The Occupation of Japan began on August 30, 1945, when General Douglas MacArthur arrived at Atsugi air base near Tokyo. For nearly seven years, MacArthur led the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Command For Allied Powers (SCAP) from the Daiichi Insurance building, directly across from the Imperial Palace.
GHQ remained the highest legal authority in Japan until April 16, 1951, the day MacArthur left Japan after being dismissed by President Harry Truman on April 11. The Occupation lasted for another year, except for Okinawa and an array of military bases throughout Japan where it persisted.
By January 1948, GHQ had reached its largest size and one of those involved in the occupation, Theodore Cohen, aptly referred to GHQ as a ‘new super-government.’
It is where the reconstruction of Japan’s economic, legal, political, educational, and social institutions all took place. So did the trial and punishment of those GHQ identified as responsible for the war. And it is where reinvention of Japanese democracy under a GHQ-gifted constitution was fashioned ー all through the direct mandates and guidance of the General MacArthur-led GHQ.
This article will highlight just a few of GHQ’s actions that continue to shape and challenge Japan nearly 70 years after sovereignty was restored to most of the archipelago at 10:30 pm on April 28, 1952.
The ‘Peace Constitution’
Japan’s 1947 Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most groundbreaking liberal democratic constitutions of its time. While only consisting of 103 Articles and 5039 words, it enshrines a wide range of individual human rights and civil liberties, renounces war in its famous Article 9, ends feudalism, and transforms Japanese society from one as subjects under Imperial rule to one as citizens under democratic rule.
GHQ was concerned that a future Japanese Government might try to amend the constitution in the future—especially Article 9. For that reason, they made it exceptionally difficult to change, requiring two-thirds support in both the Lower and Upper Houses of the Diet and a majority in a national referendum to amend.
As a result, the Japanese Constitution is the oldest unchanged Constitution in the world. For comparison, Germany’s Allies-drafted postwar constitution has been amended more than 50 times since 1949.
From 1946 until the summer of 1948, GHQ, which was almost entirely a U.S.-run organization from start to finish, was staffed mainly by U.S. military personnel, State Department diplomats, and other Roosevelt "New Deal" administrators. Among them, the State Department diplomats and New Deal administrators were often excessively liberal or even overtly pro-Stalin in their mindset.
That leftward political orientation delivered several positives to Japan in the new Constitution including agricultural reform, the end of feudalism, and the breaking up of the zaibatsu, industrial and commercial conglomerates that dominated the prewar economy. But it also presented quite a few problems.
As Mao marched to victory in Communist China and fears of Communism behind the Iron Curtain in Europe grew, MacArthur began to reverse course at GHQ. By 1950, centrists had replaced the GHQ’s ‘red-leaning’ staff, and the "red purge" had begun.
Although the occupation saw the democratization of Japanese society, that did not happen immediately. The first two and a half years of occupation often relied on centralized models which GHQ used to shape new economic, educational, and socialized policies and to restart economic activity and create heavy industrialization.
One of the first orders which enabled the far-left’s revival was SCAP’s civil liberties directive of October 5, 1945, establishing free speech and political discourse. It freed thousands of fervent communists and socialists whose beliefs had hardened over 18 years in prison. This order also legalized the Japan Communist Party (JCP), which had been banned since its founding on July 15, 1922.
This order immediately allowed JCP members to enter government, educational institutions, newspapers, unions, and politics. Some of Japan’s most notorious Communists of the war period, including Sanso Nosaka, who was re-educating Japanese POWs into Communist dogma in China, and Kyuichi Tokuda, who spent 18 years in prison and became head of the JCP, were elected to the first session of the Diet in April 1946. They also participated in various GHQ committees that drafted some of the new constitution.
The Trade Union Law of December 1945, was designed to establish a strong pro-labor union environment and grant workers the right to organize, bargain, and strike. But the JCP was able to radicalize the newly formed labor unions in a movement that controlled public sector employees, coal, steel, communications, newspaper and radio, publishing and printing, electric, and railway unions.
In addition, more than 200,000 political, business, and military leaders from the period before August 1945 were permanently banned from these occupations, and from politics. The ban was lifted gradually from 1948 and was gone by 1950.
About the same time, SCAP also ended the right to strike from public employees, and Tokuda returned to Communist-controlled China. However, the newly formed education, media, and trade unions continued to be dominated by leftist thinkers for decades after the end of occupation.
SCAP introduced a U.S.-style educational system with a new liberal curriculum and revised textbooks, based on democratic values that promoted coeducation, equal opportunity and greater access to the top universities as a replacement for the Meiji-style system that was built on Imperial values and nationalism.
Until the new GHQ-mandated textbooks were introduced, teachers and students were required to go through their existing textbooks and blackout any sections that were seen as militaristic, nationalistic, or undemocratic.
Writing the new textbooks was left to left-wing academics and progressive-leaning teachers recruited after the war. Meanwhile, the educational system used the Democracy Reader for Boys and Girls to teach students to abhor militarism and view pacifism as the only path available to countries wishing to be a nation of learning, art, and morality.
As the teachers flocked to unions to improve their working conditions, they became radicalized. Nikkyoso, the most powerful teachers union, became closely associated with the Japan Communist Party.
The teachers themselves ended up becoming some of the most vocal opposition to U.S. military bases in Japan, the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Agreement, continued U.S. occupation of Okinawa, and the formation of Japan's self-defense forces. They heavily influenced a generation of students.
Science Council of Japan
In an effort to demilitarize Japan and end scientific development that could support national defense, GHQ created the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) in 1949. The 105-member council was funded by Japan’s national budget and tasked with advising the government on scientific policy.
GHQ established it as a watchdog to make sure Japanese companies and universities did not undertake any joint research and development (R&D) projects that could restore military capabilities in Japan. Despite three attempts to reform it and reduce its impact, SCJ continues with its own stated ーand unstatedー missions to this day.
Recently the council faced controversy for entering into formal agreements with organizations that administer the Chinese Communist Party Thousand Talents Program, a controversial researcher recruitment program that has been linked with allegations of CCP-backed scientific and technological R&D espionage.
SCJ remains true to its origins and continually resists any collaborative R&D efforts between Japanese companies and universities when the research could have national security benefits for Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s widely reported rejection of six nominees for the council in December 2020 set the stage for the latest attempt to reform the council so that it works for —and not against— Japan.
The Self-Defense Forces
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, GHQ quickly moved to reestablish and rearm a Japanese force that could assume some of Japan's defense responsibilities, without amending the nation’s barely three-year-old Constitution. To do this, GHQ proceeded to establish a ground force equipped with tanks, aircraft, and artillery under the euphemism of a National Police Reserve (NPR) in 1950 ー without support from then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida or the general public.
While GHQ pushed to increase NPR’s ranks to 300,000 members, Yoshida successfully slow-rolled things and kept NPR’s ranks limited to 75,000. Under continued pressure from the U.S. to increase the force’s ranks to 350,000, the NPR was reconstituted as the National Safety Force, and increased its manpower 110,000 in 1952.
Two years later in the face of violent demonstrations, the Diet established the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), complete with ground, air, and naval elements, with the passage of the Self-Defense Law on July 1, 1954.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty
The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty allowed Japan to regain its sovereignty, but at considerable cost. It had one enormous quid pro quo: acceptance of a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. that not only placed Japan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but required Japan to accept Okinawa remaining American territory for another 20 years. (Okinawa finally reverted to Japanese control in 1971.)
The treaty also approved over 200 U.S. military bases in Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu, and required the Japanese government to grant extraterritorial rights to U.S. service members under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Under the SOFA, crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in Japan were to be tried in U.S. military courts, not Japanese courts.
The combined terms of this agreement were far more unequal than the agreements the U.S. imposed on other nations in the postwar period.
The short-term impacts of the San Francisco Peace Treaty were immediate and violent. Massive communist and socialist led demonstrations protesting the Yoshida government’s decision to agree to a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. occurred within days of the resumption of Japanese sovereignty on May 1, 1952.
Huge, sometimes very violent, protests led by radicalized unions and universities became annual events until the 1970s. Longer-term impacts of the treaty include a large residual contingency of U.S. forces on Okinawa, noise pollution, environmental issues, and occasional accidents and criminal incidents involving U.S. forces.
SOFA remains a contentious issue today. Unlike the SOFA in Germany which eventually was revised to terminate the extraterritorial rights of U.S. military forces in that country, SOFA in Japan remains essentially unchanged.
One pandemic-era consequence is that Japanese health mandates meant to protect the entire archipelago, such as PCR testing and quarantine periods upon entering Japan, can be ignored by U.S. military personnel who are journeying to a U.S. military base, putting the entire population at risk.
Several questions remain unanswered seventy years after the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Among them are territorial issues with Japan’s neighbors.
Once Communist-led nations understood Japan would be pulled under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and be used as a forward-deployed location for U.S. military personnel in Asia, the Soviet Union refused to return the Northern Territories to Japanese control. These are islands that the Soviet Union invaded after the surrender of Japan.
South Korea has refused to end its occupation of the Takeshima Islands, and the lack of clarity around Japan’s relations with Taiwan can also be traced back to a mandate from the U.S. telling Japan to enter into an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China government in Taipei.
The excesses of the GHQ-led occupation of Japan under the command of General MacArthur, followed by clumsy attempts to correct some of the mistakes mid-course, left residual issues that continue to affect Japanese society in numerous ways.
The virtual lockdown on amending the constitution continues to block necessary and desirable changes to the constitution beyond Article 9.
Proposed changes to the government structure remain in limbo, along with the addition of new civil liberties and human rights that many other countries have added to their constitutions in the past decades, placing limits on the power of the prime minister to dissolve the Diet, and granting the power of the prime minister to deal with emergencies.
The seven decades-long debate about the right of self-defense and the legality of the Self-Defense Force is one that left-leaning academics and members of the legal profession continue to challenge even today. The SDF dispatch of planes along with air and ground personnel to try and evacuate Japanese nationals from Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul is the latest example of how the SDF is severely limited in performing what are perfectly natural duties for all of Japan’s peers.
The structure and management of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials failed to clarify individual accountability for the commencement and conduct of war, leaving issues that continue to plague relations with some of Japan's neighbors.
The educational system and mass media of today continues to equate love of country with nationalism, is overly suspicious of strong national leadership, and promotes complete consensus for government decisions, even including the voice of the JCP, as the preferred way to run a government.
But the bottom line is also evident. GHQ was wildly successful in achieving its major objectives of democratizing Japanese society and resetting Japan’s economy to one of growth and prosperity for the vast majority of society. Postwar Japan is an egalitarian country that has enjoyed 77 years of peace.
The Japan we see today still suffers from some of the mistakes of the occupation, but also has much to look back on with gratitude to General MacArthur and GHQ. General MacArthur, in the role of SCAP, was Japan’s last military dictator, albeit one who the Japanese at the time viewed as a paternalistic rather than brutal figure as he charted the course for postwar Japan.
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Author: Edo Naito