TOKYO – More than six decades after U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur stepped down as lord and master of Japan, he remains a towering figure of the postwar era – an enigmatic, controversial and yet revered figure who helped rebuild and remake Japan from the ashes of war.
Ordinary citizens can get a glimpse into the MacArthur persona during a rare public viewing this week of MacArthur’s former office overlooking the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. The spare, wood-paneled room has been carefully preserved and is open to the public to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the return of the former General Headquarters building to its civilian owner.
“MacArthur was very important to Japan’s recovery,” says John Mock, visiting professor of anthropology at Temple University in Tokyo. “In terms of managing day-to-day affairs, he didn’t have to do a lot. His job was to be a figurehead and he did that very, very well. He was this august, distant figure — almost imperial-like — and that is exactly what the Japanese needed.”
Some of that can be seen in MacArthur’s spare office. His desk is unadorned, without drawers or an in-box. A worn swivel chair and two armchairs are the only seating. A couple of sketches of yachts at harbor by English painter F.J. Aldridge adorn the walls. One can imagine the stern-visaged MacArthur staring down visitors, or toying with his corncob pipe.
MacArthur served as Supreme Commander Allied Powers from September 1945 to April 1951, a period of momentous change in Japan. A new constitution was written, Parliament and the Cabinet were strengthened, land and labor laws were reformed and women were given the vote.
Most policy was established in Washington, but MacArthur was charged with making it happen. His influence may have been most strongly felt – or second-guessed — in the delicate handling of Emperor Hirohito, who retained god-like status even as Japan lay in ruins. MacArthur supported the decisions not to try the Emperor for war crimes or to force him to abdicate, but to strip him of his power to govern.
MacArthur had a well-developed sense of theater and chose his headquarters carefully. The Dai-Ichi Insurance Co. was one of the few intact structures left in Tokyo at the end of the war. It stood across a wide boulevard from the palace. MacArthur requisitioned the building, gave the company three days to move out and moved into an office on the sixth floor. From there he could look across a moat and high walls onto the palace grounds.
MacArthur refused to call on the Emperor. When eventually Hirohito made the pilgrimage across the street to MacArthur’s office, a photo was released of the tall, relaxed MacArthur standing next to the diminutive and buttoned-up Emperor, making clear to all who was in charge.
MacArthur’s office was last opened to the public 10 years ago. Visitors this week have been waiting in line up to two hours. They are allowed into the room in small groups; they are permitted to take photos but not touch anything. A conference room next door houses documents and memorabilia related to the period.
MacArthur was relieved of his post in April 1951 for publicly disagreeing with President Harry Truman over handling of the war in Korea. He returned to the U.S. and in a farewell address to Congress he said, “I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.”
In Japan, neither MacArthur, nor his office, has faded away.