Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 30 

Australia and the post-war occupation of Japan

Author: Dr Jeffrey Grey

{1} The involvement of Australian and other Commonwealth service personnel in the post-war occupation of Japan remains one of the least well known aspects of the Australia-Japan relationship. It was in many ways the culmination of half a century of suspicion, fear and mistrust of Japan on the part of many, perhaps most Australians, and at the same time marked the first serious exposure to Japan and the Japanese for the thousands of men, and a much lesser number of women, involved. For the Japanese, the occupation was a national humiliation, the unavoidable symbol of their total defeat and the destruction of the pre-existing order. For the conquered, of course, the stamp of the conqueror was overwhelmingly American, and laid the groundwork both for modern Japanese society and the current political system and the modern American-Japanese relationship. If the fact and extent of Commonwealth involvement has been lost to sight subsequently, this is little more than a reflection of the reality at the time.

{2} Put in such terms, the Commonwealth part in the occupation of Japan might seem of little moment, an early reprise of a familiar theme which sees us playing bit parts in the international chorus line in support, this time, of an American lead. But this is neither fair, nor true, at least on this occasion. The Americans might notice us little in their literature of occupation (they are notoriously bad at remembering those who fought alongside them), but we should not measure the import of our efforts by the recognition accorded them by others for whom they were not central. As Gavin Long, Australia's gifted official historian of the Second World War noted once, the smaller partners in a great power war should not rely on their 'great and powerful friends' to tell their stories, if they want them told.

{3} For Australians on occupation duty in Japan, those stories varied enormously; occupation soldiers could be men who had fought in the Pacific War, or young soldiers of the Interim Army or the new Australian Regular Army for whom Haramura was a more interesting posting than Holsworthy, or soldiers serving in Korea after war broke out there and for whom Japan was a rest and training area, in a sense separate from the occupation while still formally part of it. To illustrate the point, let me intrude a personal note at this stage. My maternal grandfather commanded the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) Signals Regiment from early 1947 until he was evacuated on medical grounds in 1952, having served as chief signals officer of BCOF and overseen the transformation of the signals unit to support the heavy ground combat commitment in Korea which was by then two years old. I have somewhere a photograph of him standing on a nameless railway siding somewhere in the BCOF area of responsibility in southern Honshu, surrounded by a crowd of laughing Japanese, mostly women and children; he himself has a grin on his face. What they are all laughing at is now anybody's guess. My grandfather was ambivalent about the Japanese; he had been through the Pacific War, principally in New Guinea, men he had known in the small pre-war regular army had suffered more than he had at Japanese hands, especially those who had been members of the ill-fated 8th Division, and his eldest son had taken part in the Borneo campaign in 1945, and had stories of his own. But he enjoyed Japan, I think almost despite himself. Initially it was probably the pleasure of the victor who had taken, in the words of the American General Robert L. Eichelberger, 'the jungle road to Tokyo'. Over time his attitude softened, although at heart I think the suspicions fostered by his wartime experiences never entirely disappeared, and this was probably very typical of his generation.

{4} His younger son, a freshly minted regular subaltern from RMC Duntroon, spent a year as ADC to the Commander-in-Chief of BCOF, the redoubtable 'Red Robbie', Lieutenant General H.C.H. Robertson, and remembers it as an extraordinary learning experience ('Robbie' thought so too, and noted on his annual report that he had selected Lieutenant Greville in order to broaden his views through service with himself, and that he thought that the young officer 'had benefited accordingly'). Somewhere else I have a photograph of my father, another recently graduated regular subaltern, fresh from Korea where he was a very young platoon commander in an infantry battalion, sitting in a geisha house in a kimono on leave, attempting to play a bamboo flute; I still have a book he bought there on leave of beautiful 19th century Japanese wood block prints, and I recall from my childhood as well a case of old 78 rpm shellac recordings of a Japanese chanteuse whose warblings doubtless reverberated around a bunker burrowed into the side of the battalion's positions on the Jamestown line, and which for some reason came home with him. His experiences, though different from my grandfather's, were no less particular in the way they remain in my memory.

{5} Varieties of experience, engendering a variety of responses. My purpose here this morning is to suggest ways in which we might regularise and formalise the records of those experiences, of the time that my grandfather, uncles and father spent in Japan across a six year span as part of the occupation force along with some thousands of other Australians. But that experience was shared as well with thousands of Britons, Indians and New Zealanders, and if we are going to talk seriously about the occupation and its documentation then we must understand it in its Commonwealth context, for to do otherwise makes a nonsense of the whole.

{6} The Australian role in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force was central, simply because we largely ran the show. This was not accidental. By the end of the Second World War the activist Minister of External Affairs, H. V. Evatt, supported by his prime minister, Ben Chifley, had formulated the view that the leading Commonwealth nation in a particular region should represent the Commonwealth and Empire as a whole in that region: Britain would obviously assume that role in Europe (although Evatt's behaviour at the Moscow Conference in late 1945 might have confused the casual observer on this point), but in the Pacific this role was to be assumed by Australia. As Chris Waters has shown in his study of Anglo-Australian foreign relations after 1945 (The empire fractures: Anglo-Australian conflict in the 1940s, 1995), the fact that several dominions shared Labor administrations at the same time as Atlee's Labour Party came to office in the 1945 election in Britain did not ensure a close commonality of purpose or interest, and the arrangements for the administration and command of BCOF were a perfect case in point. The Australian government initially sought a clear and unambiguous independent role in the occupation, under MacArthur's direction, which would in fact have proven disastrous if achieved because of the relatively tiny commitment which the Australian government was willing and able to make in the context of immediate postwar demobilisation. The British recognised that real influence lay in the willingness and capacity to field a large force, that this could only be accomplished through a combined effort, and gave way to Australian insistence that the leading role in the force should be theirs. The pressures on manpower and establishments undoubtedly played a part as well; if Australia was to secure the command and a leading role in the force it, and not the hard-pressed British forces, would have to furnish the necessary headquarters and lines of communications units which are always more debilitating of resources than the simple provision of line units. And so it proved.

{7} The administrative and command structures dictated the way in which the records of the Commonwealth occupation would be disposed of. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Australia (JCOSA) had oversight of the policy formulation for BCOF, and their records are held in Melbourne and Canberra. The office of commander-in-chief was held by Australian lieutenant generals - Northcott, Robertson and Bridgeford - and the records which they generated through their headquarters likewise are held here in Canberra. BCOF itself was an unusual and successful example of an integrated multinational force, with various lines of communication units being organised on a Commonwealth, and not mono-national, basis. Some of these records are here, but others are in the United Kingdom, at the Public Record Office at Kew, outside London. The records generated by the individual formations - the British Indian Division (BRINDIV), the 34th Australian Infantry Brigade, the New Zealand Brigade, the Australian, New Zealand, British and Indian air force squadrons and the naval shore parties, are all held by their respective national archival organisations together with the documents covering policy formulation within national governments as this affected these forces. The records vary in quality and quantity, but a knowledge of all of them is essential to an understanding of the British Commonwealth exercise of occupation in Japan.

{8} The institutional and organisational aspects of the occupation are important to an appreciation of the 'big picture' issues; equally important is the acquisition of a sense of what the occupation meant for those who were involved. We are less well served here. At the very highest level, that of the successive commanders-in-chief and other high officials, some work has been done but it is by no means all-encompassing: my own study of Robertson devoted almost half the book to his period as C-in-C, [1] but there is no equivalent study of Northcott, initial and, as it transpired, interim C-in-C in 1945-46, and there are no studies of the significant non-Australian military and civilian officials such as Lieutenant General Sir Charles Gairdner, the British prime minister's personal representative to MacArthur's headquarters, Major General 'Punch' Cowan, GOC of BRINDIV, or Sir Alvary Gascoigne, who became the first postwar British ambassador to Japan but who was a critical figure in the early years of the occupation while a civilian official of somewhat indeterminate status. Perhaps this reflects the state of public holdings of private papers; I reconstructed Robertson's papers to the extent that this was possible while writing his biography, and Northcott's papers are in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Gairdner appears not to have maintained his excellent wartime diaries of 1942-45 into the postwar years, or if they exist they are not yet in public collections. Other, less senior officers such as Major General R. N. L. Hopkins, who commanded the Australian brigade between 1946-48, appear to have left little of consequence [2]. Macmahon Ball, Commonwealth representative on the Allied Council for Japan, left excellent diaries, however, and these have been carefully and skilfully edited by Alan Rix; their quality serves to emphasise the relative paucity of other material from Commonwealth officials at this level [3].

If the senior figures have not done much for posterity, we are slightly better served by their subordinates. Several Australians have written short memoirs of their time in Japan, published either as articles in magazines or even as short monographs; the latter are entirely self-published, which says something perhaps about the level of interest in the subject here. The perspective here is rather different from that provided by the official records or the reminiscences of senior officers, and there is a strong sense imparted by some of them of the occupation as foreign adventure [4]. Of perhaps greater significance for our purposes here today, it is very clear that these accounts are based on diaries, letters and quite extensive personal photograph collections, all still in their owner's hands. I suspect that there is a great deal of this sort of material out in the community, and one outcome of this research project could, and in my opinion should, be to appeal for this material to be placed in the public domain, or at the least registered and catalogued. There will inevitably be duplication, but the richness of possibilities was suggested by a small exhibition on BCOF mounted in the display area of the State War Memorial in Sydney in 1995. The BCOF Association is strong and fairly active, and might be used to reach former members of the force and alert them to this project and its anticipated outcomes.

{9} The published literature overall is slight, however, although this is being rectified to some extent by the work of postgraduate research students which, one hopes, will result in published outcomes. There are no official histories of the occupation per se, excepting the volume in the Indian official series which is unreliable (the series and the volume both) [5]. Neither the British nor Americans produced volumes on the occupation of Japan in their Second World War official histories, although both produced volumes dealing with the occupation of Germany and Italy, while the British series included a volume on military administration in the Far East between 1943-46 which looked at the military government tasks in British colonial territories as they were liberated from Japanese rule. The massive series published over four decades by the United States Army, the so-called 'Green Books', was originally to include a volume on the Army's role in the occupation of Japan to match those dealing with the European theatre, but the decision was taken in the early 1950s not to proceed with the book, ironically on the grounds that the occupation was attracting so much attention from American social scientists that the task of documenting its course could safely be left to others in a fiscal climate which dictated that the original scheme for the series be cut back. There was never any suggestion that either the Australian or New Zealand series would cover the occupation, despite the significant force contributions which each country made.

{10} The official histories of the Korean War, recently completed with the publication of the second New Zealand volume last year, touch on the occupation, but sparingly. Australia's ability to react so quickly to the UN request for troops in Korea came directly from the fact that an Australian battalion was still based in Japan, albeit under strength and beginning to pack up and go home. Thus Robert O'Neill discusses the BCOF background to the forces which operated in Korea, but quickly moves to analysis of Australian decision-making in the crisis of June 1950. Tony Farrar-Hockley and Ian McGibbon make scattered references to the occupation in the first volumes of the British and New Zealand histories respectively, although Farrar-Hockley does include some discussion of the non-operational command arrangements for the forces in Korea, which were erected on existing BCOF structures. My own work on the Commonwealth armies in Korea likewise examined the ways in which the existing administrative and logistic structures were utilised for operational as opposed to occupation service, but its focus, too, was on the war [6].

{11} Other secondary work, even where its subject is the occupation proper, tends to be spotty. Roger Buckley's Occupation diplomacy purports to be a study of Britain, the US and Japan between 1945 and 1952, but most of the coverage stops in 1947-48, when Britain withdrew its force contributions from Japan for service elsewhere in Asia. The book does at least attempt to survey British policy towards reform, war crimes trials and the peace treaty, as well as BCOF. More disappointing is Peter Bates' study of BCOF [7]. Written with reasonable access to the relevant official records by a participant, it fails to satisfy perhaps because it never really gets below the level of the documents to examine what the experience of occupation meant for those who took part [8]. Ian Nish, now retired from the London School of Economics but as active as ever in the study of Japan and its interaction with the west, has overseen a steady stream of published papers from the long-running seminar he convenes at the Suntory-Toyota Centre [9], a process reinforced by one of his former students, Ann Trotter, who has published a fine monograph on New Zealand's participation in the occupation, which is a model of its kind [10]. Some Australian graduate students, several of them here today, are dealing with particular aspects of the occupation - land reform, the experience of occupation within BCOF, Australian involvement in the war crimes trials, the changing status of Japanese women under the occupation regime - but there appears to be little activity in this area elsewhere in the Commonwealth universities.

{12} The focus of this paper, like the work which it has mentioned, has been entirely concerned with the occupation from the perspective of the occupiers. What of the occupied? Here I am a prisoner of monolingualism, the great restricter of scholarly work and opportunity in fields such as this, at least in Australia. Something of the possibilities which might arise from collaborative work is suggested by the efforts of the historian in the Kure Municipal Office, who has produced several very thick volumes on the history of his city in the postwar era, which discuss the occupation experience at great length, together with an extensively illustrated volume sub-titled 'Kure as seen by BCOF troops'. Bringing together photographs from public collections and individual veterans from across the Commonwealth, supplemented by pictures from local sources, it provides a panoramic visual record of the city and its occupiers.

{13} In summary then, the documentary sources for the history of the occupation are rich, diverse, and widely scattered. The visual record likewise has much to offer and has been barely touched. The published accounts run from personal reminiscences of varying quality and interest through to scholarly analyses of policy and practice. The gaps are instructive. There are no guides to sources, no published bibliographies or analyses of relevant holdings. Clearly there is related work being undertaken in Japan, but lack of contact and awareness appears to have limited any attempts at collaborative, comparative or cross-cultural undertakings in this area.

{14} How can we relate all this to the projected research database, and in what directions might it head? The cataloguing of records in the major government archives in Australia, Britain and New Zealand should be a priority task. The Indian government holds an equivocal attitude to archival access, and military materials generated since independence are generally still classified. Breaking this down will take time. An appeal should be launched among the BCOF veteran community, firstly but not only in Australia, to acquire materials to enable us to document the personal experience of occupation from the viewpoint of the occupiers. The Kure project suggests that there is interest in the subject in Japan, at least in those areas in which the Commonwealth force was active, and further links here should be explored; perhaps the project should look at translating significant documents or relevant sections of published works to assist non-Japanese historians to utilise the perspective of the occupied in their work. Finally, in a separate but clearly related endeavour, the Australian War Memorial might rectify a long-standing shortcoming in its exhibition policies and dedicate a gallery to the Australian involvement in the occupation. I recall arguing strenuously for this in 1986, on the 40th anniversary of BCOF's arrival, and receiving the usual polite explanations about funding constraints. I renewed the suggestion in advance of the 50th anniversary last year. Are there any takers for 2006?

© Dr Jeffrey Grey

Dr Jeffrey Grey is Associate Professor in the Department of History, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy


1. Jeffrey Grey, Australian brass: The career of Lieutenant General Sir Horace Robertson, Melbourne, 1992.

2. R. N. L. Hopkins, ‘History of the Australian occupation in Japan’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, XL (2), 1954.

3. Alan Rix, ed., Intermittent diplomat: The Japan and Batavia diaries of W. Macmahon Ball, Melbourne, 1988.

4. For example, Ian Wood, On patrol with the BCOF in Japan, Mudgeeraba, n. d.; Philip M. Green, Memories of occupied Japan, Blackheath, 1987; Arthur John, Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, Cheltenham, 1987; F. J. C. Piggot, ‘Occupying Japan’, Army Quarterly, April 1947.

5. Rajendra Singh, Postwar occupation forces: Japan and south-east Asia, Kanpur, 1958.

6. Robert O’Neill, Australia and the Korean War, Canberra, 1981; Anthony Farr-Hockley, The British part in the Korean War, 2 vols, London, 1990 and 1995; Ian McGibbon, New Zealand and the Korean War, 2 vols, Wellington, 1992 and 1996; Jeffrey Grey, The Commonwealth armies and the Korean War, Manchester, 1988

7. Roger Buckley, Occupation diplomacy: Britain, the United States and Japan 1945-1952, Cambridge, 1992

8. Peter Bates, Japan and the British Commonwealth Occupation Force 1946-1952, London, 1993

9. Ian Nish ed., The British Commonwealth and the occupation of Japan, International Studies (IS) 83/78; Aspects of the allied occupation of Japan, IS 86/131; The occupation of Japan 1945-52, IS 91/2224; The British Commonwealth and its contribution to the occupation of Japan, 1945-48, IS 91/227; Aspects of the allied occupation of Japan, Part II, IS 91/229; Britain, the United States and Japan’s return to normal, 1951-1972, IS 93/258

10. Ann Trotter, New Zealand and Japan: the occupation and peace treaty, London, 1990