Nagasaki after the war
World War II left about 3 million dead and many cities in ashes from U.S. firebombings. Close to 9 million people were homeless. "Everything had been flattened," the journalist Russell Brines wrote. "Only thumbs stood up from the flatlands — the chimneys of bathhouses, heavy house safes and an occasional stout building with heavy iron shutters." In his book “Embracing Defeat”, John Dower wrote: "The first photographs and newsreel footage from the conquered land captured these endless vistas of urban rubble for American audiences thousands of miles away who had never really grasped what it meant to incinerate great cities."

With the same energy, commitment and discipline that characterized the process of modernization in the Meiji period, the Japanese pulled themselves up by their bootstraps after World War II and transformed their nation into a strong democracy and an economic dynamo. Many Japanese see the postwar Showa era — from 1946 to 1989 — as a time when Japan faced its challenges and accomplished things no one thought was possible, giving the Japanese a collective sense of achievement and great hopes for the future. There is a lot of nostalgia these days for this period. One Ginza resident told the Asahi Shimbun, “I think this was time of when people were able to find enjoyment in things. There is more room to dream when a nation is developing rather than in world that’s complete and perfect.”

Japan’s postwar political scene closely paralleled that of Italy. Both were led by a largely self-serving, criminally-connected conservative elite maintained power by offering itself as a bulwark against Communism. A former war criminal became prime minister in the late 1950s.

As of 2011 there had been 33 prime ministers since the end of World War II. Most were forced to quit to take responsibility for an election defeat, scandal or because of illness. There have been a sizable number of cases in which scandals forced prime ministers to step down. Some prime ministers have resigned soon after achieving major goals. Those cases are divided into two types--leaving with a real sense of achievement and doing so to give the impression of a smooth transfer of power in the midst of political deadlock. There have been a sizable number of cases in which scandals forced prime ministers to step down. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Relatively little money flowed into Asia to rebuild the war-torn nations. Most of the aid money that the U.S. had its disposal was earmarked for Europe and the Marshall Plan. Per capita income in Japan rose 10 times between 1950 and 2008.

Automatic ataxia, a nervous disease whose symptoms includes difficulty breathing, was an after-effect of the war.


Websites and Sources: Post World-War-II Japan hartford-hwp.com Essay on Allied Occupation of Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Postwar Japan 1952-1989 aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on 20th Century Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Birth of the Constitution of Japan ndl.go.jp/constitution ; Constitution of Japan solon.org/Constitutions/Japan ; Takazawa Collection at the University of Hawaii on Social Japanese Social Movements takazawa.hawaii.edu ; Documents Related to Postwar Politics and International Relations ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp ; Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ;

Hardships and Optimism in Japan After World War II

Map of damage to Yokohama
After World War II, Japan was in ruins. In photographs, Tokyo looked almost indistinguishable from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Arriving Allied troops were stunned by the extent of the destruction.

Severe food shortages were common; cities and factories were heaps of rubble, twisted metal and burnt wood; the economy was almost totally paralyzed from wartime destruction, rampant black marketeering and runaway inflation; people drew water from communal faucets and used holes instead of toilets. Few Japanese had any money but there really wasn’t anything to buy anyway.

People were so desperate for something to eat they hitched rides on freight trains to the countryside where they traded old clothes for sweet potatoes. Some scavenged for grass and bark to survive. On the streets former soldiers and amputees begged for food. Many people had their growth stunted by malnutrition.

Joichi Ito, a Japanese -American venture capitalist born in the 1960s, wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “My grandparent generation remembers the sufferings, but tries to forget it. My present generation still does not trust the military.”

Takehiko Ena was a kamikaze pilot that survived because of mechanical problems on his plane that occurred after take off. Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian, His “relief that the war was over gave way to optimism about the future, even as Japan set about rebuilding its devastated cities and counted the human cost of its militarist adventure on the Asian mainland. “We felt sadness about the friends we had lost during the war, but we were also trying to envision how we would rebuild Japan,” he said. That meant embracing the country’s new, US-written constitution, whose “pacifist” article nine restricts Japan’s military to a strictly defensive role. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, August 11, 2015]

“He bristles when asked about attempts by Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to reinterpret the clause to allow troops to fight alongside allies overseas for the first time since the conflict that almost took his life. “For 70 years we have been protected by a peace-oriented constitution,” he said. “I’m very grateful that we haven’t gone to war [in that time.] The Japanese people should be happy about that.”

Emperor Hirohito After World War II

MacArthur and Hirohito
Emperor Hirohito came very close to being executed as a World War II war criminal. It may have been the direct intervention of Douglas MacArthur that kept that from happening. Many historian feel than Hirohito bore just as much responsibly for the war as Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who was executed for war crimes.

Hirohito accepted responsibility for the war and offered to abdicate or do whatever was asked of him. MacArthur wanted him to stay on to make the transition to democracy as smooth and peaceful as possible. Hirohito and MacArthur met 11 times. Hirohito was completely exonerated and used as a unifying symbol in the postwar period similar to way he used during the war.

Hirohito approved the American-made constitution and traveled across the country shaking hands and exchanging bows with ordinary Japanese to boost their morale. Describing one outing, Frank Gibney wrote in Time: "The crumpled gray hat became in time the badge of a successful political campaigner. The monosyllables in which Hirohito had conducted his early interviews with the common folk grew into coherent questions and intelligent replies. The shy man waved his hat in the air to acknowledge greetings. He smiled. Slowly the sense or personality behind the walled moat of the Imperial Palace communicated itself to the people of Japan."

During the same trip one steel worker at a mill visited by Hirohito told Time, "I must admit that we were filled with deep emotion. When you talk about the Emperor, it's just an abstract thing. But when you see him close at hand, it's different, somehow...The Emperor is our father. He should be left a he is."

Americans, Hirohito and War Responsibility

Historian John Dower has argued that the Americans created conditions that prevented the Japanese from facing up to their culpability in World War II the same way the Germans have. Instead of punishing Hirohito as a war criminal MacArthur paid him formal respect as the living symbol of Japan and absolved him of any responsibility for the war.

Dower argued that the absolution of Hirohito made a mockery of the Tokyo war crimes trial in which 23 military and civilian leaders were convicted — with seven executed — for essentially following Hirohito' decrees. "Justice was rendered arbitrarily. Serious engagement with the issue of war responsibility was deflected: if the nation’s supreme secular and spiritual authority bear no responsibility...why should his ordinary subjects be expected to engage on self-reflection?"

Dower added, the Americans kept Hirohito as Emperor because "The Americans said if they forced him to step down, there would have been chaos and rifts in Japan."

MacArthur and Japan After World War II

MacArthur at the WW2 surrender
Gen Douglas MacArthur, acting as Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers, established his office in downtown Tokyo on September 7, 1945. Known as the "American Shogun," he ruled Japan like a godlike dictator for six years. Even so he was widely respected by Japanese. Some of his most fervent supporters in his 1948 bid for the U.S. presidency were Japanese.

A conservative Republican, MacArthur arrived with a staff of New Dealers who were intent on setting up an American-style democracy and doing to Japan what Franklin Roosevelt did to the United States. At MacArthur request, immediately after the war was over, an infusion of U.S. aid was brought into Japan to stave off famine and political unrest. Among the reforms introduced with help of MacArthur were school lunch programs.

MacArthur guided Japan's transition to a democratic form of government. In a testimony before Congress MacArthur called Japan a “boy of 12" in need of instructions on the basics of Western democracy and capitalism. Among his first actions was confiscating 5 million swords.

Many historians, believe that the role MacArthur played "in starting Japan on the path from feudal militarism toward modern democracy represented a greater triumph than any the old warrior had won on the battlefield."

American Occupation of Japan After World War II

The American occupation of Japan began immediately after the war was over and lasted for six years and eight months. The primary goals were demilitarization, democracy and decentralization. The terms of surrender included the occupation of Japan by Allied military forces, assurances that Japan would never again go to war, restriction of Japanese sovereignty to the four main islands "and such minor islands as may be determined," and surrender of Japan's colonial holdings.

After the surrender treaty was signed MacArthur immediately established a military occupation. American troops went ashore to liberate war prisoners and make sure the terms of the surrender were complied with. All Japanese military forces were disarmed and sent home. It was the first time ever that Japan was occupied by foreigners. Japan did not become a sovereign nation again until 1952.

Under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), Japan's army and navy ministries were abolished, munitions and military equipment were destroyed, and war industries were converted to civilian uses. War crimes trials found 4,200 Japanese officials guilty; 700 were executed, and 186,000 other public figures were purged. State Shinto was disestablished, and on January 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito repudiated his divinity. MacArthur pushed the government to amend the 1889 Meiji Constitution. Constitutional reforms were accompanied by economic reforms, including agricultural land redistribution, reestablishment of trade unions, and severe proscriptions on zaibatsu. The relatively rapid stabilization of Japan led to a relaxation of SCAP purges and press censorship. Quick economic recovery was encouraged, restrictions on former zaibatsu members eventually were lifted, and foreign trade was allowed.

After the war American soldiers were told to be respectful to ordinary Japanese, and do things like remove their shoes when entering homes, direct traffic in front of train stations and help malnourished children. Many Japanese were shocked by the courtesy. To this day some elderly Japanese bow to American-looking foreigners to say thank you for all that American did for Japanese after the war.

One of the first thing that Japanese officials did in preparation for the American occupation was to set up hundreds of brothels and comfort stations to prevent them making unwanted advances on Japanese women. Some Japanese women were so worried about attacks they cut their hair short and tried to pass themselves off as men. There were reports of some Japanese women carrying cyanide tablets, ready to commit suicide before being raped.

For their part American soldiers arrived in full-combat gear and were ready for attacks from the general public. No-fraternization orders were given and no contact with the “indigenous population” was allowed. But in the end, the Japanese population turned out to so complaint and cooperative the non-fraternization order was rescinded after six months and many American soldiers felt safe enough to walk around without their weapons.

The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, after Tokyo signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and accepted the Tokyo trials’ verdict.

American Influence on Japan After World War II

New English signs in Ginza
Many aspects of life and government that have been thought of uniquely Japanese have their roots in the American occupation. The control of everything by a strong central bureaucracy, the absence of nationalism, a strong sense of pacifism and the belief that Japan was a victim rather than perpetrator in World War II are all thing that were "imposed” or strongly reinforced by the United States.

The strong, inflexible bureaucracy and top-down decision making criticized by many Americans today was instituted by the American so they could control the Japanese government. Dower wrote, "The Americans came in, said they doing democracy. They don’t want to work through the Diet, they want to work thought the bureaucracy...The Americans created this more bureaucratic Japan, and indeed, encouraged it."

After World War II the Americans introduced a system for conducting autopsies after finding that thousands of deaths attributed to starvation were actually caused by tuberculosis.

Reforms and Changes in Japan After World War I

Among the reforms that were introduced after World War II were the renouncement of the war, guaranteed equality for both sexes, the overhaul of the Diet (the Japanese parliament) and support the worker's rights to strike. Japanese women were given the right to vote, political prisoners were freed, unions were organized, feudal lords gave up their land to farmers, political parties were established, education was liberalized, industrial monopolies were dismantled and freedom of the press was granted.

Kabuki theater and martial arts such as kendo were outlawed, teachers were ordered to teach about democracy instead of emperor worship, and references in school textbooks to the samurai spirit were censored. The Japanese population turned in their arms, including millions samurai swords, some of which were centuries old, many of which fell into the hands of American soldier collectors.

State Shintoism was terminated as a state religion. This and the renunciation by the Emperor of his semidivine status left a lot of Japanese confused. "They made some Japanese permanently cynical," wrote Buruma, "they would never believe anything again. But the spiritual vacuum of the post war years provided fertile ground for all kinds of new cults and creeds. Most of them organized around a charismatic figure."

New Peace Constitution in Japan

Emperor's throne in Parliament
The American-imposed Japanese constitution was instituted on May 3, 1947. A revision of the 1889 Meiji constitution, it created a constitutional monarchy based on the British model and was imposed by the United States and was largely American written.

The constitution was hastily put together — a large part of it was written in only six days — and pushed through the government by American Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Among its main features are that the Emperor is the symbol of the state and that Japan renounces war as a sovereign right. The fundamental human rights of speech, assembly, press and religion are guaranteed as is the right of women to vote.

The Japanese Constitution is sometimes referred to as the "Peace Constitution." It denies Japan the right to declare war and forbids the establishment of a large army or navy. " The preamble states: "We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time...We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time."

Article 9 of the Japanese constitution forbids all military activity. It states:”Tthe Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right and the threat of use of force as means of settling disputes" and armed forces "will never be maintained." Japan’s pacifist stance has a lot to do with distrust of the military.

Foreign Policy in Japan After World War

After World War II Japan went from being enemy No. 1 for the United States to “junior ally.” In racial terms this was achieving by casting Japanese children and women in a positive light ad helping them become “liberated.”

Protests in 1960 over US-Japan defense treaty

In September 1951 fifty-one nations met in San Francisco to reach a peace accord with Japan. China, India, and the Soviet Union participated in the conference but did not sign the treaty, formally known as the Treaty of Peace. Japan renounced its claims to Korea, Taiwan, Penghu, the Kuril Islands, southern Sakhalin, islands it had gained by League of Nations mandate, South China Sea islands, and Antarctic territory, while agreeing to settle disputes peacefully according to the United Nations Charter. Japan's rights to defend itself and to enter into collective security arrangements were acknowledged. The 1952 ratification of the Japan-United States Mutual Security Assistance Pact also ensured a strong defense for Japan and a large postwar role in Asia for the United States.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 signified Japan's return to the community of nations as a reformed state. It was signed by the United States, Japan, Taiwan and 48 other nations but not by China. The treaty allowed Japan to once again control its domestic and foreign affairs. It also limited reparation claims against Japan by victims such as POWs and comfort women and required Japan to abide by anti-aggression provisions in the United Nations charter.

Japan became a member of the United nation in 1956. After war reparations were paid off in the mid-1960s, Japan re-established formal its with South Korea in 1965. In the mid-1950s Ichiro Hatoyama argued that Japan should not become too subservient to the United States and flew to Moscow to normalize relations with the Soviet Union to make his point.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has provided security for Japan in return for Japan's support of American geopolitical aims in Asia and the fight against Communism (Japan is close to China, Russia, North Korea and Vietnam).

Today Japan spends only percent of its GNP on defense. And even though some right-wing nationalist oppose this policy the majority of Japanese favor it.

Economic Reforms in Japan After World War II

After World War II, large zaibatsu included Mitsubishi and Sumitomo were broken up into hundreds of smaller companies and some of their heads were dismissed. Efforts to break up the zaibatsu — the the large industrial conglomerates that provided the hardware for Japan's military expansion — after World War II were resisted not only by the zaibatsuthemselves by conservative elements in the MacArthur headquarters.

Other economic reforms included the passage of Deconcentration Law and the establishment of the Fair Trade Commission. But in the end a desire by the United States to keep Japan as a good friend an unwillingness to rock the boat too much kept the “cordial oligarchy” between the government and the zaibatsu in place.

The economy was based more on a government-supported and corporation-patronized “social market” than a “free-market” like that of the United States. Government policies shifted vast amounts of wealth to the middle class. Labor was absorbed into corporate governance with an emphasis on employment security.

After the end of World War II Japan strived to increase coal supplies to rebuild its industrial base. After securing energy supplies around the 1950s the national goal shifted to strengthen export capabilities.

Junich Maruyama economic news editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun wrote: “The war put an end to the "bloc economy system" whereby world powers had kept their colonies enclosed within their own trading blocs, while setting up tariff barriers to keep external suppliers from soaking up internal demand. Instead, the world economy shifted to the Bretton Woods system of monetary management, with reduced tariff barriers and free trade as its foundations....Japan achieved remarkable reconstruction and rapid economic growth as a trading nation in the postwar years, chiefly due to the major changes in the framework of the international economy.”

Land Reforms in Japan after World War II

The revolutionary land reform bill that MacArthur pushed through the Diet allowed America-backed government to seized land and abolished the titles of the extensive aristocracy. The bill literally ended feudalism in many parts of Japan overnight and allowed many Japanese to own land for the first time.

The Japanese aristocracy was stripped of its land, wealth and status according to the terms of the post-war constitution. Large landowners were forced to sell their land to the tenants who worked it at a very reasonable price. On man from a noble family told the Washington Post, “After the war my mother had to cook for the first time."

MacArthur also helped smashed monopolies, break up the large corporations and prop up the unions.

Reforms That Didn't Occur

organized labor demonstrations
Many of the reforms were stopped after the Cold War set in. Conservatives in Washington, historian Buruma, wrote in “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan”, "were afraid of Japan's going socialist at a time that communist bloc was shaping as America's main enemy."

Leaders were convinced that "the policy on Japan should be reversed: no more nonsense about redistributing wealth and fostering union radicalism: Japan should become a capitalist powerhouse against communism..."Reds" were purged in unions and war criminals released from prison.

The zaibatsu were stripped of the powerful families that ran them but continued to exist.

Local politicians and bureaucrats were allowed to keep their positions. The national ministries that ran the wartime economy were not significantly changed.

Buried Poison Gas and Bombs

Since the end of World War II more than 2,000 Chinese are believed to have been injured by chemical weapons abandoned by the Japanese after the war. In recent years a number of them have been dug up at construction sites. Japanese and Chinese teams have been working together to remove munitions at various sites in China. The process is dangerous and expensive.

In August 2003, scavengers in the northwest Chinese city of Qiqhar in Heilongjiang Province tore open some buried containers of mustard gas that had been left by Japanese troops at the end of World War II. One man died and 43 others were badly burned or became seriously ill. One man who carried the containers vomited violently and developed grape-like blister clusters on his legs. His eyes hurt so much he couldn’t open them. He was still feeling the affects five years later. The Chinese were very angry about the incident and demanded compensation.

An estimated 700,000 Japanese poison projectiles from World War II were left behind in China. Thirty sites have been found. The most significant is the 670,000 projectiles found in Haerbaling, Dunshua city, in Jilin Province. Poison gas has also been found buried in several sites in Japan. The gas has been blamed for causing some serious illnesses.

The chemical weapon agents found in China and Japan have included mustard gas, which causes blisters on the skin and in the lungs; lewisate, also called sneeze gas because it incapacitates soldiers by causing them to cough and sneeze violently; and phosgene, which can cause suffocation. In China these were found in bombs, shells, smoke pots and oil drums.

It is common to find unexploded ordnance in the different parts of Japan that were heavily bombed during World War II. Most of the bombs were dropped by the U.S., but some were buried or lost by the Japanese military as well. Bombs are still found from time to time. In November 2012, AP reported: “A military squad safely removed a 250-kilogram (550 pound) World War II bomb found two weeks ago near the runway of a major airport in northern Japan. The team defused the rusty bomb and then transported it away from Sendai Airport. More than 30 flights were canceled while they worked. The bomb was uncovered in construction related to restoration after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The airport was immediately closed, but troops piled hundreds of sandbags around the bomb so that flights could resume the next day. The airport was closed again when the bomb was removed.[Source: AP, November 14, 2012]

In June 2013, AP and The Telegraph reported: “An unexploded World War II (WWII) bombshell was destroyed by a bomb disposal team in Japan that was found during excavation around the railway track earlier on. The discovery of the rusty, 40-cm Japan-made bomb, forced to halt several trains including high-speed bullet trains; disrupting traveling plans of more than 90,000 commuters across Japan. A total of 150 train services, including 53 Shinkansen bullet-train services, were stopped as a precautionary measure, a spokesperson for East Japan Railway (JR East) said ahead of the operation, adding 90,000 people would be affected. [Source: AP, The Telegraph, June 4, 2013]

In May 2008, 16,000 people were evacuated from an Chuo ward in western Tokyo and traffic on national highway was shut down and 140 patients at a hospital were transferred to another hospital after a one-ton bomb, dropped in World War II was discovered at a construction site. The bomb was removed and carried away in a truck. The area that was evacuated was declared safe to return to 12 hours after the bomb was found.

Image Sources: 1) Nagasaki and Yokohama map, Japanese National Archives 2) McArthur pictures, Wikipedia, 3) Ginza picture, Japan Zone website 4) throne, Shugin Japanese House of Representatives website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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