15 May 2004

Buruma on Japan's Occupier-in-Chief

Ian Buruma's chapter on the U.S. Occupation period in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003), begins thus:
General Douglas MacArthur arrived at Atsugi naval airdrome, near Yokohama, on August 30, 1945. Having emerged from his aircraft, the supreme commander for the Allied powers (SCAP) paused at the top of the steps, stuck one hand in his hip pocket, tightened his jaws around his corncob pipe, and surveyed the conquered land through his aviator sunglasses. This trademark pose, casually imperious, had been well rehearsed. It was repeated several times from different angles, so all the press photographers could get a decent shot.

We cannot know exactly what went through SCAP's mind at that moment, but reports of his monologues on the long flight from Australia suggest that he felt like a man with a mission. MacArthur was no expert on Japan; in fact, he knew very little about the place. But guided, in his own account, by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ, he would deliver this benighted Oriental nation from slavery and feudalism and transform its people into pacific democrats. It was to be the most radical overhaul since the Meiji Restoration, another new dawn to the West. But this time America, and not Germany, would be the model, the only model. Officially, the occupation of Japan was to be shared by the other Allied powers, including the Soviet Union. In fact, it was an American show from the start.

SCAP's mission began almost one hundred years after Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships. Then, too, "the universal Yankee nation" had come (in Perry's mind, at any rate) to bring light to Japanese darkness. The guns on the deck of his flagship, Powhatan, made sure the Japanese got the message. This earlier mission was not forgotten at the hour of Japan's official surrender. Perry's flag, carefully preserved at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was flown to Japan for the ceremony on the battleship Missouri. After the old flag was hoisted and MacArthur spoke grandiloquently, like the ham actor he was, of freedom, tolerance, and justice, fifteen hundred U.S. Navy fighter planes and four hundred B-29 bombers roared overhead in tight formation.

The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were disbanded. Leftover stockpiles and materiel were either destroyed or disappeared into the black markets, thus setting up the careers of well-connected Japanese gangsters, political fixers, and right-wing politicians. Destroying Japan's military was only the beginning, however. Political institutions had to be reformed and the zaibatsu tackled. The Japanese bureaucracy, on the other hand, was left largely in place to carry out SCAP's reforms for him. Unlike Germany, Japan was to be administered by the Japanese themselves, with SCAP and his staff as puppet masters, frequently moving in the dark. There was a general election in 1946, and occupied Japan continued to be run officially by Japanese governments under the autocratic gaze of SCAP. Thus, an important link between prewar, wartime, and postwar Japan was preserved. The effect was not all to the good.

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