I wonder why GHQ did not force Japanese people to use the English language during the occupation, or at least add English to one of its official languages, much like Hong Kong under occupation by UK. Or when Japan invaded South Korea, it forced to use Japanese language to Koreans.

Some say it is because of high literacy among Japanese and because GHQ are "impressed" with it. But I have never seen any legit sources on it and all of them I heard are from ultranationalists who brag about the high literacy rate among Japanese (it's common to see some Japanese who still think only Japanese archive near-100% literacy in the world). But still, even with the high literacy, it might be reasonable to force the use of English, which would help USA gain more advantages in the future (academically, economically, etc...).

So why did they not force the use of English during the occupation?

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    The Allies occupied West Germany, but did not abolish the German language. With regard to adding English as an official language, the Hong Kong example isn't that good an analogy - Hong Kong was governed as a colony, whereas officially Japan was merely under military occupation pending the formation of its own domestic government.
    – tbrookside
    Oct 4, 2018 at 19:14
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    What good could possibly come of this? Even ignoring the amorality of this idea, destroying an entire language is not a good way to ensure a peaceful transition. The comparison to Hong Kong is invalid - HK wasn't "under occupation", it was owned by Britain, and Britain never "abolished" Cantonese.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 4, 2018 at 19:18
  • @Semaphore Japan forced the use of Japanese language to Koreans.
    – user17162
    Oct 4, 2018 at 19:21
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    @Blaszard No, they forced Koreans to learn Japanese in school. Most Koreans continued to use Korean throughout the period. There is a massive difference between teaching colonial subjects a different a language, and "abolishing" an occupied nation's language altogether. The latter is just completely infeasible; you can't force people to become fluent in English in a couple of years, much less make them forget their mother tongue.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 4, 2018 at 19:24
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    What the Japanese did to the Koreans is basically irrelevant as the US was not in any way interested in revenge/retaliation. The goal of the US occupation was almost entirely in creating a stable nation-state aligned with US interests. Oct 4, 2018 at 19:59

1 Answer 1


You can't "abolish" a language by decree. People can't just be ordered to forget how to speak, nor can they learn an entirely new language within a short period of time. As long as the language remains alive, Japan would simply revoke English the moment it regains sovereignty - as it did with numerous GHQ initiatives on in 1952. Thus, the only way to implement your idea would be to occupy Japan for decades until the language cease to be self-sustaining.

A semi-permanent occupation like that was obviously never going to happen. In which case, even setting aside the ethical and moral implications of such a move, it would be completely pointless to even try. All that it could possibly accomplish is antagonise the Japanese, potentially making life difficult for the occupying force, and harming future geopolitical interests.

For reference, the Nationalist spent four decades imposing Mandarin Chinese on Taiwan after being driven there in 1949. While regarded as one of the most successful examples in contemporary times - Mandarin has nearly totally displaced Hakka and Hokkien in everyday use among the younger generations, as well as in most social interactions in general - Taiwanese remains widely spoken by older people in a private context by the time the policy ended in 1988.

Hong Kong under occupation by UK. Or when Japan invaded South Korea

Both of these examples refer to colonies, not a temporary occupation. Multi-decade projects are feasible when you don't ever plan on giving up control of a territory. Britain in particular gained possession of Hong Kong at a time when there was less than 10,000 native inhabitants; administration could by run entirely by the English and in English.

Nonetheless, in neither case did the colonial power outright "abolish" the native language.

Some say it is because of high literacy among Japanese and because GHQ are "impressed" with it.

That's not quite what happened. At the time of Japan's surrender, there was a belief among some that an uneducated population enables militarism. This was an obviously flawed theory given what had just happened in Germany; nonetheless the perceived complexity of the Japanese language gave the idea some plausibility.

This led to a proposal to replace the Japanese writing system with a Latin script, hence the context for the 1948 literacy survey, which purportedly revealed that only 1.7% of the Japanese population were "illiterate" (for some definition thereof). While the methodology was flawed and the results less than reliable, it was nevertheless enough that:

"The CIE was astonished by the survey results, admired the excellent education in Japan, and went back to America without loosing a further word on a Latin script reform." - Heinrich, Patrick, and Christian Galan, eds. Language Life in Japan: Transformations and Prospects. Routledge, 2010.

Note, however, that this was about writing Japanese in Latin alphabets; not about abolishing Japanese altogether. Hence why they investigated literacy.

it might be reasonable to force the use of English, which would help USA gain more advantages in the future (academically, economically, etc...).

Forcing people to use a different language is an inherently unreasonable idea. Moreover, the idea that it would be advantageous for the US is highly dubious. People can be bilingual. Those doing business internationally can learn a second language or hire translators. These are not insurmountable barriers to either academic exchange or trade.In our timeline, Japan and the US became close allies with intense trade links despite the language difference.

Above all, your hypothesis requires that the imposition of a foreign language does not embitter the Japanese people, which is not at all a given.

  • Thanks for the answer but then why did the GHQ bother to try a literacy test?
    – user17162
    Oct 4, 2018 at 20:30
  • Could you explain that a bit more? Oct 4, 2018 at 20:38
  • @Blaszard The literacy test conducted had nothing to do with determining the feasibility of 'abolishing' Japanese and 'forcing' them to adopt English. It was to see how many understood the complex writing system which included Kanji (Chinese characters) on the theory that it took longer to learn, and if Kanji was eliminated, according to the theory, then all that wasted time spent learning it could be used learning something else. The theory was wrong. The literacy rates were much higher than GHQ thought. The idea was scrapped because it was based on a faulty assumption.
    – Kerry L
    Oct 4, 2018 at 20:54
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    @Blaszard In addition to Kerry L's comment, I added a section on this.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 4, 2018 at 21:31
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    @SJuan76 language replacement are not such an extraordinary thing I never said it is - if you read the rest of the section, I gave an example of exactly that happening right after. My point in saying you can't do it "by decree", is that it's impossible to achieve in a short period of time. Nothing you suggested conflicts with this: It would've taken many years just to train enough English speakers to staff the schools, media and government in 1945 Japan.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 5, 2018 at 8:07