During the American occupation of Japan following World War II, the U.S. implemented a series of laws in policies which would eventually lead the way a new, stable democracy. Although the United States occupation’s initial focus was on demilitarization and democratization, the American agenda quickly changed. The United States attempt at establishing a fair and competitive democracy in post war Japan was hindered by its own implementation of self-interest serving policies known as the “reverse course”. In order to fully understand the impact the policies implemented by the U.S. occupation and the effects of the “reverse course”, one must first analyze Imperial Japan’s democratic history.
Following the fall of the Tokugawa Empire in 1868, Imperial Japan had a great deal of democratic potential both in the political arena and in the public sector. In the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s turbulent socio-economic and political climate prompted middle to lower class Japanese citizens to seek change. During the restoration, many steps were taken by the new regime in order to both address domestic issues and appeal to the Western powers abroad. Among the many policies the Meiji implemented was the abolishment of the centuries-old social structure. In practice, the policy would diminish social hierarchy within the public domain. By passing such legislature, Japan not only responded to the growing domestic cries of the poor, but gave the Western powers the sense of Japan’s departure from the old, backwards ways. Additional policies were passed to accommodate for the Japanese people’s growing need to be involved in their countries transformation. Legislature was passed creating a House of Peers and a House of Representatives, which was comprised of elected officials. The Meiji also, by popular demand, implemented a national constitution. Although some would argue that they were merely cosmetic, these provisions would eventually inspire an even greater rise in democracy following the end of the Meiji period. Modernization was the key to Japan’s bid to become a powerful player in the global arena, and country unity and democratization through policies such as the destruction of the social caste were steps in the right direction.
The policies implemented during the Meiji period and Japan’s legitimization on the international level (mostly caused by their help against Germany during WWI), paved the way for an even higher democratic potential in Japan. Fast economic growth under Taisho rule led to a substantial increase in the working class. As the working class grew, groups were formed to strike and protest anything from wages to working conditions. The protests eventually transcended working matters to broader, more political issues. In order to maintain its status as a modernizing country, Japan had to address these issues differently than had the previous regimes. As a result the Kenseikai party, which came to power through cabinets in the mid 1920’s, successfully passed legislature which more freely allowed the public to voice their opinions. In 1925, universal manhood suffrage was passed. This law stated that any male Japanese citizen over the age of twenty-five could vote, regardless of his socio-economic status. The Kenseikai party, along with the Minseito party, continuously sponsored legislature that would grant women suffrage and labor unions more freedom from the mid 1920’s-early 1930’s. However, these bills never passed as conservative elites in the House of Peers constantly voted them down, unwilling to commit to such drastic change.
Although Japan had gained significant momentum toward the turn of the decade, the window of opportunity for Imperial democratization had closed with the arrival of the Great Depression. With Japan’s campaigns in Manchuria and China, along with suffering of the economic structure domestically, the Japanese people lost confidence in the notion that freely formed political groups and parties could bring about the change that was in the country’s best interests. Over the next few years, Japan would see all of the progress it had made with democratization undone by the policies imposed by what essentially became militaristic government. Tensions abroad ever increasing, Japan needed to show itself to have a united front. In doing so, the government undid mostly everything that showed any semblance of democracy. In order to suppress all autonomy and manage society, the government introduced the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, or IRAA. In the coming years, this organization eventually absorbed those groups under one common umbrella. The organization was state-run, so for all intents and purposes, the civil and labor, groups formed by the people, were made ineffective. Although there were many strides made in promoting democracy in Japan from the early 1920s- the late 1930’s, the liberal agenda never came to fruition. In the end, the governments during those times did little in the legislative stage to truly give the common, Japanese citizen an audible voice in political opinion. This anti-democratic, pro-militarism sentiment would continue to dominate in Japan until the end of World War II and the U.S. Occupation in 1945.
Howell, David L. Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2005.
Garon, S. (1997). Molding Japanese minds: The state in everyday life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.