Social Convulsion in Postwar Japan

Postwar Japan wallowed in an inextricable quagmire of wretchedness.  Its industrial plants were in an advanced state of decay; its ships littered the ocean floor; its credit rating non-existent; and its sources of essential raw materials severely curtailed. The economic portrait depicted a scene of grim carnage with production in 1945 less than 10% prewar levels.  Initially, imports, limited to essential food stuffs and raw materials, were heavily subsidized by the US.  It was pivotal in its transition from a war-torn bombed-out nation to its current economic status. Whereas Japanese exports consisted of manufactured goods, its imports were largely raw materials. Internationally, its mangled economic networks whimpered plaintively as its ruling institutions got crushed beneath the rubble of a repugnant war.

The Indiscriminate Destruction

Whether this wanton act of horror was justifiable or not is another story. Whatever the reasons, the merciless bombings by the Allied forces ravaged sixty-six major cities.  Of the great cities, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were among those devastated.  The thriving cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were transformed into insalubrious wastelands. American made winged B29-Godzillas exhaled fire as they roamed unimpeded across the great land leaving devastation, destitution, death and despair.  Some cities – Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka – received more than one unwelcomed visitation.  Over a period of three years, Tokyo was fire-bombed about twenty times.  In a mere ten days, most of Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya was reduced to charred rubble and the Japanese naval might was resting comfortably on the ocean floor.  More than 60% of Tokyo residences and 90% of the residences in Nagoya were razed; and fifteen million defenseless residents were exposed to the elements, sans protection. American soldiers were pallidly aghast at the sight of the urban monstrosity.  In the aftermath, birth rates declined sharply and infant mortality rates spiraled.  Forty percent of the railway infrastructure was wrecked and the un-repaired outer guard rails rendered the entire system treacherous.  No sewage system, no running water, no electricity and ubiquitous piles of reeking corpses.  Outbreaks of food and water borne diseases were inescapable consequences. Repairs to river levees were neglected and the bamboo support for the embankment ruined.  Flooded rivers washed away makeshift homes and urgently-needed food crops.

The Ashes of the Cities
Hiroshima: The Aftermath of the Bombing

Wanting the Unwanted

In 1945, the Japanese were cursed by the worst harvest in 35 years. To stem the inrushing wave of food shortage, General McArthur urgently implemented a network food distribution centers. As malnutrition raged menacingly, the masses found their bowl of thin gruel growing thinner. As a cause of death, starvation reigned supreme.  As if losing their husbands was not traumatic enough, the widows had to contend with the loss of their government checks upon which they depended to feed their families.  The inadequacy of life-giving nutrition stunted the growth of children.  By the end of the war, the average young male was significantly shorter than his prewar counterpart.  Rice was a rare commodity, only available to the privileged few.  Common staples such as potato and barley were stretched to their limits.  Diluted potato broth, acorns, orange peels, arrowroot flour, wheat-bran, grain husk, peanut shells, and sawdust were common sources of carbohydrate.  To replenish their mineral intake, the destitute consumed tea leaves, flower blossoms, roadside plants and leaves of roses.  Silkworm cocoons, worms, grasshoppers, mice, rats, moles, snails, snakes, dried blood from horses, pigs and cows were unabashedly touted as reliable dietary sources of essential amino acids and protein. Schools dismissed classes before noon to avoid serving lunch. To feed their emaciated bodies, older students requested demotions to classes where lunches were still being served.  When available, daily rations supplied less than one-half of the daily nutritional requirements. The dire food shortage precipitated a glut of criminal activity.  Annually, more than one million were prosecuted for economic crimes related to illegal food acquisition. In the Prefecture of Osaka, 46% of economic crimes involved food theft. 

Factory absenteeism increased nationally: employees booked off to scavenge the countryside.  Starving city dwellers combed the farming areas in what was termed the onion existence: symbolically, they wept as they divested layer after layer of precious possessions in exchange for sustenance.  Families reluctantly sold their girls into prostitution.  About 125,000 orphans scraped a meager existence panhandling.  Others sold coupons, shoes, cigarette butts and newspapers.  Swept up in the crime wave, some resorted to picking pockets. In the harsh economic reality of the day, restaurant table scraps became gastronomic delicacies.  To conserve dwindling resources, Allied personnel were forbidden from eating food allocated to local consumption – a directive issued by Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur.

Close to 15 million were homeless. In the capital city of Tokyo, the first large incendiary air raid on March 9, 1945 left about 17 square miles of the city blackened beyond belief. The raid killed 130,000 and left a million civilians homeless.   Repatriation of 6.5 million Japanese sailors and soldiers stranded in other parts of Asia and the nearby Pacific area aggravated the housing situation placing greater strain on thin resource lines.  Building materials disappeared overnight. All were stockpiled by powerful businessmen and venal politicians for personal benefit.  Efforts at reconstruction gave businesses priority over the common man.  Almost three years postwar, more than 3.7 million families lacked basic housing.  As if being incinerated was not unbearably painful, the winter of 1944-1945 was described as the harshest Tokyo had faced in decades. The temperature hovered at sub-zero for 45 consecutive days. The absence of heating fuel made life indescribably miserable.  Adding to its woes, on March 1945, blustery gale force winds swept the city.  As an eye-witness reported: A single thought haunted the city: it could be terrible if they [American B29 bombers] come in such a wind……and at 11:00 that night they did come.  The raid demolished 267,000 buildings.  People sought refuge in dugouts, tin shacks, hallways, railway platforms, subways, sidewalks, make shift tents and trestles.  Like animals, the inhabitants lived under the rubble, under bridges and on the streets.  Exposure to the ferocious onslaught of the wintry gusts took its toll – people died on the streets. Babies froze in mothers’ arms.  At Tokyo Ueno railway station – a major commuter hub and a center of black-market transactions – one thousand ex-servicemen men, poor war widows, and war orphans lived. The authorities of the day adopted a culture of nurtured heartlessness. Police raided the subways, rounded up the homeless and tossed them into unheated jails.  The children were treated like herded animals.


At the Ueno Railway Station (Oct. 26, 1945), seeking shelter from the blustery winds.  Starving, they huddle together trying to sleep.
Hungry Children

Disease Despair Death

Like an influenza epidemic, deep exhaustion, declining morale and despair raged wildly across the land. It ushered in a period of hopelessness and delusional denial in the governing institutions, the kyodatsu.  Death paid homage to every community: people were dying everywhere, mostly of starvation.  Littering the streets, dead bodies were left to openly ooze their fetid morbidity into the environment of the living.  Uncontrolled suicides were the result of the kyodatsu condition. The sheer hopelessness of the situation; the cold despair so deeply etched into the public conscience; and the absence of residual optimism drove men to seek refuge in alcohol – that elixir of life.  It provided fleeting relief and deceptive optimism.  Abuse was rampant. Alcoholism ravaged the male adult population.  Five years after the war, the kasutori culture emerged. Kasutori shochu is an inferior grade alcoholic beverage distilled from the dregs of sake and other dubious materials.  Another cheap alcoholic concoction – bakudan – contained methyl alcohol.  Ingestion of small quantities is deleterious to the optic nerve causing blindness.  As little as 30 milliliters – two tablespoons – is potentially fatal.  About 400 died from methyl alcohol poisoning.  But anything to uplift the sagging spirits was a welcome relief and so a swelling tide of heroin and methamphetamine abuse crashed mercilessly against the shores of Japanese hopelessness. Social problems were compounded by the outbreak of a wide spectrum of infectious diseases. Of the diseases stalking the stunted bodies of the dispossessed were cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, smallpox, typhus fever, scarlet fever, diphtheria, meningitis, poliomyelitis and tuberculosis.  The latter killed 146,000 – more than all others combined. The crushing apathy to the prevailing conditions hatched usage of the phrase shikata ga nai to describe the resignation of the masses to the rampaging famine conditions.

Rampant Prostitution

The social fabric was further ripped asunder by the occupying forces. American troops had ravenous appetites for Japanese women.  Under the Allied occupation, the Japanese womenfolk suffered humiliating indignities. Wanton rapes of civilian women by Allied soldiers during the War were rationally documented.  During the three-month battle of Okinawa as many as 10,000 rapes of Okinawans by American servicemen were reported. To satisfy the prurient urges of the occupying forces, the Japanese authorities organized a brothel system for the benefit of the sex-starved servicemen.  Some women serviced up to sixty GIs per day.  The system supposedly insulated ordinary womenfolk against a raging current of rape.  When the Supreme Commander MacArthur shuttered the whorehouses less than a year later, more than 25% of the US troops were diagnosed with some form of sexually transmitted diseases.  In 1946, a local Japanese newspaper, Mainichi, published an excerpt from a 21-year old prostitute describing how she ended up in the Tokyo Ueno railway station. I slept there [in Ueno Station] and looked for work, but could not find anything, and there were three consecutive days when I went without eating. Then on the night of the third day a man I did not know gave me two rice balls. I devoured them. The following night he again brought me two rice balls. He then asked me to come to the park because he wanted to talk with me.  I followed him. That is when I sank into the despised profession of being a “woman of the dark”. In a radio interview another street-walker named Rakucho no Otoki lamented: Of course it’s bad to be a hooker.  But without relatives or jobs due to the war disaster, how are we supposed to live?……..There aren’t many of us who do this because we like it… …. but even so, when we try to go straight and find a job, people point their fingers at us and say we were hookers. . .. I’ve turned many of these girls straight and sent them back into society, but then. . .they all get picked on and chased out and end up back here under the tracks. . .. You can’t trust society. They despise us. Happily, some months following the interview she wrote her interviewer saying that she had abandoned the profession and earning a decent wage.

To Live, She Died

Corruption and Petty Theft

Overnight, a billowing crime wave swept the country.  Virtually all Japanese became petty thieves.  People stole anything and everything; they resold it to black market dealers. The dealers were the only ones who were prosperous in postwar Japan.  Although offensively expensive, the black market was the only place where consumer goods were obtainable. Government crackdowns picked up the thieves and black-market customers but thoughtfully ignored the dealers.  Officials in the Japanese government profited at the expense of its hunger-stricken citizenry. They treated the plight of the common people with frosty disdain and enriched themselves by plundering military stockpiles and public resources.  Police were just as crooked; they too stole and squirreled away things of value. Enlisted personnel including servicemen and pilots frequently raided the military stores. Venal politicians, military men, businessmen and gangs looted over seventy percent of army and navy supplies.  Billions of yens of construction material and machinery simply vanished.  No one was prosecuted; the criminal masterminds escaped unscathed.  Law enforcement authorities, however, picked up more than one million ordinary citizens annually; they were charged with petty economic crimes. But this was just the beginning of the end.   By losing Formosa (Taiwan), Korea and northern China, Japan had lost its captive markets and access to raw materials.  Industry sputtered to a halt and stocks of indispensable construction materials were exhausted.  Essential industries such as fisheries and food farms declined alarmingly. Whatever remained of Japan’s merchant fleet was grounded thus restricting the flow of oil and other industrial materials.

The distress inflicted was not totally attributable to the war. The Japanese economy was mortally wounded as much by the Allies as by the Japanese themselves. Fully one third of the annual Japanese budget was allocated to supporting the occupying troops. The deliberate strategy of the Allied Powers contributed majorly. Their ultimate objective was to emasculate Japan ensuring that it never rose to become an international menace.  The Far Eastern Commission (FEC) established an economic level that would remotely preclude the possibility of future Japanese aggression. To achieve this objective, the FEC systematically dismantled major Japanese industries.  So effective was the gutting, that postwar Japanese standard of living declined to the level seen in the 1930s.  Despite satisfying critical employment needs, any manufacturing plant with the potential of forming a nucleus for rearmament was restricted or disposed of. Adversely affected were machine tools, ball bearing plants, ammunitions plants, shipbuilding yards and thermal electric plants. Activities of chemical plants producing caustic soda, sulfuric acid, soda ash and chlorine were strictly controlled.

Acute shortages and spiraling inflation outlasted the war causing prices to surge ominously out of control.  The first year following the war, prices soared by 539% and did not improve in subsequent years. During the period of 1946-1950 rice prices increased more than twenty-one times the prewar levels.  Black market items were thirty-four times official prices.  Scarcity of essential materials expanded, inflation spiraled, industrial development languished, the underground market prospered and people died.  It all contributed handsomely to the kyodatsu condition.

How does one explain kyodatsu to a hungry child!

All graphic displays were extracted from online sources. Excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort. https://www.amazon.com/Eloquence-Effort-Beware-Least-Resistance/dp/0995344000