On Sept. 2, 1945, senior Japanese officials aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay surrendered to the United States-led Allied coalition. The move came just over two weeks after Emperor Hirohito told the nation, on Aug. 15, that Japan would surrender.

The day marked not only the formal end of the Pacific War but also the beginning of the occupation of Japan by foreign powers for the first time in its history.

Led and largely directed by the United States under Supreme Commander Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the United Kingdom, India, Australia and New Zealand would play supporting roles in the Allied Occupation, which continued until the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed on Sept. 8, 1951. The treaty came into effect on April 28, 1952.

What was the purpose of the Occupation?

The Occupation had two immediate objectives in the postwar period.

The first was to ensure Japan would never again become a menace to the U.S. or the rest of the world. The second was to bring about the eventual establishment of a peaceful and responsible government that would respect the rights of other states and support the U.S. and the United Nations.

To accomplish those goals, the authority of the emperor and the Japanese government was subject to MacArthur, who had sweeping powers to carry out the surrender terms and institute new political and economic policies.

Japan was under occupation for six years, until it signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty on Sept. 8, 1951.

What areas of reform were pursued?

Demilitarization and breaking up Japan’s large industrial groups, known as zaibatsu, were two major goals.

The Occupation also enacted land reforms that gave farmers and small landowners more rights. Trade unions were allowed to operate, and educational reforms created a school system based on the U.S. model and encouraged the teaching of democratic values.

U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur took the decision not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. | KYODO
U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur took the decision not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. | KYODO

Occupation authorities also worked with Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, after agreeing he would not abdicate or be prosecuted as a war criminal, to encourage Japanese to view him more as a constitutional monarch along the lines of the British system than as a living god.

The Occupation also forced a new Constitution on Japan to replace the prewar document that had given the emperor far more political power. It was promulgated in 1946 and went into effect in 1947. In drawing up the new Constitution, Occupation officials often clashed with conservative senior Japanese leaders, especially on expanding the rights of the people.

In 1995, Beate Sirota Gordon, who, as a 22-year-old Occupation employee had collaborated on the provision about women’s rights in the new Constitution, told reporters that it had been hammered out by the U.S. and Japan over a 30-hour period in March 1946.

She had pushed for including a clause about women’s rights, and her superiors agreed it should be included and advised the Japanese accordingly.

What did the Occupation discourage?

Despite an official policy of promoting free speech, Occupation authorities exercised strong censorship over the Japanese media.

On Sept. 19, 1945, MacArthur issued a press code that prohibited the printing of any material that interfered with public tranquility, and said that destructive criticism of the Occupation, or articles that invited mistrust or resentment of troops, would not be allowed.

Detailed reports about the effects of atomic bomb radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were suppressed, and Occupation censors prohibited articles that justified the actions of Japan during wartime, defended accused war criminals or contained military or nationalist propaganda.

Articles on black market activities, starvation (a major concern in the winter of 1945) or fraternization between Occupation personnel and Japanese women were also subject to censorship.

In his 1952 book “Conquered Press: The MacArthur Era in Japanese Journalism,” William Coughlin notes that the actual application of censorship rules was confusing and so difficult that some Japanese newspapers set up “censorship desks” where about a dozen men were expected to keep the rest of the paper informed on what the Occupation was saying about censorship and what kinds of stories were allowed.

How did the Occupation change over time?

By 1949, events within and outside of Japan were prompting a rethink on the part of Occupation officials about their earlier reforms. The Soviet Union acquired an atomic bomb and the Chinese Communist Revolution took place that year.

In Japan, hyperinflation was a problem. It was brought under control with the arrival, also in 1949, of Detroit banker Joseph Dodge.

His “Dodge Line” of policies included balancing the national budget and fixing the exchange rate at ¥360 to the dollar, along with unpopular austerity measures.

The end result of Dodge’s policies was that Japan would concentrate on becoming an industrial export power in later decades.

By the end of the 1940s, the Occupation was cracking down harder on domestic Japanese groups it deemed dangerous. These included unions and other groups directly or indirectly associated with socialists and communists.

On the other hand, many anticommunists conservatives and right-wingers who had been arrested in 1945 as suspected war criminals were released, to serve as American allies in the global struggle against communism. These events were part of what became known as the Occupation’s “reverse course.”

Was the Occupation limited to Japan’s main islands?

The islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu were under the control of the Supreme Commander Allied Powers, but the U.S. had sole authority over Okinawa (which it would retain until returning it to Japan in 1972).

Former Japanese colonial possessions were divided up among other Allied nations.

Japan's Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Chief of the Army General Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu attend the surrender ceremonies on Sept. 2, 1945. | U.S. ARMY SIGNAL CORPS / U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES / HANDOUT / VIA REUTERS
Japan’s Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Chief of the Army General Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu attend the surrender ceremonies on Sept. 2, 1945. | U.S. ARMY SIGNAL CORPS / U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES / HANDOUT / VIA REUTERS

China was given control of Taiwan, the Soviet Union had authority over South Sakhalin — which Japan had taken from Russia 40 years previously — as well as the Kuril Islands, of which the four nearest Japan were invaded by the Soviet Union after the Aug. 15 speech by Emperor Hirohito announcing the nation’s surrender.

The Korean Peninsula was divided across its middle. The U.S. took charge of the southern part of the peninsula, which became independent South Korea in 1948. The Soviet Union was given control of the land north of the 38th parallel, which became North Korea, also in 1948.

Islands in the Pacific, including Guam, were classified by the U.N. as Non-Self-Governing Territories, but administered by the U.S.

What is the Occupation’s legacy?

The early phase is usually viewed by historians as being a policy and diplomatic success, especially by American officials. On a personal level, Japanese who were children during the era still tell stories of American G.I.s passing out gum, ice cream and chocolate.

American popular culture that arrived with the Occupation troops, from movies to music, blossomed, which added to the view, especially in the U.S., that it was successful. The peaceful reaction to the presence of so many Allied troops by the Japanese people also meant the Occupation did not have to worry about putting down armed rebellions as it attempted to carry out its policies.

Historians in Japan and abroad generally agree that the Occupation accomplished many of its early goals, including disarmament, the repatriation of Japanese forces abroad, the ratification of a new Constitution rooted in democratic values, land reforms, more equal rights for women and a foreign policy that made Japan a close U.S. ally.

But the censorship exercised by the Occupation, the release and return to power of those arrested for war crimes and the crackdown on socialists and communists created problems that lingered long after the Occupation ended. The decision by MacArthur not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal provoked anger among other allied nations.

Another issue that remains unresolved is that of the islands occupied by the Soviet Union and a separate peace treaty with Russia, which did not sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Finally, mention must be made of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which would follow the Occupation.

It firmly placed Japan in the alliance of democratic nations during the Cold War period that followed, allowing Japan to rebuild its economy under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, without large defense expenditures.

But it also created questions about whether Japan, whose future international role was initially viewed by some Occupation authorities as that of neutrality — the “Switzerland of Asia” — had become too tied to Washington’s interests by the time the Occupation ended.

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