Japan: Postwar Period and Its Impact on the Nation’s Economy


By Mark J. RavinaUniversity of Texas at Austin

When did postwar Japan begin? And when did it end? The question is tricky enough that historians have two answers. We talk about a ‘short postwar’ and a ‘long postwar’. How did Japan go from being a war-ravaged, impoverished country with four governments in three years to a country of astonishing continuities? How was Japan’s economic growth formed?

An image of Tokyo streets in 1946.
Post WWII, Japan was a shattered nation dependent on US food aid for survival. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Short Postwar

‘Short postwar’—or an ‘early postwar’—started in 1945: either August 1945, with the announcement of surrender, or September 1945, with the surrender itself.

An image of Sogawa, Japan in 1948
Short postwar lasted from 1945 to 1950s. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

We could mark the end of that short postwar period with the end of the US occupation in April 1952; or perhaps a little later, with the entry of Japan as a sovereign power into international organizations such as the World Trade Organization in 1955 and the United Nations in 1956. 

That short postwar period was a time of tumultuous change. It marked the transformation of Japan from a broken, war-ravaged nation into a stable democracy with a growing economy.

Long Postwar of Japan

But historians also speak of a ‘long postwar’ that began in the 1950s and lasted until the 1990s. That period was defined by tremendous continuity in politics and economics.

From 1955 until 1993, Japan was ruled by a single political party—a center-right coalition called the Liberal Democratic Party. Thirty-eight years of uninterrupted, one-party rule is remarkable for any country with free, fair, and regular elections.

In Japan, political stability was rooted in economic continuity; or, more precisely, almost four decades of steady economic growth. The Japanese economic miracle ended only in the 1990s, with the bursting of an asset bubble that also ended the LDP’s long political reign. And throughout that period, Japan was a US ally with US military bases in Japan.

Rise of Japanese Empire 2.0

Historians refer to the political and economic structures that engendered that stability as the ‘1955 System’. But we less formally describe that 1955 to 1990 period as the rise of the Japanese Empire 2.0. Unlike Japan’s empire in the early 20th century, this second empire was non-military. 

Japan did not have an army. But the postwar goal of an economic empire, Empire 2.0, tapped into some of the same energies and structures as the Empire 1.0—national pride and national planning. The origins of the 1955 system are known as the transition between that ‘short postwar’ and the ‘long postwar’.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern JapanWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Economic Despair and Judge Yamaguchi Yoshitada

In 1945, Japan was a shattered nation dependent on US food aid for survival. Homelessness, hunger, illness, and despair were endemic. Even before the surrender, factories reported critical labor shortages due to malnutrition. Urban schoolchildren were, on average, an inch shorter than their counterparts 10 years earlier. The United States supplied emergency food aid, but official rations were barely 1000 calories a day. Staying alive meant buying on the black market, foraging, or stealing.

Amidst that despair, in 1947, Japan was gripped by the story of Judge Yamaguchi Yoshitada, who presided over a municipal court. Yamaguchi found himself passing judgment on petty economic crimes committed by desperate, indigent men and women. 

He rarely saw black-market profiteers, who could, of course, bribe the police. A man of a good conscience, he was tortured by that injustice, and he refused to eat anything above official rations. He died of starvation in October 1947.

Image of an alley in Tokyo in 1970
Long postwar that lasted from the 1950s until the 1990s, was the time of Japan’s economic growth. (Image: Szilas/Public domain)

Japan’s Economic Growth During the Long Postwar

Ten years later, the story of Judge Yamaguchi would seem like something from a different world. Endemic hunger was a painful memory—but only a memory. Total calories by the early 1950s had doubled from a few years earlier to about 2000 a day; similar to Japan in the 21st century, although the diet was arguably healthier in 1950, with less saturated animal fat, and more vegetables and complex carbohydrates. 

Food was abundant enough that Japanese Public Radio started a cooking show. A cooking show was no longer a cruel joke. You could actually shop for ingredients rather than scavenge.

And chocolate was no longer something American soldiers tossed from jeeps to hungry children. You could buy Japanese-made chocolates at a shopping center, maybe an underground center at a train station. Those massive underground malls are now a signature feature of Japan.

Language Transformation along with the Economic Transformation

By the mid-1950s, people began to talk openly—evenly proudly—of consumer desires. At first, it was small electric appliances: a vacuum cleaner or an electric rice cooker. Then, Japanese consumers began to talk about ‘three treasures’: a television, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. These were more expensive items. 

The phrase ‘three treasures’ was a wry reference to the imperial house, as the imperial line has three sacred regalia: a sword, a mirror, and a curved jewel, all supposedly handed down from the ancient gods to the imperial house as emblems of the right to rule. 

Another new phrase was a fusion of Japanese and English: mai-homu shugi, or ‘my home-ism’ (shugi means ‘ism’.) The idea was that focusing on a nice home was not a vice. Instead, it was a positive ideology.

Common Questions about Postwar Period and Its Impact on Japan’s Economic Growth

Q: When did postwar Japan begin and end?

When postwar Japan began and when it ended is a very complex question. Historians have therefore given two answers to this question. They have considered two periods of long postwar and short postwar for the postwar Japan, each began and ended at a certain time.

Q: How long did the long period of postwar Japan take?

Postwar Japan is described throughout two long and short periods. The long period began in the 1950s and lasted until the 1990s. During this period, the government was run fairly by the Liberal Democratic Party, and the country witnessed four decades of economic growth.

Q: How was the economy before postwar Japan?

Before Japan’s economic growth during the postwar period, the country was completely shattered and depended on US food aid to survive. People suffered from hunger, despair, disease, and homelessness. Children did not grow well, factories faced labor shortages, and each person’s diet barely reached 1000 calories a day.

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