A History of Japan: From Mythology to Nationhood/Post-War Japan

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This chapter outlines the period of history which started at the end of the Allied occupation in 1952. During this period, Japan re-established itself as a global economic and political power, and as a democratic, pacifist nation.

Post-occupation politics

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The Allied occupation ended on April 28, 1952, when the terms of the Treaty of San Francisco went into effect. By the terms of the treaty, Japan regained its sovereignty, but lost many of its possessions from before World War II, including Korea, Taiwan and Sakhalin. It also lost control over a number of small islands in the Pacific which it administered as League of Nations Mandates, such as the Marianas and the Marshalls. The new treaty also gave Japan the freedom to engage in international defense blocs. Japan did this on the same day it signed the San Francisco Treaty: Shigeru Yoshida and Harry Truman penned a document that allowed the United States Armed Forces to continue their use of bases in Japan.

Even before Japan regained full sovereignty, the government had rehabilitated nearly 80,000 people who had been purged, many of whom returned to their former political and government positions. A debate over limitations on military spending and the sovereignty of the emperor ensued, contributing to the great reduction in the Liberal Party's majority in the first postoccupation elections (October 1952). After several reorganizations of the armed forces, in 1954 the Self-Defense Forces were established under a civilian director. Cold War realities and the hot war in nearby Korea also contributed significantly to the United States-influenced economic redevelopment, the suppression of communism, and the discouragement of organized labor in Japan during this period.

Continual fragmentation of parties and a succession of minority governments led conservative forces to merge the Liberal Party (Jiyuto) with the Japan Democratic Party (Nihon Minshuto), an offshoot of the earlier Democratic Party, to form the Liberal Democratic Party (Jiyu-Minshuto; LDP) in November 1955. This party continuously held power from 1955 through 1993, when it was replaced by a new minority government. LDP leadership was drawn from the elite who had seen Japan through the defeat and occupation; it attracted former bureaucrats, local politicians, businessmen, journalists, other professionals, farmers, and university graduates. In October 1955, socialist groups reunited under the Japan Socialist Party, which emerged as the second most powerful political force. It was followed closely in popularity by the Komeito (Clean Government Party), founded in 1964 as the political arm of the Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), a lay organization of the Buddhist sect Nichiren Shoshu. The Komeito emphasized traditional Japanese beliefs and attracted urban laborers, former rural residents, and many women. Like the Japan Socialist Party, it favored the gradual modification and dissolution of the Japan-United States Mutual Security Assistance Pact.

By the late 1970s, the Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party had come to accept the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and the Democratic Socialist Party even came to support a small defense buildup. The Japan Socialist Party, too, was forced to abandon its once strict antimilitary stance. The United States kept up pressure on Japan to increase its defense spending above 1 % of its GNP, engendering much debate in the Diet, with most opposition coming not from minority parties or public opinion but from budget-conscious officials in the Ministry of Finance.

Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei was forced to resign in 1974 because of his alleged connection to financial scandals and, in the face of charges of involvement in the Lockheed bribery scandal, he was arrested and jailed briefly in 1976.

The fractious politics of the LDP hindered consensus in the Diet in the late 1970s. The sudden death of Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi just before the June 1980 elections, however, brought out a sympathy vote for the party and gave the new prime minister, Suzuki Zenko, a working majority. Suzuki was soon swept up in a controversy over the publication of a textbook that appeared to many as a whitewash of Japanese aggression in World War II. This incident, and serious fiscal problems, caused the Suzuki cabinet, composed of numerous LDP factions, to fall.

Nakasone Yasuhiro, a conservative backed by the still-powerful Tanaka and Suzuki factions who once served as director general of the Defense Agency, became prime minister in November 1982. In November 1984, Nakasone was chosen for a second term as LDP president. His cabinet received an unusually high rating, a 50 % favorable response in polling during his first term, while opposition parties reached a new low in popular support. As he moved into his second term, Nakasone thus held a strong position in the Diet and the nation. Despite being found guilty of bribery in 1983, Tanaka in the early to mid-1980s remained a power behind the scenes through his control of the party's informal apparatus, and he continued as an influential adviser to the more internationally minded Nakasone. The end of Nakasone's tenure as prime minister in October 1987 (his second two-year term had been extended for one year) was a momentous point in modern Japanese history. Just fifteen months before Nakasone's retirement, the LDP unexpectedly had won its largest majority ever in the House of Representatives by securing 304 out of the 512 seats. Despite the solid conservative majority, the government was faced with growing crises. Land prices were rapidly increasing due to the Japanese asset price bubble, inflation increased at the highest rate since 1975, unemployment reached a record high at 3.2 %, bankruptcies were rife, and there was political rancor over LDP-proposed tax reform. In the summer of 1987, economic indicators showed signs of recovery, but on October 20, 1987, the same day Nakasone officially named his successor, Takeshita Noboru, the Tokyo Stock Market crashed. Japan's economy and its political system had reached a watershed in their postwar development that would continue to play out into the 1990s.


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The LDP government, through institutions such as MITI, encouraged Japanese industrial development overseas while restricting foreign companies' business within the country. These practices, coupled with a reliance on the United States for defense, allowed Japan's economy to increase exponentially during the Cold War. By 1980, many Japanese products, particularly automobiles and electronics, were being exported around the world, and Japan's industrial sector was the second-largest in the world after the U.S. This growth pattern continued unabated despite recession in the 1990s. The economy regained again by the mid-2000s.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are often said to mark the re-emergence of Japan in the international arena: Japan's postwar development was showcased through innovations such as the Shinkansen high speed rail network.

The high economic growth and political tranquillity of the mid to late 1960s were tempered by the quadrupling of oil prices by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973. Almost completely dependent on imports for petroleum, Japan experienced its first recession since World War II.

Foreign relations

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In addition to wealth and central position in the world economy, Japan has had major influence in global politics for much of the postwar period.

The 1950s were largely marked by Japan re-establishing relations to numerous nations and redefining its international role, e.g. by joining the United Nations in 1956. One such total redefinition were Japan's relations to its former World War II-ally Germany, which were put on a new basis in 1955 focused on economic exchange.

Japan's biggest postwar political crisis took place in 1960 over the revision of the Japan-United States Mutual Security Assistance Pact. As the new Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was concluded, which renewed the United States role as military protector of Japan, massive street protests and political upheaval occurred, and the cabinet resigned a month after the Diet's ratification of the treaty. Thereafter, political turmoil subsided. Japanese views of the United States, after years of mass protests over nuclear armaments and the mutual defense pact, improved by 1972, with the reversion of United States-occupied Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty and the winding down of the Vietnam War.

Japan had reestablished relations with the Republic of China after World War II, and cordial relations were maintained with the nationalist government when it was exiled to Taiwan, a policy that won Japan the enmity of the People's Republic of China, which was established in 1949. After the general warming of relations between China and Western countries, especially the United States, which shocked Japan with its sudden rapprochement with Beijing in 1971 (the Ping Pong Diplomacy), Tokyo established relations with Beijing in 1972. Close cooperation in the economic sphere followed.

Japan's relations with the Soviet Union continued to be problematic after the war, but a Joint Declaration between Japan and the USSR, ending the war and reestablishing diplomatic relations was signed October 19, 1956. The main object of dispute was the Soviet occupation of what Japan calls its Northern Territories, the two most southerly islands in the Kurils (Etorofu and Kunashiri) and Shikotan and the Habomai Islands (northeast of Hokkaido), which were seized by the Soviet Union shortly after Japan's World War II surrender.

Under the prime ministership of Tanaka Kakuei (1972-74), Japan took a stronger but still low-key stance by steadily increasing its defense spending and easing trade frictions with the United States. Tanaka's administration was also characterized by high-level talks with United States, Soviet, and Chinese leaders, if with mixed results. His visits to Indonesia and Thailand prompted riots, a manifestation of long-standing anti-Japanese sentiments.

Several cordial visits between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and United States president Ronald Reagan were aimed at improving relations between their countries. Nakasone's more strident position on Japanese defense issues made him popular with some United States officials but not, generally, in Japan or among Asian neighbors. Although his characterization of Japan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier", his noting the "common destiny" of Japan and the United States, and his calling for revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounced war as the sovereign right of the nation), among other prorearmament statements, produced negative reactions at home and abroad, a gradual acceptance emerged of the Self-Defense Forces and the mutual security treaty with the United States in the mid-1980s.

Another issue in Japanese-American relations was Japan's growing trade surplus, which reached record heights during Nakasone's first term. The United States pressured Japan to remedy the imbalance, demanding that Tokyo raise the value of the yen and open its markets further to facilitate more imports from the United States. Because the Japanese government aids and protects its key industries, it was accused of creating an unfair competitive advantage. Tokyo agreed to try to resolve these problems but generally defended its industrial policies and made concessions on its trade restrictions very reluctantly, only making very few deals with the U.S.

Post-occupation culture

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Japan continued to experience Westernization in the postwar era, much of which came about during the occupation, when American soldiers were a common sight in many parts of the country. American music and movies became popular, spurring a generation of Japanese artists who built on both Western and Japanese influences.

During this period, Japan also began to emerge as an exporter of culture. Young people across the world began consuming kaiju (monster) movies, anime (cartoons), manga (comic books), and other modern Japanese culture. Japanese authors such as Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima became popular literary figures in America and Europe. American soldiers returning from the occupation brought with them stories and artifacts, and the following generations of U.S. troops in Japan contributed to a steady trickle of martial arts and other culture from the country.

Timeline (1952 – 1989)

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  • 1952: Allied occupation ends (April 28).
  • 1954: the Japan Self-Defense Forces established.
  • 1955: the Liberal Democratic Party formed.
  • 1956: Japan joins the United Nations.
  • 1960: labor strikes and student protests held across the country.
  • 1964: Olympic Games held in Tokyo. Shinkansen trains begin service.
  • 1965: Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea signed. Shin'ichiro Tomonaga awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • 1968: the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise arrives in Sasebo amid controversy. Itai-itai disease is formally recognized as a public hazard disease. Ogasawara Islands revert to Japanese control. Yasunari Kawabata receives the Nobel Prize in Literature. A man, disguised as a police officer, steals ¥300 million (still at large as of 2003).
  • 1969: Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Richard Nixon meet. The date for the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty set for sometime in 1972.
  • 1970: a World Exposition (EXPO 70) held in Osaka.
  • 1971: the yen moves to a floating exchange rate, contributing to a short slump in Japan's economic boom.
  • 1972: control of Okinawa reverts to Japan.
  • 1980: annual car production tops 10 million units, making Japan the world's largest car producer after the USA. Yomiuri Giants' Sadaharu Oh ends his career.
  • 1981: Kenichi Fukui awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
  • 1982: the Tohoku Shinkansen extended to Morioka from Omiya.
  • 1983: Mt. Oyama volcano on Miyakejima, one of the Izu Islands, erupts. A color wall painting of Genbu is discovered in the Kitora Kofun at Asuka-mura. Kakuei Tanaka sentenced to four years in jail.
  • 1984: the president of Ezaki Glico Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of sweets, is abducted and held for ¥10 billion and 100 kg gold ransom, but he escapes. Later, an extortionist threatens to poison the company's products unless paid ¥60 million (later raised to ¥120 million). The culprit is never captured. New banknotes issued with the likeness of Fukuzawa Yukichi on the ¥10,000 bill, Inazo Nitobe on the ¥5,000 bill, and Natsume Sōseki on the ¥1,000 bill.
  • 1985: the first AIDS patient is officially recognized. Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashes into Omitaka-yama, breaking the record for aircraft-crash casualties with 520 dead and only four survivors.
  • 1986: Mount Mihara (Miharayama) on Izu Ohshima erupts, but the island's population is evacuated beforehand.
  • 1987: Japanese National Railways is privatized and split into seven JR (Japan Railways) companies, six regional companies and one freight. Actor Yujiro Ishihara dies.
  • 1988: the Seikan Tunnel connecting Hokkaido and Honshū completed. The Nadashio, a Maritime Self Defense Force submarine, collides with the Dai Ichi Fujimaru, a fishing vessel.
  • 1989: The Shōwa Emperor dies on January 7. Akihito ascends to the throne the next day and a new reign name, Heisei, is declared.

Japanese History

Prehistory through the Jomon Period – The Yayoi Period – The Kofun or Yamato Period – The Asuka Period – The Nara Period – The Spread of Buddhism in Japan – The Early Heian Period – The Middle Heian Period – The Late Heian Period – The Kamakura Period – The Kemmu Restoration – The Nanboku-chō Period – The Muromachi Period (Ashikaga) – The Warring States Period – The Azuchi–Momoyama Period – The Edo Period – The Meiji Restoration – The Meiji Period – The Taisho Period – The Rise of Militarism – World War II – The American Occupation of Japan – Post-War Japan – Japan Today
Further Reading