Occupation of Japan

For some reason, I’ve struggled to understand the genesis of nuclear power in Japan. The standard narrative is that the country was and is short of internal fuel sources, so it gravitated naturally towards the atom, and there is good logic in that picture. But the situation was more nuanced and fluid. One aspect was simply that the country was occupied by the United States for over half a decade and then, coincidentally, came into the modern world with a rush due to a nearby war. It was ripe for innovation, not only in terms of its export economy but also for its electricity generation. Historian John Dower, who writes with white heat, captures this well over two pages in his prize-winning book:

When the occupation began, most Americans including General Macarthur assumed that it should and would last no more than three years. Three years, however, turned out to only its halfway point; and by then a great many Japanese had become transparently weary of foreign control. … The change was not only in the minds of the occupied. Driven by Cold War considerations, the Americans began to jettison many of the original ideals of “demilitarization and democratization” that had seemed so unexpected and inspiring to a defeated populace in 1945. In the process, they aligned themselves more and more openly with the conservative and even right-wing elements in Japanese society… The economy was turned back over to big capitalists and state bureaucrats. Politicians and other wartime leaders who had been prohibited from holding public office were gradually “depurged,” while on the other side of the coin the radical left was subjected to the “red purges.” The notion of a genuinely democratic revolution – from above, below, or anywhere else – seemed more and more, as the cliché had it, a dream within a dream. Before the occupation ended, the Japanese media had dubbed this dramatic turn of policy the ‘reverse course.’

Dower, John W. 1999. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. Allen Lane, London, pp. 525-526.