September 2, 1945 - April 28, 1952
(give or take.)

The Japanese Empire surrendered to the United States of America on August 14, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. It was V-J Day, the end of World War II. America was triumphant: ticker tape parades were taking place in every street, and an entire generation of GI's was about to go home and start making babies.

At Potsdam, Harry S Truman and Josef Stalin had agreed on how the Allied occupation would be carried out. The Soviet Union would be responsible for North Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, while the United States would be responsible for Japan, South Korea, and Japan's remaining possessions in Oceania.

On V-J Day, Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur as SCAP, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, to supervise the occupation of Japan. Sixteen Japanese left for Manila on August 19th to meet MacArthur and be briefed on his plans for the Occupation: on the 28th, 150 American personnel flew to Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, and became the first American troops to land on Japanese soil. They were followed by the USS Missouri, which landed the Fourth Marines on the southern coast of Kanagawa.

MacArthur himself arrived in Tokyo on August 30, and immediately set several laws. No GI was to fraternize with a Japanese woman. No GI was to strike a Japanese man. No American personnel were to eat Japanese food.

On September 2, Japan formally surrendered, and the Occupation formally began. MacArthur was technically supposed to defer to an advisory council set up by the Allies, but in practice did everything himself. His first priority was to set up a food distribution network: following the collapse of the ruling government, and the wholesale destruction of most major cities, virtually everyone was starving.

Once the food network was in place, burning up $1 million a day, MacArthur set his sights on five major goals, namely:

  1. Disarmament
  2. Liberalization
  3. Democratization
  4. Unionization
  5. Education reform
He began his quest by winning the support of a certain fellow in the Imperial Palace. Hirohito and the new shogun MacArthur met for the first time on September 28: the photograph of the two together is one of the most famous in Japanese history. With the sanction of Japan's reigning monarch, MacArthur now had the ammunition he needed to begin the real work of the Occupation.


Shortly after his arrival, MacArthur ordered that all Japanese personnel give up their daito and shoto: some seven tons of swords were confiscated and sent to San Francisco. He dissolved the national police force and added a "peace clause" in Japan's new constitution that specifically forbade Japan from waging war.


Japan's zaibatsu bit the dust: only their factories remained, in the hands of a wide array of corporations that eventually coalesced into what are now known as keiretsu. Five million acres of land were taken out of the hands of nobles and given to the farmers who worked them.


In 1946, MacArthur completed a new Japanese constitution, which was actually ratified as an amendment to the old Meiji constitution. It guaranteed basic freedoms and civil liberties, abolished nobility, and, perhaps most importantly, made the emperor the head of state and "spiritual ruler" of Japan, taking away virtually all of his political powers. Shinto was abolished as a state religion, and Christianity reappeared in the open for the first time in decades. Women gained the right to vote, and in April of that year, 14 million turned out to elect Japan's first modern prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru.


This turned out to be one of the greatest hurdles of the Occupation, as communism had been brewing among the Japanese proletariat for several decades, and was waiting to come out in Japan's new liberal atmosphere. In February of 1947, Japan's workers were ready to call a general strike in an attempt to take over their factories, but MacArthur warned that he would not allow such a strike to take place, and the unions eventually relented, making them lose face and effectively quieting them for the remainder of the occupation.


Before and during the war, Japanese education was based on the German system, with gymnasiums and universities to train students after primary school. MacArthur changed Japan's secondary education system to incorporate three-year junior high schools and senior high schools similar to those in the States: junior high became compulsory, but senior high remained optional. The Imperial Rescript on Education was repealed, and the Imperial University system reorganized. Even written Japanese was drastically reorganized: the Toyo Kanji, predecessors of today's Joyo Kanji, were selected, and grammar was greatly altered to reflect conversational usage.

While these reforms were taking place, various military tribunals, most notably the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Ichigaya, were trying Japan's war criminals and sentencing many to death and imprisonment. Once Japan's wartime leaders were weeded out, a generation of junior officers were ready to take command of the country.

This began to happen around the time the Korean War broke out. In 1949, MacArthur rubber-stamped a sweeping change in the SCAP power structure that greatly increased the power of Japan's native rulers, and as his attention (and that of the White House) gradually diverted to Korea, the occupation began to draw to a close. The San Francisco Peace Treaty, promulgated on September 1951, marked the end of the occupation, and when it went into effect on April 28, 1952, Japan was once again an independent state.

Now, why is it called the Allied occupation when only America did anything? Actually, the USSR was involved in the Occupation as well: they had taken control of Japan's northernmost islands, which the Russians had lost in the Russo-Japanese War half a century before. Stalin sent tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers in Manchuria straight to the gulag, and many were never heard from again. But more importantly from a modern standpoint, the Soviets never signed the San Francisco Treaty: their occupation of Japan continues unabated, and to this day relations between Tokyo and Moscow are still not normalized. For more on that, check out "Japanese claims in the Kuril Islands."

Truthfully, the American occupation of Japan didn't end right away, either. They kept control of Okinawa until 1972, and through a series of security treaties continue to keep thousands of personnel stationed throughout Japan. It is possible to say that the two great powers of the Cold War continue to occupy Japan, even though their days of direct rule are long gone. This remains, as you can probably imagine, a big thorn in the heel of Japan's international relations.

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