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Sunday, May 5, 2002

When the people put pen to paper


DEAR GENERAL MACARTHUR: Letters From the Japanese During the American Occupation, by Sodei Rinjiro. Rowman & Littlefield; Lanham, Maryland, 2001, 306 pp., $29.95 (cloth)

It boggles the mind that Gen. Douglas MacArthur received some 500,000 letters from Japanese from all walks of life during his tenure in Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). Apparently he avidly read many of them, and considerable time was spent on preparing translations of those written in Japanese.

This book is a fascinating window into the varied perceptions of social conditions in the aftermath of the war and the expectations held of the U.S.-led Occupation of Japan (1945-52). It conveys a sense of what life was like at that time and what issues divided a people who are all too often portrayed in monolithic terms. Dipping into these excerpts is all the more rewarding due to the insightful commentary of Sodei Rinjiro. He presents here the unfiltered voices of the Japanese people and in doing so helps us ". . . understand MacArthur's place in Japan's collective memory."

In his forward, John Dower, the leading Western specialist on the U.S. occupation, notes that MacArthur received a welcome that ". . . was commonly adulatory and frequently bordered on the ecstatic. Here was a conquering hero hailed by the very people he had conquered." Many women wrote to offer to have his baby, others sought to inform on officials, neighbors and alleged war criminals. The letters were generally deferential, but many were also frankly critical and some sounded grave warnings about what might happen to Japan if their agenda was not adopted by SCAP.

Among the writers featured in this selection there are ". . . cranks and sycophants and special pleaders. . . . There are dim bulbs as well as bright ones." Overall, Dower argues that ". . . the letters help us understand why the ideals of peace and democracy were not just catchphrases plucked from some voguish checklist of 'Western ideas.' Their attraction derived, first and foremost, from the prolonged and bitter war experience itself."

Perhaps it is understandable given the intended recipient of the letters, but, according to Sodei, remarkably few express rancor about U.S. destruction of Japan or abuses inflicted on Japanese civilians during the occupation by Allied soldiers. There are complaints about Peeping Toms at the public baths, noise pollution from U.S. airplanes and black marketeering by Allied soldiers, but judging from these letters it seems that the people embraced the victors and their agenda of reform while reserving their venom for those they blamed for dragging Japan into war.

The responsibility of the Showa Emperor for the war was, and remains, a hotly debated topic. Many letters beg MacArthur to protect the emperor from prosecution as a war criminal, a position he adopted early on in the Occupation despite the complaints of other Allied governments. One letter written in blood ominously warns, "If it ever happens that His Majesty is brought to trial, not only I but many Japanese, whose loyalty is close to a religious belief that has deepened through history and tradition, would hold a tremendous hatred not only toward you, but toward all Americans forever. Unexpected incidents would be certain to occur . . ."

In contrast, one correspondent argued for indictment, writing, "Under our constitution, the emperor as commander in chief holds total military authority over the army, navy and air force, and by this absolute authority declarations of war and mobilization of the army and navy, etc., are issued. Therefore, in theory, even if only formally, it is obvious that the emperor bears the ultimate responsibility for war. Groups such as the Liberal Party and the Progressive Party, who support the emperor and the emperor system in the spirit of guarding the national polity are only wearing a mask of democracy to fool the people; in reality they still support the emperor's absolute power, the 'zaibatsu,' and the privileged class."

In Sodei's view, the demilitarization and democratization policies of SCAP reflected the popular will of the Japanese people. It is now popular among conservative commentators to lament various reforms and their allegedly negative consequences for contemporary Japan, but such a perspective ignores how popular these reforms were at the time. He writes, "The American Occupation and its subsequent reforms were the equivalent of consensual sex, not rape, at least to the majority of the ordinary public." The subsequent backlash against the Occupation is attributed to ". . . a guilty conscience for being seduced too easily."

It is surprising how many of the letters are by would-be informants reporting current or past misdeeds for punishment by SCAP, reflecting perhaps a yearning for justice or, in some cases, petty vindictiveness. Many writers hoped to get MacArthur to weigh in on their disputes or back their projects, but there is no evidence that he did so.

Many writers expressed dissatisfaction with Japanese government authorities, accusing them of undemocratic or corrupt activities while turning a blind eye to the people's abject suffering. An Osakan resident complained, "Greedy officials and bureaucrats are engaged in rapacious exploitation. The ordinary people are in a wretched state. The city halls become larger and grander, nearly swarming with officials, while the citizens become more and more emaciated."

One girl wrote asking for relief from heavy taxes, reporting that, "My father says that unless he sells my older sister to pay the taxes, the tax office will confiscate his tools . . . I cannot tell you my real name because my father talked about burning down the tax office, and I am afraid he may be taken to jail."

The abrupt dismissal of MacArthur by President Harry S. Truman in April 1951 came as a shock to the Japanese people, who had developed a deep affection and reverence for him. It is not surprising that MacArthur retained, and probably treasured, the following letter. The outraged correspondent wrote, "President Truman has committed the greatest blunder in American history. Its effect on Japan and Eastern Asia will be very disastrous. He has shaken the Japanese confidence in the United States and helped to advance the Kremlin's interests. He has stabbed in the back the most gallant hero and farsighted statesman, and has crucified him on the cross."

Soon after, however, the general shot himself in the foot, testifying before the Senate that the Japanese people were "like a boy of 12," losing a great deal of goodwill and ending plans to erect statues of him around the archipelago.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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