Parts of the left back any opposition to US imperialism around the world dogmatically, without qualification, and with little attempt to examine what the effects and actions of the imperialist power are. Or what the political character of the local alternatives to imperialism are. These leftists might be suprised by the story of the US imperialist intervention in Japan, contradicting as it does, some preconceived notions of how an imperialist power behaves.
Japan’s Second World War had the most brutal end. On 6 August 1945 a US Superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. By the end of 1945 140,000 people had died from the immediate blast, or from disease and radiation poisoning in the aftermath.
Two days later the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan, using battle-hardened troops to rapidly over-run the million-strong Japanese army in China.
And on 9 August the US used a second atom bomb on Nagasaki, killing around 80,000.
Finally, nine days after Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. Hirohito told the nation by radio that the Total War, a “holy war” in which the Japanese had been encouraged to “give themselves courageously to the state”, had “not turn[ed] in Japan’s favor” and that the people must “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.”
On the eve of the Emperor’s announcement military officers from the War Ministry and Army General staff broke into the palace and attempted to find and destroy the recording of the declaration; others set fire to the Prime Minister’s house. When all failed and Japan had surrendered around 500 officers and the War Minister, Anami Korechika, committed suicide.
The “unendurable and unbearable” was Allied military occupation — in reality American occupation. Large numbers of US troops began arriving in late August 1945 and the occupation continued until April 1952.
Ruling through Japanese governments, using the existing bureaucracy and maintaining the Emperor, the US achieved a “democratic revolution from above” in Japan.
US imperial power was used to break the power of the fascistic military caste that had dominated Japanese politics in the 1930s to create a stable bourgeois democracy.
The period of the American intervention had three distinct phases: from the 1945 to 1947-8 (when the US turned against the workers, and the Cold War began); from 1948 up until the start of the Korean war in 1950; and the final phase leading up to US withdrawal in 1952. Following a period of reforming zeal at the start of the occupation, the US shifted more and more towards backing and shoring up conservative organisations and parties, including reliance on members of the former regime and those opposed to previous US-directed reforms, while increasingly repressing the left and the pseudo-left Communist Party.
Japan on its knees
Between 1939 and 1945 Japan suffered two million military and 580,000 war-related civilian deaths, or 3.7 % of the population of 71 million (1939).
Most of what was left of Japan’s fleet had been sunk at the battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, and by 1945 three quarters of commercial shipping had also been destroyed. A quarter of all rolling-stock and motor vehicles had gone. Nine million people were homeless. Four and a half million servicemen were declared ill or disabled.
At the war’s end one-quarter of the country’s wealth had been wiped-out. Sixty-six major cities had been heavily bombed and 40% of these cities had been destroyed. Rural living standards stood at 65% of their pre-war levels; non-rural were down to 35%.
The defeat left 6.5 million Japanese stranded across Asia. In the winter of 1945 nearly a quarter of a million Japanese died in Manchuria alone.
When the Emperor declared the end of the war it was the first time most Japanese had heard his voice. The declaration punctured his status. Post-war most Japanese still believed in keeping the institution of Emperor, but they did so with little enthusiasm. The Emperor had presided over an enormous disaster, leading to the shock and humiliation of foreign occupation.
The Americans decided to keep the Emperor in place because they were concerned to maintain political stability, but the Emperor’s role was now set within the framework of a constitutional monarchy.
War crimes trials followed. The trial that attracted world attention was the Tokyo Tribunal. Twenty five senior Japanese leaders, including former prime minister General Tojo Hidecki, faced charges including “conspiracy against peace” and counts of permitting atrocities. Seven were sentenced to death and hung.
Across Asia the British, Dutch, US and others put Japanese accused of war crimes on trial. Excluding the USSR, the Allies executed about 920 prisoners. The Russians may have killed up to 3000 more following short, secret tribunals. Most of those convicted were relatively low-level figures in the military and almost nond of the leading civilian bureaucrats, journalists or politicians were brought to trial. And although there was some popular support for bringing the Japanese war leadership to justice — especially amongst leftists — American justice seemed somewhat arbitrary.
There was a big hole in the US’s case. There was no comparable organisation to the Nazi party in Japan, and the only ever-present leading figure throughout the wars of Japanese expansion was the Emperor. If a “conspiracy against peace” did exist amongst the Japanese leadership, then the Emperor was at the centre of it. However the Americans had decided they needed Hirohito — and the US went to extraordinary lengths to protect him, re-inventing the Emperor as a pacifist and democrat.
The Americans bring workers’ and women’s rights
The first raft of US-directed reforms included the release of political prisoners, the legalisation of the Communist Party, and pro-union legislation (the Trade Union Law, passed December 1945). The Peace Preservation Law (1925) under which thousands of leftist critics of the government had been arrested, was scrapped. The Special Higher Police force — or “thought police” — was abolished.
The vote was granted to women, and the US began a drive to break up the huge zaibatsu corporations and an agrarian reform which would smash the landlord class in the countryside. The state-sponsored cult of Shinto, a buttress of right-wing nationalism, was abolished in December 1945, and the rising-sun flag was prohibited.
Over the next two years the US would abolish laws which discriminated against women, reform the law and purge education, decentralise the police and impose a constitution that committed Japan to democracy and explicitly forbade Japan from resorting to war to solve international disputes.
And the US began to purge members of the old regime and elites. They would eventually prohibit 200 000 individuals from holding public office.
Among many ordinary Japanese there was real enthusiasm for the US democratisation. 2,700 candidates belonging to 363 political parties contested the Diet elections of April 1946. 95% of the candidates had never held office before. Women got the vote for the first time and 39 women were elected.
Encouraged by the changes imposed on Japan, workers, women and students began to organise. A few weeks after the Diet elections on 1 May, two million marched to celebrate May Day – an event that had been banned since 1936.
By the end of 1945 the unions claimed 380,000 members; a year later that figure stood at 5.6 million, peaking at 6.7 million in mid-1948.
Between the beginning of 1946 and the end of 1950 6,432 disputes involving 19 million workers were recorded.
And workers began to occupy workplaces as a mechanism of forcing management to concede to their demands – at first mainly wage increases. At the end of 1945 workers took possession of railways, mines and newspapers, running them briefly under workers’ control. Later, workers took over factories belonging to owners who were believed to be sabotaging production as a method of undermining the US’s democratisation plans. Incidents of “production control” increased in the first months of 1946, concentrated in the Tokyo area and in particular in the machine tools sector.
Social Democratic and Communist parties expand
Communist Party leader Nosaka Sanzo claimed he wanted to see a “loveable Communist Party”, and spoke of the need for a “democratic people’s front”. He explained that this did not mean “that we are trying to realise socialism by overthrowing capitalism today.” The Communists, he said, “are the true patriots and the true service brigade for democracy.” Communists and Socialists were elected to the Diet in April 1946. In future years the left would be the staunchest defenders of the changes the US had forced on Japan.
The Socialist-led Sodomei and CP-led Sanbetsu were both founded in August 1946. In October a major industrial offensive was mounted by the CP unions against the threat of job losses on the railways and in the public sector. A general strike, initially backed by all wings of the labour movement, was set for 1 February 1947. Despite assurances from the strike leaders that the movement would not directly affect the occupation forces, and that the railways would continue to run, the US stepped in and banned the strike.
The US opposition to the strike shocked many of the left and union leaders and delighted members of the old ruling class. Ii Yashiro, a central member of the strike’s organising committee, said later that this was the point that it became clear that the Americans were “deceiving the Japanese people with democracy only at the tip of their tongues.”
In the summer of 1948 US Supreme Commander in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, banned strikes in the public sector and began helping the formation of anti-Communist organisations within the unions — leading to the formation of a new anti-Communist union federation in 1950.
Beginning in 1949 purges were directed against the left and the Communists. Close collaboration began between occupation officials, managers, and conservative politicians in a drive to break the unions. Eleven thousand union activists were purged from the public sector between the end of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean war on 25 June 1950.
After the war started the witch-hunt was extended to the private sector.
Alongside the “Red purge” came the return to public life of many reactionaries who had previously been purged “for all time” for association with the old regime.
The Communist Party changed line, ending their “loveable JCP” period and taking up a more militant attitude to the occupation. Following a small confrontation between CPers and US troops, MacArthur ordered the Japanese government to “remove and exclude from public service” the 24 members of the CP’s central committee and 17 editors of communist newspapers. Although the CP and its paper were not banned, most of the CP’s leaders went underground for the remainder of the occupation.
Land reform and industry
Following obstruction in the Diet from the representatives of the landlord class, MacArthur forced one of the most radical land reforms in world history on the Japanese government. Legislation went through a reluctant lower House in October 1946.
The new law saw the compulsory purchase by the state of all land held by absentee landlords. “Owner-farmers and resident landlords were allowed to retain from 12 cho (about 12 hectares) in Hokkaido, to 3 cho elsewhere, not more than a third of which was to be let to tenants. Everything above those limits was to be sold to the government [… at 1945 rates], which were artificially low and had long since been overtaken by inflation in order to be offered to existing tenants on easy terms… more than a million cho of rice paddy and 800,000 cho of upland was bought from 2.3 million landlords by August 1950 and sold to 4.7 million tenants. Land under tenancy agreements, amounting to over 40% in 1946, dropped to a mere 10%… land committees, each consisting of five tenants, three landlords and two owner-farmers were set up in every village to oversee the operation… the reform made Japan substantially a country of peasant proprietors. Their natural conservatism was to be a key factor in sustaining a succession of right-wing governments, while their improved economic status helped to create a wider domestic market.” (WG Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan).
Over hald Japan’s population then lived on the land and in 1945-7 many depended on families in the countryside to get food. The US carried out land reform because it believed a large small-farmer class to be the best bulwark against “communism” and resurgent oligarchic militarism; but it had a huge economic and social impact.
Initially the US’s policy was not to “assume responsibility for the economic rehabilitation of Japan.” Up until 1948 the US intended that Japan would “stew in its own juices.” America did provide $2bn in economic aid, but that was mainly food aid donated for political reasons, designed to head off serious social unrest.
In the first three years or occupation the US confined itself to identifying targets for potential reparations, drawing up lists of capitalists to be purged and identifying “excessive concentrations of economic power” to be broken up.
The big Japanese capitalists were — generally — pleased to see the war end and glad the Americans had removed the “national socialist” militarists who had attempted to impose total control over the economy.
At the end of the war Japanese capitalism was highly concentrated. Ten corporations controlled nearly 50% of capital in mining, machinery, shipbuilding, chemicals, banking and 60% of insurance and shipping.
At first the US intended to radically break up these corporations in the name of “economic democracy”. In the end the reforms were mild as the US turned towards re-floating the Japanese economy as a strategic political response to the beginnings of the Cold War.
In December 1948 Washington sent Detroit banker Joseph Dodge to Tokyo with the task of creating a functioning market economy. The “Dodge Line” cut the welfare and education budgets, curbed inflation and promoted exports. Dodge’s policy seemed in danger of creating a depression in Japan, which was averted by the start of the Korean war, which led to a war boom in Japan.
The treaty that led to US withdrawal in 1952 confirmed the loss of all territories seized by Japan in the 20th century. The US maintained bases in Japan, and Japan began being re-armed as a Cold War ally of America.
In the final years of occupation America had shifted from reform to reconstruction. But, despite the qualifications, Japan had been substantially re-molded by the US — and for the better.