In the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun, Monday, April 28, 1952, there was a front-page editorial titled “A New Start for Japan.” The Occupation, Asahi opined, had been “almost akin to colonialism,” resulting in people becoming “irresponsible, obsequious and listless . . . unable to perceive issues in a forthright manner, which led to distorted perspectives.”
The writer concluded: “It is hoped the Japanese people will use this occasion to turn over a new leaf.”
For most Japanese, however, the day the Occupation ended was business as usual.
“Of course, people were happy to see it come to an end, but most of us were just intent on earning our livelihood,” recalls 85-year-old Tokyoite Sachiko Matsumoto. “That morning, I took the streetcar to my job at the U.S. Army Officers’ Open Mess in Ichigaya. Not long afterward, the unit rotated back to the U.S. and the facility closed. I had to find new work.”
At Kabukiza, veteran actor Nakamura Kichiemon led his audience in three cheers. Temple bells were rung and sirens sounded to mark the occasion. That evening, when NHK radio signed off, it resumed the playing of “Kimigayo,” Japan’s traditional national anthem, which had been proscribed under the Occupation.
Generally, though, observations were low-key. The Ginza club proprietor told the Asahi that she had ordered extra bottles of champagne in expectation of a celebration, but the evening had turned out to be disappointingly quiet.
Some changes had already been made prior to April 28. Three weeks earlier, Japan jumped the gun and abolished daylight savings time, which had been enforced from 1946. GHQ didn’t interfere. (A year later, another unpopular American custom — the assigning of women’s names to typhoons — was abandoned and the use of numbers resumed.)
The following day, April 29, was Emperor Hirohito’s 51st birthday and a national holiday. Typical of such festive occasions, His Majesty’s message to his subjects was conveyed in traditional verse: “The winter wind has gone/And long-awaited spring has arrived/With double-petaled cherry blossoms.” After a photo session, he spent most of the day reading in his library. Empress Nagako, meanwhile, voiced her intention to revert to wearing kimono in public.
On May 1, the Japan Communist Party’s daily organ, Akahata, resumed publication after a two-year hiatus, having been shut down at the orders of GHQ after the outbreak of war in Korea. But the day is better remembered as “Bloody May Day,” when leftist demonstrators at the Meiji Shrine marched toward the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace. They had no permit to assemble there. Two were shot dead and several hundred injured in the ensuing riots.
The next day, 3,000 people, including the Emperor and Empress, converged on Shinjuku Gyoen to attend the first public memorial service for the war dead.
Japan’s powerful prewar military-industrial cliques, the zaibatsu, had been dissolved for the duration, but soon began their re-emergence as keiretsu (groups of interlinked affiliates). On May 7, Mitsubishi Bank, renamed Chiyoda Bank during the Occupation, reverted to its original name; likewise Sumitomo Bank, which had gone by the name Osaka Bank.
On July 1, Haneda Airport was returned to Japanese control and became Tokyo International Airport. The war in Korea was still far from over, however, and many other airfields were to remain in partial or full control of the U.S. military.
Thanks to newfound publishing freedom, the general public was finally introduced to the first gruesome scenes from the Hiroshima atomic bombing, published in Asahi Graph magazine’s issue of Aug. 6 — seven years after the bombing. The issue promptly sold out.
Meanwhile, Japan was left to deal with several hundred men still imprisoned for war crimes. In October 1954, the government requested amnesty for nine Class-A war criminals who were serving life sentences in Sugamo Prison, among them 65-year-old Koichi Kido, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and wartime liaison between Emperor Hirohito and the government. Two others, Shunroku Hata, 75, and Tsukasumi Oka, 64, had previously been released on medical parole due to poor health.
Economic recovery proceeded apace, and by July 1956, the government’s economic White Paper confidently proclaimed that “Japan is no longer in the ‘postwar’ period.”
Applied to the nation’s politics, however, it could be argued that the same statement probably doesn’t hold true even today. The once-sharp polarization between left and right camps has given way to fragmentation, and Japan has yet to come to a consensus on when or how to revise, or rescind, its American-imposed Constitution.
Viewed dispassionately, it could be said that Japan’s positions on domestic and international issues, as ambiguous and amorphous as they appear, have been remarkably consistent over the past 50 years. Scant wonder then that some historians believe it’s still too soon to evaluate the full impact of Japan’s “American interlude.”