This Is How America Dealt With Violent Fascists In Post-War Japan

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Hideki Tojo, prime minister of Japan from 1941 to 1944, takes the stand at the Tokyo Tribunals. Public domain, from the US National Archives.

America has been here before. While the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 was shocking in its display of pure, untempered rage, the United States has dealt with more than its fair share of violent fascists and insurrectionists over the centuries. The American Civil War is the most obvious example, but there are other, more recent cases that provide important lessons for post-Trump America.

American occupation forces governed part of West Germany and all of Japan after the defeat of the Axis Powers in the Second World War. In Japan, the occupation government under General MacArthur was given almost unlimited power to remake Japan in a new, democratic fashion. To achieve this, MacArthur’s first move was to punish the fascist perpetrators of Japanese war crimes and exclude fascist loyalists from holding public office.

While healing the national community was the end-goal, the occupation forces recognised that accountability came first — something that many commentators, especially conservatives, are missing in their response to the Capitol insurrection. Wounds opened by violent thugs have to be treated and medicated. Until they are, calls for ‘unity’ ring hollow.

As America prepares to move into a post-Trump era, the country can take some serious lessons from its experience governing a post-fascist Japan in 1945–52. Then, as now, tough decisions are necessary. Some of them may seem divisive, but severe maladies call for severe remedies.

Japan’s war machine committed innumerable atrocities during the Second World War, including mass murder of civilians,¹ state-sanctioned rape,² human experimentation,³ and the mistreatment of prisoners of war.⁴ These atrocities were committed under the auspices of a distinctly Japanese form of race-based fascism melding Confucian and Buddhist ideas with social Darwinism.⁵ Having, as George Orwell dubbed it, ‘a racial theory even more extreme than that of the Germans,’ the Japanese were confident in their superiority and their right, therefore, to treat others poorly.⁶

As the tide of the Second World War turned decisively against Japan and the prospect of a military occupation drew nearer, Americans began to wonder how they might rehabilitate a nation in the grips of such a violent ideology.⁷ If Japan was ever to re-enter the international community on amicable terms, Japanese society would have to undergo fundamental changes, or ‘denazification’.’⁸ Accordingly, the US Field Manual on military government noted that government personnel in the occupied country could be removed if they subscribed to ideologies that ‘outrage civilized concepts’.⁹

Japan accepted the terms of surrender set out in the Potsdam Declaration on 15 August 1945, just days after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hard-liners in the Japanese military attempted a coup to prevent the surrender, but this ultimately failed.¹⁰

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Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur meet for the first time at the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, 27 September 1945. Public domain, property of US government.

General Douglas MacArthur was installed as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in the Far East, a post which gave him ultimate control of both civil and military affairs in Japan, and it was he who, ‘armed with a conqueror’s power,’¹¹ led the effort to remake the defeated nation in America’s image. As MacArthur himself put it, ‘Japan had become the world’s great laboratory for an experiment in the liberation of a people from totalitarian military rule’.¹²

The US State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee’s Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan, issued September 1945, defined the occupation’s objectives as, firstly, to ensure ‘that Japan will not again become a menace to the United States [or] the world,’ and secondly, to establish ‘a peaceful and responsible government’. Institutions ‘expressive of the spirit of militarism and aggression will be vigorously suppressed,’ and the Japanese would ‘be encouraged to develop a desire for individual liberties and respect for fundamental human rights’. Discriminatory laws based on ‘race, nationality, creed or political opinion’ would be ‘abrogated,’ while no form of government would be imposed if ‘not supported by the freely expressed will of the people’.¹³

The ethos of the new Japan was captured in the constitution drafted in just six days by American administrators.¹⁴ The new constitution enshrined free expression, barred discrimination based on race, sex, and religion, instituted universal suffrage, placed sovereignty with the people rather than the Emperor, and prohibited Japan from maintaining a military in future.¹⁵ There could not have been a more potent statement of the occupation government’s intent. MacArthur called it ‘the most liberal constitution in history.’¹⁶

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Surgeon General Ishii Shirō, director of the notorious Unit 731, where human experiments were conducted on prisoners during the Second World War. Public domain, copyright expired.

As in Germany, the Allies brought the key perpetrators of Japan’s war crimes to trial. There were some key oversights, however. The personnel in Japan’s system of human experimentation were let off the hook in exchange for giving the results of their experiments to the US.¹⁷ Many of them went on to lead successful lives as civilian doctors. Others, like Surgeon General Ishii Shirō, director of the notorious Unit 731, simply vanished, never facing consequences of their despicable actions.

Another to escape trial was Emperor Hirohito himself. The US administration understood the immense respect the Japanese people had for the imperial institution and recognised that there was scope to work with the Emperor to legitimise the new regime.¹⁸ Hirohito agreed to play along, thus setting in motion a joint Japanese-American effort to rehabilitate the imperial system and expunge the Emperor’s deep involvement in directing the war effort from the history books.¹⁹ In return for being allowed to remain in his position, Hirohito agreed to renounce his claims to divinity and serve as a purely symbolic head of state.²⁰

In addition to the trial of war criminals, the occupation government issued directives ordering the immediate dissolution of fascist organisations and the barring of their members — around 200,000 people in all — from holding public office. This extended to the highest elected officials. Hatoyama Ichirō, leader of the party that won Japan’s first post-war election in 1946, was barred from becoming prime minister due to his service in fascist governments during the 1920s and 1930s.²¹

These restrictions later eased off when the American government began to worry that the severity of the occupation policies would render Japan vulnerable to communist influences.²² Former fascists who had been barred from holding public office were, like Emperor Hirohito, allowed to re-enter public life, but not as fascists.

Both Hirohito and former fascist administrators were offered the fictional narrative that an evil military ‘clique’ had duped Japan into committing acts of aggression, thus giving them a way to rationalise their own involvement. Without ever being required to explicitly renounce their past actions, they were permitted to construct for themselves a new future as scientists, doctors, academics, civil servants — even politicians — so long as they left militarism and fascism behind.

This allowed for national healing of a sort, although it failed to account for the millions who suffered at the hands of Japanese militarism. Still, imperfect though it was, the way America dealt with fascists in post-war Japan stands in stark contrast to the slow, uneven response to the fascist insurrection in Washington on 6 January.

The effort to root out fascism in Japan operated on the principle that a wound must be treated before healing can take place. Allowing a rotting limb to linger out of sentimentality will not ultimately serve the best interests of the whole body. The architects of the Japanese fascist state (most of them, at least) were held accountable and punished, and only afterwards were lower-level fascist operators offered a way to re-join the national community.

To summarise, the Japanese example provides the following three-step model for dealing with violent fascists:

  1. Lay down a marker by removing fascists from public office, elected or unelected, and prosecuting the ring-leaders.
  2. Fill the airwaves with denunciations of fascism while doing everything possible within the law to undermine the ability of fascists to disseminate calls to violence.
  3. Gradually allow former fascists to re-enter public life on the condition that they leave fascism behind and accept the constitutional basis of democracy. Permanently exclude those who hang on to seditious intent.

America in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection has gone some way towards achieving the first two steps. Impeachment and potentially conviction of the President will draw a clear line in the sand, showing his followers that there are consequences for violent sedition. Accountability must also extend to the enablers around Trump — people like Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani who have done everything in their power to promote conspiracy theories, the bread and butter of fascist demagogues.

When President-Elect Biden becomes President Biden on 20 January, he must not let these preliminary steps lead to nothing. If he falls back on airy rhetoric about national unity without administering the tough medicine required to heal the wound, he will have passed up a rare opportunity to deal a decisive blow to fascism in America.

Notes

  1. Timothy Brook, ‘The Tokyo Judgement and the Rape of Nanking,’ The Journal of Asian Studies, 60 (2001), pp. 673–700.
  2. Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation, (London: Routledge, 2010).
  3. Jing Bao Nie et al [eds.], Japan’s Wartime Medical Atrocities: Comparative Inquiries in Science, History, and Ethics, (London: Routledge, 2010).
  4. Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 2–3.
  5. Conrad Totman, Early Modern Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 550.
  6. Quoted in John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986) p. 46.
  7. Carl J. Friedrich, ‘Military Government as a Step Toward Self-Rule,’ Public Opinion Quarterly, 7 (1943), pp. 528–9.
  8. Carl J. Friedrich [ed.], American Experiences in Military Government in World War II, (New York: Rinehart, 1948), p. v.
  9. United States War Department, Field Manual 27–5, United States Army and Navy Manual of Military Government and Civil Affairs, 22 December 1943, pp. 6–13.
  10. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 244.
  11. Charles Willoughby and John Chamberlain, MacArthur: 1941–1951, Victory in the Pacific, (London: William Heinemann, 1956), p. 282.
  12. Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, (London: Heinemann, 1965), p. 282.
  13. State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee, U.S. Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan, 6 September 1945, Part I.
  14. Alex Gibney, A. ‘Six Days to Reinvent Japan,’ The Wilson Quarterly, 20 (1996), p. 75.
  15. John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 360–9.
  16. MacArthur, Reminiscences, p. 301.
  17. Marius B. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (London: The Belknap Press, 2000), p. 673.
  18. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 851.
  19. Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 498.
  20. Ibid, p. 561.
  21. Jansen, Modern Japan, pp. 672–7.
  22. Howard B. Schonberger, Aftermath of War: Americans and the Remaking of Japan, 1945–1952, (London: Kent State University Press, 1989), p. 39.

Written by

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.

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