30th August 1945
In today's article we explore aspects of a fascinating six-year period in which "the United States had a freer hand to experiment with Japan than any other country in Asia, or indeed in the entire world". At a cost of approximately $15 billion in today's money, more than half a million service men and women were deployed. Even after the Treaty of San Francisco officially handed over power to civilian government, US forces were stationed in Japan. One of them was a young marine called Lee Harvey Oswald. Today United States Forces Japan numbers thirty-five thousand Americans and is stationed at the official invitation of the Japanese Government. But at the beginning, this vast undertaking was controlled by a truly remarkable individual who would be widely considered one of the leading public figures of the twentieth centuries, an American Hero that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with George Washington himself.
Although the occupation officially began on the 30th August 1945 this article opens with an event on the 14th. Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Government had finally capitulated, accepting the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allied Powers at the Potsdam Conference. On the same day that Victory Over Japan was declared, US President Harry S. Truman appointed theatre Commander General Douglas MacArthur to the new post of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Two primary objectives were laid down in the "US Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan": the elimination of war potential, and the transformation into a western style nation with pro-American orientation.
Of course the hard-won victory in the Pacific had to be sustained and nurtured. Direct US economic assistance was surely required. But there was a climate of reform. The emergence of powerful new enemies in the Cold War era meant that the clarity of these plainly stated mission objectives was riddled with contradiction. Because victory did not mean victory as we had previously understood it to mean, and occupation meant something else, too. National priorities were reset. But as he saw it, his job was to introduce order into the chaos caused by the Allied victory, and on those narrowly defined terms, there is good reason to celebrate his success.
And of course for MacArthur himself it was nothing less than a breath-taking change of orientation from adversary to potential saviour; his unique qualification was the achievement of a kill rate of 30:1 meaning that for every GI that died in the Pacific, over thirty Japanese servicemen had been killed. In a sense he was being ordered to clean up his own mess. And as matters transpired, it became increasingly clear that much more than continued pacification was actually required; initially tasked with demilitarizing the country the expansion of Communism called for a powerful new military base in the Pacific. Within a decade, the US would be openly asking Japanese Government to re-arm, and in the present day, Japan has the sixth largest defense budget in the world. This change of strategic goal caused a huge problem because it required modifications to the "no war, no arms" article of the Japanese Constitution as laid down by the Western Allies during the occupation, overturning the embedded philosophy of pacifism that characterized post-war Japanese society.
But now only two weeks after VJ Day, MacArthur was issued with fresh orders to supervise the occupation of Japan. He entered the capital city of Tokyo and commenced an eighty-month engagement that would be cut short by the outbreak of the Korean War. Even his withdrawal to head the United Nations Command (Korea) was significant; it contextualized his leading role in shaping broad policy across the Pacific region. Because the circumstances of the time made for a challenging agenda that went far beyond the pressing duties to be expected of a Military Governor. For example, his counterpart, General Lucius D. Clay, the Military Governor of the American Occupation Zone in Germany had less freedom of action, being constrained by a bureaucratic, four-power framework. But in Japan, Truman and MacArthur were able to operate as a hyper-power, imposing an American-solution because of the increased power caused by the monopoly on nuclear weapons. And the exclusion of the Soviet Union set the stage for a unique power play that would lead not to a superpower clash but instead a direct confrontation between MacArthur and Washington.
A Westminister-style system of government was devised in which the Emperor would act only upon the advice of elected ministers. The power of native rulers was greatly increased. Also, Shinto was abolished as a state religion. Education was reformed. Worker rights and conditions of employment were protected in trade union laws. But in the short term MacArthur had been ordered to exercise authority - as he saw fit - through the Japanese government machinery. For example he was secretly involved with the bacterial warfare unit that saw such technology moved stateside. The decisive war-time contribution of Japanese linguists - the Nisei soldiers - was not fully recognized. Nevertheless, a firm hand was steering chaos towards order.
Grassroots organizations were developed to accelerate the pace of change. The country became swamped with American media; the works of Walt Disney inspired Osamu Tezuka to develop the big-eyes style of manga. Women were enfranchised and guaranteed fundamental human rights. The crime of adultery - previously only applied to women- was abolished. And yet at the same time Japanese women faced the threat of rape and other forms of violent crime from the occupying forces. "Pan pan" girls fraternized with soldiers although MacArthur ordered the closure of brothels which had led to the spread of venereal diseases throughout the services. In general, it would be fair to say therefore that the role of women was one area where the instillation of Western values was limited in scope. But before we leap to judgement about MacArthur's record, it is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that he insisted his son's Cantonese au pair accompanied them on their escape from Corregidor.
Sharply criticized for his hubris, later denied the US Presidency, he had been gifted with the nightmarish dream of his very own dictatorship, and would at first rule effectively as a shogun. Laws were decreed from day one. There was a purge, but it was carefully controlled. For example, he prevented the imperial family from being charged with war crimes, also taking extra-judicial steps to prevent the presentation of damning evidence during the trials. However, for reasons that still remain unclear, he chose to rebuff a personal apology from Hirohito. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assume that although MacArthur saw the structural importance of the Emperor, he actually had little personal sympathy largely due to his wartime service. And before we rush to draw comparison with nation building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must carefully note the stability provided by this continuity of the existing leadership and their machinery of government. And therefore despite the extremity of the situation, MacArthur had in a sense been set up for success, although more than an agent, he had become the new driver of a damaged, but nevertheless serviceable, vehicle for national leadership.
Inevitably, the historic - and often expedient - decisions he took are a matter of both controversy and great historical interest from a number of different perspectives. And of course there is no little irony in the fact that a belligerent militaristic government was replaced by a ruthless foreign General tasked with introducing democracy, liberalization, demilitarization and social reform. The victor powers were taking on ultimate responsibility for the country, and perhaps the unique nature of the racial struggle in the Pacific meant that whereas the Germans were a defeated nation, the Japanese were a vanquished nation. And therefore the continuity of the symbolic leadership figure of Hirohito ensured that Japan was at least not seen to be at the mercy of an occupying power, and MacArthur was able to maintain a remarkable level of popularity if perhaps not to the same level of hero worship that he had enjoyed in the Philippines.
Of course both MacArthur and Clay were confronted with devastating humanitarian crises long before the formation of organization in the United Nations. And indeed, conventional alternatives to the use of atomic weapon had included a blockade that would have starved the island nation into defeat. And the truth was that regardless of the chosen instrument of victory, that was very much the reality situation on the ground. Over a million dollars of food had to be distributed through the network every day to prevent starvation, and the US Armed Forces, supported by a small British Commonwealth Force, was the only organization in a position to offer the necessary logistical support for such an operation. By the end of the year, over 350,000 US servicemen and women were based in Japan. But the operational responsibility for relief efforts was only the beginning and these emergency measures just the start of MacArthur's grand schemes for a restructure of the food supply. Under a major land reform programme, cultivated land was purchased from landlords and resold to the farmers who worked them, and non-agricultural workforce were unionized.
The Western Allies had originally planned to partially de-industrialize Japan. But in reality reconstruction efforts went far beyond infrastructure into deep-rooted reform of the economy. New business practices were introduced. Monopolized industry was replaced by looser industrial groupings. The foundations for Japan's phenomenal post-war success were being laid down. And perhaps also the seeds of US-Japanese trade conflicts were planted as well, particularly on issues relating to “soft” protectionism such as social dumping and patent handling which hindered access to the Japanese market. By the time that the Korean War broke out, Japan industry was ready to accept windfall orders from the US military. United States became Japan's largest economic partner and an economic miracle had begun that lasted into the 1990s.
We close this pod cast with a reading of "A Father Prayer" written by General Douglas MacArthur himself. And acknowledge the very best attribute in his character: the extraordinary ability to instil in the men and women under his command, a sense of hope even under the direst of extremities.
Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.Build me a son whose wishbone will not be where his backbone should be; a son who will know Thee ... Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who fail.Build me a son whose heart will be clean, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.