From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

Studio Ghibli’s From  Up on Poppy Hill is a quiet romance set among the turmoil of Japan’s return to the world stage in the form of the 1964 Olympic Games. However, Japan’s economic revival did not come with the frenzy of construction (and destruction) that accompanied the games but with the outbreak of the Korean War. The fate of Matsuzaki Umi’s father is tied up in Japan’s participation in the conflict.

The Korean conflict was a surprise to American military planners, who had banked upon a European start to any Cold War hostilities. American units in Japan were poorly equipped, inadequately trained and generally unready for combat, a consequence of rapid postwar demobilization and a far cry from the military machine that had been instrumental in the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. The South Korean government of Syngman Rhee had been allotted little in the form of weaponry and support by the US government over fears that Rhee would be the aggressor in a Korean conflict. As a result, the surprise North Korean strike across the border reaped rapid gains for the communist forces. Yet early American units deployed to the combat zone were not even ordered to take winter clothing out of an expectation the conflict would be over quickly, shades of early World War One era optimism despite the hard lessons learned since then. The first American unit on the ground, Task Force Smith, suffered devastating losses in the battle of Osan.

As the conflict was far from the staging grounds of Europe and with demobilization still in effect, the American occupation government in Japan (led by the incredibly polarizing and controversial Douglas MacArthur) chose to utilize Japan’s merchant fleet in support of the conflict. This was made possible by the fact the United States was in overall control of Japan’s merchant fleet as it had had fallen to the allied powers at the conclusion of World War Two. During the war, several Japanese ships were hit by mines resulting in many casualties from which Up on Poppy Hill incorporates into its narrative.

Although Japan’s active participation in the Korean War was fairly limited in terms of ships and men, the economic repercussions of the war were far more significant. As the nearest strongpoint of American power, bearing in mind Japan would remain occupied until 1952, war material was needed as the Korean conflict lumbered towards resolution and then stalemate with the entry of China into the war. The need for war material that did not have to be shipped from the States and the urgent need to not let the European theater suffer shortages in order to carry out the fight in Korea meant that Japanese industry received a massive boost from American orders. By the early 1950s both Truman and Eisenhower were willing to use dollars to support the anti-communist policies laid out in NSC-68, the blueprint of American Cold War conduct. The resulting influx of dollars and war orders allowed Japan to rebuilt its industry from the ground up, incorporating new technologies and creating state of the art factories that would prove instrumental in Japan’s economic recovery. As a side effect, US troops taking part in the war spent their leave in Japan, putting more money into the economy and exposing even more Americans to Japanese culture, arguably facilitating the modern American acceptance of Japanese culture compared to Korean or Chinese culture.

Film: From Up on Poppy Hill, (コクリコ坂から Kokuriko-zaka Kara) Studio Ghibli

Suggested Reading: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

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