The American Occupation in Japan

Undoubtedly, the American Occupation in Japan was a historical success story. During the seven year occupation from 1945 until 1952, the Americans restructured the Japanese government and gave Japan the footing after its post WWII demise. The Occupation provided the groundwork from which one of the strongest nations of the 20th century emerged by laying the foundation for democracy and successful capitalism. On a ideological level, the American occupation was intended to instill democratic values and eradicate imperialist ways. On a practical level, the American occupation was intended to disarm the military, break up the zaibatsu businesses, reform the educational system, give power to the local level, and give women suffrage.

First of all, the biggest success of the Occupation was the constitution. Japan═s constitution was written during the Occupation, and that has remained wholly unchanged until today. This was the Occupation═s first step in democratizing Japan. One of the largest problems with the Meiji constitution was that it did not have a system of checks and balances, as every part of the government would act in the name of the emperor. So the Constitution had to define the roles of each branch of government with clear lines of responsibility. Thus, the House of Chancellors, the House of Representatives, the Cabinet, and the Judiciary were created with established purposes and responsibilities. Also, the emperor lost any political status he had previously and was only allowed to remain on as a symbol of the state and the unity of the people. Since the emperor was reduced to a status of common citizenship, in theory the Japanese people would cease to be submissive to him -- this too was a method of democratization. Most importantly though, the Occupation established in the constitution the idea of popular sovereignty ┐ the idea that the government is an entity of the people, and dictated by the people.

From the onset, the Occupation primary goals was to disarm the military. Article 9 of the constitution claims that Japan ˝renounces war as its sovereign right âţ and  that Japan will never maintain any sort of military. Even today, there has been little to no opposition of this idea save a few right-wing militarists that are ostracized and ridiculed by the Japanese people. The Occupation set the precedent for Japan═s foreign policy. Because the occupation was such a positive campaign, even today, Japan maintains an overall friendly relationship with the US. Generally, the US and Japan have similar viewpoints of global issues, except, of course, US-Japan trade issues. However, usually, Japanese foreign policy is consistent with American foreign policy.

The Occupation also attempted to restructured the power relationships in Japan, both economically and politically. The Americans tried to break up the bureaucracy, establish a strong labor movement and unions (although, as the labor sector became more radical, the Americans retrenched this plan) , and redistribute resources around the economy. The Occupation philosophy dictated that local politics become more powerful over time, as that is an essential element of grassroots democracy. However, this was never achieved as many national institutions and bureaucracies today still maintain most of the power. Financially, the local level could not support an overwhelming amount of responsibilities, and so the bureaucracy remained intact even though the Americans tried to disband their agencies.

The Americans also tried to break up the zaibatsu and strengthen Japanese unions because it was felt that there was an disproportionate concentration of economic power. The zaibatsu had become an important part of the Japanese economy in the 1920═s and the 1930═s. This is a concrete example of democratization because it was designed to allocate wealth and resources more evenly throughout the economy. However, the zaibatsu was replaced by the keiretsu, or ˝Japan, Inc.ţ (as the West calls it). This is the idea that the Japanese companies are all interconnected and they present a unitary front to the government. Big business is still highly influential in Japanese politics, more so that the Americans would have liked.

Also, the land reform too can be seen as an attempt at democratizing Japan in the same sense, as it was intended to redistribute resources more equally throughout the economy. Before the land reform, many farmers did not own their own land and had to pay rent to wealthy land owners. The land reform succeeded in reallocating land, and the credit for this is attributed only to American initiation. Today, the thankful agricultural community is still a loyal supporter of the LDP party.

Another Occupation goal  was social liberalization -- the Americans tried to instill the values of human rights and civil liberties into Japanese politics and social ideas. The Japanese people had until this point a rather vague idea of human rights, but the Americans defined them in terms of freedom of speech and political freedom. The media was given a legal wide-range of freedoms. Whether or not today these rights are exercised to their potential is difficult to judge although it seems that they are not. But the reasons why it would not be exercised to its fullest are social, and not legal. Where these progresses are best seen is in the context of feminism, and rights for women. Most importantly, women were given the suffrage. Although the rights of women in Japan are far from progressive, legally, women do have some power. This all stems from the Occupation.

Also included in this social agenda was education reform. The education reform was intended to deconstruct the emperor in the eyes of the Japanese people, and to provide more social and economic opportunities for the average Japanese. The syllabuses were modified to eliminate the importance of nationalist mythology, and the idea that the emperor was a demigod of sorts, and to replace it with a more international perspective. The new public education system aimed at providing equal educational opportunities to every Japanese. These reforms have remained intact today, as an education is available to all Japanese. Also, the Occupation tried to transfer most of the educational responsibilities from the central government to the local level, but they were not successful at this. Even today, the monbusho, or the Ministry of Education, is a powerful national organization that sponsors foreign exchange programs, creates the national entry exams, and dictates the national syllabus.

In conclusion, the Occupation set up an American democratic model for Japan and laid the foundation for many of its institutions. It was a successful occupation, and it ensured a good relationship between Japan and the US indefinitely. However, it is important to realize that the American Occupation did not completely ˝Americanizeţ Japan, nor did it completely ˝westernizeţ its social system. As the Occupation becomes more distant past, it becomes apparent that Japan is still fundamentally dictated by its own unique origins and culture. Although, probably the most significant offspring of the occupation reform is the legal rights that the Japanese people are ensured, regardless of whether or not they are fully exercised. With time, Japan is becoming more and more democratic, and the American influence during the Occupation is to thank for that.


Danielle Costa
April, 1997
Tufts University: Chinese and Japanese Politics


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