How did Japan, under occupation by the Allied forces, in 1945-1952 transform into one of the world’s most developed countries?

When looking at the images of devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6 and 9 August 1945 by the USA, it is hard to imagine that Japan would become one of the most developed nations in the 21st century, yet this is exactly what happened.

In total, around 500,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the bombing of Japan throughout the Second World War. The use of atomic bombs by the Americans caused total destruction, effectively ending Japan’s ability to carry on fighting in the war. When Japan finally surrendered on 15 August 1945, six days after the bombing of Nagasaki and the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan, it was the first time in Japanese history that the population heard the Emperor speak. The Japan that was left following the Second World War was a shadow of its pre-war Empire, brought to its knees by a new, violent, terrifying weapon.

Following Japan’s surrender, the country underwent a period of occupation from 1945 to 1952 by the Allied Forces, led by the Americans. General Douglas MacArthur directed the occupation and began military, political, economic and social reforms. The first years after the war were characterised by grim poverty for many Japanese people, who were left in desolation and unemployment. Returning soldiers faced hostility by many, as they were blamed for Japanese failure and faced shame as reports of war time atrocities committed by them came to light. The direness of the situation was demonstrated by the action of the USA to import emergency supplies in 1945 and 1946 to avoid mass starvation in the country.

The reconstruction of Japan centred on MacArthur’s plan to punish and reform, while improving its economy to make it a viable, yet non-threatening state. Part of this was done through the demilitarisation of Japan, which focused on the dismantling of the empire and the repatriation of Japanese civilians from overseas possessions. The country was also democratised through the transfer of power from the Emperor to the Japanese people, followed by the first democratic election on 10 April 1946 in which Japan had its first modern prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida. As part of decentralisation, the concentrations of wealth in Japanese society were removed.

Integral to the success of reform was the receptiveness of the Japanese people. After being devastated by the war, they looked for opportunities of change and used such occasions, such as voting in elections, to demonstrate this.

Yet, the question remains, how did Japan become the successful country we recognise it as today? The term ‘economic miracle’ has been coined to explain the economic boom that occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Economic plans instigated by the Americans, such as the ‘Dodge Line’ plan, created government austerity to prevent hyperinflation. The Korean War was also a huge turning point, as Japan became the supplier of textiles, paper and steel for the armed forces. One of the first symbols of Japan becoming the nation we know it as today is in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, a celebration of recovery from defeat. During this decade, the economy expanded at a rate of ten percent a year and many people who had witnessed the difficult post-war years were now seeing a different future.

This high speed economic growth led to urbanisation, and many left jobs in rural areas to work in cities in manufacturing. Generally, the standard of living rose across society, in rural as well as urban areas and this increase contributes to the fact that Japan has one of the greatest life expectancies in developed world. In 1961, universal healthcare was introduced into Japan, which included mass health screening of the population. Although, it was not an easy road, problems surfaced in the 1990’s when the economic bubble burst. Yet, Japan is now a leading figure in the international community, especially within Asia.

Japan’s rise to power has been a surprise success story and since the country regained independence in 1952, it has succeeded in its own right. The consequences of the war were used by the Japanese people to embrace changes initiated by the Allied Forces, and this is represented in its modern ethos of equality and hard work. The images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will resonate with the Japanese people forever, but they now also represent their ability to progress and rebuild as a country.