The story of Japan after World War Two is
commonly told in the west as follows: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Japan Surrenders ???
Anime But what actually fits in that gap between
the Japanese surrender and Goku? No, the answer is NOT Godzilla. I’m your host David and
today we’re going to discuss a key part of that story, Japanese reconstruction. This
is…The Cold War! After several years of bloody war, two nuclear
bombs set off on civilian centres, and a recent declaration of war by the Soviet Union, the
government of Japan was ready to surrender. They announced that they would accept the
Allies terms for surrender known as the Potsdam Declaration. Emperor Hirohito himself announced
the unconditional surrender to the Japanese the next day. For many, this was the voice
of a literally divine figure under the state-led version of Shinto, giving in to a foreign
enemy. It was also the first time most of the Japanese people heard their Emperor’s
voice. What was one of the most important days in
Japanese history is celebrated around the world as Victory in Japan day or V-J day,
the end of the Second World War. Keep in mind Japan’s war was beyond the bookends of what
is commonly referred to in the West as the Second World War, as their war started in
1937. So, for the Japanese this was an end to eight years of bloodshed. The allies were
led by the legendary, certainly in his own mind anyway, General Douglas MacArthur, appointed
by President Truman, arrived later in the month to lead the US occupation.
The legal surrender solidified that Japan would no longer be a dictatorship, allowing
for democracy, and destroying their capacity to make war. For the next six years, Japan
would be under direct military occupation, with Macarthur more or less in charge of the
country. This more considerable latitude of control by the US as opposed to say Germany,
let the Americans shape Japan into whatever they wanted to shape it into. And shape they
did. At the end of the war, Japan still controlled
held over more than just the Japanese home islands, and so the allies were called in
to manage different areas. Each of which would have… Let’s say…historical significance.
The Republic of China, preparing for a renewed war with the Communists, took control of the
island of Taiwan and the islands in the Taiwan Strait. The US took Okinawa, Japanese occupied
Micronesia and the Amami and Ogasawara islands. [pause for a beat]
Aaaaaaand the southern half of the Korean peninsula. The northern half, along with the
Kuril Islands and South Sakhalin went to the Soviet Union for management. I’m sure that’s
fine, totally peaceful, nothing can possibly go wrong with this setup.
Now unlike in East Germany, Japan was entirely under American control. Besides US troops,
there was only a small force from the British commonwealth brought in to look after demilitarising
the country. With Truman’s concerns about what Stalin appeared to be doing with countries
the USSR had occupation over, he intended to keep the occupation that way. This setup
was actually the second draft, with a first occupation plan of Japan scrapped reasonably
early on. That was a program which looked a lot more like post-war Germany, complete
with occupation zones and the Soviets prepared to take hold of the northern island of Hokkaido.
This turnaround is likely a reason why we don’t talk about a North and South Japan
today. MacArthur arrived in Japan to find one overwhelming
problem: Hunger. Japan remained at the brink of starvation for years, and the US’s first
project was to ship as much food as possible and get it to the people. Quite a task as
there was no functional government and the urban centres of the country had been devastated
by firebombing raids, ironically by the same people who were now in the process of rebuilding
them. The next project was to deal with the Japanese
monarchy. Macarthur wanted a complacent depoliticised emperor. He would remain as a figurehead,
but not interfere with politics. Maybe he can get himself a collection of corgis or
something instead. You can imagine going from a semidivine figure controlling an empire
to figurehead was a bitter pill to swallow. They first met on September 27th, taking this
famous photo, and began to talk. MacArthur famously resisted calls from other allied
leaders to put Hirohito on trial as a war criminal. He knew such an act would turn the
Japanese people against the allied plans for the country and lobbied to keep him in a ceremonial
role. Which he did, serving as Emperor of Japan until his death in 1989.
Things moved quickly and over 350,000 American troops were stationed in Japan by the end
of 1945, and it only stood to grow until the early 50s. However, to this day, the US still
maintains a sizeable military presence in Japan, using it as a base of operations for
their work in east Asia. So what’s next? How do you rebuild a country?
In the case of Japan, you start with tearing old systems down. A primary concern for the
US and their allies was to make sure that Japan, much like Germany, would never rebuild
and get itself into another war. Japan had to dismantle its imperial holdings. Places
like Manchuria, a Japanese conquest since before the Second World War, were returned
to China. This return of territory was a strategically important move in the renewed Chinese civil
war, and who got what in the surrender mattered quite a bit. But you’ll have to watch our
previous video on the subject for more information. Korea, an even older Japanese holding, was
given provisional independence. The major holdup was that the peninsula was jointly
occupied between the Americans and the Soviet Union, each of which had very different ideas
of what Korea should look like. This tension led to a massive war in the early 50s, and
of course you can look forward to seeing that covered on this channel. That conflict is
still not resolved to this day, even without the existence of the Soviet Union. If you’ve
ever wondered where the deal with the two Koreas started, well, now you know.
On that note, the Soviets just flat out claimed South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. They
kicked out the approximate 400,000 ethnic Japanese people living there and today the
islands have more or less had their Japanese culture removed from them. South Sakhalin
is to this day part of Russia, as are the Kuril islands, but the latter remains a diplomatic
sticking point between Japan and Russia. These expulsions led to hundreds of thousands
of displaced Japanese people from these islands, Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and Manchuria. A
massive relocation effort became necessary. With the imperial holdings stripped, the allies
then needed to dismantle Japan’s capacity to make war. The post-war Japanese constitution
bans Japan from having a military, with the intention of Japan never being able to conduct
an aggressive war again. This restriction might sound like a harsh measure from the
United States and even reminiscent of the conditions imposed on Germany by the Treaty
of Versailles, but it turns out this was an idea coming from the Japanese authorities
themselves. Later on, as the Cold War really established itself, the US even wanted them
to establish the military force. But Japan never really rearmed, beyond a small self-defence
force which was an extension of the police. It’s not until much later that Japan would
build a real military. As in, during the terms of Japan’s two most recent prime ministers.
It now has one of the most massive military budgets on earth. But again, that’s a different
story. But, back to the post-war occupation. Just
like Germany, the US made an effort to deindustrialise the country, although to a much lesser extent,
and even then the US began rebuilding the Japanese economy soon afterwards.
Ok, so what came next? That would be the process of reforming Japan. Taking an authoritarian
imperial state, devastated by war, and putting in tons of liberal reforms. The new Japanese
constitution banned most forms of press censorship, save saying anything that might sour people
to the American occupation of course. With that, the US then went on to completely restructure
Japanese society, government, and economics. Many personal freedoms of religion and conscience
became the law of the land. Education through highschool became mandatory as well, very
similar to the US and political prisoners were no longer permitted.
As we’ve mentioned a few times, Japan also got a shiny new constitution, which solidified
many of these rights. It took inspiration from various documents varying as far as the
US Bill of Rights, to the Soviet constitution. This new Japanese constitution formally made
the Emperor a ceremonial title and enshrined the military ban, voting rights for women,
an empowered parliament, and distributed power more to local governments. With it, they elected
their first Prime Minister in 1946. Many credit the efforts of these reforms to
the increased rights for Japanese women. Women came out to vote in the first election in
vast numbers and even elected 39 female politicians in their first election. One woman by the
name of Beate Sirota was the most prominent advocate for enshrining the equality of women
in the Japanese constitution. Lastly, exposure to western culture also turned some heads
and liberalised the role of women in Japanese society. Relatively speaking, anyway.
Macarthur rebuilt the economy under FDR’s New Deal model used to combat the depression
in the United States. On top of that, there was massive land reform which reduced the
number of peasants, the people working and living on land they rented from a landlord,
by 90%. The right to create and join unions was enshrined, and working conditions were
standardised. The plan the US had for the Japanese economy
was to make a prosperous, stable country, and importantly grow a powerful ally. This
distribution of land and wealth, of course, had its detractors, especially in the form
of well-off Japanese business monopoly leaders and landlords who stood to lose the most,
but reforms were made anyway. It would be easy to paint this as a rosy picture
of Americans graciously coming to Japan and making the country the great place it is today.
But it’d be masking over many darker chapters. Troops stationed in Japan were responsible
for thousands of cases of rape during the war and in the early occupation. The Japanese
tried to combat this by creating facilities for sex workers, and it worked, but Macarthur
shut it down to combat the spread of venereal disease. Reported cases of rape increased
eightfold after this, averaging to about 330 sexual assaults on Japanese women per day,
which given how few were probably even reported, might be just the tip of the iceberg.
So what happened to all those troops? Well, the occupation never really ended. Troop numbers
declined, especially as the US had other interests in places like Korea and Vietnam, but the
occupation of Japan by the US military is still a thing. Military installations there
are massive, and friction between US troops and the locals is still a common occurrence.
A quick google search of incidents involving US military personnel in Okinawa is proof
of that. The Japan of today is now one of the world’s
largest economies and a truly unique modern state. From the ashes of the Second World
War, the US fostered the growth of a powerful ally in a tough region for them. Japan would
often act as an important logistics centre for US operations in the Pacific, and play
a significant role in the Cold War in Asia. We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s topic and
to make sure you don’t miss future episodes, please make sure you are subscribed to our
channel and have pressed the bell button. We can be reached via email at [email protected]
or on facebook at We rely on our patrons to create these videos,
so consider supporting us via This is the Cold War Channel and don’t forget,
“The trouble with a cold war is that it doesn’t take too long before it becomes heated.”