Before Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at a small airstrip outside Tokyo to begin the U.S.-led Occupation of Japan in 1945, Americans were the object of intense hatred, portrayed by propagandists as rapacious foreign devils.
A half century later, they are Japan’s closest allies.
As the United States looks toward the reconstruction of Iraq, it faces a similar history of resentment and distrust from a nation whose leadership it crushed.
While few here see the Occupation of Japan as a blueprint for Iraq, it does offer one hopeful lesson — wise decisions can turn enemies into friends.
Perhaps the wisest is what MacArthur decided not to do: he didn’t blame the Japanese people for the devastation their military wrought across Asia for half a century.
Though the war crimes trials held in Tokyo from 1946 to 1948 were later criticized as an example of victor’s justice, their immediate significance to a nation trying to come to terms with its defeat was that only senior military and civilian leaders were brought to the dock.
“The message was that the people weren’t guilty — the military was basically held responsible for the war,” said Daizaburo Yui, a history professor at the University of Tokyo. “That was a huge relief.”
While the guilt of the Iraqi people is not a question — one reason given for the war was to free Iraqis from dictatorship — the Americans made another decision in Japan that could apply in Iraq. They used the existing bureaucracy to help run the country, much as U.S. officials now employing Iraqi officials, even some with links to Saddam’s Ba’ath party, to get Iraq moving.
In Japan, the not-guilty verdict was especially reassuring for a people who felt bitterly deceived by leaders who had told them until the very end that they were winning a “holy war” to evict the white race from Asia.
It was part of a wider pattern in which the vanquished were treated far more generously than they had expected of victors depicted by years of propaganda as demonic figures bent on ravishing their country and plundering its Asian empire.
One famous wartime poster depicted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill as half-men, half-beasts being gored by Japanese bayonets. Fears of beastly conduct by occupying American soldiers were obvious in the weeks leading up to MacArthur’s arrival at Atsugi Air Base on Aug. 30, 1945.
Some Japanese smeared charcoal on the faces of their daughters to disguise them as boys; others were sent into hiding in the countryside.
Those fears — in some cases amplified by knowledge of the atrocities committed by Japanese armies in the territories they occupied — never materialized.
Filling empty stomachs also helped win hearts and minds.
The inhabitants of Japan’s bombed-out cities faced desperate food shortages as the nation headed into the winter of 1945. At least 1,000 people starved in Tokyo in the three months after surrender as the country suffered its most disastrous harvest in decades.
U.S. policy called for Japan to pay for its own reconstruction. But in 1946, Occupation authorities ordered emergency shipments of food staples, including flour and powdered milk, and the belated humanitarian gesture was well received.
But the most lasting achievements of the Occupation — democratic reforms — were not simply handed out by U.S. forces like so many cans of rations.
They were implemented with the cooperation of the Japanese government, which was secured in what historians describe as one of the most striking successes of U.S. policy.
MacArthur and his subordinates not only worked through the old Japanese bureaucracy but also retained the services of the man in whose name millions of Japanese marched off to war: Emperor Hirohito.
The decision to recast the Emperor as a symbol of national unity — instead of trying him as a war criminal — has been second-guessed by some historians. But most agree that keeping him provided legitimacy and stability for what was an unprecedented attempt by one country to rebuild another in its own image.
“The Emperor’s participation was critical,” said Narahiko Toyoshita, a professor of history at Kansei Gakuin University. “Those U.S. officials who argued that he could be useful to the Occupation agenda were vindicated.”
The cooperative relationship between the Occupation forces and Japanese authorities meant that the latter were able to leave their imprint on the democratic agenda. Many reforms “carried the MacArthur brand but were made in Japan,” as one commentator wrote in the weekly Asahi magazine.
That kind of cooperation between victor and vanquished seems unlikely in Iraq.
But at the very least those involved in that daunting effort can take heart in one thing: by some accounts, MacArthur’s troops were admired more for what they represented than for what they achieved.
Well-fed U.S. soldiers riding in gleaming new jeeps and tossing chewing gum to hordes of grubby children proved to be a persuasive advertisement for the occupiers’ way of life.
“The Japanese people were overwhelmed by all the visible signs of the affluence they could achieve under a U.S.-style democracy,” wrote analyst Hisahiko Okazaki recently in a commentary for the Yomiuri newspaper.