15 Weird, Unexpected Realities of Life in Japan Right After WWII

The end of World War 2 marked a massive transition in the culture, government, and society of Japan. Life in post-war Japan was difficult. The country was ravaged, and physical hardship was rampant. Furthermore, for years, citizens had been indoctrinated to fanatically support a divine emperor and believe in the invulnerability of Japan's military empire. With the empire defeated and the emperor now obviously human, society faced necessary, very painful restructuring.

The changes that took place in Japan over the course of the 20 years following the end of WWII are drastic and staggering. Starvation and devastation dominated life in Japan after World War 2, though were gradually replaced by economic growth and liberalism. Some philosophically liberal Japanese who had been suppressed by the militaristic government came to see the United States as liberators. The billions of dollars the US poured into Japan's reconstruction, coupled with close economic ties and trade agreements, helped mortal enemies become staunch allies.

Read on to find out what life was like in Japan in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, and how it changed as the hardships of the post-war years (1945-1952) rapidly mutated into an economic miracle

  • Most Cities Were Flattened

    Most Cities Were Flattened
    Photo: US Military / Public Domain

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren't major cities, but they were destroyed by atomic bombs. Why? Because all the bigger, more important cities in Japan had already been obliterated. The strategic bombing campaign conducted by the US against Japan left most cities, such as Tokyo, virtually leveled. The systematic fire-bombing of Japan destroyed an estimated 1,439,115 buildings.

    By way of example, the fire-bombing of Tokyo incinerated more than 16 square miles of the city, an area about 70% the size of Manhattan. Major cities in Japan were filled with millions of homeless civilians and psychologically damaged war veterans, who slept in bomb craters, ruined buildings, tents, shanty towns, or on the street.

  • Many Japanese Soldiers Never Returned Home from Manchurian China

    Many Japanese Soldiers Never Returned Home from Manchurian China
    Photo: Daniel Mennerich / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Unlike POWs captured by American troops in the Pacific theater, many Japanese POWs captured in China by Soviet troops never returned to Japan. Conservative estimates place the number of Japanese POWs captured by the Soviets during the closing days of the war at 600,000. Most of them were interned in forced labor camps in Siberia and other parts of Russia.

    It wasn't until 1956, a full 11 years after Japan's surrender, that the last shipment of POWs from the Soviet Union arrived in Japan. At least 60,000 Japanese are known to have died in the labor camps.

  • Many Japanese Refused to Surrender

    Some soldiers, referred to as Japanese holdouts, either ignored or refused to believe the Japanese surrender. For years they fought guerilla wars in remote jungles on islands across the Pacific. Or just lived in isolation, doing not much of anything. The most famous of the holdouts, Hiroo Onoda, fought on for three decades after the war ended.

    It wasn't until his former commanding officer flew to his hideout in the Philippines and ordered him to stand down that he finally surrendered. This was in 1974, 29 years after Japan surrendered, and 15 years after Onoda was declared dead. 

  • The Japanese Government Established Brothels

    The Japanese Government Established Brothels
    Photo: kndynt2099 / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Believing occupying American troops would wantonly rape civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war, Japanese authorities created brothels and solicited patriotic ladies to volunteer as comfort women. Occupying forces instituted a ban on prostitution, but it was only partially enforced. An estimated 55,000 women served in these brothels, though not all were prostitutes. 

    Tatsugoro Suzuki, who was a prostitute, recalls, "We were told that our mission was to be a sexual dike to protect the chastity of Japanese women." Tsunenori Ono, an official appointed to oversee the creation of the brothels, said of the operation, "This really was necessary at the time, because we didn't know what kind of soldiers would come. It really seemed crucial to build this sexual dike."

    Most Americans who patronized the brothels never knew the Japanese government started and ran them. 

  • America Helped Rebuild the Japanese Economy

    America Helped Rebuild the Japanese Economy
    Video: YouTube

    One of the first tasks of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) under General MacArthur was to rebuild Japan's economy. Fearing a struggling economy would provide fertile ground for communist expansion, the United States invested heavily in rebuilding Japan. Between 1946 and 1949, the United States spent $500 million dollars annually to support the Japanese economy.

    After that, loose government loan policies allowed Japanese companies access to the capital necessary to transition to an export driven economy. Free trade agreements further helped. MacArthur had dismantled the Japanese monopolies (zaibatsu) during the initial reconstruction, but these restrictions were later backtracked during the 1950s due to the threat of the Cold War. Once these restrictions were eased, the Japanese government took steps to protect monopolies and business cartels.

  • The New Japanese Constitution Forever Changed the Japanese Government

    The New Japanese Constitution Forever Changed the Japanese Government
    Photo: paukrus / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    As part of the terms of surrender, the Japanese government had to draft a new constitution. This required that the Emperor relinquish official authority, though he was allowed to retain his position as a figurehead. It also established a Diet (congress), which was given power over lawmaking. The document was written with American input, as it required approval from SCAP. It went into effect May 3, 1947.

    The constitution also provided many basic rights for citizens, including gender equality, the right to peacefully protest, free and equal public education, and more.