Masashi, The Japanese and Sukarno’s Indonesia, Tokyo-Jakarta Relations 1951-1966, University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1976.)

f. Australia and New Zealand secured the ANZUS Treaty as a guarantee when reluctantly signing up to the 1951 Peace Treaty. ANZUS committed Australia and New Zealand to the defence of Japan.

In sum, US policy-makers came to visualise their containing of communism behind what they called a “great crescent” from India to Japan. 

Key Concepts and Issues

  • cultural chasms.
  • economic exigencies, at home and abroad
  • popular resistance
  • triangular relationships, whether military, diplomatic or trade

Key Questions

1. In what sense can the term ‘ally’ be applied to Tokyo’s relationship with Washington?

2. Did the US occupation of Japan end in 1952? If not, when?

3. How did domestic affairs and external relations interact? Was one the more decisive?

4. How did trade policies fit in with military strategies?

5. By 1955, was Japan closer to a liberal democracy than to a one-party state?

6. Had Japan re-armed by 1955?

7. As a piece of counter-factual condition analysis, consider what would have happened had the war gone on long enough for the Soviet Army to occupy Hokkaido and northern Honshu. For instance, would the renunciation of war (Article 9) have even been considered by SCAP for inclusion in the Constitution?

Primary Reading
John W. Dower, “The U.S.-Japan Military Relationship”, Jon Livingston, Joe Moore & Felicia Oldfather (eds) The Japan Reader 2 (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 232-44.

Dower is a small-l liberal who established his reputation with Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954, Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard, 1979, and War Without Mercy, Race and Power in the Pacific War, Faber, London, 1986. Dower has his research on the Occupation era in a 676 page opus, Embracing Defeat, Japan in the Wake of World War II, Norton, New York, 1999.

Suggested Reading
William S. Borden, The Pacific Alliance, United States Foreign Economic Policy and Japanese Trade Recovery, 1947-1955, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984, Chapter 3, “The US and Japan in Southeast Asia, 1947-1950”, pp. 103-42.

Carol Gluck, “The Idea of Showa”, Daedalus, 119 (3), Summer 1990, pp. 1-26. Offering an anthropologist’s summary of the reign of Hirohito, Gluck puts changing political attitudes into the context of social and cultural life.

Alan Rix (ed.), Intermittent Diplomat, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1988, offers a perceptive and witty perspective on life around GHQ from the diary of W. McMahon Ball, professor of Political Science, University of Melbourne.

Howard Schonberger, “The Japan Lobby in American Diplomacy, 1947-52”, Pacific Historical Review, 46 (3), August 1977, pp. 327-59.

Shigeto Tsuru, Japan’s Capitalism, Creative Defeat and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, Chapters 1 & 2.