A Client State Pushes Eighty

Japan in Washington’s World Order

This year marks the 79th anniversary of the end of World War II. Seven years after surrendering to the Allies in 1945, the American-led occupation of Japan ended with the implementation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed the year before by Japan’s pro-American prime minister Shigeru Yoshida under the looming presence of Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Truman’s outside advisor, John Foster Dulles. At long last, the devastating warfare in the Pacific theater could be put aside, as Japan moved forward into a new, internationalist future laid out for her by Washington, D.C. 

But did the war really end? And has Japan fully reclaimed her independence and sovereign status nearly 80 years after the gunfire stopped? For some Japanese, Aug. 15, 1945, the date on which the Shōwa Emperor asked his people to “endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable,” bears a deeper meaning than just the war’s conclusion. The U.S.-led Allied occupation from 1945 to 1952 following Japan’s unconditional surrender signified the decline of the Rising Sun and the transfer of its sovereignty to its erstwhile nemesis.

The archipelago’s occupation may have been preferable to what Japan could have expected from its neighbors, the Soviets and the Chinese. But it was nevertheless brutal. There was physical hardship and violence. Starvation and homelessness were rampant. And many Japanese women were violated by Allied servicemen. But even longer lasting than the physical suffering was the blow the occupiers dealt to the Japanese psyche, and the ramifications of the U.S.’s hardline policies that remain with Japan today. 

A nation ruined and devastated by atomic raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a cruel firebombing campaign against major civilian centers was left to be reconstructed and inculcated by American evangelical liberalism propaganda. Japan’s infrastructure was blown to smithereens—but that was all quickly rebuilt. Japan’s spirit, however, her traditional culture and religious sensibilities, were withered by the transplanted New Dealers and other exporters of liberal democracy. What visitors to Japan find today is essentially a shell of a country, intact in externalities, but dying out due to the psychological blight brought in by the American conquerors.

For this reason, Aug. 15, 1945 marks the war’s end in only a limited sense. When World War II in Asia ceased, the war for the meaning of that war had already begun. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s classic work of cultural psychoanalysis, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was published in 1946, long after the fighting had stopped. Benedict’s book was not, as many believe, a manual for winning the shooting war, but a guidebook for psychologically dismantling a defeated people.

Geopolitical factors also conspired to ensure that Washington’s sway over Japan would be strong, and lasting. The Cold War that descended upon the world with a frigid blast, even as the last bombs on Japan were falling, intensified U.S. intervention in the Asia-Pacific. Strategically, having the upper hand in Japan’s postwar disposition became crucial for Washington’s drive to maintain an archipelagic bulwark against Communist expansion in Asia. But this, in turn, circled back to the psychological. To stay in Japan, Americans would have to Americanize it. Which they did, at enormous cost to the Japanese soul.

In the context of Japanese history, there is a great irony here, one often overlooked in the Washington-centric tellings of the Cold War. The Allies defeated the Japanese Empire and effectively installed Washington-style democracy (although Japan had been a constitutional monarchy, at least until the 1930s), permanently demilitarized the state, and suppressed Japan’s imperialistic aspirations. Yet in doing so, the Allies inevitably inherited the defunct Japanese Empire’s intractable problems on the Asian mainland. Even as the Americans were waging psy-ops against the Japanese people, the Americans were finding it necessary to think in terms of the geopolitical headaches the Japanese had dealt with for decades before the USS Missouri arrived in Tokyo Bay.

Cold war meant long war and long war meant battening down the civilizational hatches. The consolidation of the Soviets’ Eastern Bloc, along with temporal pressures arising from domestic American politics, drove the occupiers to implement an array of domineering policies as the new shoguns of Japan. Most distinguishable was the War Guilt Information Program (WGIP), an indoctrination campaign aimed at suppressing Japanese history, tradition, and culture, while instilling a sense of guilt and shame into Japanese minds.

Benedict had insisted that the Japanese were incapable of feeling guilt, so the Americans duly ratcheted up that part of their propaganda campaign. The Japanese people were to apologize and atone in perpetuity, not just for the war which the Allies blamed largely on Japan, but also for being Japanese. Japanese culture as a whole was disparaged, textbooks were redacted, and an entirely new Japan, reconstructed in the image of New Deal Washington, was erected on the civilizational rubble.

Recent scholarship by Japanese researchers such as Shirō Takahashi, Tetsuo Arima, and Michio Sekino has laid bare the motives and mechanisms of the postwar psy-ops campaign against more than 100 million Japanese people. In the name of the WGIP, the occupiers subdued movements, and even simple utterances, that undermined occupational goals. Accordingly, unvetted discussions of the Imperial Household, along with aspects of Shintoism and Buddhism—core facets of Japanese spiritual life—were censored. Foreign books that revealed inconvenient truths about the occupation and the war, like Mirror for Americans: Japan by Helen Mears, or John Hersey’s exposé of the horrors of the atomic bombing, Hiroshima, were heavily suppressed in the islands. It was a censorial full-court press. Before there were the Twitter Files, there was the WGIP.

From the very beginning, postwar censorship by the American occupiers was systematic and broad. Directives issued by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) Gen. Douglas MacArthur in September 1945 imposed controls on the Japanese press and radio waves. Japan’s daily newspaper of record, The Asahi Shimbun, was suspended for two days for criticizing the censorship policy. Immediately after the suspension, MacArthur released SCAPIN-33, the Press Code for Japan, which included prohibitions against printing anything to “disturb public tranquility,” or “destructive criticism” against the occupying forces or the Allied Powers, including the Soviet Union (another neat irony of Cold War history).

General Douglas MacArthur
Emperor Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur at their first meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Sept. 27, 1945.
(U.S. Army Archives)

No reporting on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a negative light or on the rapes of Japanese women by American servicemen was permitted. It was forbidden even to mention the existence of the press code, making the censorship regime truly a “closed-off discursive space,” in the phrase that the Japan intellectual Jun Etō later used to describe life under postwar Allied censorship.

Above all, Japan was stripped of its inherent right to determine its constitutional destiny. In February 1946, under Gen. MacArthur’s direction, Gen. Courtney Whitney and other senior army officers gathered secretly to guide the drafting of a fresh constitution. A previous proposal submitted by Japanese officials was summarily dismissed for too closely resembling the old Meiji Constitution of 1889. In the end, the Americans worked from a draft done in six days by a small team of low-ranking functionaries. Col. Charles Kades, the project leader, admitted to having “zero” knowledge of Japan. Beate Sirota, who wrote a memoir of the experience titled The Only Woman in the Room, was one of the only members of the team with Japanese-language ability. She was also a New Deal fanatic.

The Allied Powers, working on many levels of ideology and political supremacy, promulgated what became the supreme law of Japan in November 1946. During a review by Japanese officials of the documents, Gen. Whitney cut off any objections they may have had by remarking that MacArthur’s General Headquarters Command “could not answer for whatever might happen to the Emperor” if SCAP’s draft was not accepted. During negotiations over the constitution, Whitney pointedly observed that he had been enjoying Japan’s “atomic sunshine.” The Japanese officials promptly fell in line. The American occupation was a classic Washington operation; the facade of democracy remained, but in reality, an entrenched oligarchy called the shots.

The occupation is remembered quite differently among mainstream historians in both Japan and the United States. Both countries’ media tell largely the same story. The sweeping American-imposed reforms, including the new constitution, are credited with having transformed a formerly militaristic state into one of the wealthiest liberal democracies of the modern era. Japan is seen as the most triumphant case of America’s nation-building in modern history, and many Americans and Japanese believe that Japan owes the bulk of its postwar achievements to the reconstruction era. George W. Bush even used Japan as an argument for why the Americans should “democratize” Iraq.

Of course, reputation is not necessarily the opposite of historical reality. And at any rate, one may reasonably contend that a top-down “hard peace” approach was a necessary means to an end in postwar Japan. In that sense, total subjugation of the host state was inevitable. But things were not so black and white. Those who focus largely on stories of war-torn Japan’s miraculous socioeconomic and political recuperation overlook the fact that the era of the U.S.-led occupation was a sequence of complex political and security trade-offs reflecting the unique circumstances of the Cold War era. The thornier truth is that those trade-offs of yesteryear, born as they were from the unyielding nature of the occupation, spawned negative consequences that are with Japan to this day.

Notably, Japan has been and still remains a “nation of exception.” The controversial Article Nine of the Japanese constitution renounced Tokyo’s war-making abilities and right to possess national arms. This, however, put Japan in a peculiar postwar predicament. With no military of its own, Japan had no choice but to depend on U.S. military power to safeguard her “sovereignty” and “independence.”

It is true that the American use of Japan as a staging ground for unleashing violence in Southeast Asia and waging war on the Korean Peninsula calls into question the alleged “demilitarization” of Japan. Some will also point to the “Reverse Course,” a time during the occupation when many on the American side began pushing for Japan to rearm so that it could assist the U.S. in the increasingly tense Cold War situation in Asia. But there was not much reverse to the course after all. Japan remains a platform for American military power even today. An asymmetric security pact signed in January 1960 sealed the deal, reducing Japan’s postwar status to that of America’s de facto semi-vassal state.

There is much more to this than geopolitics. Postwar Japan faced an identity crisis engendered by its defeat and by the ongoing WGIP campaign. Much of this centered on the Emperor, who was left as a symbol of Japan but stripped of almost every other attribute. On New Year’s Day 1946, the Emperor was forced to disavow his connection to divinity and was relegated to the status of a mere symbol. The Allied Powers aggressively downsized the Imperial Household and censored writings that cherished or called for the restoration of imperial power. Consequently, the Japanese people were robbed of their spiritual foundation. This, and the lack of control over the postwar road map more generally, meant a vacancy in national constitutional identity.

What was Japan’s kokutai, or its national identity and character? In the postwar world, nobody knew. Nobody knows what it means to be Japanese now. The ambiguity of postwar Japanese life has been a theme taken up by intellectuals for the past 80 years, for example by novelist Kenzaburō Ōe in his 1994 Nobel acceptance speech. Japan has recently been rearming under the aegis of Washington’s latest neoconservative adventurism in Eastern Europe and Asia. But the Japanese civilizational malaise continues.

The American occupiers drove in yet another stake to the civilizational heart of Japan: the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE, or Tokyo Trial), modeled after the Nuremberg trials in Germany. For the occupation to make sense and to be politically justified, the Japanese had to be Nazis, too. Hence, the IMTFE. Over a thousand Japanese soldiers and civilian employees were tried as Class B and C war criminals throughout the region. But the real Nuremberg treatment came with the prosecutions of the Class A defendants. Former prime minister Hideki Tōjō and 27 other men in high office were indicted on charges of crimes against peace. Seven were sentenced to death by hanging and 16 were imprisoned for life.

Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō
Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. (The National WWII Museum in New Orleans)

All of the justices were from nations or their colonies that had fought wars against the Axis Powers. Some justices, such as  India’s Radhabinod Pal, and Bert Röling from the Netherlands, did object to the trial’s legal framing—Pal found all the Class A defendants not guilty. But a smattering of dissent did not parry the trial’s full thrust. No trials were held for those who had planned or carried out the atomic bombings or firebombings in Japan. It takes two sides to fight a war, but once a war is lost there are no more negotiations. There are only, it would seem, show trials.

The legal and procedural faults of the postwar military tribunal and the political ramifications of “victors’ justice” have been a subject of debate since the time of the Nuremberg trials. Part of the reason for this is that the Americans were not content to pull the trials off just as a courtroom drama. They wanted to make them an axiomatic feature of international law, too. They rather had to, as the Nuremberg trials had been a political exercise from the beginning and so the Americans were desperate to make it seem otherwise.

As the examples of Pal and Röling attest, however, not everyone was convinced. Hans Kelsen, an Austrian jurist, wrote:

What really impairs the authority of the [Nuremberg] judgment, is that the principle for the violation of rules of international law prohibiting war has not been established as a general principle of law but as a rule applicable only to vanquished States by the victors.

In other words, the military tribunals were practical tools for controlling the narrative after the war. As the staunchest critic, Kelsen made it evident that the Nuremberg trials could not be considered a legal precedent or otherwise imitated, as they failed to establish a new rule of law. But that is precisely what the occupiers did at the Tokyo Trial.

These debates and misgivings did not abate with the passage of time. In the 1970s, historian Richard H. Minear, while recognizing the necessity of punishing conventional war crimes, wrote: 

The [Tokyo] trial was a kind of morality play, a reaffirmation of a world-view that had been one factor in the making of World War II. To the extent that this worldview was itself invalid, the Tokyo trial was harmful rather than helpful. 

Minear summed up the trial succinctly in the title of his book: Victors’ Justice

In more contemporary scholarship, Danilo Zolo, an Italian legal scholar, denounced the “dual-standard system of international justice,” where major powers are perpetually spared from principles used to punish Japan and Germany. As Zolo wrote

From 1946 to the present, not a single trial has been held, at either the national or international level, for crimes of aggression… Neither the universalistic institutions created in the first half of the twentieth century at the behest of the victors in the two world wars, nor international criminal jurisdiction, have to date shown themselves worthy of their tasks.

Although Japan’s postwar prime ministers, including the more right-leaning Shinzō Abe (1954-2022) and Junichirō Koizumi, tended to affirm the Tokyo Trial verdict, the politicization of the tribunal functioned as a kind of bill of attainder, branding Japan as a lasting “war crime state.” Although ostensibly designed to pin war culpability on a few scapegoats, the trial therefore failed to wash off guilt from the Japanese people.

In fact, under the WGIP, it would have been contradictory to make such a distinction. After all, Japan and her people were tainted as a suspect race, too dangerous to entrust with weapons or even with national sovereignty. The Tokyo Trial may have been intended to put a period to the war and allow Japan to start anew as Washington’s client state, but what it did was permanently poison the relationship between Japan and the United States. Prime ministers today have little choice but to swallow the fiction that the trial was on the level, but the Japanese people, many of them at least, have long harbored grave doubts.

Those doubts are deep and, often, ingrown. The residual effects of the Allied Occupation, to put it mildly, include a generation laboring under jigyakushikan (“historical masochism”) and heiwa boke–(“peace idiocy”), a phrase describing a pollyannaish mentality that assumes pacifism will guarantee peace and stability. 

Losing a war is a complicated thing. One never really overcomes it. Japan today is a dazzling economic powerhouse in many ways, but inside she is struggling mightily with the psychological blows she sustained in 1945 and after. The Japanese, like American Southerners, are a defeated people.

Can contemporary Japan be considered a sovereign nation-state? French jurist Jean Bodin defined national sovereignty as “the most high, absolute, and perpetual power over the citizens and subjects in a Commonwealth.” External sovereignty, for Bodin, extended to rejecting foreign meddling in domestic affairs. It is worth asking whether contemporary Japan meets Bodin’s definitional requirements.

As Washington escalates its military intervention globally, Tokyo is dragged along for the perilous ride. Japan can hardly say no to American pressures. With some 54,000 military personnel in Japan spread out over nearly two dozen bases, and with an embassy that recently forced Japan to adopt legislation to Washington’s liking, the United States, not Japan, is arguably the sovereign power in the Japanese archipelago. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago and formerly President Barack Obama’s  chief of staff, has made a habit of interfering in Japanese internal affairs. He appears now to have appointed himself as a roving statesman making uninvited pronouncements on Japan’s behalf.

Japan’s sovereignty is clearly attenuated. But it could be regained. If Japan writes its own constitution and truly reclaims the status of a sovereign state, it could chart its way in the region and the world. It could respond swiftly—without undue attention to Washington’s geopolitical prerogatives—to what Tokyo considers serious encroachments on Japanese national sovereignty. A few examples include Russia’s and China’s audacious naval intrusions into Japanese territorial waters; Seoul’s radar-lock incident against a Japan Self-Defense Forces aircraft; North Korean agents’ abduction of Japanese citizens; and the attempts from the West to sway how the events of World War II are depicted in Japan’s school textbooks.

Japan could stand up and fight back. But she doesn’t. She isn’t allowed to, for one thing. Washington controls its East Asian puppet handily. Japan also doesn’t know how to stand. The land of the samurai lost the will to fight in 1945. It’s been follow-the-Washington-leader ever since.

Herein lies another irony. The convoluted legacy of the American occupation is that Japan’s nearly eight-decade inability to defend its territorial integrity and national interest amid major regional security threats imperils both Washington and Tokyo. Washington wants a bulwark in the Western Pacific. What it has, instead, is a psychologically damaged nation, an imperial outpost that remains a civilizational wreck. Japan today stands at the forefront of modern liberal democracies boasting one of the strongest economies in the world. But behind Japan’s miraculous success lies a quid pro quo trade-off of national sovereignty for economic boom times.

The boom times are long gone, but 72 years after regaining nominal independence and signing a peace treaty, and nearly 80 years after losing a war, Japan remains a subsidiary of Washington’s policy. It is time, at last, for Japan to become a normal country, to have a constitution and a military of its own. The deteriorating international situation, along with principles of reciprocity and collective defense, demands it. Long stigmatized as a warmongering nation of exceptional brutality, Japan must shake off the postwar shackles and finally declare World War II, and its lingering dilemmas, to be over.

But to do this will require that Japan evict the occupiers–the Americans–and stand on her own in Asia again. Does she have the guts to pull that off? Does she even know that she is a plaything of the Washington empire?

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