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Rebuilding Japan after World War II

As the summer of 1945 dragged on, Japan’s situation grew steadily grimmer. By the end of July, the nation’s ability to conduct major military operations had all but evaporated and a U.S invasion of the Japanese mainland seemed imminent. While expressing their undying conviction to fight to the bitter end on one hand and tentatively reaching out to the Soviet Union to act as a peace mediator on the other, Japanese leaders found themselves in a difficult situation. 

Two separate days in August finally brought Imperial Japan to its knees, with two of its cities obliterated by bombs with apocalyptical power. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japanese radio waves crackled into life as the everyday men, women and children for the first time heard the voice of their Emperor as he announced Japan’s unconditional surrender. 

The country, which had been devastated by bombs, food shortages and a catastrophic loss of life, was but a haggard shell of the glorious Japan it once was. As its cities continued to smoulder and the Japanese people faced the reality that their leaders’ Imperial dream had not only collapsed but devastated the country in the process, few would have held much hope for what was to come. With U.S ships converging on the mainland, it was only a matter of time before the occupation of Japan began and the final humiliation throttled Japan once and for all. 

However, what came next not only defied expectations but almost certainly exceeded even the wildest of dreams. Japan’s spectacular rise after World War II is one of history’s most astonishing reconstruction periods, as a country that was teetering on the verge of starvation, fought its way back to become the world’s third-largest economy. 

The image of the Phoenix rising from the ashes has become a tired, somewhat lazy metaphor, but in this case, I can think of nothing more appropriate. This is the story of a shattered Japan – and its quite extraordinary ascent after 1945. 

Final Months    

When the Japanese surrender was formally signed on 2nd September 1945, it brought to an end a conflict that had seen the country’s sphere of influence stretch deep into mainland China and included Korea, the Philippines, Indo-China, Malaysia, Burma (now Myanmar), Siam (now Thailand) and countless small islands in the western Pacific. 

But 1942 was the pinnacle for Imperial Japan and with the Doolittle raid in April, the first U.S bombing raid on Tokyo, the Japanese people were given a glimpse of the horrors that would come. As it all began to unravel and the country commenced a desperate defence stand, the empire withered, then collapsed as Japanese troops were pushed back all across Asia. 

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki signalled the end of a hellish period when Japanese cities were hit first by precision bombing raids, then catastrophic firebombing as the U.S switched tactics to try and break the Japanese spirit. On 10th March 1945, Tokyo was hit by the single most destructive air raid of the war – an attack that all but destroyed 41 km2 (16 square miles) of buildings, killing 83,793 people, injuring another 40,918 and leaving over a million homeless. 

Over the coming months, the carnage was shared generously around as major and smaller cities were hit – often principally targeting manufacturing and transportation, though urban centres also received plenty of attention. As the skies filled with B-29 bombers, 1,303,200 children were evacuated from major cities to stay with family in the countryside, while 446,200 were relocated to Buddhist temples, inns, and local families.  

Post War  

The level of destruction that had been handed out only really became clear once the formal surrender had taken place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The bombing raids on Japan had killed between 350,000 and 500,000 civilians, while the country now faced a 4.2 million unit housing shortage across the ravaged country and over 8.5 million people homeless. 40% of urban areas had been destroyed, along with more than 600 major industrial facilities. 

This is before we even talk about food production, transportation links, ports, airfields, schools, hospitals and just about everything you expect in a modern country. Japan had been decimated and the scale of the rebuild was difficult to comprehend. Things were chaotic and further aggravated by the sheer numbers returning to Japan. Over 5.1 million Japanese people returned in the year after the country’s surrender, with another million in 1947. Add in the hundreds of thousands of decommissioned soldiers and you begin to get an idea of the pandemonium going on in the immediate months and years after the surrender. 


The unenviable task of not only rebuilding Japan but also instigating radical social and political reform fell to General Douglas McArthur who was given the title of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). 

During the war, an allied plan to divide responsibility for Japan between the allied nations had been agreed upon, but after the country’s surrender, the U.S assumed control of the entire mainland, with the Soviet Union and USSR administering smaller islands. It’s never been fully explained why this happened, but it almost certainly had something to do with the American distrust of the Soviets which was already rapidly growing.   

When General McArthur arrived in Japan on 30th August 1945, he was faced with a country teetering on the brink of starvation. Average adult calories per day fell to just 1,042, about 65% of the minimum caloric intake for a healthy adult. The heavily populated cities fared worse, with rations often delivered sporadically. Those living in Tokyo received only 70% of their allocated rations, meaning that for six months in 1946, adults in Tokyo were surviving on just 775 calories per day. To really put that in perspective, the average American adult today consumes around 3,600 calories a day. And I don’t mean to pick on the Americans there, but they are top of the table, with the British just a few hundred calories behind. 

Emergency food funds began to reach Japan but the scale of the crisis was enormous. Wheat donations from the United States also arrived but quickly developed into a political matter as the Koreans, who were also suffering from severe food shortages, objected to the vast quantities of food arriving in Japan rather than Korea. This was partly spurred on by propaganda spun by the USSR but did force the U.S to distribute more evenly to keep the peace. 

Apart from the food shortage, General McArthur had plenty to keep him busy. The vast majority of politicians linked with the military were removed from office, while a total of 28 found themselves at the second War Crimes tribunal after World War II, which began in Tokyo on 29th April 1946. Seven were hanged for their roles in the conflict, sixteen were given life sentences, two died while standing trial and one was deemed mentally unfit for trial. 

But one man who escaped punishment was Emperor Hirohito. Now, this was a highly contentious and very sensitive debate. Many in the U.S administration, and indeed many around the world, felt that the Emperor of Japan needed to answer for what his country had done. President Truman left the decision to General McArther and after careful consideration, he decided against placing Hirohito on trial and instead settled for a reduction in role to little more than a symbolic figurehead. Whether you agree with that decision or not, an Emperor in Japan is seen as a god and the effect of witnessing him being put on trial and perhaps even executed, would have been psychologically harrowing for the Japanese people. No doubt some of you watching believe they fully deserved it, while others probably see the benefit of extending some semblance of an olive branch to a people at their lowest moment.


With the trials out of the way and food networks beginning to function, the occupying American force turned their attention to social and democratic reform. With the growing menace of the Soviet Union now creeping around the world, the U.S was eager to establish Japan as a liberal democracy – and who knows – maybe one day they would even become friends again and the U.S would start importing vast quantities of Japanese technology with American children growing slightly plumper spending hours and hours playing videos games designed in Japan. Who knew what could happen.  

Land reform was a key early element as the U.S sought to break up the traditional stranglehold held by wealthy landowners. Between 1947 and 1949, approximately 23,000 km2 (8,880 miles sq) of land – 38% of Japan’s cultivated land – was purchased from landlords and resold at incredibly low prices to the farmers who actually toiled on the land. During this period, three million farmers acquired land through this system that radically altered Japan’s social structure.  

Large financial cliques known as the Zaibatsu, which had monopolised many industries, some for centuries, were also broken up, though this faced stern opposition from the wealthy and influential Japanese who suddenly began to see their privileged livelihoods come crashing down. The electric utilities were privatized into nine regional privately-owned government-granted monopolies in 1951 and this was joined by sweeping change in trades unions, labour laws and education, in which the country implemented a more U.S style High School system. 

But key to it all was that much loved U.S cornerstone – democracy. On 10th April 1946, an election that saw a 78.52% turnout among men and 66.97% among women was held and from it emerged Japan’s first modern prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida. A year later, the new Constitution of Japan was formally ratified on 3rd May 1947 – which essentially outlawed war as a means to settle international disputes involving Japan and meant it would never build up its military. This soon became a somewhat fluid concept because while the U.S certainly didn’t want to see a fully militarised Japan any time soon, they also didn’t want it to become an open door invitation to the expanding communist tide to the east. As a result, Japan set up its Self Defence Force in 1954, a military force mandated with defending Japan and assisting with internal issues and environmental disasters.        

Post Occupation

By the end of the 1940s, the U.S occupation of Japan was coming to a close and formally ended on 28th April 1952 – though the U.S retained a presence on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Americans were also careful to secure an alliance with Japan, again no doubt eager to have a democratic buffer state in the area as more and more of the region fell under communist influence.  

In the immediate years after the occupation, Japan’s focus was on manufacturing with major investments made in electric power, coal, steel, and chemicals. This focus, combined with an excellent education system, with the highest literacy rates in the world, and a work ethic that bordered on the sadistic, led to some of the most astonishing periods of growth ever seen around the world. 

By the mid-1950s, production had surpassed pre-war levels and between 1953 and 1965, GDP grew by more than 9% per year, with manufacturing and mining increasing by 13%, construction by 11%, and infrastructure by 12%. Suddenly, not having to syphon off the majority for an absurd war effort was working out rather well for the Japanese. Though perhaps slightly ironically, it was the Korean War that kicked started this period of growth with Japanese suppliers working with the United Nations forces stationed in the region.    

The Economic Miracle   

Japan’s rise at this point is best described as meteoric and has come to be known as the Japanese Economic Miracle. The hugely ambitious Income Doubling Plan instigated in 1960, aimed to double the size of the nation’s economy in just ten years, with tax breaks, targeted investment, an expanded social safety net, and incentives to increase exports and industrial development. Quite astonishingly, it took them just seven years in which the economy grew by more than 10% each year and saw Japan establish itself as one of the first developed nations in Asia. And no doubt this won’t come as a great surprise, but Japan’s early focus was on providing high-quality mechanical equipment that eventually gave way to the computer age.   

The low-cost Nissan Sunny became a symbol of the Japanese middle class in the 1960s.By Mytho88, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The average monthly consumption of urban family households doubled from 1955 to 1970, with much of this down to an increase in leisure goods. While things spread to the countryside at a slower rate, they were by no means left out and with new agricultural machinery appearing, along with improved strains of crops, farmers began to reap the benefits of a quickly growing population that suddenly had some money to spare. In 1965, Japan’s nominal GDP was estimated at roughly $91 billion, but just 15 years later, in 1980, the country had smashed through the trillion-dollar mark to hit a record $1.065 trillion.

The devastation that had been meted out to Japan’s manufacturing sector during the war, in a rather bizarre way proved to be a good thing, because once rebuilt, with plenty of shiny new machinery from America to begin with, it was able to easily outperform other countries. The Japanese took American ideas of productivity and business organisation and made them their own. Soon they were producing goods that were superior to anything you could get in the United States or Western Europe.   

Population control, which had been loosely in place since 1948 as a way of combating food shortages, was lifted and a nation that numbered 77 million in 1945, nearly doubled to 127 million over the next 50 years. This period also saw large-scale migration as millions left the countryside for work in the cities in response to significant labour shortages when the economy began to skyrocket. 

During the Meiji period in Japan (1868-1912) around 85% of the Japanese population lived in rural locations, a figure that fell to 50% by 1945. However, by 1970, less than 20% of the Japanese people remained in the countryside, as the country’s cities swelled with new arrivals. At this point, one in every nine Japanese citizens was living in Tokyo as the city’s population moved past the 23 million mark. But in an interesting twist, 1970 also saw the point at which the average farm household income surpassed its urban equivalent. 

Things wobbled a little thanks to the oil crisis of 1973, but Japan proved itself resilient and weathered the storm significantly better than most. By the end of the 1980s, the country that had been bombed into oblivion just thirty-five years before, was now the third-largest economy in the world, behind the U.S and the Soviet Union. If the country had dragged itself from the pit of despair after World War II, it now stood proudly among the most developed countries on Earth. 

A Colossal Achievement  

What happened in Japan between the end of World War II and 1990 was nothing short of spectacular. The final decade of the 20th Century saw the country’s economic growth slow significantly and it has never been able to match the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The Japanese people really have to be commended at this point. Yes there were plenty of very sensible economic decisions made and certainly, the large leg-up given by the United States after the war really helped, but a population that put in plenty of hard work, fostered education, social care and just plain determination to rebuild their broken country, was the real reason Japan was able to succeed so quickly. Perhaps it’s easier to begin from scratch, but in the decades following the war, the Japanese people placed the reconstruction of Japan over self-interest. This was an area that they had been traditionally strong for many years, but their drive reached levels that are difficult to imagine in other developed countries – especially in the 21st Century 

In just thirty-five years, Japan went from being a crushed, hungry country with little to no remaining industry and cities lying in rubble, to the very pinnacle of global development. A success story of astonishing vision and growth that may never be matched. 

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