Postwar Japan History

Postwar Japan 1945-Present 昭和と平成時代

Embracing Defeat.

When Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on 15 August 1945, its major cities lay in ruins. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been devastated by atomic bombs and Tokyo, Nagoya, Aomori, Niigata, Hakata and Osaka had sustained severe damage from fire bombings by American aircraft.

Only Kyoto of Japan's major cities had survived relatively unscathed. Japan's economy was shattered and many hundreds of thousands of its soldiers and citizens were stranded in its former colonies overseas.


Japan was to be occupied by Allied (mainly US) forces until April 1952. Okinawa was not returned to Japan's sovereignty until 1972. The Occupation was headed by General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP).

A purge of the war-time leaders of Japanese militarism and imperialism was attempted culminating in the Tokyo Tribunal, where Tojo Hideki and six other men were executed. The Emperor Showa was exempt from the findings of the tribunal. In all around 200,000 people were purged.

The SCAP administration pushed through a number of democratic reforms along with a new Constitution in 1947, which renounced Japan's right to wage war, made the Emperor a symbol of state and guaranteed universal suffrage, thus giving Japanese women the right to vote for the first time.

The 1947 Constitution also separated Shinto and the state, a driving force behind Japanese militarism in the 1930s and in Article 9 proscribed "the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

Reforms by SCAP were also made in land ownership and attempts were made to break up the all powerful pre-war industrial conglomerates or zaibatsu, which had controlled large parts of the Japanese economy.

The immediate post-war Japanese economy lay in ruins and a black market economy, largely controlled by yakuza gangs and their affiliates grew up in places like Umeda in Osaka and Ameyoko in Tokyo.

The start of the Korean War (1950-1953) lead to a "U-turn" or "Reverse Course" in American thinking as SCAP began to crack down on Japanese socialists, communists and a hitherto free media. The Korean War, however, was a huge stimulus to the Japanese economy, which began to grow out of recession, as a central supplier of food and weapons for US forces on the Korean peninsula.

The signing of a Peace Treaty in 1952, the establishment of the Japanese Self Defence Forces in 1954 and the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960 all lead to mass public demonstrations which were ruthlessly crushed by the authorities, stifling alternative voices in Japanese public life for the following two generations. Japan normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1956 and China in 1972.

Nagoya city.
Post-war Nagoya city
Nagoya city in the 1950s.
The 1950's and 1960's were a period of rapid economic growth and consumerism in Japan

Rapid Economic Growth Period

The 1960s and 1970s, especially around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka Expo, were a period of rapid economic growth in Japan with the development of industry and infrastructure including the Tokaido Shinkansen linking Tokyo and Osaka and major highways. Exports grew at an amazing rate helped by import quotas and a now unthinkable low Yen.

This period of largely unregulated industrial growth was also marked by increase in urban pollution and industrial accidents, typified by the Minamata Poisoning Incident and the Yokkaichi asthma cases of the mid-1960s.

The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including many men with dirty hands from the war period, such as Prime Ministers Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), Hayato Ikeda (1899-1965) and Yasuhiro Nakasone (1918-), rose to power on a policy of pork-barrel politics tied to big construction projects allied to rural and urban money politics.

The bare-faced greed and corruption of LDP politics is typified by the behaviour of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1918-1993) in the Lockheed Scandal of 1976 and Shin Kanemaru (1914-1996) in the Sagawa Kyubin scandal of the early 1990s. Only the popular reformist Junichiro Koizumi, who was Prime Minister from 2001-2006, stood out among the numerous, largely forgettable premiers who guided Japan through the "Lost Decade" of the 1990s and the stagnant early years of the 21st century.

Japan changed quickly from a still largely rural to a predominately urban society in the post-war period. The Oil Shock of 1973 only temporarily slowed down the Japanese economic behemoth, which peaked in the so-called Bubble Economy of the mid-1980s, when the Japanese stock market rose to unprecedented levels on the back of inflated land prices. The late 70s and 80s were the defining moment for Japan's legions of Showa-era sarariman, company drones who sacrificed home and family for corporate loyalty and endless hours of over-time.

Bubble Economics

The mid-1980s Bubble was the period of easy banks loans based on over-inflated land values, when the area of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was said to be worth more than the state of California. This avarious, self-centered decade saw Japanese companies aquiring assets in a worldwide splurge but the inevitable crash was to herald the Lost Decade of the 1990s, from which Japan is still struggling to emerge.

The death of the Showa Emperor in 1989 truly marked the end of a roller-coaster era of recession, economic growth, war, recession, further growth followed by more decline.

Heisei Period

The new Heisei era has seen Japan's influence diminish on the world stage as its economy has continued to stagnate and has finally been overtaken by near-neighbor China.

A long-awaited change of government from the conservative, right-wing LDP to the more progressive Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 after virtually half a century of LDP rule has not resulted in much real, tangible change. Factional in-fighting, corruption, ministerial gaffes, frequent changes of cabinet, gender imbalance and the involvement of Japan's mob, the yakuza, in politics and finance continue to hinder real structural reform.

Cultural highlights of 21st century Japan include the successful joint-hosting (with South Korea) of the 2002 World Cup and the Expo 2005 in Aichi near Nagoya. Japan's soft power - J-Pop, cosplay, manga, anime, film, ikebana, martial arts and cutting-edge fashion continue to win friends and admirers abroad and along with a resurgence of interest in traditional Japanese arts and crafts offer the best chance for an economic upturn in the country's fortunes.

Japan's over-restricted media and old-fashioned education system consistently hold back a new generation able to change a state of affairs which sees the country as the most indebted in the world, with a debt ratio of over 200% of GDP. A declining and rapidly ageing population cannot be sustained by a workforce where over 25% do not hold permanent insurance-paying jobs. The Japanese government estimates that the population of Japan will drop by 30% by 2060 to around 87 million, with people over 65 making up 40% (presently 23% in 2010) of that total as the birth rate shows little sign of improving.

Japan still needs to repair the damage done to its East Asian neighbors, namely China and North and South Korea, during the first half of the 20th century. Repeated visits to the controversial Yaskuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Japan's war dead including Class A War Criminals, by a succession of LDP Prime Ministers has not endeared the nation to the countries that bore the brunt of Japan's aggressive and expansionist policies in the 1930's and 1940's.

The Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami of March 2011 and the ensuing nuclear meltdown in Fukushima pose further challenges for a nation presently quagmired in a political and social malaise, that seems to be spreading to the EU and North America.

Tokyo Sky Tree
The Tokyo Sky Tree is Japan's tallest structure at 634 meters and an icon of 21st century Japan

Books on Post-War Japan

Contemporary Japan - Jeff Kingston
Embracing Defeat - John Dower
Showa Japan - Hans Brinckmann
Showa: the Japan of Hirohito - Carol Gluck

Related Showa History Articles

Read more articles on Japanese history
Korea-Japan Relations
Japanese Economy

Books on the History of Japan