Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 2: “Kyodatsu” and the Desperate Times of Post-War Japan

homeless in postwar japan
Hundreds of Japanese jam the Ueno railway station in Northeast Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 1945, these windy autumn nights seeking shelter. Homeless, the old and the young huddle together on thin matting and old newspapers, and try to sleep. Many are starving. Police estimate there are two of three deaths nightly from starvation. (AP Photo)

At the end of World War II, in 1945, there were 9 million Japanese left homeless, primarily due to the devastation wrought by B-29s and their bombing raids for nearly a year.

With 80% of all ships destroyed, 33% of all industrial machine tools destroyed, 25% of all trains and cars destroyed, and with the allied-ruled governing body, led by General Douglas MacArthur, imposing a rule of law that prioritized dispersing of Japanese assets to allied victors, the economy was in ruins.

Hunger and malnutrition were the norm, as Japanese managed to live off of 550 to 1,100 calories per day, about 25 to 50% the minimum required to maintain health.

The years after the end of the war was a desperate time for Japanese. Historian John Dower referred to this post-war malaise in his book, Embracing Defeat, as kyodatsu, a Japanese word for the collective depression that fell on the country. After all, when the Emperor got on the radio on August 15, 1945 to announce that the war had ended, they had not only heard the voice of a divine being for the first time, after years of being told of the need to fight to the end, they were suddenly told to stop their resistance, and to continue to live and work towards Japan’s recovery.

The immediate meaning of ‘liberation’ for most Japanese was not political but psychological. Surrender – and, by association, the Allied victory, the American army of occupation itself – liberated them from death. Month after month, they had prepared for the worst; then, abruptly, the tension was broken. In an almost literal sense, they were given back their lives. Shock bordering on stupefaction was a normal response to the emperor’s announcement, usually followed quickly by an overwhelming sense of relief. But that sense of relief all too often proved ephemeral.

Malnutrition poster 1946_Dower

From John Dower’s Embracing Defeat.

On top of all that, the post-war period saw the return of countrymen and women who served in other parts of Asia in the military or as civilians working in Japanese organizations. From October 1, 1945 to December 31, 1946, about 5.1 million repatriated back to Japan, adding to the misery of Japan that already had too few jobs and too little food for those already in the country.

An early first-hand account was written by AP journalist, Russell Brines, in his book, MacArthur’s Japan, who described a Japan unrecognizable today. Here’s how he described the repatriation of Japanese soldiers and civilians from abroad.

Men, women and children – tired and dirty – plodded off the ship, wound past the American sentry and pushed up a hill toward a weather beaten building. They stood like cattle while doctors deloused them, then walked to the railroad station. As they waited for trains, gloomy and apprehensive, commuters eyed them stiffly before hurrying away. Only relatives gave them a smile or a soft word. They soon learned the rest of Japan was too busy – or just unconcerned – to give them much thought to the cycle of fate that had deposited them like rubbish on their nation’s doorstep.

Jammed, filthy trains took them to all parts of the homeland. Some had been away as long as eight years. They returned to blowsy cities, tiny villages or drab farms; to the narrow, contained life they had left for conquest. Many found stony neighbors, silently condemning them for sharing in defeat or for failing to die, as custom decreed. Others encountered resentment from people miserly over food and patched clothing. Some located only ashes where their homes had been and only vagueness when they searched for missing relatives.

The sifting of lives continues, day by day, behind paper-curtained little homes. Men returned to find their “widows” remarried. Some wives had become streetwalkers, through necessity or restlessness. Women had lost some of their obedience and most of their patience. The fabric of prearranged, loveless marriages was too weak in many cases to survive long separation and irritable reconciliation. For the first time, women became complainants in divorce suits; including one whose husband brought back a native wife and two children from Borneo.

Jobs were scarce, money useless and the new life confusing. Those who returned swaggering, found no one willing to cringe before them, as had subject peoples. Those who came back ashamed and penitent found no pity. Only the opportunists profited, the men who had kept their eyes open to all the sharp practices they saw abroad.