Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan by Seymour Morris, Jr. (Harper, 2014). What a huge task MacArthur had. This was a militaristic society that had engaged in some of the worst wartime atrocities ever (recall the Rape of Nanking, the Rape of Manilla, their pursuit of biological warfare, and so on), and here was an American general tasked with bringing about the peace and helping to transform a nation.
What do you do if you are given the task of turning a feudalistic and militaristic culture that has just been defeated in war into a democratic, stable and peaceful nation? And how do you do it with the support of the people? That was the responsibility given to General Douglas MacArthur following Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII.
Can an occupying force turn around a nation in a few short years and recast it into a welcome member of the international community? And can the changes be welcomed by most of the people? Very rarely in human history has an occupying army transformed a nation for the good and without resentment. Yet that is what MacArthur did in Japan.
Plenty of biographies exist on the general (think of the standard 800-page work American Caesar by William Manchester for example), and a number of books exist on post-war Japan under American occupation. But one volume stands out here. I refer to Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan by Seymour Morris, Jr. (Harper, 2014).
What a huge task MacArthur had. This was a militaristic society that had engaged in some of the worst wartime atrocities ever (recall the Rape of Nanking, the Rape of Manilla, their pursuit of biological warfare, and so on), and here was an American general tasked with bringing about the peace and helping to transform a nation.
The 350-page tome by Morris does a great job of informing us of the obstacles, problems and hurdles to be overcome, and how MacArthur achieved what few others had ever done: successfully turning a belligerently-run nation into a free and prosperous democracy.
But it is one aspect of this I want to focus on here. The state religion, Shintoism, was part of the problem: How would MacArthur tackle this? In Chapter 11 (pages 115-124) of the book we learn about what transpired. Morris reminds us that Shintoism “extolled Japan’s feudal past and proclaimed the emperor to be the sum of all verities.”. He continues:
Proceeding with care – any regulation of religion was a potential minefield, and this was the national religion – it took SCAP [Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers] two months to finalize its policies. In mid-December  it issued the Shinto directive, pronouncing the establishment of religious freedom…
In their edicts on religion MacArthur and his team were very careful not to impugn the emperor’s position and dignity. Yet it was the emperor’s very position as an august being that had caused many Japanese militarists to accept the belief that war and any service to the state were fully justified. For the Japanese soldier, what higher calling than to fight for the emperor and to die in his service, even to the point of becoming a kamikaze?
The end result of all this was the emperor renounced his divinity. This was just one massive change among many. Says Morris:
A flurry of directives, already under way and with many more to come, would reach into every nook and cranny of Japanese life. The abolition of the military police, the purge of the militarists, the elimination of restrictions on labor, the creation of a new constitution, the enfranchisement of women and the reform of the education system, and the breakup of monopolistic family trusts would usher in a more modern and democratic state.