VJ Day: Occupying Japan

VJ Day: Occupying Japan

Surrender hasn’t stopped Japan from resisting.


This article appeared in the August 25, 1945 edition of The Nation.

Surrender hasn’t stopped Japan from resisting.

Amidst the general rejoicing over the surrender of Japan there has been an undercurrent of uneasiness in all the Allied countries. Although Domei dispatches report that great crowds gathered outside the Imperial Palace weeping unrestrainedly when the news of the surrender was disclosed, Japan’s actions have not been those of a nation which has accepted defeat. The Japanese government has consistently delayed the carrying out of MacArthur’s orders; Japanese planes repeatedly attacked Allied ships and bases after the Imperial cease-fire order; Japanese propagandists have been telling the people that they have had to bow to the material force of the Allies but that they did not lose the war "spiritually." In his rescript to the Japanese people, the Emperor boasted that the "structure of the Imperial state" had been saved and would be maintained. And in line with this boast, he appointed an arch-militarist, Higashi-Kuni, a prince of the royal line, to take over as Premier in place of the moderate Suzuki. None of the news from Japan tells of indignation against the leaders whose lust for power brought disaster to the country. Instead, the people are alleged to have given their approval to the view, expressed in various ways, that Japan would do better next time.

While a legitimate cause for uneasiness, the Japanese reaction should come as a surprise to no one. Japan did not suffer the overwhelming military defeat that Germany did. When the end finally came in Europe, the Nazis had lost all capacity for organized resistance. Japan, on the other hand, had not been invaded and the bulk of its army had never even come in contact with our forces. True, the navy had been destroyed, the air force rendered impotent, and vast industrial areas reduced to rubble. But conceivably Japan could have maintained resistance for many more months. Thus, it was inevitable that we should find the Japanese spirit relatively unbroken.

What the Japanese war lords may say in the first hours of defeat is not nearly as important as what kind of Japan we shall have one year or ten years from now. That will be determined largely by the wisdom and firmness of our occupation policies. In many respects the responsibilities of the occupying force are far heavier and its problems far more complicated than those faced by the Four Powers in Germany. Because Japan has not been physically vanquished in the sense that Germany has, it will be the duty of the occupying force to bring home the reality of defeat without resort to inhumanity. The task of taking possession of the Japanese islands and setting up an effective governing force will be arduous and delicate. And, as all the fuss over the Emperor indicates, we are woefully ignorant about Japanese psychology and the realities of Japan’s social and political structure.

Neither the terms of the Potsdam Declaration nor the note sent to Japan in response to its inquiry about the status of the Emperor provide any guaranty that Japan will be handled with proper firmness. According to these statements the occupying forces have the full authority to do whatever is necessary to destroy Japanese militarism, even if it involves the ultimate abolition of the monarchy and the trial of Hirohito and Higashi-Kuni as war criminals. They will have sufficient power to abolish Japan’s feudal industrial and agricultural system and provide channels whereby the Japanese people can set up modern social and political institutions. But we have no assurance that any of these things will be done. The Japanese leaders apparently do not expect any drastic interference with the institutions upon which their rule has been based. They expect to be able to take up where they left off as soon as, or possibly before, the occupation ends.

There is little in General MacArthur’s background that suggests that he has either the intelligence or the understanding that is necessary to attack the roots of Japanese militarism. His record in the Philippines is one of subservience to powerful economic interests similar to those that constitute an ever-present menace in Japan. It is possible, however, that MacArthur possesses the firmness needed to deal with the Japanese leaders, provided he is given the assistance of competent political advisers who understand Japan.

It will not be easy to find men with Japanese experience capable of providing MacArthur with the insight necessary for his great task. Most of the State Department men who have served in Japan have become involved with the very groups that need to be destroyed. The missionaries who have lived in Japan are, for the most part, sentimental toward the Japanese people. There are, however, a few experts on Japan available. An outstanding one is Herbert Norman of the Department of External Affairs of Canada. We should not hesitate to use him because he happens to be a Canadian. Even if the occupation is under American direction, it is in theory a joint operation and we should draw freely on our allies for personnel. In this country we have men like Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins and Laurence Salisbury of the Institute of Pacific Relations. Choice of any of these men would indicate that we were on the right track.

If, however, former Under-Secretary Joseph Grew or his associate Dooman is chosen, as has been rumored, we will know that the Japanese war lords have indeed won a soft peace. For both men have made it very clear in repeated statements that they favor restoring power to the big business leaders, landlords, and princes who profited by the top-heavy social structure that is fundamentally responsible for the war. They have taken this position, partly because they have many friends and associates among Japanese of this type, but primarily because they fear that disorder and chaos would develop if the restraining power of the Zaibatsu and monarchy were destroyed.

We do not deny that the elimination of Japanese economic as well as political war criminals might result in a considerable amount of confusion. There might be strikes and disorders; possibly the Japanese state would collapse into anarchy. But the very fear of disorder is recognition of the possibility that the Japanese are fed up with militarism and dictatorship. Without guidance this discontent may easily deteriorate into aimless anarchy. But it is also a power that could be directed into highly constructive channels, if our occupation authorities were ready with a program of political and economic democracy. One thing is certain: we must not allow the fear of social change to trick us into setting the stage for a new, and more terrible, Pearl Harbor in 1961.

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