World War II left Japan a defeated, gutted nation. When pressed with the Potsdam Declaration in 1945, the remnants of Japan’s militaristic government, knowing they couldn’t continue the war, chose to surrender. As part of the Potsdam Proclamation, General Douglas MacArthur and US forces, collectively known as GHQ (General Headquarters) established themselves in Japan in what is now known as the Occupation, or 占領下 (senryouka).
One of the many goals of GHQ was to establish a democracy and all the values and offices attached to the system. Japan was seen by many as backward, too deeply entrenched in feudalism and militaristic zeal to heal from the war on its own, and so, as Kageyama Katsuhide, author of A Revised Post-War History (やりなおす戦後史; Yarinaosu Sengo-shi) puts it:
…under the beautiful name of democratization, the brave parts were scraped away.
Many great thinkers and doers in Japan, while initially perturbed by GHQ, realized that collaboration was more beneficial to their needs than opposition. Some, however, continued to resist the Allied powers’ presence and their democratic agenda.
Taking Advantage of Democracy
The politicians who opposed Japan’s involvement in the war started to come out of the woodwork once Japan’s surrender seemed imminent. Politician Shigemitsu Mamoru, a long-time stalwart against war, was one of the politicians who signed off on Japan’s surrender. Though he was later imprisoned for his war crimes as determined by the Tokyo Tribunal, upon his release he continued to champion democratic ideals.
With the release of political prisoners, many parties whose movements were heavily stifled by Japan’s militarists were able to regain a foothold in society once again. Political parties were open to submit their own proposals for restructuring of the Constitution, although in the end MacArthur threw out most of what those proposals suggested. Newspapers previously stifled in what they could print faced new challenges, and embraced topics frowned upon during the war.
For many of Japan’s women, the Occupation allowed them to once again take up feminist causes set aside in the height of the war. Birth control advocate and feminist Kato Shizue (加藤 シヅエ), later one of the 39 women elected to the Diet, welcomed the ideas and experiences of the American women employed in various GHQ departments. While the American women did play a role in assisting Japanese women, it must be noted that their roles in inspiring Japanese women to fight for their rights is greatly overstated, practically wiping out the hard work of pre-war Japanese feminists such as Kimura Komako. Months before MacArthur met with Japanese officials to discuss female suffrage, notable feminist Ichikawa Fusae (市川 房枝) gathered her fellow feminists and established the Women’s Committee to Cope with Postwar Conditions. Even those women who weren’t directly embroiled in feminism took advantage of the relative freedom under the umbrella of democracy by coming out in droves to vote for the first time.
Female sexuality was also exploited and explored during this time like never before. Strip shows and pornography flourished, despite later suffering censorship by GHQ. Prostitutes, collectively known as pan-pan girls, frolicked arm in arm with Occupation personnel. Pan-pan girls occupy a gray area among scholars — were they utilizing their newfound freedom under Occupation control for their own gain, or were they in fact victims of a latent neo-colonialism? While some pan-pan girls were indeed forced into prostitution by socioeconomic circumstances, the pan-pan later became a symbol, synonymous with Tokyo’s burgeoning night-life, of liberated sexuality in Japanese women.
Opposing GHQ’s Decisions
As with anything, GHQ was met with opposition and struggle on every side. Even members of the imperial family interjected in some of GHQ’s decisions. Prince Higashikuni, Emperor Hirohito’s uncle, opposed the notion of releasing political prisoners, notably communist ones; when GHQ went ahead and released the prisoners anyways, Higashikuni and his cabinet resigned. While many people were grateful to GHQ for the prisoners’ release, many soon started taking issue with GHQ’s democratic intentions.
No subject was met with more controversy than that of Emperor Hirohito’s involvement and responsibility in the war. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) wanted Emperor Hirohito removed and imperial reign to desist, viewing the imperial family as yet another indicator of ancient, restricting ideals. Japanese socialists were all for the Emperor to continue to reign, albeit holding ceremonial powers only. Like with many decisions, however, GHQ ultimately had the final say, retaining the Emperor and imperial family for symbolic purposes only, much to the chagrin, and relief, of many Japanese.
Many women thinkers also took issue with GHQ. Hiratsuka Raicho (平塚 らいちょう), founder of the famed Bluestockings feminist journal, felt miffed at having suffrage granted to women so easily after years of diligent work by previous and current feminists. Miyamoto Yuriko (宮本 百合子) was a staunch proletarian writer who was quite active in Communist political movements. Despite censorship and other socioeconomic factors, people found a way to thwart GHQ, whether through literature or political movements.
Kyodatsu Joutai (虚脱状態): Japan’s State of Lethargy
The low morale and despair of the Japanese people was so prevalent and widespread that it warranted a name — kyodatsu joutai, a “state of lethargy” or “mental numbness.” It was a breeding ground ripe for escapism and counterculture development. The Occupation provided the fuel, and counterculture writers sparked the fire in what became known as kasutori culture, kasutori being the name of a particularly heady alcohol.
It’s safe to say Dazai Osamu (太宰 治) is the poster boy of this kasutori culture. If you’ve read any of his works, especially No Longer Human, you’ll be able to understand to an extent the rampant depression and nihilism in a post-war world. Dazai and other writers like Yokomizo Seishi (横溝 正史) churned out pulp catering to the deprived and starving.
One could argue that this escapism was a way of refuting the Occupation — by writing and drowning themselves in booze and literature, they were allying themselves with a suffering Japan, rather than the glorified democratic Japan that GHQ was so intent on making a reality.
The Occupation of Okinawa — Not So Democratic
Unfortunately, far-flung Okinawa didn’t reap the benefits of the mainland’s Occupation. Pawned off in a last-ditch effort to prevent Allied forces from landing in Japan, Okinawa lost a staggering number of civilians to war. Food and resources became scarce, so much so that Okinawans stranded on the mainland couldn’t return home. When GHQ set up shop in Tokyo and started issuing democratic edicts, Okinawa was left out. To GHQ, Okinawa existed solely to serve military efforts, so their Occupation lasted much longer. US forces pretty much had free reign, leading to rape and heightened tensions among the islanders. Indeed, to this day that friction continues to spark debate and criticism over the continued presence of US military installations and personnel.
The Occupation’s Long-Term Effects
The Occupation of mainland Japan officially ended in 1952, and its effects continue to reverberate throughout modern Japan. GHQ’s demolition of the zaibatsu — large financial conglomerates — allowed the growth of small- and medium-sized companies to flourish and cater to the growing needs of the postwar populace. The American-authored Constitution remains the crux of many a debate in Japan. The past few years have witnessed a revival in talks for constitutional reform, especially Article 9, which renounces war – something Prime Minister Abe wants to change.
Not everything was peachy during the 1945-1952 Occupation, though. Starvation continued to plague people. War orphans were left without a safety net and often ended up in terrible circumstances.
One of the reigning emotions towards the Occupation was resignation. After years of air raid sirens, blacked-out windows, food rations, and disease, the Japanese people were physically and emotionally defeated and weary. Some saw the Occupation as another nail in the coffin of Japan’s shame; others viewed the American incursion as an opportunity to further political goals. Most were so preoccupied with the struggle to survive that they didn’t have the energy to choose a side. Groups, minorities in particular, were virtually abandoned by GHQ — Koreans forced into wartime labor, Okinawans unable to return home due to dismal conditions, atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha (被爆者), and “comfort women” were left to the mercy — or indifference — of the Japanese government.
A lot can be said of the Occupation — it was a marvel of top-down democratization, a forced effort to colonize Japan, an imperialistic, and later militaristic, effort to engage Japan in Cold War politics. Nevertheless, it marked a crucial turning point for a Japan that needed to bridge the treacherous territory between pre-war and post-war existence.
Dower, John. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. Penguin Books, 1999. Print.
Pena, Jessica. “Japanese Women’s Fight for Equal Rights: Feminism and the US Occupation of Japan, 1945 – 1952” (2016). CUNY Academic Works. http://academicworks.cuny.edu/cc_etds_theses/569
Swann, Sebastian. “Reflections on the allied occupation of Japan.” IS (370). Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. October 1999. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/6902/