US Occupation of Japan after WWII



When exploring 20th century US history, it is easy to remember Japan as an enemy of United States. In the early 1940s, anti-Japanese sentiment ran rampant in the United States, taking the form of popular culture and, in the most extreme case, the internment of over a hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese descent. However, this enemy image is a far cry from how the United States viewed Japan just a decade later. By the mid 1950’s Japan had transformed from an enemy to an ally. Even now, in the 21st century, many Americans openly embrace Japanese culture through food, shows, books, games, etc.

This tale of foes who waged what historian John Dower has memorably called a “war without mercy”[1] to becoming important allies is one of post-World War II history’s stranger stories. The origins of this transformation from “enemies to friends” can be traced to the immediate post war occupation of Japan by America. During this period of time, the United States government set out to make friends with the small island nation in order to have an ally in Asia during the emerging Cold War. The relationship was not without its problems, but has been widely regarded as a successful occupation among Americans.

While an occupation may not be the first image that comes to mind when the term “empire” is used, the occupation of Japan illustrates some interesting characteristics of America as an empire. While Americans were not outright conquering the small island nation and raising their flags, they were instilling ideas of democracy, freedom, and capitalism. Even more interesting, the Americans did not only want the Japanese to adopt their ideas, but also want to adopt their ideas. Americans believed that a country like Japan wanted the democratic way of America; the Japanese just had not realized it at the time. Therefore, America felt it was their responsibility to be their “teacher”.

This period of reconstruction illustrates American Empire as a means of partnership, dominance, and cultural influence.

Questions to Consider

While each primary source will raise its own unique questions, some questions can be used to provoke thoughts for all of them. Keep these questions in mind as you engage with each primary source in addition to thinking about the specifics of the source.
1. How does American exceptionalism play a role in each source?
2. How is America characterized in each source? Do you believe they ever overstepped their bounds, or were all their actions justified?
3. By looking at specific word choice in each source, how do you believe Americans viewed the Japanese? How do you believe the Japanese viewed Americans?

Demilitarize and Democratize; America’s Japan

MacArthur Quote

On August 15th, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers and the Supreme Allied Commander, US General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, the five starred general who served in the Pacific Front in World War II, made sure to take advantage of this moment by making Japan’s surrender a big ceremony for the world to see. Aboard the USS Missouri, Japan signed the documents that ended its war against the United States, and that initiated the US’s occupation of the Japanese Archipelago.

MacArthur’s Japan was sure to be different from Pre-War Japan. Before the Second World War, there had been a militaristic take over in Japan, due to the military having a lot of autonomy. Military was traditionally supposed to be managed by the emperor, however he was unable to control their exploits in Asia and the assassination of Japan’s prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. Additionally, the emperor also held much of the power, being seen as a figure of divinity who oversaw and chose many government members. While some democracy was present, there were many restrictions and issues with elections. MacArthur’s plan for Japan relied on decreasing the power of the military while also refining the Japanese government into more of an American one. Indeed, many of MacArthur’s reforms borrowed ideas from his home country, right down to the ideals of the founding fathers.

The initial goal of the occupation was to showcase how American democracy could be successful anywhere in the world, but this quickly changed when the Soviet Union became a threat. The agenda shifted to ensuring an alliance with Japan to keep it from turning communist, as well as having military operations running in Asia. This became especially important when Americans felt they had “lost” China to communism. While the Chinese were not especially fond of the Soviet Union, Americans still viewed their communist regime as an enemy, and needed to ensure they had some sort of support in Asia.

The following primary documents help to demonstrate how MacArthur ran his occupation. Specifically, Macarthur’s process of demobilizing the once aggressive military, and instilling a refined Americanized constitution. Other documents illustrate the military relationship between Japan and America as the occupation comes to an end, and how it changed throughout the occupational period. These documents also show the influence of America over Japan in their policies, choice of words, and in the ways they effected the country of Japan.

MacArthur Demilitarizes


Demobilization and Disarmament of Japan.pdf 


The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was the demilitarization of the country. The American belief was that the small island nation had propelled into a devastating war by the militaristic government of Pre-War Japan. In an overarching cooperative fashion, the Japanese disarmed 88% of their armed forces in the time between September to October of that year. It would not take much longer for their entire military to be disbanded, and weapons destroyed.

The Demobilization and Disarmament of Japan is an excerpt from the Reports of General MacArthur. It illustrates the process of how the Japanese military was demobilized, and disarmed. The Americans enforce the disbanding of the Japanese military, and seem to have the authority to carry this operation out. Japanese soldiers are encouraged to return home and live the rest of their lives peacefully. Weapons such as aircraft and guns are disposed of, and not left to linger.

Why might the Americans have the authority to essentially break apart an entire military? What are some of the key themes from this document? Do you believe this action was justified?

MacArthur, Douglas. Reports of General MacArthur. Washington, D.C.: For Sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1966. Print.

The Constitution of Japan


Constitution of Japan.pdf (Original translated document)

Constitution of Japan.pdf (Easier to highlight in Adobe)


MacArthur’s second objective was to democratize Japan. To do this, MacArthur appointed American government members to draft a constitution that would take the place of Japan’s Pre-War Meiji Constitution. The Meiji Constitution had borrowed ideas from the American Constitution itself, but was much more reliant on the divinity of the Empire. Furthermore, while it had two houses, a House of Representatives and a House of Peers, only one of the parties was made up of elected members. The House of Peers was made up of individuals from the imperial family. Even in its preamble, the Meiji Constitution speaks of deriving from ancestry and the glory of the throne rather than the will of the people.

The new Constitution would bring about subtle and major changes to the Meiji Constitution. Even from the beginning paragraphs, the new Japanese Constitution directly quotes its American counterpart with phrases such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Additionally, it is characterized by “we, the Japanese people” rather than the divinity of the emperor. The two houses are revised into the House of Representative and the House of Councilors, both made up of elected officials rather than the imperial family.

The changes go beyond simple revising of previous establishments and word choice. In the new Constitution of Japan the emperor would no longer be viewed as a god, but rather an ordinary man. He would still keep his position, and perform ceremonial rights, but would not be all powerful. An even more controversial change appears in the form of Article 9 in which Japan is not allowed to have a military.

When viewing this document, it is best to examine what is American, but also what Japan must do differently than its Western counterparts. What sections are directly borrowed from America? What aspects of this constitution are unique to the Japanese, and play off their culture? Why do you believe the Americans made the changes they did?

“Constitution of Japan, 3 November 1946.” International Law Studies Series. US Naval War College 46 (1948-1949).

From God to Man: The Story of HirohitoMacarthur_hirohito


When the war came to a close, the defeated Axis powers faced repercussions for their aggressive actions. In Germany and Japan alike, people who has committed “crimes against humanity” were put on trial and even executed. However, one key figure was missing from these trials: Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

Over the duration of the second World War, Emperor Hirohito was one of the villainous faces that characterized anti-Japanese propaganda in the US. The emperor had been reluctant to join the war, but did not use his authority to end it sooner, in a sense making him just as guilty as other war criminals. However, the emperor had some key differences that set him apart from the dictators of Europe. First, he was not their sole leader. Prime ministers, and militaristic government officials were just as responsible, if not more responsible, for the aggressive actions of World War II. The military ultimately had control over the country, and it was them who continuously pushed the war. Emperor Hirohito was not aggressive and ambitious the way Hitler was. Secondly, the emperor was a symbol of divinity. He literally made out to be a god, not a mere man. Whether or not Japanese people actually viewed him that way is debatable.

When approaching the topic of Hirohito, MacArthur was careful. Several Japanese advisors warned him not to completely eliminate the emperor out of fear that it would cause the Japanese citizens to fall into chaos. After all, the emperor was seen as a god. MacArthur listened to this plea. He decided not to invite Hirohito to visit him, but rather wait for Hirohito to extend an invitation. This was not done to be submissive to the emperor, as MacArthur was not, but instead to allow him to hold some shred of pride.[2]

Hirohito, in the end, arranged to meet with MacArthur. Instead of summoning him, Hirohito came to MacArthur’s headquarters, a business building known as the Dai-Ichi Seimei. It was not only taller than the palace, but sat directly across from it. The emperor’s visit to Macarthur was the first time in many years the emperor has visited a commoner. While Hirohito was dressed very formally in a suite, Macarthur appeared a bit more casual in his standard khakis. The two took a photo together, Macarthur slightly slumping and Hirohito standing straight and rigid. Afterwards, MacArthur made sure to distribute this image across Japan. The emperor was alive, but was not all powerful.

After the photo was taken, Macarthur and Hirohito had a private meeting. It was reported that Hirohito pleaded for mercy for his people. He allegedly stated that he was willing to take all the blame, as long as the Japanese citizens were spared. These statements may have been the result of a translation error however, and has been a point of debate among historians.[3] Regardless, MacArthur, moved by these pleas, decided that Hirohito would remain emperor, but only under certain conditions. His divinity would be removed and he would be a man of the people, visiting them in the streets. Hirohito would not be the ruler of Japan so much as he would be a ceremonial figure.

From then on the story portrayed to Americans and Japanese alike showed Hirohito as a much more sympathetic figure. He was a family man, a timid intellectual, and had been forced to sign into the war as a way of protecting his people. This new story made him much more likable, and further strengthened the relationship between the countries. Yet, because of America, the emperor would never be viewed the same way again.

What is the significance of removing the divinity from the title of emperor? How does the image above describe the relationship that not only MacArthur and Hirohito had, but America and Japan?

Gaetano Faillace. MacArthur and Hirohito. Sepetember 27, 1945. United States Army Photograph.

The Treaty of San Francisco


Treaty of San Francisco.pdf


The occupation ended in 1952 with the Treaty of San Francisco. This document goes even further to officially declare the end of the war. Yet, strangely enough, the only country Japan attacked during the war that signed this document was America. Japan never made an attempt to reconcile its differences with China or Korea, and therefore those two nations do not appear on this treaty.

Much had changed in Japan during the years that had passed between the creation of Japan’s new Constitution and the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco. The nation had been rebuilt, free market was its system, and it was getting ready to retake its place back in the global world. The Treaty of San Francisco allowed Japan to join the United Nations, the replacement for the previously failed League of Nations that Japan had left when they initiated a war with China. The treaty demanded no war reparations, and Japan was allowed to remain a sovereign nation. However, Japan was still unable allowed to have its own military force, and therefore would be reliant on Western countries, America specifically, for self-defense.


This image is a piece created by Takashi Kono in 1953 titled Sheltered Weaklings. It depicts America is a giant predator fish that Japan, small defenseless fish follow. Moving away from them are two red fish, most likely to the Soviet Union. This is commentary on how despite ending the war and occupation, the Japanese would still have to rely on the United States for military assistance. Kono’s message is that Japan was swimming against the Soviet Union not on its own accord, but because it was following the bigger fish, the United States.

When looking at the Treaty of San Francisco is there anything that surprises you? Why might the United States not demand War Reparations? Do you believe this agreement made Japan weaker or stronger in the world?

“Treaty of Peace with Japan.” United States Treaties and Other International Agreements 3 (1952): 3169-3328

Japanese- American Security Treaty


Security Treaty with Japan.pdf


Shortly after the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan signed another private treaty, the Security Treaty Between the United States of America and Japan. This document would serve as a way to fix Japan’s problem of not being allowed a military. Instead, Japan would be allowed its own “Self Defense Force” that would operate largely like a military. The United States gave Japan the authority to create this force, as it would not be violating the constitution they had put in place. This treaty would not be permanently in effect, and could be renewable by the Japanese government. Though coming off the heels of a war and occupation, it was in Japan’s best interest to agree to the security treaty.

The implementation of a Self Defense Force was done in response to a growing Soviet threat. The United States decided that Japan needed to be armed in case of an attack, or in case they needed to fight in the Pacific Theatre again. This treaty also allows for American military to keep a presence in Japan through bases. In a sense, Japan becomes a sort of satellite for the military.

Notice the wording in the document. It opens with the need for Japan to be able to defend itself from threats. Additionally, the wording phrases it so that Japan seeks protection from the United States. What do you believe was the reasoning for the choice of phrasing? Do you believe the United States was acting in the best interest of Japan or itself?

“Security Treaty.” United States Treaties and Other International Agreements 3 (1952): 3329-3340.

Kono, Takashi. Sheltered Weaklings. 1953. Print Poster. Aichi: Prefectural University of Fine Arts, Japan.

A Student Made News Reel

Here is a student made news reel to summarize the key events you have just read about. Clips borrowed from Critical Past and National Archives.

Culture of the Occupation

There is more to an occupation of two cultures than simply treaties and government protocol. The lived experiences of Japanese civilians and American military personnel are just as important for defining the years of the occupation. During the years between 1946 and 1952, Japanese and American artists alike depicted aspects of life during the occupation through movies, cartoons, art, etc.

The following primary sources portray how the two cultures saw each other, and how what life was like for Japanese and Americans alike.

Pigs and Battleships

Pigs and Battle Ships Movie

(This movie is available through KU libraries. If this link does not work visit the KU libraries website and search Pigs and Battleships)


Pigs and Battleships, or Buta To Gunken, was a film that debuted in 1961 by director Shohei Imamura. After the war, Imamura participated in buying and selling off the black market. Personally devastated by war, a lot of his subject matters in film were drawn from poverty, and the lower class. Although it was released sometime after the end of the occupation, much of the subject matter speak to real life events that took place. The somewhat anti-American tone the movie took also resulted in Imamura being banned from movie making for two years.

The story follows “Kinta,”[4] a poor Japanese gangster belonging to the Yakuza. Kinta’s goal Pigs_and_Battleships_1961throughout the movie is to use his connections with the gang to make a fortune off of selling pigs. However, things quickly spiral out of control following a murder, loss of money, and an illness gripping one of Kinta’s bosses.

The other major character in the movie is Haruko, Kinta’s girlfriend. She desires a life with Kinta defined by hard work, and not crime. Like Kinta, she is incredibly poor and doing her best to survive in post-war Japan. Her family implores her to join the prostitution business, and make money off of sex with American GIs like many other Japanese women. Haruko is against this idea, until one evening she becomes desperate and tries to steal money from three GIs. After being gang raped by them, she is caught trying to steal their money, and beat in the street. Haruko eventually decides to leave town and work in a factory, away from the GIs.

This film shows how terribly poor the Japanese were after losing such a violent war. Prostitution was common for many Japanese women. The American GIs, far away from home, became fixated on the Japanese women, and after time spent there did not mind having sexual interactions with them. Indeed, some GIs would spend their money buying dresses for their girls, taking them to shows, or simply giving them money for their services. Japanese women became the subject of idealization, and hyper-sexualization, as seen in the next primary source.

When examining this source notice how the Americans act in their interactions with the Japanese. Is the expectation that individuals speak in English or Japanese, and why might that be significant? How might prostitution be related to American superiority of the time?

Imamura Shohei, Pigs and Battleships, film, performed by Yoshimura Jitsuko. 1961; Nikkatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, 1962. Online.


[PDF Too Large for Viewer. Click Here to View on DropBox]

Babysan is an interesting little book created by Bill Hume, an American cartoonist. Hume’s cartooning had an unsuccessful start prompting him to enlist in the Navy. When the Second World War came to an end, Hume was stationed in occupied Japan. There he observed Japan’s way of life as well as interactions between servicemen and the Japanese people. His cartoons grew in popularity among military personnel.

Babysan Cover

Babysan Cover

These cartoons were inspired by American GI interactions with Japanese women, who all made up the character of Babysan. The term “Baby-san” is a cultural combination of the American term for attractive women, “baby”, and the Japanese honorific, “san”. Babysan herself was a hyper-sexualized Japanese woman with a small waste, short height, large bust, and only completed by her mispronunciations of the English language.

As mentioned previously, the cartoons play at real Japanese woman-GI interactions. Indeed, as touched upon in Pigs and Battleships, American GIs could be attracted to Japanese women and more than willing to engage in low stakes sexual interactions. Interestingly enough, much of the book portrays Babysan as playful, but cunning. She is a woman fascinated by Americans who has no problem keeping more than one American man relevant in her life. In no way is Babysan the traditional stereotyped quiet and polite Japanese woman.

While she makes a great effort to speak English, her “boyfriends” know frighteningly little Japanese. In fact, one of the Americans claim that Babysan’s ability to speak Japanese is a testament to her intelligence, and not a product of the culture she grew up in.

Notice the features of Babysan described in the book. How many of them do you believe were true? How many based on myth? Why do you believe Babysan behaved the way she did? What do you believe the American understanding of Japanese women was based on this source?

Hume, Bill, and John Annarino. Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation. Tokyo: Kasuga Boeki K.K., 1953.

When We Get Back Home

[PDF too large for viewer. Click here to view on Dropbox]

Another cartoon book by Bill Hume, When We Get Back Home, is about American GIs trying to adapt to life in America after spending so many years in Japan. Unlike Babysan, there is much less focus on sexual interaction, and is a book about adaptation that does not take itself very seriously. For example, the returning GI may find himself saying things in Japanese, favoring tea over coffee, using a futon instead of a bed, etc.

The book teeters on making fun Japan and praising Japan. Stereotypes are present within the whenwegetbook, but there are not outright insults to the other culture. In fact, commentary by secondary author Annarino remarks that a lot of the customs in Japan were good ideas, and not having them in America is jarring. One such example is taking shows before entering the home as it prevents messes from being tracked inside.

The two books, side by side, created by the same cartoonist, contrast with each other quite a bit. In Babysan there the American GI has a tough time understanding the Japanese way, but later in When We Get Back Home he has not only adjusted, but embraced many aspects of it. The soldiers in When We Get Back Home depicted the soldiers that actually did go to Japan and try to embrace and understand the culture.

When reading this source do you believe that Americans really did find themselves liking aspects of Japanese culture? How much of the book seems to be praise and how much seems to be making fun of the country? Do you believe, based on this source, that the Americans had a better understanding of Japan?

Hume, Bill, and John Annarino. When We Get Back Home. Tokyo: Pacific Stars and Stripes, 1953.


The Occupation of Japan was a strange and unique time. The United States, although their occupation has ended, never truly left Japan, keeping military bases within the country. Even so, these two first world powers have kept good relations since the end of World War II. Japan is still important ally, and friend to the United States.

The Occupation of Japan has been called the “Golden Standard of Occupations” as many Americans feel their influence in the country is what lead Japan to not only make a full recovery, but become the strongest economic and cultural nations in the world following the war. In fact, in the 1980’s Japan’s economy would become so strong, Americans would come to fear a Japanese take over. Japanese cars and electronics would become some of the best in the world. Additionally, Japanese media culture would go on to become relevant world wide. Besides America, no other country has the same strength in producing massively successful comics, animation, and games time and time again. These accomplishments may not have been possible without the modernization, reconstruction, and democratization that occurred directly after the war.

For a time, the Japanese would feel torn about the American influence on their country. There was outcry among citizens on renewing the Security Treaty between the two nations that would result in American military to continue having a presence in the country. Despite protests, it was renewed, and Americans remained. Many Japanese detest the idea of fighting another war after the atrocities that occurred in World War II, and subsequently do not argue Article 9 that remains apart of the constitution. Traumas from World War II still remain in the minds of Japanese as shown in movies and shows that focus on radiation, dystopias, and powerful weapons.

The occupation of Japan deserves credit not just from its occupiers, but its occupants as well. Despite the ruthless battles that had taken place only a year before, many Japanese citizens showed kindness to the American GIs present in their country. In turn, many GIs did make a real effort to try and understand and befriend their former foes. Not all interactions were perfect, but there was a surprisingly lack of conflict during the period.

Looking forward relations with Japan and the United States remain strong. This story remains an interesting tale of American Empire. America came, took control of a country, and reshaped it into something new. As of now, Japan still faces the presence of American military in their country. Perhaps one day Japan will decide that they wish the United States to leave, or perhaps the United States will always have some grip on the archipelago. Only time will tell the future of these two powerful countries.

Compiled by: Emily Campbell


[1]John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.)  
[2]Geoffrey Perret, Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur. (New York: Random House, 1996.), 482
[3]Naoko Shibusawa, America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.), 105. 
[4] Shohei Immamura, Pigs and Battleships, film, Yoshimura Jitsuko (1961; Nikkatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, 1962.), Online.