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Commission and Omission of History in Occupied Japan (1945-1949)

Stephen Buono


In 1945, the United States began a military occupation of Imperial Japan, which the Allies had defeated in an exhausting, brutal, and bloody war. The occupation, its stated goals being the “democratization and demilitarization” of Japan, was also engaged in an unprecedented effort to impress upon a defeated nation’s consciousness an entirely new set of moral principles, political philosophies, and social norms. In order to enact the new polices it wished to impose upon postwar Japan, and to make the occupation as seamless as possible, the United States occupation government engaged in the censorship and propagation of narratives aimed at reforming the Japanese people’s understanding of the war they had just lost. The U.S.’s thorough and far-reaching editing of the war’s history was exacted in two distinct ways: commission (new and altered narratives, change in focus, etcetera) and omission (censorship, suppression, deletion, etcetera) of historical emphases and realities.

Making sense of the censorship and production of history in occupied Japan is the primary goal of the present study. In looking at the censorship policies enacted during the occupation, one gains the impression that attempts to change Japanese understanding of the war were overt political actions taken by SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) to make its occupation of Japan smoother, and to develop the latter as a postwar ally against emergent, pan-Asian communism. In surveying a number of letters written to the occupation’s leader, General Douglas MacArthur, and in the commander’s own prose, it is clear that historical revisionism designed under U.S. military rule was more than simply “history by the victors.” It was hindrance of communicative freedom that bordered on the “thought control” MacArthur himself ironically decried.

In an October 1945 directive to MacArthur, the U.S State Department had instructed that he “abrogate and immediately suspend all…restriction on freedom of thought…of speech” and “…restrictions on the collection and dissemination of information.” By “all restrictions,” the U.S. State Department had implicitly meant all Japanese restrictions on intellectual freedoms, because over the next four years, the occupation government developed and enforced its own policies restricting Japanese intellectual liberties. These restrictions, which affected every corner of Japan’s mediated experience, paradoxically withheld information about the war and indeed fostered alternative understandings of its ending at a time when comprehension was needed most.

This essay will explore thematically those histories that the occupation government sought to alter through censorship and myth-making, and why it did so. I have selected narratives that most drastically changed Japanese perceptions of the war. Among these is the question of Emperor Hirohito’s responsibility for the war, and his role in delaying his country’s surrender as its shores and the civilians inhabiting them were being destroyed throughout the spring and summer of 1945. This same summer witnessed the use of the most deadly weapon in the history of human civilization. The use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was another target of the U.S. occupation’s deliberate historical revision and memory production. Many Japanese had a difficult time grasping the meaning of the war in its entirety. Japan and its civilians struggled with their identities because what the Americans were preaching in the immediate aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War contrasted sharply with the reasons and ideologies the Japanese government had given throughout its fighting. For this reason, the occupation government highlighted narratives of the war which the Japanese could use to make the transition from a militaristic, authoritarian regime, to a pacifist democracy.

The writing and rewriting, and the learning and relearning of history is a process fraught with complication and political import. Often what someone learns of history determines the perceptions that person will have on present conditions and the opinions he or she will have of important political issues of the time. During the war, the Imperial Japanese government used the myth-histories in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712AD) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720AD) to exalt the emperor, and thus encourage the country’s people to relentlessly protect his divinity. After defeating Japan, the American occupation did not remove the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki from postwar history texts, but was deliberate in distinguishing these works as myth, not historical fact. The removal of nationalist histories was only part of the major reorientation of Japanese history that took place during the occupation, and it would have profound implications for how Japanese civilians remembered and came to terms with the Asia-Pacific War. In one of the many ironies of the period, rather than having Japanese memories of the war contribute to the writing of history in postwar Japan, the U.S.’s writing of history contributed to the solidification of Japanese war memories. This paradox necessitates an analysis of the problems inherent in dealing with the production of collective memory and its troublesome relation to history.


The Incestuous Marriage of Memory and History

In his Les Travaux de L’Annee Sociologique (1925), historian and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs conceptualized collective memory in one of the most lasting analogies of his illustrious scholarly career. He likened collective memory to pools upon a rocky shore, left behind by the retreating “tide of living memory.” The ocean, Halbwachs explained, is representative of the memories of those who experienced or witnessed an historical event. Thus when this tide ebbs, what is left are pools of memory that, however tranquil, are incomplete. Furthermore, the rocks surrounding these pools serve as the political and social molds that contain and shape these resultant memories. Through metaphor, Halbwachs encapsulated what are among the fundamental problems confronting the theory of collective memory, and, more important to this study, its relation to history.

The most obvious issue at hand is memory’s resemblance to history. The theoretical danger in making history and memory synonymous is well documented, by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists alike. Wulf Kansteiner, in his study on postwar remembrances of the Holocaust in Germany, summarizes the dilemma scholars face when conceptualizing collective memory within the context of history:

Collective memory is not history, though it is sometimes made from similar material. It is a collective phenomenon, but it only manifests itself in the actions and statements of individuals. It can take hold of historically and socially remote events but often privileges the interests of the contemporary. It is as much a result of conscious manipulation as unconscious absorption.

Because history and collective memory are “made from similar material,” and because each makes meaningful contributions to the other, both concepts are consequently malleable to the point they can be made unrecognizable from one another. For this reason, historians must deliver caveats to their readers when engaging in formative studies on a particular historical period, event, or the remembrances thereof. Marc Gallicchio acknowledges that “memory is a reconstruction of the past, not a reproduction;” Yoshikuni Igarashi warns that “the past is signified and forgotten through the mediation of history;” and T. Fujitani claims that the past “is divorced from our own time and location waiting to be interpreted.”

The problem of history’s (and collective memory’s) corruptibility is exacerbated by the absorption of these altered narratives by societies living under the aegis of those making the histories. Why there is such little resistance by people exposed to politically modified histories is a topic for debate, but most scholars seem to agree that “in creating collective memories, societies are not bound by the same rules of evidence that discipline historians.” Kansteiner identifies “a troubling disregard for proof” as a cause for the seemingly indiscriminate acceptance of historical representations among societies. What results from such a combination of historical manipulation and unchecked absorption might resemble the dystopian picture painted by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984, where the State reveled in the blind adherence to the myth-histories it propagated. The occupation of Japan had just begun to ease its restrictions on Japanese media outlets and allow for open communication about the war in 1949, the same year Orwell’s novel was published. The formal occupation of Japan, which would continue for another three years was likely the most cogent example of what Orwell had warned the world of.


Rewriting History: The Scope

 In attempting to foster a pacifist, democratic government and national body in Japan, the occupation commenced the greatest reorganization of educational policy, procedure, and content that either Japan or the United States had previously witnessed. By removing previously accepted histories and supplanting them with new ones, the occupation authorities succeeded in rewriting the canon of history after the war, from the elementary school level through the university system. The primary goal of educational reform, especially that of history (which subsequently was reorganized and renamed “social studies”), was liberalization. This was accomplished by expunging all feudalistic, nationalistic, militaristic, authoritarian, Shinto-religious, or anti-American discourses from textbooks and classrooms.

Arguably the most impressionable example of this removal was the “blackening-over” (suminuru) of passages that contained material of this kind. On August 26, 1945, SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) ordered the deletion of militaristic and other propaganda in school textbooks. Class time was relegated to the inking out of militaristic propaganda, nationalistic fervor, and traces of Japanese feudalism. For many Japanese, the psychological impact of using ink to erase their former understanding of the past was traumatic. Kurita Wataru, a student during the occupation recalled: “We held the splotched pages up to the sunlight and if the words could still be read, we applied a fresh coat of ink. That day, for the first time, I felt besieged by a jumble of contending values, a feeling that persisted ever since.” Suminuru remained the primary means of educational reform until the Ministry of Education, in tandem with the Civil Information and Education Section (CI&E) could produce newly fashioned narratives of Japan’s history.

The scratching out of Japan’s wartime textbooks was supplemented by a new canon of history, represented by nationally used texts such as Kuni no ayumi (Footsteps of the Nation), Nihon rekishi (Japanese History), and Minshushugi (Democracy). The variety of occupation texts was limited (as opposed to the volume of these texts published, which according to MacArthur reached over 250 million copies) . This served to standardize education throughout the archipelago. Nuance was hard to come by in these official narratives—each decried Japan’s past aggression and exalted American customs, values, and institutions, especially democracy. The “peace education” introduced by the occupation became omnipresent and seemingly irreversible until the occupation ended April 1952.

The reach and magnitude of the occupation’s commission and omission of history resulted in part from the sheer force dedicated to the reformation of postwar Japan. The Civil Information and Education Section, which oversaw the “blackening-over” of textbooks and the dissemination of democratic propaganda and philosophies, employed 563 people, most of whom were American-trained Japanese who served as translators, editors, and researchers. From October 1945 until the end of the occupation, the CI&E Section underwent three distinct reorganizations, which added and shifted its divisions to more comprehensively monitor information sharing in Japan. The CI&E Section’s jurisdiction ranged from “Education and Religions,” “Press and Publications,” and “Radio,” to “Motion Picture,” “Arts and Monuments,” and “Theater.”

The more notorious Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD) was even larger. By 1947, it employed over six thousand people, again the majority of whom were English-speaking Japanese . The CCD’s prepublication censorship of books, magazines, newspapers, movies, and even Kabuki plays was the base from which popular discourse on Hirohito’s war responsibility and the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were effectively extracted, and thus quieted. In September 1949, the occupation secretly dissolved the CCD, but by then the latter had confiscated and read hundreds of millions of private letters and monitored nearly 100,000 private phone conversations. The professions and social statuses of people that had their mail read and phones tapped varied greatly, but censors largely focused on former military personnel, ensuring that ex-soldiers and navy men were not plotting against the occupation. Among the groups monitored was the infamous Unit 731, the Imperial Army section which had conducted biological warfare experiments on nearly 10,000 people, including Chinese and Korean refugees fleeing to the south from Manchukuo, South Asians, and some Allied prisoners of war. Included in the list of men from the unit to be monitored was Lt. Gen. Kanji Ishihara, a former officer in the Imperial Army, and a plotter of the Manchurian Incident.

Censorship of the Japanese media was pervasive, yet it was often times nonsensical, and as historian John Dower has termed it, “oversensitive.” After scanning an October 1946 proof of the English-language Nippon Times which called MacArthur “the Savior,” Chief of Intelligence Charles A. Willoughby,

organized a squad of [policemen], descended on the printing plant, where presses were rolling off the last of an edition of 50,000. He ordered the presses stopped. Trains were held up until the papers already loaded could be removed. When the last of the copies of the offending editorial had been burned the Nippon Times went to press again.

The CCD’s censorship policies may have been oversensitive, but they were equally as effective. By removing discourse counterproductive to the social, economic, and political goals of the occupation, the CCD streamlined the histories of the war being discussed in Japan. The narratives that were most tampered with included the issue of Hirohito’s responsibility for the war, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even the naming of the war proved consequential enough for alteration.


Memory of the “Pacific War

Following Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, initial Japanese reactions to and remembrances of the war were mixed. Many Japanese felt despair, fearing that their way of life was to be compromised by the victorious United States. Others felt anger because by accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, the emperor had let them down. Still others were disappointed that their leaders had taken the country to war in the first place. The notion of guilt was equally as uncertain. When asked whether or not he thought the Japanese were repentant, Manfred Gottfried, TIME magazine’s Chief Pacific Correspondent, replied: “No. And neither are they unrepentant. They [feel] oppressed by their own military clique and are pleased because we have freed them from that oppression.” Gottfried’s last point was representative of the occupation’s view of the war in general—that just as Japan viewed itself as rescuing South and East-Asia from the insatiable hunger of Western imperialism, the United States viewed its role in the war as being the protector of democratic principles and the rule of law. Part of this ideology implied that the United States had saved the Japanese people from their own military leaders. In attempting to shed themselves of any responsibility for the war, the Japanese people readily accepted this view of the war. Other reformations of history under the occupation came more formally, through legislation that sought a shift in the war’s focus by simply renaming the war itself.

In December 1945, SCAP issued a policy requiring all Japanese to refer to the war they had just lost to the Americans as the “Pacific War,” rather than the “Great East Asia War,” which they had used during the war years. This change was part of a broad initiative to strike down any reference to, or remembrance of, Japanese imperialism, nationalism, or militarism. “Great East Asia War,” which implied an Asia-centric conflict in which the Japanese began to “liberate” the East from the West was discarded in favor of the “Pacific War.” The latter emphasized the military dichotomy between the United States and Japan (and the triumph of the former) rather than the early success of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy in places such as China, the Philippines, Burma, and Singapore. The term “Pacific War” was subsequently serialized in all Japanese public media outlets, and served to instill in the Japanese people a sense of subjugation to the United States. Such a seemingly trivial change in the nomenclature accomplished two important occupation goals. First, the “Pacific War,” officially begun in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, overlooked prior Japanese colonialism in China and Korea which had occurred under an alliance with Britain and with American acquiescence. Moreover, the narratives given “Pacific War” largely ignored the contributions to the China front made by the communists, now enemy number one on the list of the U.S. government.


Innocent by Association: Hirohito, the Japanese people, and Responsibility

The “Pacific War,” as the Americans had chosen to term the conflict, was for the Japanese people fought in the name of the Emperor. It was a race-war predicated on the superiority of the Yamato (Japanese) race over other Asians, and later, Americans and Europeans. This racial superiority was manifested in the divine body of Emperor Hirohito, who oversaw and had an impact on every major military decision leading up to, during, and at the end of the war. Japanese civilians described the emperor as being “the life of the Japanese people,” “like the rudder to a ship,” and “beyond criticism.” Inquiries into the nature of Hirohito’s involvement in the war by the Allies made the Japanese people uneasy. For this reason, concocting narratives of Hirohito’s role in the war became a sensitive priority of the Occupation government.

In addressing why myths were created about Hirohito’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for the war, one must consider strategy, that of the United States occupation, and the Japanese people. For the U.S., relieving Hirohito from any responsibility for leading his people into total war, and delaying the end of that war meant peaceful cooperation by the occupied Japanese, for it was believed by both factions that if the Imperial family were to be disbanded, violent upheaval and counterrevolution would ensue. In a pleading letter to General MacArthur, Totsuka Hidejia, a Japanese civilian from Shizuoka prefecture predicted that “[harming the Imperial system] would obviously bring about the world’s greatest tragedy. It would succeed only after the complete annihilation of the eighty million Yamato people.” For the Occupation’s leaders, revolt of this magnitude and violence meant the loss of many more American lives, ones that they had claimed to have been saved by the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities. U.S. Army Officer and former director of psychological warfare, Bonner Fellers, mirrored the sentiment felt by Hidejia, and reflected the desires of the Occupation and its commander in chief: “…it is extremely disadvantageous to MacArthur’s standing in the United States to put on trial the very emperor who is cooperating with him and facilitating the smooth administration of the occupation.”

For the Americans, a peaceful occupation meant the successful conduct of economic relations as well. As Manfred Gottfried phrased it in November 1945 when asked if the occupation’s reform of Japanese society was “retarded by keeping the emperor”:

Not if you mean reform. We had the choice of rebuilding or remodeling. We chose the latter….Remodeling has two advantages: it is quicker and cheaper. New social institutions cannot be created in one year or five. Old institutions can be modified sooner. Furthermore, by using the imperial institution as our tool we are using Japanese resources in the political field, much as we use Japanese resources rather than our own to accomplish our economic ends in Japan.

For the Japanese, absolving Hirohito of responsibility implied forgiveness of all Japanese people, since they had fought and supported the war for his honor and in his name. In what T. Fujitani has called “The Foundational Narrative” of postwar Japan as propagated by the occupation, civilian understanding of the war was based on the notion that Hirohito had been “ahistorical,” “apolitical,” and militarily hapless during the conflict. Consequently, the Japanese people were made innocent by association, “victims” of the militarists’ propaganda and unilateral decision-making. In a significant way, myths of Hirohito’s innocence were consciously and enthusiastically adopted by the Japanese people. Promoting Hirohito’s innocence or merely ignoring his guilt became a means to abandon the atrocities of the past and a way to look toward the future, one of democratization, modernization, and peace. In an essay entitled “The Future of Japan,” Kichisaburo Nomura, a former admiral in the Imperial Japanese navy summarized the will of the Japanese people during the occupation in seven words: “let us not talk of the past.”

In late 1945, as lists of suspected war criminals were being drawn out and finalized, MacArthur quotes Hirohito as saying the following: “I come to you, General MacArthur, to offer myself to the judgment of the powers you represent as the one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of war.” This must have concerned MacArthur greatly, as he had been given direct orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “take no action against the Emperor as a war criminal.” MacArthur knew full well the advantages of keeping Hirohito safe from international trial and public admonishment. In his Reminiscences, MacArthur recalled:

“I believed that if the Emperor were indicted, and perhaps hanged, as a war criminal, military government would have to be instituted throughout all Japan, and guerilla warfare would probably break out,” and that “…I would need at least one million reinforcements should such action be taken.”

The narrative that emerged in response to these concerns in turn made Hirohito into the savior of the Japanese people from the horrors of war. In America, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been framed by the fateful decision of Harry Truman. Rather than affording the Japanese any condolence by acknowledging the human tribulations they suffered and the medical problems that resulted from the bombs’ radiation, the American narrative focused on the personal struggle Truman confronted in choosing to pull the trigger. The Truman-centered narrative that was being disseminated in the United States had relevance for Hirohito in Japan as well. During the occupation, Truman’s decision was balanced by the “sacred decision” by Emperor Hirohito to end the war following the second bombing. During a deadlock of the Supreme War Leadership Council on the night of August 9-10, Hirohito decided to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, with the singular demand that the Imperial system be upheld. Hirohito’s “sacred decision” came despite requests by his war minister and his two chiefs of staff to add to the stipulations of the surrender: to limit the forces of occupation, to allow Japan to try its own war criminals, and to leave disarmament to Japan as well. Just as Truman’s decision to drop the bombs was viewed in America as saving “thousands and thousands of American lives,” Hirohito’s intervention during the council was viewed, by the occupation and Japanese civilians alike, as having saved not only the Japanese people, but the human race from nuclear devastation and destruction. During his national radio address to the Japanese people following the second bombing, Hirohito said, “Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

The narrative also insisted that Hirohito had always preferred peace, and had been a puppet to the militarists. MacArthur’s support and propagation of this narrative was propped up by sentiments of the Japanese people. In a letter MacArthur received in December 1945, one civilian exclaimed:

The emperor is not a militarist or a warlord or an imperialist. The Japanese emperor is a pacifist and a person who advocates peace. For your reference, I will give…an example. During the previous European conflict, he wrote the following poem: ‘I thought the world’s ocean were brothers;/why the tumult of roaring wind and waves.’

The Japanese government, under the auspices of the occupation, released statements confirming Hirohito’s innocence during the war. A November 5th resolution strictly defined the war and Hirohito’s role in its commencement from a Japanese perspective:

1. The Japanese Empire could not help but start the Great East Asian War, given the surrounding circumstances;

2. The Emperor wished to see the American negotiations reach a peaceful compromise;

3. In accordance with the established precedents in observing the Constitution, the emperor never rejected the decision of the imperial government and the Imperial General Headquarters to start the conflict and to execute plans.

The resolution served to connect Hirohito’s approval to start the war and to “execute plans” to the other leaders in the government. Because the narratives of Hirohito’s innocence became nationally propagated, the emperor subsequently dodged any share of the blame in bringing Japan to the brink of annihilation.


The Atomic Bombs

For obvious reasons, censorship and narrative production of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was among the most widespread and thorough. The bombs had virtually leveled the two cities and their surrounding villages and suburbs, destroyed an estimated 300,000 civilian lives, and had completely demoralized and subjugated the Japanese people. The visual devastation and chaos caused by the bombs, combined with the “hollow, trembling, sorrowful” voice of Emperor Hirohito in a national radio address, solidified August 6 and 9, 1945 into the Japanese consciousness, something the U.S. took considerable effort in phasing out.

Censorship was most evident at the national level, as widely distributed publications such as the Domei and Asahi Shimbun came under fire after publishing commentary on the bombs. On September 15, 1945, the Domei was not allowed to publish news of any kind for twenty-four hours in response to the following sentence: “Japan might have won the war but for the atomic bomb, a weapon too terrible to face and one which only barbarians would use.” Global criticism of the bombs had cropped up in great numbers by the end of 1945, yet in Japan, discourse on their use and effects was thoroughly screened and censored. The Asahi Shimbun, then the most widely read periodical in Japan, was slapped with an even harsher penalty, a two-day suspension, for breaking the press code mandated by the Civil Censorship Detachment. Among others, the following passage written by future prime minister Ichiro Hatoyama was grounds for the suspension: “So long as the United States advocates ‘might is right,’ it cannot deny that the use of the atomic bomb and the killing of innocent people is a violation of international law and a war crime worse than an attack on a hospital ship or the use of poison gas.”

Even those who managed to produce eye-witness journalism of the bombs’ effects were monitored closely. One of the occupations most infamous examples of suppression was an article written by an Australian journalist named Wilfred Burchett, who had traveled to Hiroshima on September 3rd (before even the first American journalists arrived on the scene) to observe the damage inflicted by the explosion. Burchett recorded the devastation around him, took numerous photographs, and conducted several interviews with hibakusha victims. He wrote a story which had to be sent via Morse code to Tokyo, and then onto the London Daily Express, which published it in an article entitled “30th Day in Hiroshima” on September 6, 1945. Because the article violated several of the occupation’s censorship guidelines, including “disturbing public tranquility,” inciting “public unrest,” and criticizing the occupation, Burchett had his press accreditation confiscated, and his camera, which contained undeveloped pictures of the scene at Hiroshima, mysteriously “disappeared.” The main reason, however, that Burchett became the target of such egregious American anger was his insistence that the bombs’ radiation was killing civilians, weeks and even months after the detonation. Concealment of scientific and medical data would become part and parcel of the Occupation’s omission campaign.

Scientific data about the effects of the bombings and of their survivors was obscured in two ways. Firstly, data in medical journals was often marginalized to reflect conservative estimates of causalities and illnesses. Secondly, many scientists and doctors were restricted by SCAP officials from conducting research on site in the first place, making access to information about the bombs’ after-effects limited. Publication of atom bomb data was effectively suppressed on November 30, 1945, when SCAP’s Economic and Scientific Section mandated that “publication of A-bomb data…[is] prohibited.” At times, medical and scientific journals could be censored not only on the basis of their research, but even based on the way these publications honored the bombs’ victims. Tansui (Lake Water), a magazine published by Niigata Medical College, was censored in 1946 because the obituaries it ran in one of its articles were deemed propagandistic. The CCD’s censorship of bomb-related material was subversive enough to induce self-censorship among medical journals and in some cases dissuade publication altogether. By 1949, as little as three articles on the bombs’ effects were published annually in Japan.

Books concerning the bomb also came under the hammer of censorship during the occupation. Arguably the best English-language account of the bombings was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, published in August 1946 by The New Yorker. For its grotesque images of bomb victims, and for its introspective analysis into the human suffering inflicted by Americans, Hersey’s work was not published in translation until 1949, when formal restrictions on media about the bomb were finally lifted. The early works of Nagai Takashi, intense, personal writings on the pain and affliction suffered by women and children close to him were suppressed until late 1948. Even after the publication of his Nagasaki no Kane (The Bells of Nagasaki), censorship officials demanded inclusion of an appendix about the “Sack of Manila” by the Japanese Army. Masako Ishida’s now famous Masako taorezu (Masako does not collapse) was censored in 1947 because it was deemed a threat to “public tranquility,” and that it “implie[d] that the bombing was a crime against humanity.”

Visual records of the bombs and their effects were also subject to censorship, confiscation, and even destruction. A team of documentary filmmakers had hundreds of feet of footage (filmed during almost five months of work in the toxic streets of Hiroshima) confiscated by occupation authorities and sent to America to be kept from being reproduced. In November 1945, SCAP ordered the destruction of over 200 films deemed militaristic, critical of the occupation, or both. In another of the period’s glaring ironies, Kurosawa Akira’s Tora no o o fumu otokotachi (They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail) was censored by the Japanese government for being too democratic, and then subsequently censored by the occupation for being too feudalistic, and was thus was not released until after the occupation ended.

Accompanying the censorship of books, newspapers, films, and even paintings which contained unfavorable material about the bombs were a plethora of constructed narratives which, depending on the source, directed blame on one party and victimhood on the other. At times, the most successful narratives of the war in terms of carrying out a compliant occupation were ones which did not mention the bombs at all. Many Japanese (and the U.S. government) were happy to put the trauma of the bombs behind them, and to ostracize those victims that reminded them of the violent past. Yet because of the visual destruction the bombs caused, and the international attention their use attracted, the occupation authorities developed narratives of the war’s cataclysmic end which justified the use of the bomb.

Perhaps the most prevalent narrative circulating was the bombs’ dropping as a response to the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor. The idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were righteous acts of vengeance was summed up in a radio address given by Truman on August 9, 1945, the day of the second dropping:

Having found that bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.

Just as the occupation juxtaposed Nagai Takashi’s Nagasaki no Kane to the Japanese atrocities committed in the Philippines during the war, Truman ties the bombs’ use to the unannounced arrival of Japanese fighters at Pearl Harbor, and to the ill-treatment of American POWs at the hands of the Japanese military. This narrative drew attention away from hibakusa victims and gave credence to the pain dealt to American soldiers who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor and to their families.

For Japanese civilians, Pearl Harbor was literally an ocean away. Instead, the flattened landscapes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved more cogent reminders of the war in Japan. Therefore, the Truman narrative which equated the dropping of atomic bombs to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not nearly as effective in quelling popular discontent on the islands. Rather, the official narrative propagated by the occupation, which placed all responsibility for the war, including the dropping of the atom bombs, squarely on the shoulders of Japan’s military leaders, was used to foster a sense of resentment towards Japan’s own wartime government instead of the U.S. government. Postwar accounts of the second bombing pointed to the fact that Japan’s military leaders refused to surrender, even after the vaporizing of Hiroshima, a stubbornness for which the Americans called a second bomb to drive home Japan’s inevitable defeat. Without considering that there had been no demonstrated warning before August 6, and no warning of any kind before August 9, the Japanese people were quick to testify against their military leaders, because the accounts of the war’s ending that the U.S. seemed to support essentially made scapegoats of the militarists, leaving Hirohito and his loyal subjects to independently mull over their roles in the war. The outcome was a Japanese society that sided with the United States in its interpretation of the war’s history.



From the very beginning of Japan’s thrust into modernization, through its imperialist expanse into northern China and southeast Asia, and throughout the violent maelstrom of the Asia-Pacific War, its people were (and many would argue still are) among the most fervently nationalistic in the world. The Japanese people’s identity was based largely on their purported uniqueness compared to others and their relation, as “children,” to the divine emperor. Because of this identity, the Japanese had fought the war with added gusto, which was reflected by unprecedented acts of self-sacrifice and egregious violence. For this reason, losing the war and being subsequently occupied by the United States came at a great emotional and psychological cost. However, Japanese nationalism was still evident despite the thoroughness of the occupation. In MacArthur’s Children, a 1984 film about the occupation, one elementary school teacher lectures her students: “Our souls are not under occupation.” The extent to which the occupation penetrated the Japanese spirit is unquantifiable, yet in analyzing the large body of war-related texts that were censored, altered, or deleted completely suggests that in the years immediately following surrender, the Japanese people’s sense of history was indeed occupied.

Because of the enormity of the occupation’s efforts to monopolize Japanese collective memory of the Asia-Pacific War, and ultimately because of its success, today Japan struggles to come to terms with its own past. But now nearly 60 years old, the American occupation of Japan has given way to complicated and more balanced discourses on the issue of Hirohito’s war responsibility, use of the atom bombs, and the entire “Pacific War.” As more of the war’s nuances are revealed, Japanese and American cognizance and reflection increase. What I believe to be the tragically inevitable consequence of any occupation is the victory of one nation’s take on history over another’s. Japan’s understanding of the war, however delayed, has been a key component in its development as a peaceful, democratic nation. Whether Japan’s bounded progress is a justification for the occupation or its interpretations of the war depends on the individual. If the early years of Japan’s occupation under the United States have taught us anything, it is that “the past is more unpredictable than the future.”



 Douglas A. MacArthur, Reminiscences (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).

George Hicks, Japan’s war memories: Amnesia or concealment? (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1998).

Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: Perennial Publishing, 2001).

James Orr, The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

“Japan: Holy Mac,” TIME (October 21, 1946).

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & Company/ The New Press, 1999).

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Last Updated: 8/12/16