Rebuilding Iraq: Japan Is No Model

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. His latest book is "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" (Owl Books, 2001).

According to press reports, the White House is developing a plan, modeled on the postwar occupation of Japan, to install an American-led military government in Iraq. Administration officials said Iraq would be governed by a senior American military officer, who would assume the role that Gen. Douglas MacArthur played in Japan after its surrender. The plan calls for war-crimes trials of Iraqi leaders and a transition to an elected civilian government after a few years of American occupation.

After the story broke last week, the White House tried to back away from it. However, some unnamed senior officials have stood by it.

Our politics become more surreal every day. This plan won’t work for the simple reason that Iraq is not Japan. The Bush White House and the Rumsfeld Pentagon seem to know next to nothing about Japan.


The Potsdam Declaration ending World War II ordered MacArthur to “democratize” Japan. MacArthur himself thought that this order held great dangers. If not done carefully, his efforts would have only the legitimacy of the conqueror behind them and might well provide a target for later Japanese nationalists seeking to overturn foreign reforms.

MacArthur made some strategic decisions. He retained Hirohito on the throne and had all occupation reform directives come from the emperor. The general conducted an indirect occupation. He did not replace the wartime Japanese government but kept it intact, only now taking orders from him.

The new Japanese constitution, land reform, trade unions and the attempt to open up the economy all came in the form of laws enacted by the Japanese government. If the U.S. intends to follow the Japanese model in Iraq, it will have to keep Saddam Hussein in place and work through him.

The idea of conducting war-crimes trials is crackpot. In Japan, they were intended to educate the public about the war, but they backfired. Gen. Hideki Tojo, who was prime minister at the time of Pearl Harbor, embarrassed everyone by asking from the dock, “Why isn’t the emperor here?” No one dared answer that MacArthur had rewritten history to keep the emperor in power. By the time the U.S. got around to hanging a few wartime leaders, most Japanese saw the war-crimes trials as miscarriages of justice.

Most Americans do not understand that the Japanese people do not credit MacArthur with bringing democracy to Japan, although they do honor his memory as a postwar shogun. Democracy already existed in Japan, based on the parliamentary politics of the 1920s, before the militarists took over.

Another reason the Japanese don’t credit the U.S. is that halfway through the occupation the Americans changed their minds and began turning Japan into a docile American satellite for fighting the Cold War.


The so-called “reverse course” of 1947 meant welcoming back to power many of the prewar and wartime leaders whom the Americans had purged. Seeing this, the Japanese worked to take advantage of the new conditions created by the Cold War. In return for letting the U.S. keep its military bases on Japanese soil, the Japanese demanded unrestricted access to the U.S. market and American tolerance of their protectionism. The results of this policy can be seen today in any U.S. parking lot. It also produced the largest trade imbalances (in favor of Japan) in economic history.

During the early days of the Allied occupation, the Americans did not have any economic interests in Japan. But the oil lobby led by Vice President Dick Cheney is drooling to get its hands on Iraq’s oil. As late as 1999, Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, supplied Hussein with $23.8 million worth of oil field equipment.

Perhaps most obviously, MacArthur did not have a serious religion problem in Japan. He forced the emperor to renounce his status as a Shinto god, but religious impulses have always lain lightly on the Japanese psyche. Iraq, by contrast, is ruled by a minority government of Sunni Muslims that has fought bloody wars with the country’s Shiite and Kurdish majorities.

I am doubtful that a group of heavily armed American infidels can bring “democracy” to Iraq, but I know for certain that what happened 50 years ago in Japan is no model.