The Second World War formally ended on this day seventy years ago when Imperial Japan’s foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri, a U.S. Iowa-class battleship which was at the time in Tokyo bay. The events leading up to that fateful moment had seen Imperial Japan’s position in the Pacific Theater of the war deteriorate considerably. Japan’s loss at Iwo Jima in March 1945, compounded by the firebombing of Tokyo, led into a bloody summer skirmish at Okinawa, where Imperial Japan also suffered defeat at the hands of the United States. The war reached a crescendo in early August 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were struck with atomic bombs. On August 15, Japanese Emperor Hirohito accepted the terms that the allies had outlined for Japan’s surrender in the Potsdam Declaration, and finally, on September 2, Japan surrendered formally.
Japan’s signing of the Instrument of Surrender marked a formal end to the bloodiest conflict in human history, and the last true total war in human history. Though the war had ended, September 2 marked the beginning of a process that would see the Asian strategic landscape transformed for the remainder of the 20th century–indeed, well into the 21st century. More than 40 U.S. warships entered Tokyo bay, carrying thousands of troops under the command of five-star U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. That day marked the occupation of Japan by the United States.
Under U.S. occupation and with Emperor Hirohito still in place, Japan eventually adopted a new constitution, enacted on May 3, 1947. The drafting process was complicated, with Japanese leaders initially reluctant to adopt a new document in place of the Meiji constitution that had served as the country’s foundational document since the late-19th century. Ultimately, much of the text of the famous post-war constitution was written by American lawyers, including notable contributions from two U.S. army officers who happened to have law degrees. The document was written with consideration of the Meiji constitution and input from pacifist Japanese politicians at the time. Most famously, the document included an article unlike any other constitution. Article 9 of the constitution noted that the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Though the war had ended and peace had been attained, the matter of justice remained unresolved. The Allied powers would move to convene the Military Tribunal for the Far-East in April 1946. Japanese leaders and military officers who survived the war were brought before a panel of judges to be eventually sorted into three categories of war criminal. Those who had conspired to start and wage war, committing crimes against peace, were met with a “Class A” verdict. Those who carried out “conventional” atrocities and “crimes against humanity” were identified as “Class B” war criminals. Those who participated in “the planning, ordering, authorization, or failure to prevent such transgressions at higher levels in the command structure” were met with a “Class C” verdict. The trial adjourned on November 12, 1948, with scores sentenced to either death by hanging or life in prison, depending on the severity of their war crimes.
Japan’s eventual rehabilitation and reintegration into the international system came with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which was signed on September 8, 1951. That treaty included a clause highlighting Tokyo’s unambiguous acceptance of the outcome of the Tokyo trials: “Japan accepts the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied War Crimes Courts both within and outside Japan,” it noted. When the San Francisco pact, signed by 48 countries, came into force in 1952, Imperial Japan became an entity of the past and the country we know today as “Japan” emerged from the ashes. In 1960, Japan signed a treaty with its former foe and occupier, the United States, leading to an alliance that has since been a fundamental feature of the Asian security order.
Today, Japan ranks among the most peaceful countries in Asia, ranking first in the continent in the 2015 Global Peace Index. Additionally, recent polling shows that just 11 percent of Japanese, the lowest of all countries surveyed, answered “Yes” when asked if they would fight for their country. Long the world’s second-largest economy, and its third-largest since 2011, Japan managed to find economic prosperity not long after its defeat in the war. Despite the generally peaceful disposition of the country’s citizens, its current political leaders are pursuing a series of reforms intended to guide the country toward a more “normalized” military posture. These reforms have been a source of controversy and geopolitical friction in Northeast Asia. Indeed, even within Japan, conscientious citizens have taken to the streets to protest what they perceive as an abandonment of the country’s pacifist post-war principles.
Post-war Japan’s constitutional pacifism, in many ways, has long been a misnomer. Japan maintains one of Asia’s most technologically advanced armed forces under the moniker of a ‘Self-Defense Force.’ Over the years, Tokyo has learned to interpret its constitution in a way that has made its self-defense more tenable, despite the restraints of Article 9–indeed, the latest reforms aren’t revolutionary by any means. Additionally, under the U.S.-Japan alliance, Tokyo avails of Washington’s deterrence guarantees, both conventional and nuclear. Indeed, when reflecting on pacifism and the legacy of the Second World War in Asia, the salient question is not whether Japan lives up to some platonic ideal of absolute pacifism. It does not and will not. 70 years later, we ought to ask if Japan, on balance, will remain a net positive contributor to security and stability in Asia. On this count, there can be no question. It does and will continue to do so.