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Reform by fiat and persuasion


INSIDE GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and its Legacy, by Eiji Takemae. London: Continuum, 2002, 751 pp., $40 (cloth)

The U.S.-led Occupation of Japan ended 50 years ago, but still casts long shadows over the country and remains hotly debated among scholars and pundits. It is indeed fortunate, therefore, that English readers can benefit from this astute and comprehensive assessment by Eiji Takemae, the dean of Japanese scholars on this era. This translation of his 1983 classic has been expanded and updated and the original four chapters have ballooned to 11.

One of the fascinating aspects of this work is its detailed description of the process of drafting and implementing Occupation reforms. Japanese conservatives have a tendency to blame a variety of contemporary social ills on what they regard as the misguided reforms that swept over Japan from 1945-52. This account challenges the view that the Allies acted unilaterally in reforming Japan, arguing that there was a substantial and sustained influence by various Japanese in setting the agenda, shaping the details of the reforms and translating them into reality on the ground. As the Allies governed indirectly through the bureaucracy and Diet, there was ample room for modifying the thrust and scope of the reforms.

Takemae argues that, “In implementing its reform agenda, GHQ relied on a combination of fiat, persuasion and Japanese initiative. . . . After the early punitive phase of the Occupation, collaboration came to characterize the reform process.” In many ways Japanese played key roles in advising and influencing policies over a wide spectrum, and in doing so saved GHQ from embarrassing miscues.

In rejecting the negative assessment of the Occupation now popular among reactionaries, Takemae asserts that Japan’s contemporary problems are more a reflection of conservative stonewalling and the undoing of many of the progressive aspects of the proposed reforms. The author laments the fact that GHQ did not go far enough in remaking Japan and ridding it of the pernicious influences that facilitated and justified Japan’s rampage through Asia. He blames the U.S. for working through the conservative elite and backtracking from its liberal agenda, beginning in late 1947, due to the Cold War. Once the Allies departed, this elite, ensconced in power, was able to whittle away at the Occupation’s liberal legacy and promote its own agenda.

“Inside GHQ” goes far beyond what the title suggests and gives readers a sense of what life was like in war-devastated Japan under alien rule. Today, it is scarcely imaginable that families lived in ramshackle hovels, classes were held in buildings reduced to rubble, orphans eked out a living on the mean streets and young widows sold their bodies to make ends meet, but Takemae vividly conveys the deprivations of the time.

Demilitarization and democratization reforms pushed by the Allies were warmly welcomed by a war-weary, starving population. Oddly enough, the victors were initially viewed as liberators who had freed the country from a military-dominated government widely blamed for dragging Japan into a war that had caused great suffering. Soon, however, crimes committed by a small minority of the more than 400,000 Allied troops stationed in Japan took a toll on this goodwill. GHQ tried to suppress press coverage of frequent incidences of violence, robbery and rape, among many other taboo subjects, but the excesses and impunity of GIs were no great secret among the Japanese. Many also realized that they were relatively fortunate compared to those whose countries were occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war.

In an effort to contain some of the worst excesses, the Japanese authorities established comfort stations for the Allies, but GHQ ordered the closure of these establishments in 1947, partly due to pressure from Japanese women’s groups, Christians in the U.S. and concerns about the high incidence of venereal disease. Of course this did nothing to limit widespread freelance prostitution, and these women, known as panpan, were everywhere plying their trade. Apparently gangsters and ultraright racketeers used women and whiskey to corrupt high-ranking officials in GHQ so that their illegal operations could proceed without interruption.

Takemae hones in on the ironies and hypocrisy that characterized the Occupation era. Democracy was imposed from above by dictatorial means, the Constitution for this democracy was presented as a fait accompli, the press was rigorously censored and forbidden to report anything remotely critical about GHQ, and the victors were not held accountable for their crimes while holding a kangaroo court for Japanese war criminals. Critics pointed out that those inside GHQ were living lives of excessive luxury, impervious to the obvious suffering of the people they ruled. He writes, “The assumptions of white privilege, however, tacitly accepted by both sides, would remain unchallenged and unchanged during the Occupation, and such attitudes continue to influence subtly Japan-U.S. relations today.”

Despite ruling in imperious style, GHQ largely achieved its goals. In the author’s opinion, “The Occupation proved crucial and beneficial in building civil society, encouraging people to shed their reticence and exercise their new liberties as citizens.”

However, he is less generous in assessing GHQ’s record on war responsibility, arguing that it erred in excluding Japanese participation in the Tokyo Tribunal and discouraging Japanese from conducting their own trials for their own war criminals. More importantly, by deciding not to prosecute the Showa Emperor, SCAP made it easier for many Japanese to ignore their own war responsibility.

Although actively promoting civil liberties, GHQ’s record on minorities was decidedly negligent. GHQ “failed to challenge racism in its various dimensions, tacitly condoning, and in some cases abetting, prejudicial attitudes and behavior.” Japanese officials successfully revised the draft Constitution to water down protections for minorities, and in general GHQ deferred to Japanese government initiatives that harmed the status of minorities. “The government, having disenfranchised Korean and Formosan residents in late 1945 and written them out of its constitutional draft in early 1946, now sought to expel as many as possible.” Attitudes toward Koreans were influenced by the looming Cold War and suspicions in GHQ that many Koreans resident in Japan were sympathetic to communism.

Takemae’s disappointment with GHQ is perhaps most palpable and eloquent in assessing the reverse course, when policies veered sharply rightward. As the Cold War heated up, George Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy, intervened decisively to alter the orientation of GHQ. The policies of cartel busting, purging rightists, promoting labor rights and nurturing liberal democracy were suddenly sacrificed on the altar of containment. Takemae ruefully comments, “Kennan and other State Department strategists intended to transform the ‘Japanese workshop’ into a pro-American center of regional power from which the spread of Soviet influence in Asia could be checked.” Suddenly there was a purge of leftists, labor unions were tamed and the U.S. began pressuring Japan to remilitarize.

In September 2001, Japanese and Americans gathered in San Francisco to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty that brought an end to the Occupation. While acknowledging that it was a relatively benign occupation with many benefits, Takemae cautions about the dubious nature of Japanese democracy. This is due to the legacy of the reverse course and the U.S. making common cause with a conservative elite distrustful of democracy and keen to revise the constitution, remilitarize and reinvigorate the emperor system. In his view, “The Occupation’s position that it was the militarists, not the Throne or the people, who brought about the Asia-Pacific conflict encouraged this collective evasion, and the country as a whole still has not addressed the war issue forthrightly.”