After the end of the war, the United States government occupied Japan in order to facilitate the decimated country’s recovery. During its occupation, the U.S. created a new constitution for the country. The constitution implemented new policies that would effectively shape Japan’s political and social existence. The Occupation was only as successful as it was because of the Japanese people openness to the reform. Although initially terrified of General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation, the people of Japan quickly embraced MacArthur after it became clear the new policies would benefit Japan in the short and long term. The rise of democracy in Japan was also facilitated by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) purging of the conservatives that had been in power before the occupation. SCAP banned 220,000 people from holding political office, citing “Japanese aggression or militant nationalism” as justification. In addition, SCAP released released 2,500 leftist political prisoners, many of which were communists. The change in the political landscape allowed for the growth of democracy and made way for the arrival of new policies. Of the many policies implemented in the new constitution, the most effective ones were those that at long last, granted the power to the people through democratic ideals. The constitution’s most effective democratization policies were the severe abatement of the Emperor’s political power, the proliferation of the Cabinet and National Diet’s power, universal adult suffrage, and the freedom to unionize and strike.
The successes of the new reforms were instantly visible. For example, the Trade Union Law, passed on December 1945, afforded labor groups the rights to unionize, strike, and protest wages freely. The results of the legislation were staggering. In just one year, the number of workers unionized went from 380,000 to 5.6 million people. The policies implemented by the SCAP and the resulting democratization not only affected the cities of Japan, but also reached the rural areas as well. In 1946, the Owner-Farmer Establishment Law was passed to help settle debates over land rentals between landowners and tenants. The government purchased four million acres of rural land and subsidized the sale to roughly about two million farmers. Traditionally low-income farmers could now own their own land without the pressures of a steady rent, which was previously indiscriminate of the economic times. SCAP legislation such as this one and the Trade Union Law made the U.S. occupation more and more popular among Japanese citizens, especially the poor who had previously been ignored in other attempts at democracy.
An underrated element to the Occupation’s successes was the immunity General MacArthur granted the Imperial family. Although there was widespread criticism from communist politicians over the amnesty granted to the Emperor, MacArthur’s decision to exonerate him of all war crimes was essential in making the Occupation as successful as possible. Deeply rooted in Japanese tradition, the Emperor has always held a certain mystique about him, regardless of who he was. Most of the common people of Japan never heard the Emperor speak nor saw the Emperor, other than in portraits. The Emperor’s contribution to Japan’s militaristic ambitions in the fifteen years prior to U.S. occupation was undeniable. In an ideal world, everyone responsible for atrocities committed during war would be held accountable for their actions. However, if the U.S. would have prosecuted the Emperor, it would have shot itself in the foot. The Emperor was the gateway between U.S. democratization policies and Japanese public appeal.
When it came time to try the leaders of Japan in the International Military War Tribunal for the Far East, all sanctions against those deemed war criminals were brought to light with the exception of the Imperial family, mainly the Emperor. He was explicitly left out of every single grievance even though it was acknowledged that the Japanese government needed him to sign off on the military campaigns. Bix states, “The Philippines had lost more than one million noncombatants… Most Filipinos held Hirohito responsible…Lopez introduced 144 cases of atrocities committed by Japanese forces against Filipino non-combatants and American and Filipino POWs…On the payroll of the American government, Lopez, like Jaranilla, never made an issue of Hirohito’s absence from the list of indictees.” The Emperor’s exoneration made him seem innocent in the eyes of the Japanese people. As a result, they unified and related with the Emperor. In the end, the people’s support for the U.S. occupation was an extension of the Emperor’s support and commitment to MacArthur.
The U.S. policies had profound effects on the see-saw political arena in occupied Japan. Originally, the conservative politicians of the old regime were purged and banned from office, which led the way to a communist movement in Japan. With the start of the Cold War, Korean War, and communist political victories in China, it was imperative that the United States not allow Japan to become subject to a communist takeover. The focus of the Occupation shifted from democratization to economic, political, and military rebuilding. Although the newly drafted constitution banned Japan from forming a military, the U.S. allowed Japan to form a National Security Council to defend against the communist threat. In response to the rise of communism in Asia, the U.S. undid what it had previously done at the start of the occupation; it purged the leftist politicians and lifted the public office bans on about 70,000 previously banned conservatives.
This “reverse course” paved the way for conservative political dominance. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would be in power for the next fifty four years, with the exception of three elections. It is my opinion that the reverse course definitely went too far in purging the communist threat. Although the United States was serving its own interest, as any global hegemon with the ability to do so would, it was ultimately detrimental to Japanese democracy. Although the framework for a competitive, functioning democracy was in place, the absence of a political party strong enough to compete with the LDP. In one perspective, the United States ironically failed in its quest to democratize Japan. Democracy is designed as a means for the people to have more than one viable option with regard to public office. Although political parties such as the Japanese Communist Party (JPC) and the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) existed, they were not well established enough, nor did they have the political background to displace the LDP. In some respects, although through an entirely different framework, the United States did exactly the opposite of what it hoped to accomplish in creating a competitive democracy, instead reverting the political arena to politics reminiscent of the old Imperial regimes, in the sense that the same regime or party dominated the political landscape for many, many years.
Dower, John. W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. London: Allen Lane, 1999.
Samuels, Richard J. SECURING JAPAN: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs.
Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.