Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Brush with history: My father's photos of the May 19, 1946 Tokyo food demonstrations

My late father went to Tokyo as a member of the MacArthur Honor Guard at the beginning of the U.S. Occupation. He was, as I recall, experimenting with photography at the time and took many pictures. My wife and I are scanning some of photo albums, and I thought I'd share some pictures that might interest my reader(s).

Here are a few he took of a protest march from 1946.

The sign reads, I believe, "Establish Democratic People's Government"

A diary excerpt by Mark Gayn (collected in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, edited by Jussi M. Hanhimäki and Odd Arne Westad) describes the demonstrations as follows:
The political pot is boiling madly. [Prime Minister] Yoshida is still struggling to form a new cabinet. As fast as he picks his ministers, it is discovered that they are war criminals subject to purge. Meanwhile, the food rationing machinery has bogged down. In the far north the distribution of food is thirty days behind schedule; in Tokyo, twelve. There are street-corner rallies, parades, mass meetings of protest. On Tuesday, eight hundred people demonstrated before the palace, demanding to know what the emperor was eating. On Friday, there were eight "food demonstrations" in front of rationing stations. Yesterday, twenty. There is a steady stream of marching men past the Diet and the premier's residence.
The climax came today with a "Give Us Rice" mass meeting. By ten o'clock on this bright, warm morning, there were at least 60,000 people at the imperial plaza. They had put three trucks together, and mounted tables on them for the speakers' platform. The chairman was the head of the Transport Workers' Union. But the meeting was actually run by a hard-looking man in corduroy knickers and a sports jacket. This was Katsumi Kikunami, an editorial writer for the Asahi, head of the Newspaper Union, and founder of the huge Congress of Industrial Unions. Grimly, he introduced a succession of speakers--union leaders, political workers, and just plain people.
One of these was a housewife of thirty-five, slim and plain-looking and obviously undernourished. She came from a ward in which there has been no rice distribution in two weeks. She had a child strapped to her back, and as she denounced the police and the rationing officials, the child's wailing came clear and loud over the loudspeaker.
But most of the speakers talked of politics. They demanded Yoshida's resignation, a Popular Front, a new cabinet including workers and farmers. "We must use the privileges we've gained since the war," cried Suzuki, editor of the Yomiuri, "One of them is the right to make revolutionary changes that will produce a democratic government. A one-day general strike will force Yoshida out!"
Tokuda was the last to speak. He wheeled around on the table top, pointed at the palace, and shouted: "We're starving. Is he?" He denounced Yoshida and the war criminals in the Diet, but he saved his sharpest barbs for the emperor. "Last week," he said, "we went to the palace and asked to see the emperor. We were chased away. Is it because of the emperor can say nothing but 'Ah, so. Ah, so?'" He mimicked the emperor. The crowd cheered wildly (...)
There's more in the book, including General MacArthur's response to the protests, which, as Gayn's diary suggests, were attended by ordinary people, labor leaders, and more radical left-wing elements. In Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, John Dower argues that the Americans occupying Japan after the war "contributed unwittingly to the circumstances in which such radical activities flourished by deciding to promote political freedom and social reform without taking an active role in rehabilitating the economy." MacArthur's response to the demonstrations "chilled the popular movement," writes Dower, although "it certainly did not freeze it." Later on, Dower writes that eventually,
[i]n the summer of 1948, MacArthur reversed occupation labor policy by withdrawing the right to strike from public employees, who commonly were in the vanguard where miserable pay, layoffs, and radical unionism were concerned. Simultaneously, occupation authorities worked diligently behind the scenes to promote the emergence of a virulently anticommunist "democratization" (mindo) movement within organized labor.
By that time, however, my father, having been honorably discharged, was back in the U.S. and beginning the next chapter of his life. (Which also involved photography!)

My wife and I are scanning and organizing some of my late father's pictures from when he was in the MacArthur Honor Guard in postwar Japan. I'm not sure what camera he was using, but some of the pictures might be a bit out of focus.

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