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The US occupation of Japan

Embracing Defeat – Japan in the Aftermath of World War II

By John Dower, Penguin Books, 2000, £14-99

Reviewed by Laurence Coates

JOHN DOWER’S Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the military occupation of Japan after World War II raises issues of great relevance today in the light of US plans for a lengthy occupation of Iraq.

The book is a dossier on US hypocrisy and great-power arrogance. It shows how US General Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan like a ‘colonial overlord’, rescued the disgraced Emperor Hirohito, and ruled through the mandarin bureaucracy which had run Japan throughout the war. Following Japan’s capitulation on 15 August 1945, after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the country became a de facto US colony under the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers (SCAP) headed by MacArthur. For Japan’s ruined masses this meant an extension of military rule, albeit ‘under new management’, for a further seven years until the US withdrawal in 1952.

During its fourteen-year war (1931-45), Japan had expanded ferociously into China and South-East Asia, committing atrocities such as the 1937 ‘Rape of Nanking’ and the ‘Rape of Manila’ eight years later. In China alone, up to 15 million may have died under the Japanese occupation. Japan’s imperial ambitions, its attempt to create a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ counterpoised to white colonial rule in Asia, drew inspiration from older imperialist powers such as Britain. As Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs reported at the time, Japan followed the precedents of European imperialism, sometimes ‘with almost pedantic exactitude’. MacArthur is credited with Japan’s post-war ‘democratisation and demilitarisation’ and on the strength of this alleged merit has been dragged into the current debate over Iraq. Dower’s account helps to puncture the MacArthur myth.

The Tokyo war crimes tribunal – Japan’s Nuremberg – opened in 1946. The entire proceedings were stage-managed to serve, above all, the geo-political interests of US imperialism. The trial focused on Japan’s war against the US and Britain rather than its crimes in Asia. Neither the plight of tens of thousands of Formosan and Korean women forced into sex-slavery as ‘comfort women’ for the imperial army, nor the use of slave-labour in mines and heavy industries under Japanese control, were ever pursued as ‘war crimes’. In return for access to their ‘research’ findings, the US also granted blanket immunity to the officers and scientists of the notorious Unit 731, a chemical warfare base in Manchuria where lethal experiments were conducted on thousands of prisoners. In fact, at no time in the Tokyo trial did the prosecution pursue the issue of chemical weapons despite evidence of their use by Japanese forces in China. In order to keep the war-time state fundamentally intact, the trial scapegoated just a handful of officials – like General Tojo, who had ordered the attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour. No heads of the Kempetai (Japanese Gestapo), no leading ultra-nationalist politicians, and no industrialists, were ever indicted.

In the first phase of the US occupation, significant democratic reforms (votes for women, legalisation of trade unions, an anti-feudal land reform) were introduced. These measures were accompanied by mostly symbolic blows against the war-time nationalist ‘old guard’. At the same time, however, the US administration was careful to protect Emperor Hirohito and his dynasty, in whose name Japan had invaded and plundered East Asia. MacArthur wanted, in his own words, "to keep the emperor safe at all costs" and intervened twice to stop him abdicating. In the words of MacArthur’s military secretary, abdication "would be a victory for all Communists and especially the Russians". The war crimes trials of 1946-49 were rigged to render Hirohito ‘invisible’ – he was not even called as a witness. When the hapless General Tojo, who was later executed, inadvertently implicated Hirohito by stating in court that no government official could have acted against the emperor’s wishes, he was prevailed upon by the Americans to change his testimony and clear his boss, which he did.

MacArthur administered "a censorship bureaucracy that extended into every aspect of public expression". Between 1945-49, US censors checked 330 million pieces of mail and monitored 800,000 private phone conversations! Newspapers, books, public broadcasting and cinema were heavily censored. A Tokyo stage show in which one of the cast sang ‘how can we have democracy with two emperors?’ (ie Hirohito and MacArthur) was banned. Taboo subjects included criticism of the US, criticism of the emperor, food shortages, the black market, warnings about World War III, fraternisation and ‘mixed blood children’, and references to censorship. While the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not officially proscribed subjects, eye-witness accounts and other reports were suppressed. Dower notes, "for over six years, Japanese scientists and doctors... were denied access to data that might have assisted them in communicating to and helping atomic-bomb victims".

In January 1947 MacArthur banned a general strike called to resist government attacks on rail and other public sector workers. Union leaders were called to MacArthur’s headquarters and ordered in the presence of pistol-waving military police to sign a statement cancelling "the use of so deadly a social weapon" (MacArthur). This marked a turning point in popular perceptions of the US occupation.

Japan’s post-war radicalisation had seen union ranks swell from 380,000 at the end of 1945 to 5.6 million a year later. With the ban on the general strike in 1947 the US occupation entered upon its so-called ‘reverse course’ – allying itself with the nationalist right, which had faced persecution in the first phase of occupation. MacArthur personally spearheaded a ‘red purge’ in the public sector, sacking 11,000 union activists including the entire national leadership of the Communist Party (JCP), which had made huge gains despite its muddled opportunist policies (welcoming the US occupation at first as ‘progressive’, leading demonstrations to appeal to the emperor etc). Of 28 periodicals subject to censorship in 1947, only two were ‘ultra-rightist’. All the others (with a combined circulation of 600,000) were left-wing. At the same time a ‘de-purge’ of ultra-nationalists and militarists took place.

Under the banner of ‘demilitarisation’, US occupation personnel wrote the ‘enlightened’ Japanese constitution of 1946, which contains the famous peace paragraph (paragraph nine) renouncing "war as a sovereign right of the nation" and stating that "land, sea, and air forces... will never be maintained". This unique document, replete with ‘funny language’ – its first draft was in English – remains in force to this day (notwithstanding which, Japan’s ‘self-defence force’ is one of the most technically advanced armies in the world).

At the time it met with strong support among war-weary Japanese of all classes who saw it as a means to hasten the end of the occupation, but also to curb the power of nationalist generals and the obscene waste of armaments spending. Almost before the ink was dry on this document, however, the US was pressurising Japan to rearm. In 1950, at the outset of the Korean War, MacArthur "secretly urged Japanese leaders to create an army of between three hundred thousand and three hundred fifty thousand men", Dower explains. Japan did rearm but resisted the wilder notions of US spokesmen and attempts to drag it into the Korean war.

MacArthur was appointed to lead the UN forces in Korea but, in 1951, was sacked by US President Truman for insubordination. In his address to the American people, Truman explained this was "in order to avoid World War III" – the issue being MacArthur’s proposed attack on China. The US occupation of Japan continued for a further year.

Overall, the aim of MacArthur’s reform programme was to secure capitalism’s future in Japan and inoculate the Japanese masses against Stalinism, which had been strengthened in Russia and was advancing in China. With the rise of working class militancy in Japan from 1946 onwards, US support for reform all but collapsed and gave way to anti-communist purges and counter-reforms. The Korean war, however, created an economic boom in Japan, as the major supplier to the US war effort. This hastened the end of the occupation and marked the start of a remarkable economic ascent. Some US strategists imagine this scenario can be repeated in Iraq today. They overlook the obvious, that the Korean war and strategic rivalry with Japan’s ‘communist’ neighbours forced US imperialism to bankroll the country’s post-war expansion with a largesse that has been noticeably absent in today’s world, for example in Afghanistan and the Balkans.


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