Occupied Japan

Yamato period
---Kofun period
---Asuka period
Nara period
Heian period
Kamakura period
Muromachi period
Azuchi-Momoyama period
---Nanban period
Edo period
Meiji period
Taisho period
Showa period
---Japanese expansionism
---Occupied Japan
---Post-Occupation Japan



Japan surrendered to the Allies 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, and the beginning of a long road to recovery for a shattered Japan.

Missing image
Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito

At Potsdam, United States President Harry Truman and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had agreed on how the Allied occupation of the Japanese Empire would be carried out. The Soviet Union would be responsible for North Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, while the United States would have the main responsibility 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. Japanese officials left for Manila on August 19 to meet MacArthur and to be briefed on his plans for the occupation: on August 28, 150 US personnel flew to Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, and became the first Allied troops to land on Japanese soil. They were followed by the USS Missouri, which landed the US 4th Marine Division on the southern coast of Kanagawa.

MacArthur himself arrived in Tokyo on August 30, and immediately set several laws. No Allied personnel were to fraternize with Japanese people. No Allied personnel were to assault Japanese people. No Allied personnel were to eat the scarce Japanese food.

Representatives of Japan stand aboard the  prior to signing of the Instrument of Surrender
Representatives of Japan stand aboard the USS Missouri prior to signing of the Instrument of Surrender

On September 2, Japan formally surrendered, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, and the occupation began. MacArthur was technically supposed to defer to an advisory council set up by the Allied powers, 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, at a cost of up to US$1 million a day, MacArthur set out to win the support of Hirohito. The two men 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. While other Allied political and military leaders pushed for Hirohito to be tried as a war criminal, MacArthur resisted such calls, arguing that any such prosecution would be overwhelmingly unpopular with the Japanese people.

By the end of 1945, more than 350,000 US personnel were stationed throughout Japan.

A British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), comprised of Australian, British, Indian and New Zealand personnel, was deployed from February 21, 1946. While US forces were responsible for military government, BCOF was responsible for supervising demilitarisation and the disposal of Japan's war industries.[1] (http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/bcof.htm) BCOF was also responsible for occupation of the western prefectures of Shimane, Yamaguchi, Tottori, Okayama, and Hiroshima, as well as the island of Shikoku. BCOF headquarters was at Kure. At its peak, the force numbered about 40,000 personnel. For most of the occupation period, BCOF was comprised mostly of Australian Army personnel, and the position of commanding officer was always filled by an Australian. During 1947, the BCOF began to wind down its presence in Japan.

Accomplishments of the Occupation


Shortly after his arrival, MacArthur ordered that all Japanese personnel give up their katana and wakizashi: seven tons of swords were confiscated and sent to San Francisco. MacArthur dissolved the national police force and added a "peace clause" in Japan's new constitution that specifically forbade Japan from waging war. It also restricted Japan to spending no more than 1% of its budget on defenses, to prevent Japan from becoming an aggressive military power (although as of 2004 there was an active movement to repeal the clause).


The Allies dismantled Japan's zaibatsu: only their factories remained, in the hands of a wide array of corporations which eventually coalesced into what are now known as keiretsu. Five million acres (20,000 km²) of land were taken out of the hands of nobles and given to the farmers who worked them.


In 1946, MacArthur completed a new, US-style Constitution of Japan, which was actually ratified as an amendment to the old Prussian-style Meiji Constitution. The new constitiution guaranteed basic freedoms and civil liberties, abolished nobility, and, perhaps most importantly, made the emperor the "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 for the election that gave Japan its first modern prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida.


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

Education reform

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 US: 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.

 takes the stand at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal
Hideki Tojo takes the stand at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal

Purging of war leaders

While these other 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 was ready to take command of the country.

The end of the occupation

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 the Korean War, the occupation began to draw to a close. The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed on September 8, 1951, marked the end of the Allied occupation, and when it went into effect on April 28, 1952, Japan was once again an independent state. Nevertheless, many thousands of US military personnel would remain based in Japan over the following decades.

Cultural reaction

  • The phrase "shikata ga nai", was commonly used in both Japanese and American press to encapsulate the Japanese public's resignation to the harsh conditions endured while under occupation.
  • The occupation was satirised in the 1956 American film The Teahouse of the August Moon.

See also

Recommended reading

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Norton, 1999.

This period is part of the Showa period of Japanese History

< Expansionism | History of Japan | Post-Occupation >


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