Hirata Tetsuo and John W. Dower: Japan’s Red Purge ... Lessons from a Saga of Suppression of Free Speech and Thought

Roundup: Talking About History

Introduction: John Dower

[John W. Dower, professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for nonfiction. He is a Japan Focus associate.]

History often taps us on the shoulder unexpectedly. War and occupation—and, more particularly, occupied Iraq vis-a-vis occupied Japan a half-century ago— is a good example of this

In this case, the tap on the shoulder really began in 2002 as a crude, hubristic shove. In the propaganda campaign that preceded the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, officials in the Bush administration frequently evoked the example of Japan after World War Two, where the U.S.-led occupation proceeded smoothly and ended happily in a democratic and prosperous nation staunchly loyal to the United States. President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, NSC director Condoleezza Rice, and many others repeatedly evoked this reassuring analogy before the invasion, and before chaos consumed Iraq. Astonishingly, the president has continued to do so up to the present day—using the fifth anniversary of V-J Day in 2006 to resurrect all the by-now tattered and torn analogies to World War Two and its aftermath, and using the Washington visit of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in April 2007 to murmur the same incantation.

The deceptiveness (and tragedy) of this false analogy is a subject in itself. Japan in 1945 was a vastly different state and body politic than Iraq, and the America of today is likewise a very different state and society than it was all those many decades ago. Beyond this, the point has been made that even the relatively successful “occupation of Japan” was an anomaly, for there were really three U.S. occupations in post-World-War-Two East Asia: in Japan proper, in the isolated and militarized Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, and in the Republic of Korea. Cold War strategy dictated occupation policies, and varied conspicuously from place to place, with Okinawa and Korea receiving much harsher treatment.

The tap on the shoulder for Hirata Tetsuo, author of the essay that follows, came from Hollywood rather than the White House, but it fits this same picture. His treatment of “Japan’s Red Purge” reminds us that there were actually more than three occupations in Northeast Asia after 1945, for the occupation of Japan proper was itself a two-stage affair. The McCarthyist witch-hunts that savaged the United States had a notorious counterpart in occupied Japan, where early ideals of demilitarization and democratization were soon subjected to a “reverse course” preoccupation with reconstruction and remilitarization. The so-called Red purges involved firing of thousands of individuals in both the private and public sectors—focusing not only on the ranks of organized labor, but also progressive and leftwing critics of the Cold War and reverse course in educational circles and the mass media.

This graphic example of U.S.-style “democracy” in action has had a lasting legacy in Japan, albeit a somewhat ironic one. It fractured an already highly factionalized Left. It strengthened the foundations of what would turn out to be an enduring “one-and-one-half-party” democracy, dominated by slavishly pro-American conservatives. And it made a mockery of rule of law (just as U.S.-endorsed remilitarization under the clearly anti-military Constitution would continue to do to the present day).

The irony? Even with all this, Japan—like much of postwar and contemporary Europe—has maintained public support for political and ideological discourse across a classic Right-Left spectrum that accepts the seriousness and legitimacy of social democratic, socialist, and even communist perspectives. It is the United States where the purge of such “Red” heresies has been most thoroughgoing.

Japan's Red Purge By Hirata Tetsuo

[Hirata Tetsuo (1939~) is a historian who focuses on modern Japanese political history. He is the author of the book Reddo Paji no shiteki kyumei (Historical Investigation of the Red Purge).]

I recently caught the film Good Night and Good Luck, directed and co-written by George Clooney. The protagonist is the newscaster, Edward Murrow, who in the early 1950s enjoyed great popularity for bravely standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the instigator of the ‘Red witch-hunts.’

The ‘Red Scare’ in the US is often referred to as McCarthyism, after the name of its instigator, while the supposed ‘Reds’ were concentrated among ‘intellectuals’ such as film-industry people, writers and professors. ‘Hollywood’, which exemplified the American dream, was particularly targeted. Big-name actors, screenwriters, playwrights, and musicians were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where they were ruthlessly attacked.

McCarthyism in Hollywood has often been in the news in Japan. However, for some reason, there has been little talk here of the fury unleashed by a ‘Red Purge’ that occurred on an even greater scale than McCarthyism—one more systematic, authoritarian and insidious, and based on an even more heinous anti-communism. I refer to the ‘Red Purge’ that swept through Japan during that same era.

Following the practice of calling McCarthyism a ‘blot’ on American democracy, we can speak of the Japanese Red Purge as a ‘headwind’ (gyakufu) or backlash against postwar Japanese democracy. Even at the smallest of the range of estimates of its victims, they number no fewer than 27,000. Perhaps it is the sheer magnitude of the events that weighs heavily on people’s minds.

The Red Purge provides many lessons when it comes to observing the current situation of Japanese capitalism, which is characterized by corporate restructuring or downsizing (euphemisms for mass layoffs of workers), and the logic of market economics sweeping haughtily through the land and wreaking havoc with people’s lives. What we can learn from the Red Purge speaks to the hopes for Japan’s future....

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