Education About Asia: Online Archives

Another Look at the Occupation of Japan: Through the Minefields of Japanese History

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Observing the difficulties encountered in the American occupation of Iraq in the summer of 2003, we are reminded of just how hard it is to impose democratic rule by military force on a nation unaccustomed to democracy. And, with the perspective of more than a half a century, we can marvel at the success of the American occupation of Japan.

History beguiles us with its apparent inevitability. We tend to forget alternative courses that could have been taken. In the case of the occupation of Japan, it is worth remembering today that it was by no means inevitable that Douglas MacArthur would emerge as benevolent Shogun, that the Emperor would persuade his people peacefully to lay down their arms, that able Japanese bureaucrats would manage the transition from abject defeat to economic miracle, that Shigeru Yoshida would provide strong leadership, that communists supported by the Soviet Union did not foment a revolution, and that the people would welcome democracy.

There was nothing inevitable about how the occupation unfolded, and in fact a close study of the making of U.S. policy toward Japan in 1945 indicates that there was serious disagreement about how to deal with a defeated Japan. Some in the Truman Administration argued for the execution or forced abdication of the Emperor, the complete breakup of the zaibatsu (powerful financial combines), and permanent purge of the prewar governing aristocratic, bureaucratic, and business elites. That disagreement arose in part out of an even older argument among scholars and historians of Japan about the nature of Japanese society and governance since 1600. It continues among scholars to this day. Quite simply, were the Japanese people prepared to embrace democracy and make it work?