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Gen MacArthur's Cultural Insights into Post-War Japan

If you haven't already, drop by local bookstores and pick up a copy of Victor Sebestyen's new book 1946: The Making of the Modern World. This new book has interesting insights into the importance of cultural understanding how it affects military decision-making. Sebestyen's book chronicles the year 1946, a year that would signal the beginning of the Cold War, the end of the British Empire, and the beginning of the rivalry between the United States and the USSR. It also shows in interesting detail how men like Truman, Stalin, Churchill, MacArthur, Ben-Gurion, Hirohito, and Menachem Begin played an outsized role in shaping the next half century.


Regarding Gen MacArthur in Japan, Sebestyen explains:

America would remake Japan from the top down and turn it from semi-feudal despotism into a model twentieth-century democracy rooted in Western precepts of freedom. The Americans would impose democracy by fiat on Japan, whether the Japanese wanted and liked it or not, but they would do so using imperial institutions, including the existing civil service...[thus] At the beginning of 1946 neither princes nor poets would have dared to question Emperor Hirohito’s right to rule, despite the humiliation of total defeat. But early in the New Year, the Emperor issued a statement proclaiming himself human. It was the first stage of a process that turned Hirohito from an absolute ruler, literally worshiped by his people, into a constitutional monarch. The statement, or ‘Declaration of Humanity’, was not written by the Emperor, or indeed anyone at Hirohito’s court. It was drafted by a mid-level officer of the American Occupation authority.

Its author, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Henderson, an advisor to SCAP’s Education Department, had been wrestling with the wording for some days.

By his own account, Henderson finished the draft in his lunch hour, lying on a bed at the Daichi Hotel in central Tokyo, where many of the senior American occupation soldiers were billeted, ‘imagining what it would be like to be the Emperor of Japan.’ He came up with a simple two-paragraph statement which had profound implications. The Emperor said he ‘looked forward to a new world with new ideals, with humanity above nationalism as the great God. The ties between us and the nation do not depend only on myths and legends . . . and do not depend at all upon the mistaken idea that the Japanese are of divine descent, superior to other peoples and destined to rule them. They are the bond of trust, of affection, forged by centuries of devotion and love.’

Sebestyen goes on to explain that:

Many influential figures in Washington, including most of the senior military brass, wanted the Emperor deposed, tried as a war criminal and executed. The British, Russians, Australians, Koreans and Chinese all pressed President Truman to start proceedings against him. Neither Attlee nor Stalin could understand what the Americans were waiting for. A Senate resolution and the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed MacArthur to ‘proceed immediately to assemble all available evidence of Hirohito’s participation in and responsibility for Japanese violations of international law.’ But MacArthur hesitated. He was convinced that the monarchy, with Hirohito continuing as Emperor, was vital for the stability of Japan and to bringing about the revolutionary changes to the country he was planning. Hindsight suggests he was probably right.

MacArthur knew very little about Japanese history or culture, but a close advisor on his staff, and a personal friend, Brigadier-General Bonner Fellers, knew a great deal. Fellers had studied Japanese and visited Japan often between the early 1920s and the late 1930s. His cousin Gwen, to whom he was very close, was married to the Japanese diplomat Terasaki Hidenari, who had been posted to Washington for many years. Fellers wrote a series of intelligently argued briefing papers which seemed to MacArthur much more informative than the superficial material he was receiving from home.

Fellers wrote to MacCarthur in his memo:

Only stinging defeat and colossal losses will prove to the people that the military machine is not invincible and that their fanatical leadership has taken them the way to disaster . . . There must be no weakness in the peace terms. However, to dethrone or hang the Emperor would cause tremendous and violent reaction from all Japanese . . . Hanging the Emperor would be comparable to the crucifixion of Christ to us. All would fight and die like ants. The position of the militarists would be strengthened immeasurably. An independent Japanese army responsible only to the Emperor is a permanent menace to peace. But the mystic hold the Emperor has on the people . . . properly directed need not be dangerous. The Emperor can be made a force for good and peace provided the military clique [around him] . . . is destroyed.

Using some of Fellers' advice and insights into Japan, MacCarthur sought out to convince President Eisenhower to have Emperor Hirohito to remain in power, saying that he was ‘a symbol which united the Japanese’, writing:

Japan would experience a tremendous convulsion . . . it would initiate a vendetta for revenge . . . whose cycle may not be complete for centuries . . . Destroy him and the nation will disintegrate. Civilised practices will largely cease and a condition of underground chaos and disorder amounting to guerrilla war . . . will result. All hope of introducing modern democratic methods would disappear and when military control finally ceased, some form of intense regimentation, probably along communistic lines, would arise. A minimum of a million troops would be required, which would have to be maintained for an indefinite number of years. A complete civil service might have to be recruited, running into several hundred thousand.

During the occupation of Japan, Sebestyen writes that most of the Japanese were malnourished and poor. 

For at least the next two years food remained the biggest issue for most Japanese. Much of Japan had gone hungry long before the surrender. Shortages had been acute since the fortunes of war had turned in favour of the Western Allies and by the end of 1944 the majority of Japanese were malnourished...American bombing of the cities had also disrupted food distribution, and 1945 saw the worst harvest since 1910. At the end of autumn 1945 the country was almost entirely out of rice...MacArthur’s first, decent, instinct was to alleviate hunger and avoid famine. He cut through red tape, ordered the seizure of 3.5 million tons of food that the US Army had stockpiled for emergencies and had it shipped to Japan. This impressed the Japanese immensely and ‘kindled a light of hope in hearts that despaired’, according to the otherwise anti-American historian Yamahoka Akira. The food imports did more than anything else to make the Japanese accept defeat and occupation. The supplies were basic Western foodstuffs: wheat, corn, flour, sugar, dried milk and tinned corned beef. They were not part of the traditional Japanese diet, but kept people alive, even if ‘hunger was a constant companion’.


There are many more nuggets of interesting history in Sebestyen's book about the American Occupation of post-war Japan, and the cultural interactions between the defeated Japanese powers, the Supreme Allied Command, and the remaking of Japanese society. Whats interesting to take away, is that how a leading general with the fate of 70 million Japanese in his hands, chose to rely on advisers whom had lived and worked abroad and had prescient insights into what the emperor meant for the Chinese people and their culture. To learn more check out Sebestyen's book here or read this excerpt.

Scenic view of The Great Wall of China Landscape.