During World War II, the United States and Japan fought as bitter enemies. Yet during the Cold War and beyond, Japan became arguably America’s closest and most trusted ally in the Asia-Pacific region. How did they make such a successful transition from enemies to allies?
It’s hard to imagine such a profound turnaround. In December 1941, Japan’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor shocked America, drawing it formally into the conflict. Almost four years later, the United States dropped two devastating atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war. Subsequently, he subjected Japan to a seven-year post-war occupation that disbanded the defeated nation’s military and drastically changed its political structure.
But after the war, America’s goal was not just to establish peace and rebuild Japan. Facing a new world order, the fledgling superpower has sought to make the small but historically powerful Pacific island nation its Asian bulwark against the spread of communism. To do this, the American occupiers learned important lessons from the aftermath of the First World War. They took advantage of the desperate economic situation of the Japanese people and their disillusionment with their government and military to sow the seeds of democracy and rewrite the constitution. And through it all, they deployed several thousand Japanese-American military intelligence linguists, who proved as essential to the post-war transition as they had secretly been during the war itself.
WATCH: “Hiroshima: 75 Years Later” on HISTORY Vault.
The Americans allowed the Emperor of Japan to avoid accountability
General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers overseeing Japan’s post-war transition, took seriously the lessons learned from post-World War I treaties. Instead of humiliating the defeated country and demanding massive reparation payments like those that brought down the German economy, America set the stage for a more positive relationship with its treatment of a defeated Japan. , in particular of its emperor.
Fearing mass starvation in the devastated country, the Americans airlifted food to ward off the humanitarian crisis and possible subsequent unrest. Instead of trying the Falcon Emperor Hirohito for war crimes, the United States strategically allowed him to remain on his throne as a figurehead, establishing a narrative that he had been betrayed during the war by forces more militarists. By letting the nation’s leader save face, according to President Harry Truman’s administration, he could more effectively encourage citizens to cooperate with the occupation and the difficult task ahead: a transition from an ultranationalist imperial state to a democratic state.
Sidney Mashbir, a colonel in the Allied Translators and Interpreters Section (ATIS) of U.S. Military Intelligence, encouraged MacArthur to avoid embarrassing the Emperor by forcing him to read a prepared script, According to John Toland, author of The rising sun: decline and fall of the Japanese empire. The Emperor’s voice – never before heard by Japanese citizens – was high-pitched and formal, and his carefully crafted pre-recorded message, delivered on August 15, 1945, never used the word “surrender”. Instead, he implied that Japan was choosing peace over pursuing a war now at the atomic level – a war that could wipe out Japan and lead to human “extinction”.
After decades of nurturing the Japanese people with the virtues of imperialism and expansionism, the Emperor emphasized in his speech the need for humility and stoicism: “The trials and sufferings to which our nation will be subjected in the future will certainly be great.” Japanese citizens, he said, must “endure the unbearable and put up with the unbearable”. The official surrender took place on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, administered by General MacArthur.
During Japan’s transition to a democratic society, the United States realized the importance of public buy-in. The document describing American policy after the surrender of Japan emphasized that while “the United States wishes this government to conform as closely as possible to the principles of democratic self-government…it is not for the Allied Powers to impose on Japan forms of government not supported by the freely expressed will of the people”.
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Certainly, the military government under MacArthur had extensive power and control while overseeing Japan’s economic, sociopolitical, and cultural transition. Yet to help the Japanese avoid “loss of self-esteem and self-confidence”, according to the general’s official staff reports, the occupation teams served as an overlay to the civilian structure. existing, encouraging local officials and citizens to take as many initiatives as possible. possible in the implementation of the prescribed reforms. American forces were still overseeing the process, and there was still much mutual animosity, but their largely civil and respectful treatment of Japanese citizens would build trust and serve long-term goals.
READ MORE: These Japanese-American linguists became America’s secret weapon during WWII
Nisei plays a crucial role during and after the war
In the fight against the Japanese in World War II, America deployed a secret weapon: first-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) who served as Military Intelligence Service linguists in the Pacific theater. Born to Japanese immigrant parents, some Nisei spoke Japanese, especially those called Kibei, whose parents had sent them back to Japan for education before the war. Anticipating a possible conflict with Japan, the United States recruited and trained Nisei to gather intelligence before Pearl Harbor; but after the attack and subsequent incarceration of Japanese Americans, they served the nation while facing increased discrimination and suspicion.
During the war, Nisei linguists monitored communications, translated maps and documents, and helped interrogate enemy prisoners. In 1944, General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, once boasted that “one ATIS language expert was worth a battalion of infantry”. He felt that Japanese American linguists had helped shorten the war by two years.
The Nisei also played an important role during the Allied occupation and reconstruction of Japan. Over 5,000 served during the occupation, many as part of government military teams assigned to each prefecture. The Kibei proved particularly important because they had a more intimate understanding of the country’s historical, sociopolitical, cultural, religious, economic, educational, and practical norms.
During the critical first months of the occupation, the Nisei and Kibei worked behind the scenes on many often complex goals. They worked to return American and Allied prisoners of war and to bring Japanese soldiers and civilians living overseas back to Japan. They assisted in the release of political prisoners, participated in the search for war criminals and the collection of evidence for their prosecution. They watched the population for any sign of resistance that might thwart the nation’s democratic turn. Financially, they helped dismantle and destroy Japan’s war-related industries and made efforts to dismantle financial conglomerates, wartime black markets, and organized crime.
Rewrite the Constitution of Japan
Perhaps most importantly, the Nisei/Kibei also participated in the drafting of Japan’s new constitution. Containing some 103 articles, it came into force on May 3, 1947. Its sweeping provisions included land reform, women’s suffrage, the establishment of freedom of speech, assembly and religion, the institution of trade unions and the establishment of American-style educational systems.
Of central importance in the new constitution was article 9, in which Japan renounced military aggression. He stated, “Sincerely striving for an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as the nation’s sovereign right and the threat or use of force as a means of settling disputes. international. In order to accomplish [this] objective… land, sea and air forces, as well as all other war potential, will never be maintained. The State’s right to belligerence will not be recognized.
As geopolitics have changed in the Pacific and elsewhere over the decades, this article has been the subject of debate in Japan and other countries. But the constitution was never amended.