Japan During the Second Food Regime (19471973)

The loss of its colonies meant for Japan also the loss of its principal sources of food. During the first two years of occupation (1945-1952), this meant that Japan was not able to provide its population with the adequate quantity of food needed. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Powers Commander (SCAP), who led the Allied occupation of Japan, arrived in Tokyo on August 30, 1945, and found himself in charge of a country that was dying of starvation. At the time, it was common to use the expression takenoko no seikatsu (literally ‘bamboo-shoot existence’) to describe the situation of deprivation the Japanese people were experiencing. As the edible bamboo shoot can be peeled off in layers, so too were the city people obliged to deprive themselves of clothes and other possessions in order to buy food.[1] One of the first measures taken by MacArthur was to prohibit Allied personnel from eating scarce Japanese food, but mass starvation was not considered a priority problem by the US government.[2]

According to Washington, the first aim of the occupation policy was to destroy all vestiges of Japan’s military, economic, and political structure. As the Basic Directive for Post-Surrender Military Government in Japan Proper (JCS 1380/15) stated, ‘You [SCAP] will not assume any responsibility for the economic rehabilitation of Japan or the strengthening of the Japanese economy’, and the Japanese alone were made responsible for avoiding ‘acute economic distress’.[3] However, the Japanese people were to rely on black markets to survive and the shortage of food sparked demonstrations throughout 1946 for the free delivery of rice and other food.[4] On May 19 of that year, over

250,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to demand food. The protest became known as Food May Day (shokuryo mede). The SCAP was alarmed by the protest but it was fully aware of the gravity of the situation and desperately lobbied Washington for further assistance.[5] Former American President Herbert Hoover, who led the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) Mission that arrived in Japan in early May 1946, also attested to the precarious situation of Japan’s food supply and declared that without food imports, Japan would fall to a level comparable to the ‘Buchenwald and Belsen concentration camps’.[6] As a result of the UNRRA report and the SCAP fears, Washington agreed to dispatch several ships of rice and wheat to Japan.

However, it was only in 1947 that the American approach changed and the mechanisms of the second food regime were implemented in Japan. It was the emergence of the Cold War, around 1947, which led to a significant change in the international arena, and also influenced the American occupation strategy in the archipelago. The USA sought to bring Japan into the anti-Soviet line of defence in Asia and gradually abandoned the policy of constraining the Japanese economy. At the start of the US fiscal year (July 1946-June 1947), the USA established the Government and Relief in Occupied Areas (GARIOA) programme, in order to provide food aid to Japan and Germany. A little later, at the beginning of the 1949 US fiscal year (July 1948-June 1949), the USA also established the Economic Rehabilitation in Occupied Areas (EROA) programme to provide food, raw materials, and machinery. The provision of official US aid to Japan continued until the end of June 1951.[7] Once the occupation ended, the USA was worried about the possibility of an eventual decrease in Japan’s imports of agricultural products. Thus, US trade representatives insisted that Japan liberalize its agricultural market. In Japan as well, business organizations, led by Keidanren (the Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations), were applying pressure on the government to liberalize agriculture imports in order to expand their export market for manufactured goods and gain access to cheap raw materials (including foodstuffs).[8] The Japanese government decided to agree to the US proposals and on March 8, 1954 signed the USA-Japan Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement, under Section 550 of the Mutual Security Act of 1951.[9] This agreement provided for the sale of American surplus wheat, valued at $50 million. But there was another aspect that encouraged Japan to accept the treaty, which was the possibility to pay for the food provisions in yen rather than in dollars. This helped Japan to use its stocks of foreign currency (mainly dollars) for the supply of other raw materials it needed.[10] Besides, this sum was not paid directly to the US Treasury but was used to finance American forces stationed in Japan.[11]

It should be noted that after 1945 Japan’s government placed priority on increasing agricultural production in order to produce enough food to nourish a starving population, and the share of the national budget for agriculture grew constantly. However, beginning in 1954, when the wheat agreement was signed, the portion of the national budget allotted to agriculture began to decrease, despite the fact that national food production was still insufficient to meet domestic demand.[12] This explains the Japanese government’s choice to abandon its policy of encouraging national food production and to promote food importations.

On July 7, 1954, the USA promulgated the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, also known as Public Law 480 or PL480. As for the MSA wheat agreement with Japan, PL480 allowed the recipient countries of American food aid to pay for agricultural products in local currency, giving them the opportunity to preserve their reserves of dollars. On the other hand, the USA would have used the currency received for economic or military investments in that country.

Japan signed two agreements with the USA under the PL480. The first was signed on May 31, 1955, and provided for sales of wheat and barley, as well as tobacco and cotton, valued at $85 million. The second was signed on February 10, 1956, and provided agricultural commodities worth $65.8 million.[13] The aim of these agreements was twofold: on the one hand, it enabled the USA to dispose of its agricultural surpluses and Japan to buy the food needed at a convenient price; on the other hand, the agreements strengthened the military alliance between the two countries, allowing the USA to build up military infrastructure at the US bases in Japan and allowing Japan to rebuild its arms industry. This was possible because, as we have seen, these agreements were signed under the condition of Section 550 of MSA and PL480, giving Japan the opportunity to pay for food imports in yen, thereby retaining its foreign exchange reserves for financing its industries. On the other hand, the USA used the yen payments to acquire assets in Japan and invest in its military industry. In particular, the agreements of 1955 and 1956 established that the USA would have used 20% and 49% of the yen received, respectively, ‘to procure military equipment, material, facilities and services for the common defense’. Many Japanese firms benefitted from these investments: Komatsu used the funds for the production of bulldozers; Mitsubishi and Kawasaki produced under license the F-86 and the T-33, Japan’s first post-war military aircraft.[14]

A portion of the yen funds was spent on promoting the sale of US agricultural products. An example of these are the School Lunch Act (Gakko kyushoku ho), which provided Japanese children with bread, milk, and meat, and the ‘kitchen cars’ programme, which showed Japanese housewives how to use these products with new recipes.[15] Between 1954 and 1964, Japan received $445 million in PL480 food aid and imported $10.8 billion of food from conventional trading channels.[16] As such, Japan became the number one importer of US food and its food self-sufficiency rate started to decline steadily.

  • [1] Dower, Embracing Defeat, 93.
  • [2] For a detailed analysis of SCAP’s food measures, see: Fuchs, ‘Feeding the Japanese’, 26-47.
  • [3] Basic Initial Post-Surrender Directive to Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers for theOccupation and Control of Japan (JCS11380/14), Part II, A. Economic. http://www.ndl.go.jp/constitution/e/shiryo/01/036/036tx.html.
  • [4] 43See: Cwiertka, ‘Beyond Black Market’, 89—107.
  • [5] Takemae, The Allied Occupation ofJapan, 409.
  • [6] ‘Feed Japan or Face Disorder: Hoover Warns’. Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1946. http://arch.ives.chicagotribune.com/1946/05/07/page/1/article/feed-japan-or-face-disorder-hoover-war.
  • [7] Takagi, ‘From Recipient to Donor.’ International Finance 196 (1995): 6.
  • [8] Bernier, ‘The Japanese Peasantry’, 85.
  • [9] Full text available at: http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/treaty/pdfs/A-S38(3)-252.pdf.
  • [10] Kishi, Shoku to no no sengoshi, 90.
  • [11] Ohno, ‘Japanese Agriculture Today’.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Full texts available at: http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/treaty/pdfs/A-S38(3)-260.pdf; andhttp://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/treaty/pdfs/A-S38(3)-261_1.pdf.
  • [14] Samuels, Rich Nation Strong Army, 150.
  • [15] Kishi. Shoku to no no sengoshi, 27.
  • [16] Moen, ‘The Postwar Japanese Agricultural Debacle’, 35.
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