Records of Allied Operational & Occupation Headquarters WWII


A review of the Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, National Archives and Records Administration. College Park, MD, United States

American researchers specializing in Asian topics often focus our attention on gathering materials in Asian languages that are indispensable for our research. Such Asian sources are irreplaceable, but there are also vast repositories of information related to Asia available closer to home that can be equally useful. As one example, the Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II provide unique insight into the febrile period that marked the conclusion of the Pacific War in Japan. Encompassing a wide range of materials documenting United States foreign and military policy vis-à-vis Japan as well as Occupation bureaucrats’ interactions with civilian interest groups, Japanese individuals, and the Japanese government, these records show not only the trial-and-error process of postwar reconstruction, but also the diverse ways that Japanese nationals interpreted and adjusted to the new regime.

This review focuses solely on my experience with a subsection of these records belonging to the Religions Division of the Civil Information & Education Section (CI&E) operating under the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). The records can be viewed in the Textual Records Research Room located on Floor 2 of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in College Park, Maryland. The collection as a whole seems generally consistent in its organization, but my understanding is that various SCAP divisions had slightly different cultures of documentation and preservation, so some offices’ files may be more or less complete than what I saw. Whole boxes of the Religions Division records are filled with the mind-numbing but statistically useful details of religious organizations’ taxes, real estate, and other assets; others include fascinating correspondence like letters from Japanese nationals addressed to General MacArthur hailing him as a living god. In between, there are thousands of inter-office memos, monthly reports, directives, and staff translations that provide a deep view into the internal workings of SCAP and changes in SCAP policy over time.

In my dissertation I am juxtaposing these sorts of official documents with private correspondence, unpublished lectures, and news clippings from other collections such as the William P. Woodard Papers at the University of Oregon (Woodard was a former missionary and Religions Division officer who wrote a 1972 scholarly memoir about his experience in the Division) and the Daniel Clarence Holtom Papers at the Claremont Colleges (Holtom was a missionary and scholar of Shintō who profoundly influenced Occupation policy regarding “State Shintō”). I compare these documents with contemporaneous ecumenical journals available in the Gordon W. Prange Collection at the University of Maryland and other materials that I am currently collecting at various archives in Japan. While my dissertation, “Japan’s Preoccupation with Religious Freedom,” actually covers the period that the Meiji Constitution was in effect (1890–1947), the project aims to not only document changes in how various interest groups interpreted “religion,” “freedom,” and abstract concepts like rights and liberties during the roughly sixty years that that constitution was in force, but also how Occupation-era narratives about Japan’s relationship with religious freedom mark a major shift in the international treatment of those terms within the new paradigm of universal human rights. One point I hope to make in the dissertation is that the bellicose relationship between the United States and Japan (and the subsequent reconciliation of the combatants through the Occupation) played a crucial and hitherto largely overlooked role in the formulation of postwar international conceptions of religious freedom. I speculate as well that interpretations of religious freedom in the United States changed drastically as a result of the conflict, although this point admittedly requires much more research. At any rate, addressing the hunches that inform this transnational component of the project necessitates investigating the specific historical moment and milieu when American and Japanese interest groups were formulating new postwar visions of religious freedom. The Occupation records are ideal resources in this regard.

The National Archives and Records Administration building is located at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. I drove to the archives from a local hotel, so I cannot offer specifics about the quality of the public transit options, but apparently the archives can be accessed by bus. The R-3 and C-8 Metrobuses service Washington, DC Green Line and Red Line subway stations, respectively. If you drive, try to arrive early in the morning to find a parking spot because the parking structure fills up quickly. As you drive in the gates you will need to show photo identification to one of the guards. They may ask you rather pointedly what brings you to the archives, but a one-sentence description of your research topic is all they need to wave you through. Once you have parked, you will need to pass through airport-style security (an X-ray machine for any bags you have and another photo ID check) to enter the building. The building is open from 9:00 to 5:00 on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays and from 9:00 to 9:00 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Records are not pulled on Saturdays or in the evening, so realistically researchers need to arrive sometime during the day (preferably morning) on a weekday to request records. Once records have been pulled, they are available to the researcher for three full days.

On your first visit, you will need to have a National Archives researcher ID made. Once you have passed through security at the front door turn immediately right into the ID office. You will be required to sit through a roughly ten or fifteen minute computerized training session about the various research and security protocols before you have your photo taken and an ID created. Be sure to request wireless access when you get your ID because you may find yourself sitting around for some time while waiting for your documents to be pulled.

Security involves a great deal of redundancy. Although you pass through a security check to park and another to get into the building, you have to show your archives ID to get into the area with the research rooms; you also need to check in at the desk just inside the research room when you first arrive. Researchers are not allowed to bring bags, pens, or food and drink into the research rooms, so before you head into the secure area upstairs you will need to take your items to the coin lockers in the basement (free, but you need a quarter to operate them) and leave behind everything but what you actually need for your research. Lockers are fairly narrow and somewhat shallow, so if possible avoid bringing anything larger than a briefcase or backpack into the building. Carts are available if you prefer to not carry everything up and downstairs by hand. Choose this option if you plan to be carrying lots of valuable electronic equipment.

I recommend doing all note-taking electronically so that you do not have to walk in and out of the research room with any of your own notes; the guards need to search through your papers and then put any loose sheets into a locked bag when you leave the room (a guard in the lobby will unlock the bag when you leave the secure area). Notebooks are not allowed. I generally kept my possessions to a computer, charger, camera, spare battery, and an iPod and earphones. I wished repeatedly that I had a tripod for the camera; I also wished that my hand scanner were the flatbed type (allowed) rather than the scrolling type (not allowed). I recommend investing in a large-capacity memory card for your camera or bringing a spare so that you can swap one out and place photos on your computer as you continue to photograph. Each study space (a seat at a large desk seating four people) has several outlets and a reading lamp.

Between the security procedures and the ID process, on your first visit I would recommend giving yourself a buffer of an hour before you can actually enter the research room. Once there, you will almost certainly not be able to submit pull requests right away without doing some looking through the on-site finding aids, so it is reasonable to arrive in the morning, spend an hour or so getting security squared away, another half-hour to hour figuring out where your records are and filling out pull request forms (on which more below) and then waiting for your requested records to become available, usually within thirty minutes of the pull times at 10:00, 11:00, 1:30, and 2:30 (and again at 3:30 on the days that the archives are open until 9:00 p.m.). You will need a clerk’s assistance in filling out the pull request forms, so when you first arrive in the research room head straight for the consultation room and ask a staff member for help. Provide as much information as you can about your topic. In my case, from preliminary research online I knew that I wanted a specific section of military records related to Allied Occupation Headquarters in Japan, but I only had the numbers of the series in which these records were to be found, not the specific box and folder numbers of each type of record (see here for an example of the type of information I had). While there is an online interface one can use to narrow searches, I found it incomprehensible. It was easiest to figure out what I was looking for by pulling out the appropriate binder in the consultation room, flipping through it for general subject areas (Religions Division Records, in my case), and then narrowing my search according to topics that seemed more or less germane to my research. Analog, yes, but ultimately less frustrating.

The staff will make sure that you fill out the request forms properly, and ultimately they need to submit the request on your behalf. You may need to wait a bit to receive assistance; my first day there I met with some frustration as some inexperienced researchers monopolized the staff members’ time trying to look up military records for a deceased relative. The helpfulness of the staff members also varies. If you find yourself interacting with an archive specialist who is knowledgable but not helpful, as I initially did, I suggest waiting and quietly observing until you can figure out who will be both.

Once I had compiled a list of all the boxes of folders that seemed appropriate, I ran into the problem of being limited in how many boxes one can request at a time. Occupation records are held in Federal Records Center (FRC) boxes, which hold somewhere from twenty to forty large manila envelopes. Archival policy is that researchers can request up to eighteen of these boxes at a time, which amounts to two laden carts’ worth. Only one cart may be removed from the repository at a time, but a pulled cart will be held for a researcher for up to three days before the records are refiled. (I reserved two carts, used one for about a day and a half, then refiled it and submitted a new pull request for the remaining cart of boxes that interested me; I started work on the second cart while waiting for the third to be pulled.)

When you pick up your cart, you will be required to show your National Archives ID and sign the boxes out. If you plan to photograph or scan any records, you will then need to haul your cart across the room to the reproduction station. They will check to make sure your documents have been declassified and then will give you a declassification number that you will need to display in any photograph of a document that was originally marked as secret, confidential, or the like. They will also give you a tag to hang from the reading lamp at your work station. This indicates to other staff members that you have received permission to photograph your documents. It is possible to make photocopies at the reproduction station, although it costs money and could get expensive very quickly. When returning your cart for the day, the clerk will ask if you want to reserve or refile the items. Be sure to reserve them if you plan on looking at them again.

The research room itself is bright and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in lots of light. If you plan to photograph documents I recommend not sitting with your back to the windows. For a good chunk of the afternoon, your shadow will fall on the documents and make it hard to capture them well. Try to sit facing the window, someplace well away from the retrieval station where people pick up their pulled files (it is the noisiest place in the room). Clerks will constantly circulate, generally unobtrusively, to make sure that no violations of archive policy are taking place.

While researchers generally work very quietly, the staff members sometimes chat with each other loudly and it can be a bit distracting. During my trip a large number of young adults in their upper teens and early twenties were working, and there was a heady mix of pheromones and gossip floating around this younger contingent of workers. While the older archive employees seemed to be a bit more conscientious of researchers’ need to work in a quiet environment, investing in a pair of high-quality in-ear earphones (rather than standard-issue iPod earphones) prior to your visit can be a smart move because one does not need to turn the volume up in order to tune out ambient noise. You will not only not distract your neighbor, but you may also appreciate previously unheard nuances in your favorite working music. As an alternative, cheap foam earplugs may help.

In an earlier installment of Fresh From the Archives I wrote about my experience staying at the decidedly misnamed Quality Inn in College Park. You might want to investigate other lodging options closer to the archives, although the link from the archives page providing lodging recommendations seems to be dead. (Another option, which I may try on a future visit, would be to find lodging in the DC area and then take public transit to the archives.)

I wish I could say that the National Archives is an oasis in the culinary desert that is College Park. Unfortunately, while the cafeteria on the premises offers a decent variety of food options, none of the ones I tried was particularly good. It is not worth your time to leave the building for lunch, however, so I recommend making do with the cafeteria fare or bringing your own lunch. When you need a short break from being indoors, you can step out into a secure outdoor patio just off the cafeteria and converse with the squirrels about the finer points of your research.

Finally, if you are headed to College Park to use the Occupation records, it would be a shame not to also make use of the extensive holdings available in the Prange Collection located at the University of Maryland, basically right next door. That collection holds virtually every document published, censored, or suppressed during the Allied Occupation of Japan (see my review here). If you are a marathon researcher, it is possible to build productive week of 12-hour days around the schedule at the Prange Collection and NARA to maximize your time at both.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas
PhD Candidate
Princeton University


Image: Staff Translation of a postcard written to General Douglas MacArthur. Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, Series 331.45.4 (Records of the Religions and Cultural Resources Division), Box 5773, Folder 20 (Letters to MacArthur). Photo by Jolyon Baraka Thomas.

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