Japanese Recovery



The 1947 Japanese Constitution

The loss of World War II placed Japan in the precarious position of a country occupied by the Allied but primarily American forces, which shaped its post-war reforms. This included the Constitution of 1947, with Article 9 outlawing war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.

Learning Objectives

Explain the reasons for including Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On the V-J Day, U.S. President Harry Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to supervise the occupation of Japan. During the war, the Allied Powers had planned to divide Japan among themselves for the purpose of occupation, as was done with Germany. Under the final plan, however, SCAP was given direct control over the main islands of Japan and the immediately surrounding islands, while outlying possessions were divided between the Allied Powers.
  • On September 6, Truman approved a document titled “US Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan,” which set two main objectives for the occupation: eliminating Japan’s war potential and turning it into a western-style nation with pro-American orientation. Allied (primarily American) forces were set up to supervise the country, led by MacArthur.
  • Already in 1945, MacArthur’s staff and Japanese officials were at odds over the most fundamental issue, a new constitution. The Japanese authorities were extremely reluctant to take the drastic step of replacing the 1889 Meiji Constitution with a more liberal document.
  • After rejecting a Japanese-authored proposal that MacArthur deemed too conservative, he ordered his staff to draft a completely new document. They were led by two senior army officers with law degrees, Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney, although others chosen by MacArthur also had influence. Although the document’s authors were non-Japanese, they took into account the Meiji Constitution, the demands of Japanese lawyers, the opinions of pacifist political leaders, and especially the draft presented by the Constitution Research Association.
  • The MacArthur draft, which proposed a unicameral legislature, was changed at the
    insistence of the Japanese to a bicameral legislatures with two elected houses. In most other important respects, the government adopted the February draft with its most distinctive features, including the renunciation of war clause. Known as Article 9, it outlaws war to settle international disputes involving the state. The source of the clause is disputed although it is most often attributed to Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara.
  • Although Article 9 intended to prevent the country from ever becoming an aggressive military power again, the United States was soon pressuring Japan to rebuild its army as a bulwark against communism in Asia after the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. As a result, a new National Police Reserve armed with military-grade weaponry was created. In 1954, the Japan Self-Defense Forces were founded as a full-scale military in all but name. These developments were combined with Japan’s extraordinary economic growth that by the end of the 1960s made it the second largest economy in the world.

Key Terms

  • Yoshida Doctrine: A strategy named after Japan’s first Prime Minister after World War II Shigeru Yoshida that declared the reconstruction of Japan’s domestic economy with security guaranteed by an alliance with the United States. It shaped Japanese foreign policy throughout the Cold War era and beyond.
  • Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: A clause in the Constitution of Japan outlawing war to settle international disputes involving the state. The Constitution came into effect on May 3, 1947, following World War II. In its text, the state formally renounces the sovereign right of belligerency and aims at an international peace based on justice and order.
  • V-J Day: Term used to refer to the day on which Japan surrendered in World War II, in effect ending the war. The term has been applied to both days on which the initial announcement of Japan’s surrender was made – the afternoon of August 15, 1945, in Japan, and because of time zone differences, to August 14, 1945 (when it was announced in the United States and the rest of the Americas and Eastern Pacific Islands).

Post-World War II Occupation of Japan

Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese government notified the Allies that it had accepted the Potsdam Declaration:  a statement that called for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces during World War II. This date, known as Victory over Japan or V-J Day, marked the end of World War II and the beginning of a long road to recovery for Japan. U.S. President Harry Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to supervise the occupation of Japan. During the war, the Allied Powers planned to divide Japan among themselves for the purposes of occupation, as was done with Germany. Under the final plan, however, SCAP was given direct control over the main islands of Japan (Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu) and the immediately surrounding islands, while outlying possessions were divided between the Allied powers.

On September 6, Truman approved a document titled “US Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan,” which set two main objectives for the occupation: eliminating Japan’s war potential and turning it into a western-style nation with pro-American orientation. Allied (primarily American) forces were set up to supervise the country. MacArthur was technically supposed to defer to an advisory council set up by the Allied powers but in practice he hardly did so.

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Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur, at their first meeting, at the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, September 27, U.S. Army photographer Lt. Gaetano Faillace.

The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne, but was ordered to renounce his claims to divinity, which had been a pillar of the State Shinto system. This photograph is one of the most famous in Japanese history. Some were shocked that MacArthur wore his standard duty uniform with no tie instead of his dress uniform when meeting the emperor.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution

The wording of the Potsdam Declaration (“The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles…”) and the initial post-surrender measures taken by MacArthur suggest that neither he nor his superiors in Washington intended to impose a new political system on Japan unilaterally. Instead, they hoped to encourage Japan’s new leaders to initiate reforms on their own. Already in 1945, however, MacArthur’s staff and Japanese officials were at odds over the most fundamental issue, the writing of a new constitution. Emperor Hirohito, Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara, and most of the cabinet members were extremely reluctant to take the drastic step of replacing the 1889 Meiji Constitution, which
outlined a form of mixed constitutional and absolute monarchy with a more liberal document.

In late 1945, Shidehara appointed Jōji Matsumoto, state minister without portfolio, head of a blue-ribbon committee of constitutional scholars to suggest revisions. The Matsumoto Commission’s recommendations were quite conservative. MacArthur rejected them outright and ordered his staff to draft a completely new document. Much of this work was done by two senior army officers with law degrees, Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney, although others chosen by MacArthur had substantial influence. Although the document’s authors were non-Japanese, they took into account the Meiji Constitution, the demands of Japanese lawyers, the opinions of pacifist political leaders, and especially the draft presented by the Constitution Research Association. MacArthur gave the authors less than a week to complete the draft, which was presented to surprised Japanese officials in February 1946.

The MacArthur draft, which proposed a unicameral legislature, was changed at the insistence of the Japanese to allow a bicameral one, with both houses being elected. In most other important respects, the government adopted the February draft, with its most distinctive features: the symbolic role of the Emperor, the prominence of guarantees of civil and human rights, and the renunciation of war. That last clause became one of the most symbolic components of Japan’s new constitution. Known as Article 9, it outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.

The source of the pacifist clause is disputed. According to the Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur, the provision was suggested by Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara, who “wanted it to prohibit any military establishment for Japan—any military establishment whatsoever.” Shidehara’s perspective was that retention of arms would be “meaningless” for the Japanese in the post-war era, because any substandard post-war military would no longer gain the respect of the people and would actually cause people to obsess with the subject of rearming Japan. Shidehara admitted to his authorship in his 1951-published memoirs, where he described how the idea came to him on a train ride to Tokyo. MacArthur himself confirmed Shidehara’s authorship on several occasions. However, according to some interpretations, the inclusion of Article 9 was mainly brought about by the members of the Government Section of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, especially Charles Kades, one of Douglas MacArthur’s closest associates. The article was endorsed by the Diet of Japan in November 1946. Kades rejected the proposed language that prohibited Japan’s use of force “for its own security,” believing that self-preservation was the right of every nation.

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The Preamble to the 1947 Constitution of the State of Japan.

It was decided that in adopting the new document the Meiji Constitution would not be violated, but rather legal continuity maintained. Thus, the Constitution was adopted as an amendment to the Meiji Constitution in accordance with the provisions of Article 73 of that document. Under Article 73, the new constitution was formally submitted to the Imperial Diet by the Emperor.

Japan’s Post-WWII Growth

Although Article 9 intended to prevent the country from ever becoming an aggressive military power again, the United States was soon pressuring Japan to rebuild its army as a bulwark against communism in Asia after the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. During the Korean War, U.S. forces largely withdrew from Japan to deploy to Korea, leaving the country almost totally defenseless. As a result, a new National Police Reserve armed with military-grade weaponry was created. In 1954, the Japan Self-Defense Forces were founded as a full-scale military in all but name. To avoid breaking the constitutional prohibition on military force, they were officially founded as an extension to the police force. Traditionally, Japan’s military spending has been restricted to about 1% of its gross national product, although this is by popular practice, not law, and this figure has fluctuated. The JSDF slowly grew to considerable strength, and Japan now has the eighth largest military budget in the world.

All the major sectors of the Japanese society, government, and economy were liberalized in the first few years, and the reforms won strong support from the liberal community in Japan. Historians emphasize the similarity of the post-WWII reform programs in Japan to the American New Deal programs of the 1930s. Shigeru Yoshida served as prime minister in 1946-47 and 1948-54 and played a key role in guiding Japan through the occupation. His policies, known as the Yoshida Doctrine, proposed that Japan should forge a tight relationship with the United States and focus on developing the economy rather than pursuing a proactive foreign policy.

Although the Japanese economy was extremely weakened in the immediate postwar years, an austerity program implemented in 1949 by finance expert Joseph Dodge ended inflation. The Korean War (1950–53) was a major boon to Japanese business. In 1949, the Yoshida cabinet created the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) with a mission to promote economic growth through close cooperation between the government and big business. MITI sought successfully to promote manufacturing and heavy industry and encouraged exports. The factors behind Japan’s postwar economic growth included technology and quality control techniques imported from the West, close economic and defense cooperation with the United States, non-tariff barriers to imports, and long work hours. Japanese corporations successfully retained a loyal and experienced workforce through the system of lifetime employment, which assured their employees a safe job. By 1955, the Japanese economy had grown beyond prewar levels and became the second largest in the world by 1968.

Japan became a member of the United Nations in 1956 and further cemented its international standing in 1964 when it hosted the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Japan was a close ally of the United States during the Cold War, although this alliance did not have unanimous support from the Japanese people. Japan also successfully normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1956, despite an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the Kuril Islands, and with South Korea in 1965, despite an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the islands of Liancourt Rocks. In accordance with U.S. policy, Japan recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China after World War II and it switched its recognition to the People’s Republic of China in 1972.

Economic Growth after WWII

Japan’s impressive economic growth after World War II depended on a number of factors, including the nation’s prewar experience, the advantageous conditions of the post-war occupation by the Allied forces, the high level and quality of investment that persisted through the 1980s, a well-educated and disciplined labor force, economies of scale, and global politics.

Learning Objectives

Recognize the ways in which Japan encouraged economic growth after the war

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Japan experienced dramatic political and social transformation under the Allied occupation in 1945–1952. The occupation sought to decentralize power in Japan by breaking up the  zaibatsu, transferring ownership of agricultural land from landlords to tenant farmers, and promoting labor unionism. Other major goals were demilitarization and democratization of Japan’s government and society. The cabinet became responsible not to the Emperor but to the elected National Diet. Japan’s new constitution came into effect in 1947 and guaranteed civil liberties, labor rights, and women’s suffrage.
  • In the aftermath of the war, about 40% of the nation’s industrial plants and infrastructure were destroyed, and production reverted to levels of about 15years earlier. U.S. assistance totaled about $1.9 billion during the occupation. About 59% of this aid was in the form of food, 15% in industrial materials, and 12% in transportation equipment. A variety of U.S.-sponsored measures during the occupation contributed to the economy’s later performance by increasing competition.
  • The early post-war years were devoted to rebuilding the lost industrial capacity with major investments in electric power, coal, steel, and chemicals. By the mid-1950s, production matched prewar levels. Released from the demands of military-dominated government, the economy not only recovered its lost momentum but also surpassed the growth rates of earlier periods. In 1965 industrial sectors employed more than 41% of the labor force, while only 26% remained in agriculture.
  • Japan’s highly acclaimed post-war education system contributed strongly to the modernizing process. The world’s highest literacy rate and high education standards were major reasons for Japan’s success in achieving a technologically advanced economy.
  • The mid-1960s ushered in a new type of industrial development as the economy opened itself to international competition in some industries and developed heavy and chemical manufacturers. Whereas textiles and light manufacturing maintained their profitability internationally, products such as automobiles, electronics, ships, and machine tools, assumed new importance.
  • The 1973 oil crisis shocked economies that had become dependent on imported petroleum. Japan experienced its first post-war decline in industrial production, but the following recovery only strengthened Japan’s economy. The factors that contributed to the post-WWI growth included the nation’s prewar experience, which provided several important legacies; the high level and quality of investment that persisted through the 1980s; well-educated and disciplined labor force; economies of scale; and global politics, including international military conflicts, which often benefited Japan’s economy.

Key Terms

  • keiretsu: A set of companies with interlocking business relationships and shareholdings. This type of informal business group maintained dominance over the Japanese economy for the second half of the 20th century.
  • zaibatsu: A Japanese term for industrial and financial business conglomerates whose influence and size allowed control over significant parts of the Japanese economy from the Meiji period until the end of World War II.

Background: Post-World War II Occupation of Japan

Japan experienced dramatic political and social transformation under the Allied occupation in 1945–1952. US General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, served as Japan’s de facto leader and played a central role in implementing reforms, many inspired by the New Deal of the 1930s. The occupation sought to decentralize power in Japan by breaking up the zaibatsu (industrial and financial business conglomerates in the Empire, whose influence and size allowed control over significant parts of the Japanese economy), transferring ownership of agricultural land from landlords to tenant farmers, and promoting labor unionism. Other major goals were demilitarization and democratization of Japan’s government and society. The cabinet became responsible not to the Emperor but to the elected National Diet. The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne but ordered to renounce his claims to divinity. Japan’s new constitution came into effect in 1947 and guaranteed civil liberties, labor rights, and women’s suffrage.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 officially normalized relations between Japan and the United States. The occupation ended in 1952, although the U.S. continued to administer a number of the Ryukyu Islands, with Okinawa the last to be returned in 1972.

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Seizure of the zaibatsu families assets, 1946, source: Showa History, Vol.13: Ruins and Lack published by Mainichi Newspapers Company.

The zaibatsu were the heart of economic and industrial activity within the Empire of Japan, and held great influence over Japanese national and foreign policies. Under the Allied occupation after the surrender of Japan, a partially successful attempt was made to dissolve the zaibatsu. Many of the economic advisors accompanying the SCAP administration had experience with the New Deal program and were highly suspicious of monopolies and restrictive business practices, which they felt to be both inefficient and a form of corporatocracy and thus inherently anti-democratic.

Economic Growth

In the aftermath of the war, about 40% of the nation’s industrial plants and infrastructure were destroyed and production reverted to levels of about 15 years earlier. U.S. assistance totaled about $1.9 billion during the occupation, or about 15% of the nation’s imports and 4% of gross national product (GNP) in that period. About 59% of this aid was in the form of food, 15% in industrial materials, and 12% in transportation equipment. A variety of U.S.-sponsored measures during the occupation, such as land reform, contributed to the economy’s later performance by increasing competition. Finally, the economy benefited from foreign trade because it was able to expand exports rapidly enough to pay for imports of equipment and technology without falling into debt. New factories were equipped with the best modern machines, giving Japan an initial competitive advantage over the victor states, who now had older factories.

The early post-war years were devoted to rebuilding the lost industrial capacity, with major investments made in electric power, coal, steel, and chemicals. By the mid-1950s, production matched prewar levels. Released from the demands of military-dominated government, the economy not only recovered its lost momentum but also surpassed the growth rates of earlier periods. Between 1953 and 1965, GDP expanded by more than 9% per year, manufacturing and mining by 13%, construction by 11%, and infrastructure by 12%. In 1965 these sectors employed more than 41% of the labor force, whereas only 26% remained in agriculture. Millions of former soldiers joined a well-disciplined and highly educated work force to rebuild Japan.

Japan’s highly acclaimed post-war education system contributed strongly to the modernizing process. The world’s highest literacy rate and high education standards were major reasons for Japan’s success in achieving a technologically advanced economy.

The mid-1960s ushered in a new type of industrial development as the economy opened itself to international competition in some industries and developed heavy and chemical manufacturers. Whereas textiles and light manufacturing maintained their profitability internationally, products such as automobiles, electronics, ships, and machine tools assumed new importance. The value added to manufacturing and mining grew at the rate of 17% per year between 1965 and 1970. Growth rates moderated to about 8% and evened out between the industrial and service sectors between 1970 and 1973 as retail trade, finance, real estate, information technology, and other service industries streamlined their operations.

Oil Crisis

Japan faced a severe economic challenge in the mid-1970s. The 1973 oil crisis shocked economies that had become dependent on imported petroleum. Japan experienced its first post-war decline in industrial production, along with severe price inflation. The recovery that followed the first oil crisis revived the optimism of most business leaders, but the maintenance of industrial growth in the face of high energy costs required shifts in the industrial structure.

Changing price conditions favored conservation and alternative sources of industrial energy. Although the investment costs were high, many energy-intensive industries successfully reduced their dependence on oil during the late 1970s and 1980s and enhanced their productivity. Advances in microcircuitry and semiconductors in the late 1970s and 1980s led to new growth industries in consumer electronics and computers and to higher productivity in established industries. These adjustments increased the energy efficiency of manufacturing and expanded knowledge-intensive industries. The service industries expanded in an increasingly postindustrial economy.

Factors of Growth

Complex economic and institutional factors affected Japan’s post-war growth. First, the nation’s prewar experience provided several important legacies. The Tokugawa period (1600–1867) bequeathed a vital commercial sector in burgeoning urban centers, a relatively well-educated elite, a sophisticated government bureaucracy, productive agriculture, highly developed financial and marketing systems, and a national infrastructure of roads. The buildup of industry during the Meiji period to the point where Japan could vie for world power was an important prelude to post-war growth from 1955 to 1973 and provided a pool of experienced labor.

More important were the level and quality of investment that persisted through the 1980s. Investment in capital equipment, which averaged more than 11% of GNP during the prewar period, rose to about 20% of GNP during the 1950s and to more than 30% in the late 1960s and 1970s. During the economic boom of the late 1980s, the rate still hovered around 20%. Japanese businesses imported the latest technologies to develop the industrial base. As a latecomer to modernization, Japan was able to avoid some of the trial and error needed by other nations to develop industrial processes. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan improved its industrial base through licensing from the US, patent purchases, and imitation and improvement of foreign inventions. In the 1980s, industry stepped up its research and development, and many firms became famous for their innovations and creativity.

Japan’s labor force contributed significantly to economic growth. Before and immediately after World War II, the transfer of numerous agricultural workers to modern industry resulted in rising productivity and only moderate wage increases. As population growth slowed and the nation became increasingly industrialized in the mid-1960s, wages rose significantly although labor union cooperation generally kept salary increases within the range of gains in productivity.

The nation also benefited from economies of scale. Although medium-sized and small enterprises generated much of the nation’s employment, large facilities were the most productive. Many industrial enterprises consolidated to form larger, more efficient units. While the zaibatsu were dissolved after the war, keiretsu—large, modern industrial enterprise groupings—emerged. The coordination of activities within these groupings and the integration of smaller subcontractors into the groups enhanced industrial efficiency.

Finally, circumstances beyond Japan’s direct control contributed to its success. International conflicts tended to stimulate the Japanese economy until the devastation at the end of World War II. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), World War I (1914–18), the Korean War (1950–53), and the Second Indochina War (1954–75) brought economic booms to Japan.

The American-Japanese Relationship

Japan has remained one of the strongest and most reliable allies of the United States since the post-World War II occupation of the country by the Allied forces, despite ongoing tensions over the U.S. military presence on Japanese territories and economic competition between the two countries.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate American-Japanese relations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951, marked the end of the Allied occupation of Japan. The treaty served to officially end Japan’s position as an imperial power, allocate compensation to Allied civilians and former prisoners of war who suffered Japanese war crimes during World War II, and return sovereignty to Japan. In legal terms, the end of the occupation finally placed Japan’s relations with the United States on an equal footing, but this equality was initially largely nominal.
  • As the disastrous results of World War II subsided into the background and trade with the United States expanded, Japan’s self-confidence grew, which gave rise to a desire for greater independence from United States influence. During the 1950s and 1960s, this was especially evident in the Japanese attitude toward U.S. military bases on the four main islands of Japan and in Okinawa Prefecture.
  • Recognizing the popular desire for the return of the Ryukyu Islands and the Bonin Islands, in 1953 the United States relinquished its control of the Amami group of islands at the northern end of the Ryukyu Islands. However, it made no commitment to return Okinawa. Popular agitation culminated in a unanimous resolution adopted by the Diet in 1956, calling for a return of Okinawa to Japan.
  • Under a new 1960 treaty, both parties assumed an obligation to assist each other in case of armed attack on territories under Japanese administration. The treaty also included general provisions on the further development
    of international cooperation and improved future economic cooperation. Both countries worked closely to fulfill the United States promise to return all Japanese territories acquired in war. In 1968, the United States returned the Bonin Islands to Japanese administration control. In 1971, the two countries signed an agreement for the return of
    Okinawa to Japan in 1972.
  • A series of 1971 events marked the beginning of a new stage in relations, a period of adjustment to a changing world situation. Despite episodes of strain in both political and economic spheres, the basic relationship remained close. The political issues were essentially security-related. The economic issues tended to stem from the ever-growing power of the Japanese economy. In the 1980s, particularly during the Reagan years, the relationship improved and strengthened. More recently, it has gained new urgency in light of the changing global positions of North Korea and China.
  • The American military bases on Okinawa have caused challenges, as Japanese and Okinawans have protested their presence for decades. In secret negotiations that began in 1969, Washington sought unrestricted use of its bases for possible conventional combat operations in Korea, Taiwan, and South Vietnam as well as the emergency re-entry and transit rights of nuclear weapons. In the end, the United States and Japan agreed to maintain bases that would allow the continuation of American deterrent capabilities in East Asia.

Key Terms

  • San Francisco Peace Treaty: A treaty predominantly between Japan and the Allied Powers but officially signed by 48 nations on September 8, 1951, in San Francisco, California. It came into force on April 28, 1952, and served to end Japan’s position as an imperial power, allocate compensation to Allied civilians and former prisoners of war who suffered Japanese war crimes during World War II, and end the Allied post-war occupation of and return sovereignty to Japan.
  • Japan Self-Defense Forces: The unified military forces of Japan established in 1954 and controlled by the Ministry of Defense. In recent years, they have been engaged in international peacekeeping operations including UN peacekeeping. Recent tensions, particularly with North Korea, have reignited the debate over their status and relation to Japanese society.
  • Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: A clause outlawing war to settle international disputes involving the state. The Constitution came into effect on May 3, 1947, following World War II. In its text, the state formally renounces the sovereign right of belligerency and aims at an international peace based on justice and order.

Unequal Post-War Relations

The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed on September 8, 1951, marked the end of the Allied occupation in Japan. When it went into effect on April 28, 1952, Japan was once again an independent state and an ally of the United States. The treaty officially ended Japan’s position as an imperial power, allocated compensation to Allied civilians and former prisoners of war who suffered Japanese war crimes during World War II, and returned sovereignty to Japan. It made extensive use of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to enunciate the Allies’ goals.

In legal terms, the end of the occupation finally placed Japan’s relations with the United States on equal footing, but this equality was initially largely nominal. As the disastrous results of World War II subsided and trade with the United States expanded, Japan’s self-confidence grew, which gave rise to a desire for greater independence from United States influence. During the 1950s and 1960s, this feeling was evident in the Japanese attitude toward United States military bases on the four main islands of Japan and in Okinawa Prefecture, occupying the southern two-thirds of the Ryukyu Islands.

The government had to balance left-wing pressure advocating dissociation from the United States with the claimed need for military protection. Recognizing the popular desire for the return of the Ryukyu Islands and the Bonin Islands (also known as the Ogasawara Islands), in 1953 the United States relinquished its control of the Amami group of islands at the northern end of the Ryukyu Islands. However, it made no commitment to return Okinawa, which was then under United States military administration for an indefinite period as provided in Article 3 of the peace treaty. Popular agitation culminated in a unanimous resolution adopted by Japan’s legislature in 1956, calling for a return of Okinawa to Japan.

Military Alliance and New Challenges

Bilateral talks on revising the 1952 security pact began in 1959, and the new Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was signed, despite the protests of left-wing political parties and mass demonstrations, in Washington in 1960. Under the new treaty, both parties assumed an obligation to assist each other in case of armed attack on territories under Japanese administration. It was understood, however, that Japan could not come to the defense of the United States because it was constitutionally forbidden to send armed forces overseas under Article 9 of its Constitution. The scope of the new treaty did not extend to the Ryukyu Islands, but an appended minute made clear that in case of an armed attack on the islands, both governments would consult and take appropriate action. Unlike the 1952 security pact, the new treaty provided for a ten-year term, after which it could be revoked upon one year’s notice by either party. The treaty included general provisions on the further development of international cooperation and improved future economic cooperation.

Both countries worked closely to fulfill the United States promise, under Article 3 of the peace treaty, to return all Japanese territories acquired in war. In 1968, the United States returned the Bonin Islands (including Iwo Jima) to Japanese administration control. In 1971, after eighteen months of negotiations, the two countries signed an agreement for the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

A series of new issues arose in 1971. First, Nixon’s dramatic announcement of his forthcoming visit to the People’s Republic of China surprised the Japanese. Many were distressed by the failure of the United States to consult in advance with Japan before making such a fundamental change in foreign policy. Second, the government was again surprised to learn that without prior consultation, the United States had imposed a 10 percent surcharge on imports, a decision certain to hinder Japan’s exports to the United States. Relations between Tokyo and Washington were further strained by the monetary crisis involving the revaluation of the Japanese yen.

These events marked the beginning of a new stage in relations, a period of adjustment to a changing world situation that was not without episodes of strain in both political and economic spheres, although the basic relationship remained close. The political issues between the two countries were essentially security-related and derived from efforts by the United States to induce Japan to contribute more to its own defense and regional security. The economic issues tended to stem from the ever-widening United States trade and payments deficits with Japan, which began in 1965 when Japan reversed its imbalance in trade with the United States and for the first time achieved an export surplus. Heavy American military spending in the Korean War (1950–53) and the Vietnam War (1965–73) provided a major stimulus to the Japanese economy.

New Global Factors

The United States withdrawal from Indochina in 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War meant that the question of Japan’s role in the security of East Asia and its contributions to its own defense became central in the dialogue between the two countries. The Japanese government, constrained by constitutional limitations and strongly pacifist public opinion, responded slowly to U.S. pressures for a more rapid buildup of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). It steadily increased its budgetary outlays for those forces, however, and indicated its willingness to shoulder more of the cost of maintaining the United States military bases in Japan. In 1976, the United States and Japan formally established a subcommittee for defense cooperation, and military planners of the two countries conducted studies relating to joint military action in the event of an armed attack on Japan.

Under American pressure Japan worked toward a comprehensive security strategy with closer cooperation with the United States for a more reciprocal and autonomous basis. This policy was put to the test in 1979, when radical Iranians seized the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 hostages. Japan reacted by condemning the action as a violation of international law. At the same time, Japanese trading firms and oil companies reportedly purchased Iranian oil that became available when the United States banned oil imported from Iran. This action brought sharp criticism from the U.S. of Japanese government “insensitivity” for allowing the oil purchases and led to a Japanese apology and agreement to participate in sanctions against Iran in concert with other allies.

Following that incident, the Japanese government took greater care to support U.S. international policies designed to preserve stability and promote prosperity. Japan was prompt and effective in announcing and implementing sanctions against the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In 1981, in response to United States requests, it accepted greater responsibility for defense of seas around Japan, pledged greater support for United States forces in Japan, and persisted with a steady buildup of the JSDF.

Close Ties and New Challenges

A qualitatively new stage of Japan-United States cooperation in world affairs emerged in the 1980s with the election of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Ronald Reagan. Nakasone reassured U.S. leaders of Japan’s determination against the Soviet threat, closely coordinated policies with the United States toward such Asian trouble spots as the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, and worked cooperatively with the United States in developing China policy. The Japanese government welcomed the increase of United States forces in Japan and the western Pacific, continued the steady buildup of the JSDF, and positioned Japan firmly on the side of the United States against the threat of Soviet expansion. Japan continued to cooperate closely with United States policy in these areas following Nakasone’s term of office, although the political leadership scandals in Japan in the late 1980s made it difficult for newly elected President George H. W. Bush to establish the close personal ties that marked the Reagan years. Despite complaints from some Japanese businesses and diplomats, the Japanese government remained in basic agreement with U.S. policy toward China and Indochina. The government held back from large-scale aid efforts until conditions in China and Indochina were seen as more compatible with Japanese and U.S. interests.

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Ronald Reagan greeting Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Foreign Minister Abe, and Finance Minister Takashita, in London in 1984

Officials of the Ronald Reagan administration worked closely with their Japanese counterparts to develop a personal relationship between the two leaders based on their common security and international outlook. Nakasone backed Reagan to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe at the 1983 9th G7 summit. In 1983, a U.S.-Japan working group produced the Reagan-Nakasone Joint Statement on Japan-United States Energy Cooperation.

The main area of noncooperation with the United States in the 1980s was Japanese resistance to repeated U.S. efforts to get Japan to open its market to foreign goods and change other economic practices seen as adverse to U.S. economic interests. Furthermore, changing circumstances at home and abroad created a crisis in Japan-United States relations in the late 1980s. Japan’s growing investment in the United States—the second largest investor after Britain—led to complaints from some American constituencies. Moreover, Japanese industry seemed well-positioned to use its economic power to invest in high-technology products, in which United States manufacturers were still leaders. The United States’s ability to compete under these circumstances was seen by many Japanese and Americans as hampered by heavy personal, government, and business debt and a low savings rate. The breakup of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe forced the Japanese and United States governments to reassess their longstanding alliance against the Soviet threat. Some Japanese and United States officials and commentators continued to emphasize the common dangers to Japan-United States interests posed by the continued strong Soviet military presence in Asia.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S.-Japan relationship has improved and strengthened. The major cause of friction in the relationship, trade disputes, became less problematic as China displaced Japan as the greatest perceived economic threat to the United States. Meanwhile, although in the immediate post-Cold War period the security alliance suffered from a lack of a defined threat, the emergence of North Korea as a belligerent rogue state and China’s economic and military expansion provided a purpose to strengthen the relationship. While the foreign policy of the administration of President George W. Bush put a strain on some of the United States’ international relations, the alliance with Japan became stronger, as evidenced by the Deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq and the joint development of anti-missile defense systems.

The Okinawa Controversy

Okinawa is the site of major American military bases that have caused problems, as Japanese and Okinawans have protested their presence for decades. In secret negotiations that began in 1969, Washington sought unrestricted use of its bases for possible conventional combat operations in Korea, Taiwan, and South Vietnam as well as the emergency re-entry and transit rights of nuclear weapons. However, anti-nuclear sentiment was strong in Japan and the government wanted the United States to remove all nuclear weapons from Okinawa. In the end, the United States and Japan agreed to maintain bases that would allow the continuation of American deterrent capabilities in East Asia. When the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, reverted to Japanese control in 1972, the United States retained the right to station forces on these islands. A dispute that had boiled since 1996 regarding a base with 18,000 U.S. Marines was temporarily resolved in late 2013. Agreement was reached to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less-densely populated area of Okinawa.

The map shows the location of ten U.S. military bases in Japan.

U.S. military bases in Japan

US military bases in Japan, maintained by the U.S. government as a way to mark the U.S. presence in the Pacific, continue to provoke protests among the Japanese.

As of 2014, the United States still had 50,000 troops in Japan, the headquarters of the U.S. 7th Fleet, and more than 10,000 Marines. Also in 2014, it was revealed the United States was deploying two unarmed Global Hawk long-distance surveillance drones to Japan with the expectation they would engage in surveillance missions over China and North Korea.

Japan and Reckoning with History

Despite numerous apologies for Japan’s war crimes from Japanese government representatives since World War II, repeated comments of Japanese politicians questioning the crimes, the problematic degree of formality of apologies, and retractions or contradictions by statements or actions of Japan have exposed the country’s refusal to reckon with its difficult past.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the challenges Japan has had in acknowledging its past

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Japanese war crimes occurred in many Asian and Pacific countries during the period of Japanese imperialism, primarily during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Some historians and governments hold Japanese military forces, the Imperial Japanese Army, the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the Imperial Japanese family, especiall  under Emperor Hirohito, responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians and prisoners of war through massacre, human experimentation, starvation, and forced labor.
  • Since the 1950s, senior Japanese officials have issued numerous apologies for the country’s war crimes. But unlike Germany, Japan has not fully recognized the scale of its war-time atrocities, and its approach to dealing with the difficult past has caused controversy around the world. Japanese nationalist politicians engaged in efforts to whitewash the actions of the Empire of Japan during World War II. While they were not entirely successful, some Japanese history textbooks offer only brief references to war crimes.
  • Critics have questioned the degree and formality of apologies and noted the retractions and contradictory actions of Japan. An illustrative example is the issue of the so-called comfort women: women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II. While individual politicians have issued apologies, others have repeatedly questioned Japan’s involvement in forcing women into sex slavery.
  • The People’s Republic of China joined other Asian countries, such as South Korea, North Korea, and Singapore, in criticizing Japanese history textbooks that whiten Japanese war crimes in World War II. Many Chinese observers regard Japanese apologies as insufficient and not backed up by sincere action. The PRC and Japan also continue to debate over the actual number of people killed in the Nanking Massacre.
  • Both South Korea and North Korea continue to request an apology and compensation for Korea under Japanese rule, regarding the issued apologies as insincere due to repeated Japanese politicians’ comments that question the scale and nature of Japanese crimes.
  • Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japanese armed forces members killed in wartime, has been a subject of controversy as it contains a memorial for more than 1,000 Japanese and some Korean war criminals. The presence of these criminals among the dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine means this monument is seen by Chinese and South Koreans as apologism for the wartime era.

Key Terms

  • Nanking Massacre: An episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing (then spelled Nanking), then the capital of the Republic of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The massacre occurred over a period of six weeks starting December 13, 1937, the day that the Japanese captured Nanjing. During this period, soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered from 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants and perpetrated widespread rape and looting.
  • Second Sino-Japanese War: A military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan from 1937 to 1945. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the war merged into the greater conflict of World War II as a major front in the Pacific War.
  • Yasukuni Shrine: A Shinto shrine that memorializes Japanese armed forces members killed in wartime. It was constructed as a memorial during the Meiji period to house the remains of those who died for Japan. The shrine has been a subject of controversy as it is a memorial for more than 1,000 individuals considered war criminals by international law standards.
  • comfort women: Women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II.

Japanese War Crimes

Japanese war crimes occurred in many Asian and Pacific countries during the period of Japanese imperialism, primarily during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which eventually became a front of World War II. Some were committed by military personnel from the Empire of Japan in the late 19th century, although most took place from the first part of the Shōwa Era, the name given to the reign of Emperor Hirohito, until the surrender of the Empire of Japan in 1945.

Some historians and governments hold Japanese military forces, the Imperial Japanese Army, the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the Imperial Japanese family, especially under Emperor Hirohito, responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians and prisoners of war through massacre, human experimentation, starvation, and forced labor either directly perpetrated or condoned by the Japanese military and government. Estimates range from 3 to 14 million victims. Airmen of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service and Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service were not included as war criminals because there was no positive or specific customary international humanitarian law that prohibited the unlawful conduct of aerial warfare either before or during World War II. However, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service took part in chemical and biological attacks on enemy nationals during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, and the use of such weapons in warfare was generally prohibited by international agreements signed by Japan, including the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), which banned the use of “poison or poisoned weapons” in warfare.

Comfort Women: Japan’s Problematic Reckoning

Since the 1950s, senior Japanese Government officials have issued numerous apologies for the country’s war crimes. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that the country acknowledges its role in causing “tremendous damage and suffering” during World War II, especially in regard to Nanking Massacre in which Japanese soldiers killed a large number of non-combatants and engaged in looting and rape. But unlike Germany, for example, Japan has not fully recognized the scale of its war-time atrocities, and its approach to dealing with the difficult past has caused controversy around the world. Japanese nationalist politicians engaged in efforts to whitewash the actions of the Empire of Japan during World War II. While they were not entirely successful, some Japanese history textbooks offer only brief references to various war crimes.

Critics have questioned the degree and formality of apologies and noted the issue of retractions and contradictory actions by Japan. An illustrative example is the issue of the so-called comfort women, women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II. In 1951, the South Korean government demanded $364 million in compensation for Koreans forced into labor and military service during Japanese occupation. In the final agreement reached in the 1965 treaty, Japan provided an $800 million aid and low-interest loan package over 10 years. However, the money was for the Korean government, not individuals.

Three Korean women filed suit in Japan in 1991, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, demanding compensation for forced prostitution. In 1992, documents stored since 1958 when they were returned by U.S. troops indicating that the military played a large role in operating what were euphemistically called “comfort stations,” were found in the library of Japan’s Self-Defense Agency. The Japanese Government admitted that the Japanese Army forced tens of thousands of Korean women to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II. On January 14, 1992, Japanese Chief Government Spokesman Koichi Kato issued an official apology. Three days later, at a dinner given by South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologized to his host and the following day in a speech before South Korea’s National Assembly.

In 1994, the Japanese government set up the public-private Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to distribute additional compensation to South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia. A number of former comfort women (61 Korean, 13 Taiwanese, 211 Filipino, and 79 Dutch) were given a signed apology from Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Many former Korean comfort women rejected the compensations on principle. Although the AWF was set up by the Japanese government, its funds came not from the government but from private donations, hence the compensation was not “official.” In 1998, the Japanese court ruled that the Government must compensate the women and awarded them $2,300 (equivalent to $3,380 in 2016) each.

On March 1, 2007, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe stated that there was no evidence that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, even though the Japanese government already admitted the use of coercion in 1993. On February 20, 2014, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the Japanese government may reconsider the study and the apology. However, Prime Minister Abe clarified on March 14, 2014, that he had no intention of renouncing or altering it. On December 28, 2015, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye reached a formal agreement to settle the dispute. However, the Korean comfort women and the majority of the Korean population regarded the resolution as unsatisfying. The Korean comfort women stated that they were not protesting for money and that their goals of formal and public apology from Abe and the Japanese government and the correction of Japanese history textbooks have not been met.

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Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as “comfort girls” for the troops. Author: Sergeant A.E. Lemon, No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit.

The first “comfort station” was established in the Japanese concession in Shanghai in 1932. Earlier comfort women were Japanese prostitutes who volunteered for such service. However, as Japan continued military expansion, the military found itself short of Japanese volunteers and turned to the local population to coerce women into serving in these stations, or abducted them. Many women responded to calls for work as factory workers or nurses, and did not know that they were being pressed into sexual slavery.

Japan and its Neighbors

The People’s Republic of China joined other Asian countries, such as South Korea, North Korea, and Singapore, in criticizing Japanese history textbooks that whiten Japanese war crimes in World War II. Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi openly declared “deep remorse” over Japan’s wartime crimes in 2005 (the latest in a series of apologies spanning several decades), many Chinese observers regard the apology as insufficient and not backed up by sincere action. The PRC and Japan also continue to debate over the actual number of people killed in the Nanking Massacre. The PRC claims that at least 300,000 civilians were murdered while Japan claims 40,000-200,000. While a majority of Japanese believe in the existence of the massacre, a Japanese-produced documentary film released just prior to the 60th anniversary of the massacre, titled The Truth about Nanjing, denies that any such atrocities took place. These disputes have stirred up enmity against Japan from the global Chinese community, including Taiwan.

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Bodies of victims along Qinhuai River out of Nanjing’s west gate during Nanking Massacre. Derivative work of a photograph taken by Moriyasu Murase.

Although the Japanese government has admitted to the killing of a large number of non-combatants, looting, and other violence committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Nanking, and Japanese veterans who served there have confirmed that a massacre took place, a small but vocal minority within both the Japanese government and society have argued that the death toll was military in nature and that no such crimes ever occurred.

Since the 1950s, many prominent politicians and officials in Japan have made statements on Japanese colonial rule in Korea, which created outrage and led to diplomatic scandals in Korean-Japanese relations. The statements have led to anti-Japanese sentiments among Koreans and a widespread perception that Japanese apologies for colonial rule have been insincere.
Although diplomatic relations were established by a treaty in 1965, South Korea continues to request an apology and compensation for Korea under Japanese rule. In 2012, the South Korean government announced that Emperor Akihito must apologize for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Most Japanese prime ministers have issued apologies, including Prime Minister Obuchi in the Japan–South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998. While South Koreans welcomed the apologies at the time, many now view the statements as insincere because of continuous misunderstandings between the two nations.

In the early 1990s, Japan conducted lengthy negotiations with North Korea aimed at establishing diplomatic relations while maintaining its relations with Seoul. In September 1990, a Japanese political delegation led by former deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru of the Liberal Democratic Party visited North Korea. Following private meetings between Kanemaru and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, a joint declaration released on September 28 called for Japan to apologize and compensate North Korea for its period of colonial rule. Japan and North Korea agreed to begin talks aimed at the establishment of diplomatic relations.

In January 1991, Japan began normalization talks with Pyongyang with a formal apology for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The negotiations were aided by Tokyo’s support of a proposal for simultaneous entry into the United Nations by North Korea and South Korea. The issues of international inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities and the nature and amount of Japanese compensations, however, proved more difficult to negotiate. Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi, in the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration of 2002, said: “I once again express my feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology, and also express the feelings of mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, in the war.”

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japanese armed forces members killed in wartime. It was constructed as a memorial during the Meiji period to house the remains of those who died for Japan. The shrine houses the remains of Hideki Tojo, Prime Minister and Army Minister of Japan between 1941 and 1944, and 13 other Class A war criminals. Yasukuni Shrine has been a subject of controversy, containing also a memorial for over a thousand Japanese and some Korean war criminals. The presence of these war criminals among the dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine means that visits to Yasukuni have been seen by Chinese and South Koreans as apologism for the wartime era.

Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Yasukuni Shrine in, respectively, 1986 and 1996, and paid respects as Prime Minister of Japan, drawing intense opposition from Korea and China. Junichirō Koizumi visited the shrine and paid respects six times during his term as Prime Minister of Japan. These visits again drew strong condemnation and protests from Japan’s neighbors, mainly China and South Korea. As a result, the heads of the two countries refused to meet with Koizumi and there were no mutual visits between Chinese and Japanese leaders after October 2001 and between South Korean and Japanese leaders after June 2005. The President of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, had suspended all summit talks between South Korea and Japan until 2008, when he resigned from office. The current prime minister, Shinzō Abe, has made several visits to the shrine, the most recent being in December 2013.