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Occupation’s Mixed Legacy

William K. Tabb teaches economics at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He is the author of The Postwar Japanese System: Cultural Economy and Economic Transformation(Oxford University Press, 1995), The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-first Century (Monthly Review, 2001), and Unequal Partners: A Primer on Globalization (The New Press, 2002).

Eiji Takemae, Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Its Legacy, translated and adapted by Robert Ricketts and Sebastian Swann with a preface by John W. Dower (New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002), 751 pages, hardcover $40.

Eiji Takemae, the doyen of Occupation studies in Japan, first wrote in 1983 in Japanese this fascinating account of how the United States, over a brief space of time, “dramatically rewove the social, economic and political fabric of a modern state, resetting its national priorities, redirecting its course of development.” It is now available in a substantially revised and enlarged English edition. This major contribution is accessible to the general reader with little or no background in these important events—which brought New Deal reform to an essentially feudal country, and in what became known as the reverse course, restored important elements of the Old Order as part of a Cold War turnaround. While right-wing Japanese then and now present the democratization process as the imposition of a victor’s peace and cultural imperialism, for most Japanese it was liberation from repressive militarist autocracy.

Like their German and Italian contemporaries, Japan’s rulers believed their country had been denied its fair share of colonial spoils. They demanded a redistribution of wealth and power in Asia that reflected Japan’s industrial and military strength. The United States resisted, since such redistribution could only come at its expense. Rather than seeing the war as a matter of Japanese aggression, Japan’s leaders believed it was forced on them by the Western imperialists asserting control over Japan’s natural co-prosperity sphere. From a broader Asian perspective, Japan’s imperial expansion shattered the mystique of Western supremacy and contributed to a consciousness of the Western colonialists’ vulnerability. However, an exploitative, and in many instances inhumane, Japanese brutality toward “lesser peoples,” enslavement, forced labor, and other forms of savagery left wounds that affect the politics of the region to this day. Takemae explains that the Japanese soldiers committing these atrocities were themselves denied basic civil liberties, indoctrinated to be obedient subjects of an emperor-god, subjected to rigid police control, and were the product of a society where ultra-rightist pronouncements seemed to prefer national extinction to defeat. Readers can learn more about the experiences of Japanese soldiers and the civilians they encountered in Soldier Alive (forthcoming from University of Hawaii Press) a grimly realistic novella by Ishikawa Tatsuzo, based on his experiences in China and banned by the Japanese government.

American soldiers perhaps had less excuse for their excesses, described in the early chapters of the book. U.S. paratroopers who landed in Sapporo, for example, engaged in an orgy of looting, violence, drunken brawling, gang rapes and other sexual atrocities. But the actions of rank and file soldiers are as nothing to the policies of military leaders. On the American side, there is General Curtis LeMay’s use of incendiary bombs filled with a volatile mixture of jellied gasoline, phosphorous, and magnesium specially designed to incinerate Japan’s “wood-and-paper” cities. The author quotes a staff memorandum from General Douglas MacArthur’s psychological warfare chief calling the fire bombings “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.” And then there are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, necessary, in the opinion of Secretary of State Byrnes and other Truman advisers, to make the Russians more manageable in the postwar period.

Takemae tells the absorbing story of the Occupation’s dynamic in which the allies, especially the Soviets, are frozen out of any serious role, and MacArthur, ostensibly overseeing the administration of Japan under Washington’s orders, arrogates power to set policy. The new constitution he imposed on the Japanese, for example, was announced to Washington and the Far Eastern Commission of the allies as a fait accompli. When the commission demanded the right to review the constitutional draft MacArthur reminded them they were merely a policy-making body and that policy implementation was the exclusive provenance of SCAP (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers—MacArthur and his General Headquarters staff). We get the measure of the man: born in Little Rock to a military family; graduate of West Point (with the highest grades ever recorded there); the youngest Army chief of staff; the man who orders his troops forcibly to evict the 20,000 veterans of the First World War and their families who came to Washington demanding payment of their service bonuses (he said the march was the work of Communists); devout Episcopalian with a pronounced evangelical streak; a man on a civilizing mission whose patriotic populism might have carried him to the White House, had he deigned to solicit party support and campaign for the nomination. Takemae describes his overweening self-confidence as betraying a smug paternalism beneath which lurked a racialist impulse. While the general is the key participant in the events described, the author places his actions on a larger canvas, making room for the many players who influence the course of events. Indeed, a major strength of this study is the densely woven fabric of the many elements of the story, the civil servants, both Japanese and American, the academics and movement activists, the politicians and military figures, who shaped the Occupation’s effects.

MacArthur, whose power was extraordinary, in the last instance made many of the key decisions, such as leaving the Emperor as a symbol of national unity in a democratic society, rather than prosecuting him as a war criminal. This particular crucial choice was based on the judgment that leaving the Emperor in place while redefining his role would make the job of the Occupation easier. That Hirohito was as much a war criminal as those found guilty by the tribunal is evident. He had been informed of all military decisions taken in his name, supported them, helped shape strategy, second-guessed command decisions and occasionally intervened in field operations. The Emperor had dismissed appeals by his top advisers (many of whom were later convicted as war criminals) to end the war, resulting in many thousands of unnecessary deaths. First, he insisted, Japan must win a major victory in the field to improve Japan’s bargaining power and make retention of the emperor system more likely.

The ambiguity of the Emperor’s position was manipulated by the Japanese government, which for domestic consumption translated SCAP pronouncements to imply the retention of Imperial sovereignty, diverging dramatically from Washington’s directive. The ambiguity was allowed on the advice of U.S. advisers who otherwise feared revolution and Communism. The Emperor’s official statements fed this interpretation. During the surrender, his people heard his voice for the first time as he announced, “the war has not necessarily developed in our favor” and asked them to “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.” The military refused to use the term “surrender” and maneuvered to keep the Emperor’s status undiminished. There is no doubt, as Takemae writes, that in preserving the emperor system GHQ also “perpetuated a powerful and transcendent symbol around which a conservative hegemony would later coalesce.”

The heart of the book treats the genesis of reform and the dramatic changes to Japanese society put in motion by GHQ. U.S. policy makers were divided in their approach to the mission of the Occupation. Pro-China hardliners advocated a severe peace believing that the totalitarian Emperor-centered political system, a “deistic feudalism” managed by giant financial and industrial conglomerates, the zaibatsu, had to be destroyed. The so-called Japan Crowd proposed a soft peace, a liberalized restoration of the prewar regime, continuity of the monarchy divested of its antidemocratic features, and a revitalized but demilitarized economy. The book vividly recounts the influence of different factions and individual players in what is a complex mosaic since the Japanese progressives and conservatives held shaded views as did the Washington and SCAP actors. Students of the period will benefit from chapters detailing the role of the specialized staff sections within GHQ and their interaction with Japanese advisers and political figures of importance. General readers will find these discussions fascinating on both the human and political levels. We are introduced to ambitious ultra-conservative rabidly anticommunist future John Birchers and progressive Japan scholars enlisted to the Occupation later to be blacklisted as Communists or sympathizers during the McCarthy period and driven from public service.

Each of the objectives of the Occupation MacArthur carried out are treated in detail: punishing war criminals, destroying Japan’s military power, holding free elections, enfranchising women, liberalizing education, separating church from state, liberating the farmers, supporting free trade unions, civil rights and civil liberties, abolishing police oppression, and modernizing the constitution. There is useful discussion of the importance of Article Nine of the constitution, which outlawed belligerency as an instrument of state policy and so committed Japan to not maintaining a standing army. It is also explained how as the Cold War begins the United States, which had insisted on the provision, does all it can to force Japan to rearm and become part of the U.S. projection of military force in the world.

Initially the Occupation sought to destroy the institutional roots of militarism and the social and economic forces that had motivated its imperialist aggressions. Virtually overnight SCAP swept away the repressive infrastructure that had supported the police state transferring sovereignty from the Emperor to the people in an effort to depoliticize the throne and empower ordinary citizens. Conservatives argue that the new constitutional order was imposed at gunpoint. “Perhaps, but we should remember,” Takemae writes quoting Christian socialist Katayama Tetsu, that “it was imposed on reactionaries, not the people, and that most Japanese recognized that singular fact.”

In restructuring the economy, SCAP not only took measures to purge militarists from the large zaibatsu, but also to break up powerful conglomerates like Mitsubishi and Mitsui. However, these economic power centers were able to maintain their internal integrity and to reorganize so that within five years they had basically reconstituted themselves, a task made easier by the pro-corporate anti-communism of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and Under Secretary of the Army William Draper, both former partners in a major Wall Street investment house, and the interventions of Senator William Knowland, media opinion molders in the United States, and other defenders of free enterprise.

The progressive New Dealers and the business interests had agreed at the start of the Occupation that the skewed income distribution in Imperial Japan had both necessitated conquering export markets and underlay Japan’s comparative advantage. Europe and the United States saw the low wages of Japanese workers as social dumping. In their view, the underpaid, overworked, and docile workforce and the semi-feudal labor practices of the zaibatsu had to be transformed. Democratization, by encouraging free trade unions and sponsoring civil rights, addressed features of Japanese society that had led to war, and it was also consistent with the desire to eliminate unfair competition previously enjoyed by Japanese industry. “Sound” unionism was also seen as an antidote to labor radicalism. The Occupation abolished the Imperial Patriotic Industrial Association and Patriotic Labor Association established by the militarists, replacing these top-down-control agencies with a model based on the U.S. Wagner Act. In the context of the long period of repression and accumulated grievances, the radicalism of workers set in motion a militancy far beyond what GHQ had expected. A strike wave and the growth of Communist- and left socialist-led unions eclipsed more moderate leadership. The labor struggles of the period for worker self-management, the clashes of competing labor federations, MacArthur’s banning of a proposed general strike, and the reshaping of labor policy as the Cold War loomed are all well described.

Many of the most interesting parts of the book discuss how, after the early punitive phase of the Occupation, the reform process was a collaborative one in which progressive Japanese academics and civil servants worked closely with New Deal Americans to revolutionize thinking on such issues as women’s rights, in the face of resistance from the defenders of the Old Order often with surprising results. In October 1947, for example, Japanese legislators abolished the crime of adultery when SCAP insisted that the law, which had previously only applied to women, be enforced for men as well. Many specific guarantees of rights for women, formulated by American women working in the Occupation’s bureaucracy but in close collaboration with the Japanese women’s movement, advanced reforms that went beyond the rights enjoyed by women in the United States at the time. We also learn of the work of Nisei (American nationals of Japanese descent who were educated in Japan and returned to the United States before the outbreak of the war) members of the U.S. Women’s Army Corps educated Japanese women at the grassroots level about their democratic rights under the new constitution and encouraged them to exercise their new freedoms.

Nisei had been crucial in translation and intelligence work during the conflict, some volunteering for service right out of the internment camps. The head of MacArthur’s intelligence unit once boasted that a single language expert was worth an infantry battalion and that Japanese-American linguists saved a million American lives and shortened the war by two years. Their role has generally gone unrecognized, in some measure because it was white officers who signed their intelligence reports and took credit for these exploits. It was not until the archives were opened many years later that the contributions of Nisei soldiers were finally recognized.

Takemae’s discussion of the Dodge Plan (1947), an economic stabilization program which favored the former zaibatsu at the expense of small and medium sized firms and included austerity measures which allowed the purging of uncooperative civil servants (i.e. dissenters), conveys a sense of the neoliberalism which has been integral to the Washington Consensus and Wall Street’s efforts to restore Japan’s capitalist class to undisputed authority. The red purges of 1949–1950 to combat Communist influence in public life, the rehabilitation of rightists, the rearming of Japan in violation of Article Nine and pressure to play an active role in U.S. run military interventions and projections of force were all part of the reverse course which restored unindicted war criminals to positions of authority, centralized control in Tokyo and deprived local governments of the ability to pursue progressive policies. The resulting system of patronage, structured corruption, and money politics has reinforced conservative political rule to this day. The legacy of the Occupation is a mixed one. At a time when Japan is racked with the contradictions of a failed political Establishment, the hangover of speculative financial excesses, and a resurgence of right-wing nationalism, the story of the U.S. Occupation and its legacy take on a new importance. Professor Takemae’s indispensable contribution is most welcome.

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