World War II Aftermath: American Occupation of Japan

Figure 1.--Japanese attrocities throughout Asia created huge numbers of orphans. The War was brought home to Japan by the American strategic bombing. Japanese children were orphaned, but I do not have a good idea of the numbers children involved. Here we see Father Flanigan who set up the famed Boys' Town in America with Japanese orphans.

American troops landed in Japan immediately after the Imperial Government surrendered on September 3. The American occupation was completely unlike the Japanese occupation of the countries that it had conquered. Most Japanese were stunded by the final year of the War and the massive destruction. There was also widespread hunger because the American destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet as well as the domestic transportation system made it impossible to import and distribute food. Many Japanese had been led to expect a brutal American occupation. There were no Batan death marches, slave labor, or mass slaughters like the Rape of Nanking. The United States oversaw an occupation with fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese society, rooting out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of democratic political regimes and social structures. Militarists were removed from power. The Japanese had to turn in all weapons, including Samari swords, that were often revered family treasures. The swords were not serious military weapons, but they had emense symbolic value to Japanese militarists. The sword was so valued that in the Japanese warrior tradition it had become known as the 'soul of the samari'. Women were enfranchized and labor unions allowed to organize. Among the major accomplishments of the American occupation was a new democratic Constitution.

Japanese Surrender

The Japanese Imperial Government formally surrendered on the morning of September 2, 1945, more that 2 weeks after acceping the Allies terms. The ceremonies overseen by General MacArthur were conducted aboard the battleship USS Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay. Japanese officials signed the instruments of surrender under the Missouri's big guns. American troops landed in Japan immediately after the Imperial Government surrendered. Many having experienced fanatical Japanese resistance on Pacific island battlefields, were unsure what to expect.

Japanese Occupation Policies

Japanese Population

Most Japanese were stunded by the final year of the War and the massive destruction. There was also widespread hunger because the American destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet as well as the domestic transportation system made it impossible to import and distribute food. Many Japanese had been led to expect a brutal, if not genocidal American occupation. There were no Batan death marches, slave labor, or mass slaughters like the Rape of Nanking. The Japanese people were unaware as to just how brutal their military had been in other countries and how real attrocities involvung millions of people were. I'm not sure just how seriously the Japanese people had taken the warnings of brutal Americans. They seem to have been widely accepted on Saipan and Okinawa. I'm not sure why this would have been different in Japan itself. I'm not sure to what extent, however, the Japanese were surprised at the conduct of the Americans. Perhaps readers know of some studies which have addressed this subject. Emperor Hirohito certainly was surprised at how the Americans treated him. The Americans for their part, after fighting bloody battles which got increasingly savage as the approsached the home island were not at all sure how they would be greeted when they landed in the Home Islands to begin the occupation.

Allied Occupation Policy

Fortunately for the Japanese people, Allied occupation policies were very different from the barbaric policies the Japanese military and government pursued in the countries and colonies that Japan occupied during the War. The Allied nations (Britain, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, and the United States) discussed post-War occupation policies and publically stated thir goals during the War. The Allies in a series of wartime discuss the occupation policies. These discussions included disarmament, colonies (especially Korea and Taiwan), the economy, and how to prevent the remilitarization of Japan aftr occupation. In the Potsdam Declaration, they called for Japan's unconditional surrender; by August of 1945, that objective had been achieved. The only uestined thrt remained unsettkled was the future of the monarchy.

Imperial Government Retained

There were major differences in the American occupation policies pursued in Japan and Germany. The Imperial Government was not dismantled as was the NAZI Government and Japan was allowed to retain the monarchy--the longest line of any monarchy in the world. Emperor Hirahito was allowed to remain on the Crysanthumum Throne. Details on his involvement in the War suggest a participation that was far more extensive than admitted at the time, although he certainly acted with considerable courage to end the War. American occpation officials concluded thar retaining the Emperor would facilitate the peaceful occupation of Japan and the acceptance of the American imposed reforms. [Beatty] As in Germany there were trials of war criminals, mostly Imperial Army officers.

The Occupation (1945-52)

The Allied occupation began September 1945 and lasted through 1952. The Allies set up a Far Eastern Commission made up of 11 members of the victorious coalition. An Allied Council set up in Tokyo was to supervise overall policy. Difficulties with the Soviet Union which wanted to land an occupation force in Japan made the Council unworkable. It was the United States which occupied the country which essentially took control of occupation policy. President Truman appointed General MacArthur to be the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). MacArthur launched a comprehensive reform program. It proved to be a demanding task. Few Americans knew anything about Japan and fewer still could speak Japanese. For Japan it was also a starling experience. Few Japanese had ever been exposed to Western culture. The American occupation was completely unlike the Japanese occupation of the countries that it had conquered. The United States oversaw an occupation with fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese society, rooting out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of a democratic political system and social structure. The goal of the occupation was to establish "a peacefully inclined and responsible government." Militarists were removed from power and the country was demilitarized. The Japanese had to turn in all weapons, including Samari swords, that were often revered family treasures. The swords were not serious military weapons, but they had emense symbolic value to Japanese militarists. The sword was so valued that in the Japanese warrior tradition it had become known as the "soul of the samari". Among the major accomplishments of the American occupation was a new democratic Constitution. Women were enfranchized and labor unions allowed to organize. Major changes were made in the economy. Industries with a war-making capability were prohibited.

Yoshida Shigeru

A key figure in the Japanese government during the occupation and in the post-War era was Yoshida Shigeru, a remarablly undiplomatic diplomat. He had the rather un-Japanese characteristic of clearly stating his opinions even when he disagreed with an individual. He retired in 1939 because of his antt-militarist views. He was even imprisoned by the military late in the War. Yoshida was appointed foreign minister in the government formed after the Japanese surrender to the Americans (1945). He became prime-minister (1946) and held that post for most of the occupation period. He was the single most important Japanese official during the occupation and has left us a penetrating view of the American occupation policies and Japanese politics. [Yoshida] He was essentally pro-American and British and believed in the objective of the American occupation to democratize Japan, but represented conservative forces. He got on well with MacArthur, but the two had differences. MacArthur came to increasinly rely on him to oppose the Socialists. Yoshida advised the Japanese as the ocupation began to be "good losers". [Schaller] This comment reflects his view of the War. It sounds like something one might say after a cricket match, not what the leader of a country that launched a war resulting in the deaths of millions of people (only a small fraction Japanese) might say. While he he had opposed the War and the militarists, he did not see the War in the sence of a criminal endevor conducted by the Japanese people and government. His attitude was very different than that of Chancellor Adenauer in Germany. Yoshida never fully accepted responsibility from the war and his attitudes and policies continue to reverberate in Japan today. Many Japanese see their country as a victim of the War and not a country largely responsible for the War.

Reforms (1945-47)

The United States largely controlled the Allied occupation and rehabilitation of the Japanese nation. The American ocupation authorities headed by General Douglas A. MacArthur, enacted widespread series of modern military, political, economic, and social reforms that swept away a still almost feudal society (1945-52). Japan had built an industrial economy on an almost feudal social base. General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of both reforming Japan rebuilding the devestated country. Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China had an advisory role as part of an Allied Council, MacArthur had the authority to make final decisions. He acted as a virtual proconsul. Hisdecisions required no Congressional approval. Unlike Germany, the Soviet Union which entered the war in the final weeks did not play a role. This is surely fortunte for the Japanese people and East Asia as a whole. The Korean peple are still suffering from the Communist regime the Soviets installed in North Korea after the War. The Soviets demanded an occuption zone, but were basically ignored by MacArthur and U,S. officials. The dveloping situation in Germany undoubtedly influencd U.S. policy. MacArthur oversaw the most fundamental transforation of Japanese society the country's history, in many ways more fundamental than the Meiji Restoration and he did it in a very short period (1945-47). MacArthur's war time military record has been sharply criticized by many historians. His role in transforming Japan during the occupation is roundly praised, by both American and Japanese historians. SCAP dismantled the Japanese militry and banned former military officers from playing a role in the post-War political leadership. SCAP implemented land reform with the goal of turning tenant farmers into land owners and reduce the size of large esttes. This was primarily a social rather than an economic reform, althoughthe food issue was a major concern. Many of the virtully feudal landowners were nobels who had been advoacates of expansionism and war. MacArthur also attempted to dismantel the zaibatsu (large indutrial conglomerates). Here he had more mixed results. He did largely succeed in transforming the economy into a free market capitalist system. MacArthur capped the vrious reforms with a new constitutiion in which the Japanese had virtually no input (1947). The Emperor was transfomed from a demi-god to a figurehead, ceremonial monarchy. The parliamentary system was given more importance and true democracy was introduced. One of the most starling changes, at least for the Japanese, was equal rights for women. The new constitution also renouncing the right to wage war. The military was converted into a defensive force. General MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito


A critical issue for the occpation was food. As a result of the War, when the Americans arrived (September 1945), the Japanese had begun to starve. Domestic food production had declined by over 25 percent as the Government prioritized needed farm inputs like labor, fertilizer, and metal equipment to the military. And as a result of the American blockade, food cargos could no longer reach the country. One of the highest priorities for the American occupation authorities was rebuilding the country's transport system destroyed by the America strategic bombing campaign. This was necssary to get the food produced in the countryside into the cities. Here the rail system was a high priority. And steps were taken to increase food production. We see people in the cities growing crops on all available land, including parks. One Japanese expert writes, "From 1944 on, even in the countryside, the athletic grounds of local schools were converted into sweet potato fields. And we ate every part of the sweet potato plant, from the leaf to the tip of the root. .... For protein, we ate beetles, beetle larvae, and other insects that we found at the roots of the plants we picked, which we roasted or mashed. Even in the countryside, food was scarce." [Ayao] This could, however, go so far. In the best of times, Japanese farmers did not meet domestic demand. Japan was not self-suffient in food production even in a good year and the 1945 was a disappointing year. Thus it was important to get the ports working again. Food had to be imported. The United States also moved to revitalize the fishing fleet and to found a new whaling fleet. A stringent rationing system was in place when the Americans arrived. The U.S. authorities upheld sanctions against outdoor food vending and preserved Japan's wartime food rationing system. American occupation authotities quickly got involved in the process. Decisions by the authorities had lasting impacts on the Japanese diet, even how the Japanese ate sushi. [Shimbo] There was, however, just not enough food to go around. American food aid began arriving. But the only real fix to the food crisis was to get industrial Japan working again so that Japan could purchase needed food as it had been doing before the War. And this was a huge challenge because was stripped of it colonies it had bee exploiting.


The Allies did not punish Japan after the war, despite the enormous war crimes committed including killing and destruction. The Allies did conduct war crimes trials against individuals. There was also some payments to victims, although issues like the comfort women have been a continuing issue. And some of the attrocties such as using live individuals to test chemical ad biological weapons were covered up.

Cold War Policies: The Reverse Course (1948-50)

The nature of the American occupation changed dramatically after aeries of dranatic social and political reforms (1948). The increasing awarneness of the Soviet threat brough about the realization in America that a Cold War was underway. This was something the Soviets began even before the War nded, but the American public did not become aware of until later with Soviet actions in Eastern Europe and Berlin (1948). This coincided with an conomic crisis in Japan. Japan could not feed itself, it had to import food. Before the War, food imports were paid for by industrial exports. Japan's cities and industries, however were in ashes and thus Japan did not have the ability to financ needed food imports. This fed into American concerns about the spread of Communism. The Democratic political reforms and the constitutional guarantees of a free press and free expression meant that the Communit Prty could organize and compete in elections. The SCAP thus shifted its emphasis from social reform to economic reform. This period of the occupation is sometimes referred to as the "reverse course." The economic rehabilitation of Japan became the primary goal of the occupation SCAP was concerned that a poor Japanese economy would increase the appeal of the Communists. And with Communist successes in the Civil War, the future of Japan took on increasing importance. SCAP initiated a range of policies to promote economic recovery. SCAP intridyced a tax rform and attempted to control inflaion. A mjor problem that Japan faced was that it needed raw materials, but wthout finished goods to export, it had no way of importing needed raw materials. The economic problems wre not relly resolved until the Korean War (1950). The Korean emergency created all kinds of jobs and business opportunities as the United States and its allies rushed mikitary forces to Japan and Korea. Japan became the principal supply depot for U.N forces attempting to save South Korea. The United States military commitment to Korea had amajor impact on Japanese strategic thought. The commitment to Korea meant that the United States would also protect Japan. This assured the Japanese leadership that the country's security was not threatened by de-militarization. And the Korean economic boom helped generate the rebuiling of Japan and the esuing Japanese Economic Miracle.

Peace Treaty and Alliance (September 1951)

SCAP began to assess the political and economic future of Japan (1950). SCAP began to consider a peace treaty to formally end both the war and the occupation. The U.S. perception of international threats had changed fundamentally in the immediate post-War period. Most Americans has seen the Axis (Germny, Italy, and Japan) as the major threat ton peace. Largely ignored bcause of the role the Red army oplayed in defeting the Germans was that for nearly 2 years that the Soviet Union was a NAZI ally. It was the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact Pact that made World War II possible. Both Germany and the Soviets invaded Poland and together they partitioned Europe. The Soviets proceeded with a series of aggressions comparable to those of the Germans. After the War, the Soviet Union renewed its aggressive foreign policy and effort to dominte other countries. This was done by the Red Army in Eastern Europe and the Soviets sought to use domestic Communist policie in Western Europe. Now Germany and Japan were emerging aspotential allies in the escalating Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. The Peace Treaty which the Japanese Government did help fashion allowed the United States to maintain its bases in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. The United States offered Japan a bilateral security pact. A meeting in San Franciso brought together 52 countries to discuss the Peace Treaty (September 1951). Eventually 49 countries sined the Treaty. The Soviet Union and th puppet government of Czechoslovakia abnd Poland rfused to sign. Their primary objection was the povision to support the Republic of China (by then reduced to Taiwn) and not do business with the People's Republic of China that had intervened in the Korean War. The United States had insisted on this provision.

Displaced Children

Japan invaded China (1937) and fighting continued for 4 years even before Pearl Harbor (1941). While huge numbers of Chinese were killed, Japanese casualties were realtively light. In the Pacific War while entire garisons fought to the death, the total numbers relatively small. Larger numbers of soldiers were involved in the Philippines and Okinawa campaign and in the fighting in Burma. The largest numbers of Japanese soldiers were lost in Manchuria after the Soviet invasion (1945). This was not as a result of the fighting, but because most of the POWs disappeared into the Soviet Gulag. Other children lost tgheir mothers and grandparents as a result of the strategic bombing campaign. I am not sure of the numbers of children involved. Other children were involved when the Japanese civilian populations were repatriated from parts of their former empire (Formosa, Korea, Manchukuo, Saipan, and other locations). Again I am unsure about the numbers involved.

Personal Experiences

We have not found many accounts of the personal experiences of Japanese children at the end of the War and during the American occupation. Language may be a factor here. As well as the Japanese penchant to see thmselves as victims which dies not fit in with the not only cirrect, but highly bebefucial Americn occupation. It must have been cultural shock ofthe firt order. The children were not being told in school that Japan was losing the War, despite the clear evidence of major cities reduced to glowing embers. . Thy were being prepared to resist the expected American invasion. And they were told that the American werre mnsters tht would rape and kill, including children. They were also not told about the behvior of their own soldiers in countries tht Japan had occupied. So the Emperor's announcement that the country was surrendering was a unimaginable shock. Not only hearing he Emperor's voice for the first time, but what he had to say. Many Jpanese people braced for a brutal occupation. And the children heard terrible accounts of what was o come in the more than 2 weeks after the Empero's announcemrnt and the arrival of the Americas. A Japanese reader Fujioka Keisuke writes, "I am very pleased to hear that you are preparing a section on the post World War II American occupation of Japan. I was born in 1934 in Tokyo. I and my family were in Tokyo during the American bombing. The terror and destruction were overwealming, just like Dresden. I think most Japanese were surprised with American occupation policy. I was second son of a publisher. My father was a socialist in pre-World War II Japan but there were strict Government controls. After Japan surrendered and the American occupation began, father enjoyed freedom to publish Marx, Engels, and Lenin under Macarthur's regulations." [Keisuke] We wonder how many countries enjoyed more freedom under a foreign military occupation than they had enjoyed under their own government.

Radical Change in American Policy

Developments in China and the Korean War had a major impact on American policy toward Japan. The initial American vision was a demilitarized Japan supervised first by America and then by the new United Nations. In furtherence of this, demilitarization was written into the American drafted, post-War Japanese constitution. "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized." [Article 9] The United States was determined to ensure that there would not be anotgher war as occured in Europe after World War I. This vision, however, proved to be short lived as the secturity situation in the Far East changed dramatically. The Soviet Union after the War rapidly shifted from ally to Cold War adversary. Then Chiang Kai-shek, America's World War II ally, was defeated by the Communists and fled to Taiwan (1949). Then Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, launching the Korean War (1950). As a result, the United States shifted from a policy of imposing de-militarization on a war like nation to seeing Japan as a democrartic ally. And when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles entered the negotiations on the peace treaty with Japan to end the occupation, he sought to convince the Jaopanese to rearm and to conclude a military alliance with the United States. Ironiclly the Japanese were very reluctant to rearm. Tgey finally agreed to a paramilitary National Police Reserve.

Cold War

Japan was essentially an non-player in the epic battle between the Democratic West and the Totalitarian Soviet Union in the Cold War. In fairness to Japan, it had little choice. The domesions of Japanese brutality and war crimesmeant that the country had no real credibality in the Cold War debates. The Japananese avoided the term alliance when describuing the American relationship. Essentially Japan during the Cold War was a merchant nation persuing its capitalist commercial interests. To an extent America was responsible by drafting a Constitution designed to demilitarize Japan. But for the Japanese it was an extremely beneficial approch. America guaranteed Japan's security. Japan did provide basing rights for American forces, but this of course primarily benrfitted Japan by guaranteeing its own security at no cist. Defennse budgets thus could be small even though they were borderd by the Communist giants, China and the Soviet Union. America even established a buffer state--South Korea in between China and Japan. Japan thus could focus on building its economy. [Pyle] Today the Japanese are reassessing their place in the world and even beginning for the first timre to think about changes in the American drafted Constitution, especially provisions of the Constitutin related to the military and defense.

Japanese Economic Miracle

The Japanese economic recovery after World War II has like the comparable recovery in Germany been described a nothing short of a miracle. Like the German Economic Miracle a completely devestated country over the space of a very few years trnsformed into an economic powerhouse. Observers at the time looking at Japan's flattened cities thought that it would take a generation to recover. In fact, it took less than aecade for Japan to become more prosperous than it was before the War, destroying the militarist beliefs that the country required colonies and apensive military establishment to obtain needed raw materials. Economists point to a range of factors explaining Japan's economic recovery. Fundamentally it amounts to the power of free market capitalism to unleash the capabilities of the Japanese people. The Japanese Government backed by the American occupation authorities prevented the Communists from taking power. And the American occupation in sharp contrast to Japanese occupation regimes operated to found both capitalustas wll as democratic institutions rather than punishing economic reparations. The Americans fiorbade Japan from military expanion while guarantteing security, while art the same time releaving the Japanese Government from costly expenditures. Instead, recovering Japanes Japanese industries on consumer products. The powerful zaibatsus helped finance the recovery. And the Japanese people tolerated great sacrifices while the recovery took hold. While images of Japan devestated cities suggest total destruction, they are in mute testimony to the fact that a country's true power is not in buildings and machinery, but in the character and capability of its people. While the building were destoyed in an acopolyspe of fire, the people survived. Despite atomic attacks, the Japanese actually sufferdcless than the people they had occupied. And the Japanse people with a high quality education system fired by free market capitalism very quickly rebuilt their county and launched upon an amazing economic expansion. Interesting, Japanese economists poinr to a little known American, W. Edwards Deming, as instrumental in their suucess.


Ayao, Okumura. A a Japanese food scholar quoted in George Salt. The Untold History of Ramen. (University of California Press: Berkeley, California. 2014) p. 6.

Beatty, William. Beatty was on MacArthur's staff. After the war he taught anthropology at Fresno State.

Keisuke, Fujioka. E-mail message, February 15, 2003.

Pyle, kenneth. Japan Rising (2007).

Schaller, Michael. Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation, 336 p.

Shigeru Yoshida, Kenichi Yoshida. The Yoshida Memoirs: The Story of Japan in Crisis ( Heinemann: Lond0n), 304p.

Shimbo, Hiroko. The Sushi Experience.


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Created: 6:47 PM 11/21/2005
Last updated: 7:43 AM 1/23/2018