People & Events
Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (1878-1967)
According to historian Michael Schaller, Japanese foreign minister Yoshida Shigeru commented at the outset of the occupation that by being "good losers," his people might regain in peace much of what they had lost in the war. More than fifty years later, it's clear that Yoshida's prediction was right on target, and his able leadership in those early years went a long way toward making it happen.
In a number of ways, Yoshida Shigeru was an unlikely candidate to lead his country out of the postwar rubble. Barely five feet tall and chubby, he possessed a sharp wit and willingness to express strong personal opinions which set him apart from most Japanese, particularly other bureaucrats. In fact, his public life seemed to be over when he retired in 1939, having fallen out of favor with the government for his anti-militarism; he was also imprisoned late in the war for the same reason. But on the very day MacArthur established his headquarters at the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo, Yoshida was summoned to the capital to join the new Japanese cabinet as foreign minister. He would serve ably in that capacity until called to be prime minister in the spring of 1946, and would hold that post for most of the occupation period. The unconventional little career diplomat had become the most important man in the Japanese government.
Yoshida, whose mother was rumored to be a geisha, had been adopted by a childless Yokohama merchant and his wife, who provided him with a good education and a sizeable inheritance. After attending the elite Tokyo Imperial University, Yoshida married into a prominent family. Historian Richard Finn writes, "Yoshida lived the first thirty-five years of his life in the reign of the Emperor Meiji and had many of the characteristics attributed to the leaders of that era..., such as education in the Chinese classics, patriotic pride, loyalty to the throne, and, in many cases, a broad international outlook." This background served Yoshida well in his diplomatic career, which included posts in China and Italy before he became Ambassador to England in 1936. According to Finn, "in London he developed considerable admiration for the British political system, with its parliamentary politics and combination of aristocratic and democratic traditions." Along with his quaint but very understandable English, such attitudes made Yoshida a natural choice to deal with the Americans after the war.
The first meeting between Yoshida and MacArthur was telling. Yoshida later revealed to his daughter that the American paced theatrically back and forth while delivering one of his sekkyo, or sermons, prompting Yoshida to laugh, as he imagined being caged with a pacing lion. MacArthur asked what was so funny, Yoshida told him, and MacArthur glared for a moment before laughing along with his guest. The ice broken, the two established a good working relationship, and met many times in the coming years.
Yoshida's politics were essentially conservative. Early in the occupation, he helped arrange the emperor's historic first visit with MacArthur, and worked diligently to protect the throne. Convinced that democracy would take time and economic prosperity to develop, Yoshida tried to soften or delay many of the liberal SCAP reforms, which MacArthur did not fail to notice. This was particularly true during Yoshida's first premiership, from the spring of 1946 through the spring of 1947, when the Socialists gained enough seats to control the government. But in 1948 Yoshida's newly formed Democratic-Liberal (but actually quite conservative) party defeated the Socialist-led coalition, and his cabinet remained in power well past the end of the occupation. The second time around, Yoshida found MacArthur more accomodating, as the "Reverse Course" in American occupation policy had begun to favor the old industrial and bureaucratic elites, who offered the quickest route to economic stability for Japan. By setting the course for Japan in these crucial postwar years, Yoshida became one of the fathers of modern Japan: his Democratic-Liberal successors would dominate Japanese politics into the 1990s.