How the U.S. and Japan Became Allies Even After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

11 minute read

Relations between the U.S. and Japan 73 years ago were epoch-definingly bad: Monday marks the anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of Hiroshima; the anniversary of the Aug. 9, 1945, bombing of Nagasaki falls on Thursday. A week later, it was announced that Japan would surrender, four years after its attack on Pearl Harbor had catapulted the U.S. into World War II.

Today, however, things are very different. Eighty-four percent of Japanese people feel “close” to the U.S., according to the Japanese government’s annual Cabinet Office poll, and 87% of Americans say they have a favorable view of Japan, according to a Gallup poll. So how did the U.S. and Japan get from the situation in 1945 to the strong alliance they have today?

The process of reconciliation began as soon as the war ended, but it didn’t always go smoothly.

The first phase was the United States’ roughly seven-year occupation of Japan, which began following the surrender. When Japan got a new constitution, which took effect on May 3, 1947, its terms came largely courtesy of American influence, specifically that of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and his staff. For example, while the new constitution democratized the political structure of Japan, it also kept Emperor Hirohito as the nation’s symbolic leader, per MacArthur’s wishes. “Japan experts said if you dismantle the emperor system, there will be chaos,” explains Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The constitution also made a key determination about Japan’s military future: Article 9 included a two-part clause stating that “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and, to accomplish that goal, that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Though it was meant to keep the peace, the clause created an unequal power dynamic — the military force of the occupying power was growing while that of the occupied nation was stuck — and thus led to problems of its own.

“The U.S. could use its Japanese bases to support military action elsewhere in Asia, could bring into Japan any weapons it chose, including H-bombs, could even use its forces to aid the Japanese government in putting down internal disturbances,” TIME later reported. “These were bonds that left Japan precious little room for international maneuver and that chafed increasingly against dark memories of Hiroshima and the deep national pride of the Japanese people.”

And within a few years, as the Korean War broke out, the U.S. was looking for ways around the terms it had been so instrumental in establishing, as it pressed Japan to build up its own military (called “self-defense forces” to get around the constitutional prohibition) as a backstop against the North Korean side. Many Japanese people were uncomfortable, or worse, with this obvious violation of the constitution and what was seen as a movement away from peacefulness, which had quickly become part of the post-war national identity. But the shift was just one part of a larger motivation for the U.S. and Japan to get back on the same side: the Cold War and the global threat of communism.

The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, after the U.S. and Japan signed a security treaty for a “peace of reconciliation” in San Francisco in 1951. The agreement let the U.S. maintain military bases there, and a revision in 1960 said the U.S. would come to Japan’s defense in an attack. “After the Korean War, the U.S. had to rethink how it would deal with Asia, so in order to contain communism, the U.S. and Japan signed a peace treaty that says Japan is a sovereign country but agrees that the U.S. can stay and provide security,” explains Green.

TIME’s Jan. 25, 1960, cover story, which came out around the week that the U.S. and Japan signed the revised treaty (and which makes use of some national stereotypes from that era), focused on how Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi had played an important role in reconciling “Japan’s militarist, aggressive past and its democratic present.” (He was born to do it, TIME argued, reporting that the name Kishi, meaning “riverbank,” is used in a Japanese phrase that refers to “one who tries to keep a foot on both banks of the river.”) As the cover story detailed, not everyone was happy about the two nations’ growing closeness. But the forces behind the scenes — especially the economic forces — were stronger than any individual’s protests:

Prime Minister Kishi, 63, flew into Washington this week convinced that the logic of the world situation and the profit of Japan require his signature on the revision of the 1951 U.S.-Japanese Treaty. Not all his countrymen agree. In Tokyo 27,000 demonstrators battled police, and thousands of fanatical left-wing students made plain their feelings about the treaty by using the great doorway of the Japanese Diet for their own kind of public protest—a mass urination…

Kishi’s diehard opponents protest that the treaty revision commits Japan to support all U.S. moves in the Pacific and may therefore “attract the lightning” of a Communist H-bomb attack. There are U.S. reservations about the treaty as well; many Pentagon staff officers complain that it gives Japan what amounts to a veto over the movement of U.S. troops on the perimeter of the Asian mainland.

The treaty is to run for ten years, and its ten articles pledge that 1) both nations will take “action to counter the common danger” if the forces of either are attacked in Japan, though not elsewhere, 2) “prior consultation” will be held between the two before U.S. forces in Japan receive nuclear arms, 3) Japan is released from further contributions (now $30 million a year) for the support of U.S. troops in the islands. In Kishi’s words, the treaty will create an atmosphere of “mutual trust.” It inaugurates a “new era” of friendship with the U.S. and, most important, of independence for Japan.

Only 14 years ago such a treaty would have been unthinkable, and that it would be signed for Japan by Kishi, inconceivable. Then, Japan was a nation in ruins: a third of its factories had been leveled by U.S. bombers; eight of every ten ships in its merchant fleet lay at the bottom of the ocean; its exhausted population faced starvation…

Yet Japan, going into the 1960s, has risen phoenix-like from the ashes. The Japanese people are 25% better off than they were before the war, even though 20 million more of them are crowded into an area 52% smaller than their old territory. Japan’s industrial growth has soared to its highest rate ever, enough to double the national income every ten years. Its tiny farms (average size: 2½ acres) are so intensely cultivated that they have one of the world’s highest yields. Nearly every Japanese family owns a radio, one in every four, a TV set; more newspapers are sold per capita than in the U.S. The people of Japan are incomparably the best fed, clothed and housed in all Asia…

Japan did not lift itself by its own sandal straps. Since the war U.S. aid has averaged $178 million a year; a serious business recession was eased by the 1950 Korean war, which poured vast sums into the Japanese economy; war reparations in kind to Southeast Asia have kept factories humming; and the very high rate of capital investment is possible since Japan spends little on armaments. But major credit belongs to the Japanese themselves. In a typically Japanese swing from one extreme to another, they shook off the apathy of defeat, and with skill, hard work and enthusiasm began rebuilding at home and recapturing markets abroad.

In contrast, Kishi could see, the U.S. was supplying economic aid and buying more Japanese goods than any other single country — particularly the fine-quality consumer items that are too expensive for the rest of Asia. The U.S., moreover, is the guarantor of Japan’s security in the shadow of the two Red giants of China and the Soviet Union. Moved by pragmatism, not pro-Americanism, Kishi realizes that his nation’s best and most vital interests are served by close cooperation with the U.S. both in trade and defense.

That said, U.S.-Japan relations would be tested again, during the protectionist movement of the ’70s and ’80s.

Case in point: the car industry. “After two oil crises in the ’70s [and] Vietnam, which cost the U.S. a great deal, the [American] economy wasn’t as strong as it once was. Smaller, cheaper, fuel-efficient Japanese cars were a better option,” says Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance. With this shift in consumer preferences, Japan grew wealthier. By the 1980s, it had become the second largest economy. But, as the Japanese grew wealthier, Americans blamed them for the loss of American jobs, especially in the auto and textile industries; in extreme cases, they reacted by destroying Japanese cars and attacking Asian-Americans. Some Americans thought the Japanese were “cheating” somehow and questioned whether this richer Japan was “not pulling its weight in defense spending,” says Smith.

“During the trade friction in the ’80s, there was a lot of mistrust between the U.S. and Japan, and a lot of people thought the reconciliation process would fall apart because we were becoming economic adversaries,” says Green. “The reason the reconciliation process didn’t break down was in part because, in 1985, the U.S. and the world pressured Japan to bring up the value of the yen. Exports were too cheap, not fair. [After the shift] it cost almost twice as much to buy Japanese goods that were exported, and it actually incentivized Japan to invest in factories in the U.S. and employ Americans”

The economic balance thus resettled. With the Cold War still top-of-mind for many people around the world — and Japan positioning itself as a bulwark against the Soviets — the reconciliation process proceeded once more.

In the years since, anniversaries have several times provided occasions to observe the extent of that reconciliation, and where gaps remain. For example, on the 50th anniversary, American veterans’ groups protested plans for a Smithsonian exhibition that explained the destruction of the atomic bombings and its effect on Japanese victims, arguing it made Americans look like aggressors. Others felt that the perspective of U.S. veterans groups was consistently heard more than the perspective of that of the survivors of the atomic bombings. “Aware of lingering bitterness over their nation’s role in World War II, Japanese are disappointed but not surprised that U.S. veterans’ groups have forced the downscaling of a controversial exhibition commemorating the end of the conflict,” TIME reported back then, quoting Hiroshima survivor Koshiro Kondo as saying, “We had hoped that the feelings of the people of Hiroshima might have gotten through to the American people.”

Meanwhile, a historic display of reconciliation came in 2016, when President Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor seven months later. “The two leaders’ visit will showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into the closest of allies,” the White House said in a statement.

Today, there are signs that the story is not yet complete. Surveys show that some people’s confidence in maintaining the strong relationship under President Donald Trump’s administration is waning. A poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 43% of Americans believe the U.S. should strengthen its alliance with Japan “as China becomes increasingly powerful in the region.” And yet, a 2017 Pew poll found that 41% of Japanese think U.S.-Japan relations will “get worse, not better” under Trump. Fears of a trade war between the U.S. and China and the war of words between the nations’ leaders exacerbate those feelings.

And the ethical debate over whether it was the right decision to use atomic bombs in 1945 — or if it ever would be — continues, too. Diplomatic relations may have been settled, says Smith, but “that moral question, I think, we’ll never resolve.”

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