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The U.S. Occupation of Japan — Four Lessons for Iraq

What lessons for Iraq can the Bush Administration take away from the post-World War II occupation of Japan?

January 28, 2004

What lessons for Iraq can the Bush Administration take away from the post-World War II occupation of Japan?

Some of the more characteristic features of Tokyo today date back to the U.S. occupation of Japan. For example, Tokyo's major entertainment area, the Roppongi district, is right where the main U.S. military barracks — known as Hardy Barracks — used to be.

The former U.S. base is now the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — as the Japanese call their military.

The reason there are so many novelty shops — like the Oriental Bazaar in Yoyogi, next to the Harajuku district of Tokyo — is because that is where U.S. military families lived, in an encampment known as Washington Heights.

It was vacated by 1964 to make place for the Olympic Village and swimming pool for the Tokyo Olympics. (Baghdad Olympics in 2020?)

Lesson Number 1: Even though there was no armed resistance after Japan's surrender, the U.S. presence in Japan was massive — including troops, civilian personnel, teachers, lawyers, engineers and missionaries — and lasted for about two decades.

The Americans still maintain troops in Okinawa. And while they are ostensibly part of the Asia Pacific security theatre, it is also a means for the United States to "keep the cork in the bottle" of potential renewed Japanese militarism — as one U.S. general put it.

Even though it was a military occupation, it also consisted of a tremendous amount of economic assistance in all forms.

Lots of aid was channeled both by the U.S. government and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The U.S. market was fully opened to Japanese exports, and Japanese competitiveness was further enhanced by setting the yen at an undervalued exchange rate vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar.

The Japanese were allowed to keep their own markets closed to foreign imports in order to protect their infant industries. In addition, the United States provided lots of training — and technology was transferred on a truly massive scale.

One of the major challenges the U.S. occupation faced in seeking to reorient the Japanese economy to the manufacturing and export of mass consumer goods was that Japanese quality was lousy.

The "Made in Japan" label conveyed products that were cheap, but also very shoddy.

A member of the staff of General Douglas MacArthur — the Supreme Commander and "Shogun" of Japan during the occupation — happened to hear about a quality control guru named W. Edwards Deming.

He recommended that Mr. Deming be brought to Japan. He duly heeded the call and Japanese production engineers sat at his feet in awe. Never before might there have there been such eager and successful students.

Deming (who died in 1993, aged 93) continues to be revered in Japan — and the Deming Quality prize, which is awarded annually, is Japan's most prestigious industrial award.

Lesson Number 2: By far the most critical component of the occupation was the massive economic, financial, managerial and technological assistance the Americans provided post-war Japan.

Efforts were directed at giving Japanese firms the tools they needed to rebuild a strong national economy — and not to serve just as a market for foreign firms.

U.S. authorities kept out American investment from Japan. One of the very rare exceptions was Coca-Cola, which was needed for the American troops — and which has retained a predominant market share in Japan ever since.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and later the Vietnam War in the 1960s also added a considerable fillip as the U.S. armed forces procured lots of material and equipment from Japan. They also used Japanese ports for naval repairs and maintenance — laying a solid basis for Japan's emerging shipbuilding industry.

The fact that Japan became a peaceful nation is probably above all due to the fact that it became very prosperous — thanks to invaluable U.S. help.

One of the reasons why the occupation was so well executed was that the Americans came quite well prepared.

Immediately after at the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a very intensive Japanese language program was established, centered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It produced a strong core of American experts who were fluent in Japanese.

After their tour of duty with the U.S. government in post-war Japan, a good number of these experts turned to academia — with the result that centers of excellence on Japan were established in many leading U.S. universities.

These men played a crucial role in restoring and dramatically improving U.S.-Japan relations.

Perhaps a bit less arrogant than it is today, Washington acknowledged that it did not really understand Japan. While the priority was to wage war, there was also a clear need to ensure that — once the fighting was over — the country could be properly governed.

Among other things, it commissioned a major study from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who did most of her research by interviewing Japanese POWs in Australia.

After the war, she turned her report into a book that she entitled "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" — and which remains to this day a major classic on Japanese society. (Will a classic on Iraqi society, perhaps titled "The Crescent and the Dagger", emerge from the current occupation of Iraq?)

Lesson Number 3: This is probably the simplest lesson of all and the most obvious: When occupying a foreign country, do your homework — and learn the language!

The U.S. occupation of Japan — there were, by the way, other nations present, but this was, as in Iraq, overwhelmingly an American show — was initially seen as a huge success.

But recent scholarship — especially the magisterial, Pulitzer Prize winning work of John Dower "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II" — has brought many controversial questions to the surface.

Japan has been a very successful economy, but not a particularly successful democracy. It has also not been a good Asian regional citizen, betraying attitudes and policies — especially in respect to its past brutal subjugation of its neighbors — that are shameful and geopolitically destabilizing.

Dower argues that the origins of these weaknesses can be found in U.S. occupation policy. The Americans arrived in 1945 full of New Deal zeal and determined to transform Japanese politics and society.

However, with the outbreak of the cold war, "realism" dictated that the reforming zeal should be curbed. The occupation did purge the military and effectively removed them from the Japanese political establishment.

But that would probably have happened in any case. Military dictatorships that lose wars tend to lose their legitimacy, credibility and power. That is what the Argentine military junta discovered after the Falkland War.

Otherwise, leaders of the prewar and wartime political, business and bureaucratic establishment who had initially been purged and imprisoned were quickly rehabilitated.

Meanwhile, leftists and trade union leaders that the U.S. occupying force had initially liberated from jail were returned to jail. On the other end of the political spectrum, some of those implicated in Japan's wartime government later served in high positions in post-war governments.

Most notable among them is Nobusuke Kishi, a prominent member of General Hideki Tojo's wartime cabinet. After a brief stint in jail, he became Japan's prime minister a mere decade after the war.

No doubt, the most blatant case of "realism" was the decision not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito — who could have been held responsible for far more killings and atrocities than Saddam Hussein.

The only "humiliation" Hirohito was subjected to was having his photograph taken next to a nonchalant MacArthur towering over him.

In fact, in Japan, the Americans ultimately did not engage in regime change. Minus the military — who, as pointed out, would almost certainly have been chucked out in any case — the American occupation built on the existing establishment and the existing regime.

The "excuse" usually given by apologists of U.S. connivance with the existing regime is that otherwise the occupation would have had to last much longer — and could have faced bloody resistance.

The wily old Shigeru Yoshida — who was the political strongman during and after the occupation — was able to placate the Americans, while restoring the traditional regime back into power, which it retains to this day.

Ultimately, what was most influential in shaping post-war Japanese society was that economic policies pursued by the U.S. occupation authorities — and the boom provided by the Korean War — saw Japan quickly reaching full-employment and heady growth.

Peace in the Middle East will no doubt require many things, including a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflic. But no doubt, prosperity is what would most bring peace about.

Gainfully employed, well-educated, aspiring and consuming middle classes have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in war. A Middle East Marshall Plan is needed if the invasion will ultimately be worth the price paid.

What the history of the U.S. occupation of Japan shows is that even in the case of a highly homogenous, disciplined, unarmed nation, regime change is very difficult, possibly impossible.

Lesson Number 4 therefore is: "If you find yourself contemplating regime-change in some foreign land, without doubt the best advice is — don't!"