The National Bureau of Asian Research runs a really terrific list-serve on Japan that covers Japanese political, historical, economic, and cultural questions in (sometimes excruciating but nonetheless interesting) detail.
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This morning, an entry by my former Japanese politics professor Hans Baerwald came over the line. Hans is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at UCLA but now thinks great thoughts and lives a great life tending blue oaks and his growing vineyard in Pope Valley in Napa County, California. He was one of the most important mentors in my intellectual and personal development.
He also served in Government Section in MacArthur‘s SCAP (Supreme Command Allied Powers) during America’s occupation of Japan and was responsible for helping to administer the purge of Japanese political, military and cultural leaders who had been proponents of Japan’s war-time aggression. Baerwald wrote the definitive book on the purge titled The Purge of Japanese Leaders Under the Occupation, which I think holds important lessons for us today regarding any nation America tries to occupy again (since it didn’t heed any of these lessons in the Iraq case).
This is what he wrote for the NBR Japan Forum yesterday. I know it will sound complicated to those who don’t know Japanese history — but I’ll explain:
Two programs in postwar Japan that may be worth mentioning in this connection (the thread is on Japan’s history of ‘intellectuals and the left’) are: The “Public Information Media Purge” initiated in January 1947 as part of the “Political Purge” supervised by Government Section SCAP, but with criteria that reflected a good deal of Japanese Government input in their formulation, and “The Education Purge” administered by Civil Information and Education Section (CIE) SCAP (therefore totally separate from the “Political Purge”) with substantial input by the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Education.
Both programs tried in their own idiosyncratic ways to separate those “intellectuals” (including professors and teachers) who had supported the war effort from those who had not during 1937-1941, that is before the Japanese Government made public dissent impossible. These contentious efforts did not have much support from the first Yoshida Cabinet, had considerable support from the Katayama Cabinet, less support from the Ashida Cabinet and to all intents and purposes ended when the second Yoshida Cabinet took over in the Fall of 1948.
By then, both SCAP and the Japanese Government had embarked on what came to be called gyaku kosu (reverse course). In any case, this shift in American Government policy played a significant role in bringing Japanese self-reflection to an end. Japan’s “Old Order” had triumphed, but with our official help.

Without going into mind-numbing detail about the institutions and details of the particular purge categories Baerwald notes above, what is important to note is that American authorities did have a somewhat sophisticated understanding of the components of Japanese society, particularly the part that was hard-wired to generate a militaristic intellectual and political environment.
SCAP (which while it included Allies was primarily an American gig) did depend on Japan’s still-standing bureaucracies to help promulgate and implement the purge as well as many other initiatives. Baerwald and others have argued in the past that this dependence on Japan’s government ministries and civil servants had benefits and costs — most of the costs being that policies that the Japanese really didn’t want to pursue, they wouldn’t — or at least they would drag their feet or obfuscate matters.
In contrast, though, I don’t think we ever had such a fix on the civil bureaucracy that still existed in pieces, here and there, in Iraq. Our purge of Baathists was so extensive that we knocked out talent that could otherwise have been quickly ideologically redirected.
I think it would be very useful if some of those in the Coalition Provisional Authority began to think about writing about what went well and poorly in Iraq, from a nuts and bolts perspective, to create some worthwhile comparisons with America’s occupation experiences in Japan.
Of course, the other notable item in Baerwald’s brief comment is that Japan’s various prime ministers wavered on how cooperative they were with the U.S. government on implementing purges of Japan’s intellectuals who had helped legitimate Japan’s war machine.
Interestingly, Yoshida‘s government was the least cooperative with SCAP authorities — but he is the bureaucrat that America helped install as Japan’s prime minister after purging Ichiro Hatoyama, who would have been Japan’s prime minister after its first post-war election. Yoshida, though, allied himself with John Foster Dulles and other anti-progressive forces in both the Truman administration and what would be the future Eisenhower administration. Working together, Yoshida and a faction of American elites worried more about the growing threat of Communism from the Soviet Union and inside China than building democracy and a credible system of checks and balances in Japan.
Japan eventually made its way towards representative democracy — but America’s role was very spotty, and more indirect than direct.
President Bush recently stated, in his most recent press conference:
I don’t want to rehash something that I’m sure you got tired of hearing me talk about on the campaign trail, but it is — the decisions we make today can affect how people live 30, 40 or 50 years from now. And I bring up, once again, my example about working with Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan. And it wasn’t all that long ago that Japan was a bitter enemy. And today, because Japan is a democracy and a free country, the Japanese are strong allies with the United States of America and we’re better off for it.
Bush needs to be careful of trumpeting too much about our experience democratizing Japan — as we were frequently on the side of the anti-democrats. To some degree, Japan democratized despite our promotion of a profound model of structural corruption there — and the Japanese public and civil society institutions deserve credit. But Bush, as of late, has been warping this history.
Baerwald points out that different prime ministers in Japan interacted with America and implies that they played different factions of the administration off one another (I may be reading this in to his statement because I know his views somewhat well).
It is worth remembering that the man we purged in May 1946 on the eve of being Japan’s first true post-war, democratically selected prime minister came back to depose the semi-American-installed Shigeru Yoshida in 1954 and promptly began to work on thawing relations with the Soviet Union.
Hatoyama’s moves were a bit of classic blowback, though minor in this case. But blowback overall, is something that American strategists need to be far more circumspect about. Here is one of the most prescient volumes about blowback, appearing about 18 months before 9/11.
For those interested, Baerwald published a fascinating insider’s account of our Occupation bureaucracy in this Japan Policy Research Institute working paper. Mayumi Itoh, a scholar at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, also wrote this set of chapters and book on respectively Hatoyama’s purge and de-purging as well as the Hatoyama political dynasty.
— Steve Clemons