Why Japan Stopped Fighting

After a disastrous Second World War, Japan abolished its armed forces and embraced pacifism. With renewed tensions in East Asia, can it last?

Infantrymen of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces parading in Tokyo, 3 November 1966.

Travelling by train across Japan in summer 1945, the army general Kanji Ishiwara could look out of the window and see far further into the distance than ever before. The homes and shops, civic buildings and latticework of overhead cables that usually got in the way were mostly gone, converted to rubble, rubbish and splintered wood.

The railway stations, too, had changed. A few years before, they had been crowded with well-dressed well-wishers seeing young soldiers off to war with food, drink and all the pomp that an amateur brass band could muster. Schoolchildren waved flags, while representatives from women’s organisations turned out in celebratory sashes, carrying banners daubed with messages of local pride and support. Now, Ishiwara passed through stations populated by gaunt, grimy children, living in makeshift shelters, their parents dead or disappeared.

Nine million Japanese had lost their homes. The lucky ones were able to find refuge with relatives, but all struggled with drastic shortages of food and fuel. Trains heading out from the city into the countryside were packed with desperate people – some inside the carriages, others clinging to the sides or the roof – heading out to bargain for basic supplies with any farmers they could find. Most were simply trying to feed their families. Others were looking for something to sell at one of the thousands of black markets that had started to spring up towards the end of the war, many of them clustered around major train stations. Japan’s police, used to keeping the population on a fairly tight rein, had all but given up. ‘Madam, your baby has wet itself’, said one officer to a woman, with a weary nod towards the leaky haul on her back: smuggled rice, wrapped up to look like a small child.

Half a million Japanese civilians were dead or dying by late summer 1945, killed in fire-bombing raids or by the mysterious new weapon used first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki. The epicentre in each place had been transformed into a landscape reminiscent of old Buddhist depictions of hell – buildings and trees igniting in flame, the ground bubbling and sagging, people stumbling and vomiting as the clothes on their bodies burned and their flesh beneath began to drop away.

No one could have imagined that it would come to this. But some in Japan had long worried – and warned – that an aggressive approach to ensuring the country’s security in East Asia risked trouble. European imperialism, Chinese and Korean weakness, pressure from an expansionist United States, the vagaries of East Asian continental and island geography: as an up-and-coming world power at the turn of the 20th century, Japan found itself inhabiting a rough neighbourhood and facing endless strategic headaches.

Among the many from which it could choose, the principal enemy at this point had been Russia: expanding its interests in north-east Asia with a new ‘Trans-Siberian’ railway running east from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, with branch lines creeping south through Manchuria towards the coveted warm-water port of Lushun, or ‘Port Arthur’ – leased to Russia from China and, unlike Vladivostock, usable all year round. Growing Russian influence in Manchuria and the threat it posed to the nearby Korean peninsula tipped a tense relationship between Russia and Japan, over spheres of influence in the region, into all-out war. It began with a surprise attack by Japan on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in February 1904, ending a year and a half later with more than 100,000 people dead.

Scene depicting a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, 8 February 1904.

Critics in Japan thought the Russo-Japanese War was a needless conflict, out of step with more than two centuries of relatively peaceful commerce and with the desire of many of its people for as quiet a life as modern global politics permitted. These worries about Japan’s stance in the world were captured in one of the most famous poems of the era, set to music as a protest song. Akiko Yosano, poet and activist, was addressing her brother, who had signed up for a special squad:

Brother, do not give your life.
For you, what does it matter
Whether Port Arthur fortress falls or not?
The code of merchant houses says nothing about this.

But Japan’s war with Russia had plenty of enthusiastic supporters, only too willing to lump pacifism together with various other ‘un-Japanese’ phenomena in the early 20th century – from left-wing politics to Christianity. Disappointment at the terms of peace in 1905 caused far more popular unrest than had any sense of injustice about the waging of war in the first place.

And though an optimistic internationalism in Japan flourished alongside a steadily more democratic form of politics for much of the 1910s and early 1920s, there remained a sense that Japan’s interests and security would again one day have to be fought for. Suspicion lingered about the real intentions of powerful neighbours. Hawkish politicians and their allies in the military had little trouble making the case that advocacy of peace at any cost amounted to a treasonous willingness to be second-class global citizens, allowing white Western powers to shape the international order in their own interests.

In many ways, Japan found itself in a similar position to Britain: here were two sets of islands, adrift – but perhaps not far enough adrift – from a hotly contested continent. Some in Japan liked to imagine their home as Shakespeare once had England: a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war’. Others were more in tune with English and later British pessimism about the practical impossibility of staying aloof from continental troubles for very long.

War is over

If there was ever a moment when modern Japan’s debate over its natural stance in the world had the potential to move decisively in favour of neutrality and pacifism, it was the summer of 1945. Kanji Ishiwara’s journeys on Japan’s railway network were part of very early attempts to persuade the Japanese of the meaning and causes of all the recent chaos – and what the consequences must be.

Back in his army days, Ishiwara had pushed for war with the West, talking about its inevitability in grand, historical terms – Japan and the United States had been destined to fight the war to end all wars, he had claimed, ever since American ships first arrived in Japan in the early 1850s, demanding trade and diplomatic relations. But Japan’s leaders, said Ishiwara, had botched the job. They had taken on first China (1937) and then the United States (1941) before the time was ripe. Ishiwara preached to crowds of up to 20,000 people at a time of the need for repentance – theirs, not his – urging them to rebuild and to lay the groundwork for what would eventually be a glorious resurgence.

Other travellers on Japanese trains that summer had rather different ideas about the country’s future. A quarter of a million American soldiers were criss-crossing Japan on their way to their new postings as part of the Allied Occupation, enjoying, from the comfort of a speeding carriage, territory for which they had expected to fight slowly and painfully with enormous loss of life. The likes of Ishiwara, they thought, would have to be watched carefully. Japan seemed thoroughly dispirited, exhausted with war. But occupation might yet be met with an insurgency, with a turn to communism, or with the rise of a Führer-like figure. Ishiwara – lean, shaven-headed, smooth-talking and charismatic – seemed a prime candidate.

Most of these worries soon looked misplaced. A handful of die-hard militarists resisted the emperor’s ending of the war in August 1945, attempting to seize the recording of his surrender message before it could be broadcast (it had to be smuggled out of the Imperial Palace in a laundry basket). And Japan’s leaders had to order the siphoning off of the fuel from the country’s few remaining warplanes, lest an attack be launched on the incoming conquerors. But one of two American armies sent to occupy Japan was soon sent home. The population at large was clearly sick, both of conflict and of its old military leadership. They had recklessly launched Japan into an unwinnable war, throwing away the lives of fathers, brothers and sons. They had lied about progress. They had failed to protect the homeland – American bombers were able to fly just above chimney height, so inadequate were Japan’s air defences. They had partied in expensive restaurants after the surrender, while ordinary people starved outside. And they had been complicit in the looting of their own stores in the days before the Americans arrived – everything from trousers to aircraft engines disappeared from military warehouses, to be sold off, buried, or wrapped up and stashed in lakes. The pages of Japan’s newspapers began to fill up with denunciations of all this, alongside shock and disgust at news of the brutalities committed by Japanese soldiers in China and elsewhere.

Pacifist constitution

It was a sign of truly transformative times that General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), was able, in February 1946, to take a step unprecedented in history: having people from one nation author the constitution of another. Japanese politicians and civil servants had initially been given the task of amending Japan’s existing constitution, promulgated back in 1889. But early drafts struck MacArthur as little more than tinkering around the edges. So without telling his Japanese counterparts, MacArthur had his own people gather in the ballroom of the Dai-Ichi Insurance Company building in Tokyo – the Occupation’s headquarters, looming meaningfully over the Imperial Palace on the other side of the road – and set to work on a draft of their own.

Among those in the right place at the right time was a young former journalist called Beate Sirota. Where generations of prewar Japanese women had fought largely in vain for civic and political rights approaching those enjoyed by men, Sirota found the chance to enshrine women’s rights into Japan’s constitution falling into her lap. Her boss turned around to her casually in the ballroom: ‘You’re a woman’, he said. ‘Why don’t you write that section?’

But important though Sirota’s work was – crossing Tokyo in a Jeep looking for libraries that were still standing so that she could read constitutions from around the world (she was particularly impressed by Soviet promises of dental care for children) – it was overshadowed by what became Article Nine of the new document:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

This epoch-making move stemmed in part from American views of Japan’s recent past. Here was a nation that had modernised only superficially, with high-tech weapons ending up in the hands of people with a feudal mindset: unwaveringly loyal to their superiors, the emperor above all, and as yet incapable of the individual responsibility required of modern citizens.

Japan’s pacifist constitution echoed a view of the war shaped and sponsored by the American-dominated Occupation forces – first in a radio series, Now It Can Be Told, the launch of which coincided with the fourth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and then in the direction taken by the Tokyo War Crimes trials. Both put the blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of Japan’s military leadership, said to have seized power from an innocent populace and its innocent emperor. Article Nine did away with any such future risk.

Japan’s political elites had to be threatened into accepting all this. The trial and execution of the emperor was hinted at. One senior US official remarked menacingly to a Japanese official that he was much enjoying Japan’s ‘atomic sunshine’. But opinion polls suggested that the population at large approved of the results. The title of a public information pamphlet said it all: ‘New Constitution, Bright Life’. Japanese people could, it seemed to promise, put the past behind them; binning it, just as a starkly literal illustration of Article Nine in the pamphlet showed warships and warplanes being dumped in a dustbin.

‘New Constitution, Bright Life’, 1946.

Recent suffering could not, of course, be forgotten. Much of it was still ongoing, with families broken, sickness and malnourishment rife and strict rationing still in place. But rather than probe the complexities of popular support for the military stretching back to the Russo-Japanese War and beyond – a sense that the armed forces didn’t just guarantee the country’s security, but that in their selflessness, austerity and vigour they represented the best of Japan – here was a chance to bury them, with a reconstructed pacifism placed over the top.

Technology and tradition

For a long while, it worked. To an extent that would have seemed unthinkable in 1945-6, pacifism came to define Japan in the postwar era. Expertise previously channelled into the armed forces found creative and lucrative outlets elsewhere. Working with the Japanese Navy when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima – the talk around his lunch-table had been of a ‘weapon that flashed and shone’ – Akio Morita quickly turned his talents to producing ever smaller tape recorders and radios, the latter tiny enough by the mid-1950s, thanks to adapted American transistor technology, that it could be kept in a pocket. The devices were so small, in fact, that the name of Morita’s fledgling company – Tokyo Tsūshin Kōgyō (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company) – could not be made to fit comfortably on their casing. He plumped for something more pithy: ‘Sony’.

Elsewhere, freshly unemployed aircraft engineers helped to launch Japan’s car industry. Others helped develop the technology behind the ultrafast, ultramodern bullet train, shinkansen – launched in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games, whose organisers went out of their way to showcase a reformed Japan of peaceful high technology, exquisite manners and picturesque traditional culture.

Japan became home, too, to some of the most vigorous and committed anti-nuclear campaigners in the world, with bitter experience supplying an urgency and moral authority unmatchable by anyone else. And yet there could be no overcoming recent history, no getting around geography and no changing of the alliances into which Japan’s loss of the war had locked it. When the American authors of Japan’s constitution quickly changed their minds about what Japan was for, there was little that Japan’s leaders could realistically do – reliant as they were on the US military for their security, alongside the loans, technology transfers and chaperoning back into international society on which their country’s economic recovery depended. The spread of communism, the 1949 revolution in China and then the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 persuaded the US that what they needed in Japan was not an idealistic social experiment – for all that some of the younger members of the Occupation had seen their work in precisely those terms – but an ally with a strong free-market economy, its politics solidly pro-American and its population reasonably quiescent. It should also be armed.

Thus began decades of wrangling between Japan and the US over how a meaningful security alliance between the two nations could be maintained without contravening Article Nine of Japan’s constitution. There was much playing with words, beginning with the creation within weeks of the outbreak of the Korean War of a ‘National Police Reserve’, consisting of 75,000 men. Run by former Home Ministry civil servants, it was charged with tackling domestic insurrection. But it would have been an impressive insurrection whose quelling required the use of bazookas, flame-throwers, mortars, tanks and artillery.

Reasonable force

The Americans were clear in their own minds that this new organisation was the nucleus of a future army. There followed a Security Treaty with the United States in 1951 and the maintenance of American military bases on Japanese soil long after the Occupation officially came to an end in April 1952.

China’s new communist leaders were quick to spot the return of ‘Japanese militarism’, while much of the Japanese population was dismayed by post-Occupation realities. According to one survey, fewer than a fifth regarded themselves as ‘independent’ after 1952. Students, trade unionists and others took to protesting outside Japan’s many remaining American military bases, whose environs became associated with crime, prostitution and a corruption of civilised Japanese life.

In a sensational court decision in 1959, a judge ruled that the presence of American military bases on Japanese soil was in fact unconstitutional, because Article Nine forbade the maintenance of military potential. Japan’s Supreme Court was suspiciously quick to overrule the decision, leading some to claim American interference behind the scenes. More important in the long run was the reasoning offered by the court. Alongside a fairly straightforward claim that, since American forces were not under Japanese control, they could not be included in the terms of Article Nine, ran the assertion that Japan’s constitution did not, in any case, advocate ‘defencelessness’.

Here was an argument about the real meaning of Japan’s ‘pacifist constitution’ that would run and run across the years ahead. Japanese advocates of a restored military capability were able to point to this ruling as proof that an armed capability was permissible under the terms of the constitution as long as its purpose was defensive. Peace activists vigorously opposed these claims, as they did the use of Japan as a staging area for American operations in South-East Asia, including during the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, the National Police Reserve had been through a series of name changes until ‘Self-Defence Forces’ (SDF) was decided upon in 1954. Their role within the confines of the constitution and their reputation in a country with vivid memories of what a military unfettered by civilian oversight might do, was negotiated across the decades that followed. The SDF took care of security at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, while at the opening ceremony the aerobatic display team of the Air Self-Defence Forces – given the harmless, even rather raunchy, branding ‘Blue Impulse’ – traced the Olympic rings as doves of peace were released into the stadium.

Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Summer Olympics.

It was 40 years before the SDF engaged in its first independent deployment, with 600 troops sent to help with reconstruction in southern Iraq between 2004 and 2006. Five years later, the participation of around 100,000 SDF troops in rescue and rebuilding efforts after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 helped considerably in softening public attitudes. The SDF even entered the world of entertainment, from celebratory manga and anime to the turning of annual live fire drills at the foot of Mount Fuji into ticketed – and heavily over-subscribed – public events, complete with military-themed souvenirs.

Doomed to repeat it?

Where does Japanese pacifism go from here? The pressure on Article Nine has been building since the mid-2010s. The generation that remembers militarism is passing away but public opinion on constitutional revision – removing or amending Article Nine – remains evenly balanced. It is not at all clear that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which is in favour of constitutional revision, could win the required referendum.

Critics charge that Japan’s schools and media encourage an amnesia about the 1930s and 1940s, such that a younger generation have little knowledge of – and are certainly inclined to feel little connection with – the deeds of the Japanese military across those years. The problem is compounded by small but vociferous ultra-nationalist organisations, thriving online, with anti-Korean and anti-Chinese rhetoric alongside revisionist takes on mid-20th century history. And yet legislation in 2015 that allowed Japan to exercise collective self-defence – coming to the aid of an ally where Japan itself is ultimately in danger – only made it through the Japanese Diet amid chaotic scenes inside and multi-generational protests outside, involving tens of thousands of demonstrators.

In the end, the future of Japanese pacifism will not be decided by the wrangling over what Japan’s armed forces should be called, or what they should be permitted to do, but by the politics of the region. Japan is a prisoner of its geography. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, but also the world’s rising maritime power. The Korean peninsula, described by one of Japan’s leaders back in 1890 as ‘a dagger at our back’, is home now to a southern society brought up on stories of Japanese militarism – not least the army’s sexual enslavement of Korean ‘comfort women’ – and a northern society whose leaders have recently been firing missiles over Japan.

Even if there is progress with Korean peace, Japan’s leaders worry that, as ever, it will be shaped by American interests rather than their own. Japan was only permitted rapprochement with China in the early 1970s after American attitudes changed. And just as Japan’s prime minister only visited Beijing in the wake of President Nixon, so in 2019, another Japanese prime minister looks set to meet the leader of North Korea – but only after the American president has done so first.

Japan’s awkward mix, of a pacifist constitution yoked to an American foreign policy that is anything but, has endured for more than 70 years. But as China’s power grows and America’s recedes, Japan will have to find a way of gaining distance and independence from both. Otherwise, those hawkish voices from the early 20th century will be heard again, and louder: that East Asia is no place for pacifists.

Christopher Harding is the author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2018).