How remnants of the imperial system in the Occupation era founded modern Japan’s repudiation of World War II atrocities

Emperor Hirohito with General Douglas MacArthur in the US Embassy in Tokyo, September 1945 (Credit: flickr)

The shocking assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo drew renewed attention to his actions and ambitions regarding Japanese diplomacy and defence. He was credited with the creation of the Quad, a quasi-alliance designed to limit the threat of China’s influence to the ‘free and open’ status of the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, Abe also pushed to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution in 2015, a drastic reinterpretation that permitted the Self-Defence Forces to fight overseas under certain circumstances. 

While most governments praised him for safeguarding peace and stability in the region, critics have accused Abe of reviving Japan’s World War II (WWII) militarism with his hawkish foreign policy. They point to the tributes he has paid to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Class-A war criminals sentenced in the ‘Tokyo Trial’. Both domestic and foreign figures have also criticised Abe and successive conservative Japanese administrations for ‘whitewashing’ the war crimes of Imperial Japan in WWII by denying state involvement in forced prostitution and revising history textbooks, amongst other examples. Indeed, historians describe the Japanese consensus as a historical ‘amnesia’, preventing the nation from adequately reflecting on its belligerent past. This article seeks to trace the origin of this amnesia by looking at the Allied Occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952.  

The treatment of Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese imperial institution were contested issues during the planning and initial stages of the Occupation. While some insisted that abolishing the imperial system was necessary to eradicate militarism and establish democracy, American advisors highlighted the Japanese people’s reverence for the Emperor and believed recognising his position would encourage domestic stability conducive to America’s ‘general purposes in Japan’. Pratt, Ballantine and Grew (1944) justified this by emphasising the neutrality of the imperial system, and a previously suppressed homegrown liberal force that could catalyse democratisation under the auspices of the Emperor. Furthermore, in response to investigations into Hirohito’s possible war crimes, General MacArthur concluded in 1946 that there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges and estimated that forced abdication would require ‘a minimal of a million troops’, an impossible demand for the U.S. military. 

Although the Emperor’s divinity was challenged, the continuation of the imperial institution with Hirohito as a figurehead compromised the U.S.’s democratisation ambitions, and it had ultimately hindered the Japanese people’s acknowledgement of their nation’s war crimes. The imperial system was not the only post-war continuity of the Occupation. While the Supreme Command of the Allied Occupation (SCAP) did replace the militarist faction with officials dismissed by the wartime government, many civil servants retained their positions to ensure a steady process of post-war recovery. The economic ministries came out especially unscathed and with even greater authority. As demonstrated by economist Noguchi Yukio in his book 戦後経済史(Postwar Economic History), Japan’s subsequent economic miracle was rooted in the actions of the the militarist governments prior to the Occupation. When purged officials returned to the government with the resurfaced zaibatsus (business conglomerates), it became politically inexpedient to criticise their wartime atrocities, given their profound contribution to the economy. Civil servants also survived in the education sector, where traditional structures and practices were preserved, and, despite SCAP’s involvement in liberalisation, continuation of the old system increased the difficulty for Japanese schools to confront militarist curriculum.  

Finally, the rise of the Asian Iron Curtain prompted the ‘reverse course’ in 1947. In addition to censoring Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs, the ‘red purge’ that drove many leftists away from influential positions in politics and universities further hindered the SCAP’s supposed objective of democratisation and social pluralism. Furthermore, this purge also reinstalled previously dismissed militarists such as Class-A war criminals to positions of power. The U.S. went as far as pressuring Japan into remilitarisation leading up to the Korean War, albeit unsuccessfully. This, nevertheless, contributed to Japan’s incomplete demilitarisation and repatriation. Despite SCAP’s conspicuous successes in reforming Japanese society, the survival of imperial institutions, the latter appointment of prominent politicians from ‘old’ Japan, and the purge of left-wing forced far-right ultra-nationalism. These socio-political circumstances hampered the  nation’s ability to grapple with the past and properly reconcile with their neighbours who fell victim to imperial Japan.

Sheng Yu Huang

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