Reinventing Japan


by Calvin W. Lew


October 23, 1995





            The Occupation of Japan, as viewed by both occupier and occupied, proved to be a success as evidenced by three major developments in the post-war period; the “re-emergence” and increase of democracy in Japan; the Japanese economic miracle; and the emergence of Japan as a healthy American “ally” and world leader rather than a third-world country or as a renewed authoritarian state like other “punished” and defeated countries after the First World War.

            The Allied (mostly American) Occupation of Japan was at first viewed by many Japanese as humiliation-in-defeat and with resentment.  But, with retrospect and the developments that occurred after the Occupation, it was viewed as a success; success due to the work of both the Japanese people themselves and the influence of the American occupation.

            Many of these developments had their roots in native Japan going back before the Occupation and World War II; in fact, going back as far as the Meiji Restoration.  One example would be the emergence of democracy as a model for government.  Although, it would appear that democracy was “brought” to Japan a la MacArthur drafting the Japanese Constitution with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, democratic ideas began to appear in Japan in the previous century.  The Meiji Revolution provided mechanisms for local self government and the Meiji constitution established the Diet and the guarantee of male suffrage.  There is even evidence of ideas about true constitutional government.

            Yet, Western ideas introduced into the Japanese Constitution such as “personal liberty,” “private property,” sexual equality, and universal suffrage, among others, are un-Japanese and sound awkward in the translation.  But, through time as well as direction from the top, these ideas eventually took root in Japanese society.  Thus, Japan’s path towards democracy was greatly aided by the Occupation.

            Although not truly democratic nor is citizen interest articulation extensive enough, Japan’s government can be considered a democracy and a success in light of the relatively “undemocratic” democracies of Asian neighbors such as The Republic of China on Taiwan and the Republic of South Korea.  Recent changes of party leadership in the Diet showcases Japan’s democracy in action; albeit occurrences of scandal and corruption still abound.

            The second trend in post-war Japan is the explosion of economic entrepreneurship and capitalism in Japan that came to be called the Japanese Miracle.  Out of the ashes came a phoenix that would become a world economic leader in a few short decades.

            Again, evidence of entrepreneurship and the revolutionary spirit of the Japanese people to move forward can be traced back to developments during the Meiji Era.  Meiji leaders had encouraged capitalism and markets.  Eventually emerging were also the zaibatsus; the business conglomerates existing between the Meiji Restoration and 1945.  These family-owned, subsidiary controlling holding companies often expanded their operations through ties to the Meiji government.

            Although these Japanese economic tendencies did exist before American Occupation, the influence and benefits the Occupation provided cannot be understated.  In helping to rebuild Japan, America became a very important trading partner in Japan’s budding economy.  The world business leader of the United States also served as a model for Japan to emulate; and improve upon.  Capitalism in Japanese is uniquely Japanese, but the United States also helped provide the peacetime environment for it to succeed.  Japan’s one percent defense budget ceiling allowed the country to focus more on the economy.  Japan’s economy also boomed during the Korean War to meet American demands for goods for the War.

            These instances of economic growth and the growth of democracy may have been possible without direct intervention by the Occupation; but what is amazing or perhaps most significant is Japan’s current geo-political position and how it was carefully fostered and affected by the American Occupation.  With all the evidence of “miracles” and other advances, it is easy to forget the alternatives or other paths history would have taken had the United States and the Occupation decided to punish a defeated enemy rather than help build Japan into a strong partner.  In this respect, the Occupation was a success.

            Thus, a third major development of post-war Japan is the overall success of the recovery and the position of Japan as a cooperative ally and world leader rather than a resentful and malevolent enemy.  The latter would have been very important to avoid.  General MacArthur himself had been in the Rhineland after 1918 where he had personally seen the effects of that post-war period.  Thus, he had learned from history and had to be careful in not overly offending the Japanese.  So American demands were forceful yet vague enough to allow for pragmatic and creative implementation by the Japanese.

            This policy helped increase the speed of the post-war recovery; the rate of recovery surprised many Americans who expected Japanese recovery to take until the end of the century.  The pragmatic attitude of the occupiers gave the Japanese  a free hand in carrying out American policy and developing a new Japan on their own.

            This new Japan has varying unique geo-political roles in the post-war era as well as the post-Cold War era.  America saw Japan as very important in maintaining stability in an often tumultuous Asia.  Japan provided forward bases for the frontlines of the Cold War in Korea and Vietnam and other events.  Japan is also currently a successful leader in the world economic community.  And finally, Japan serves as a model for other Asian countries; in terms of self-independence, economic ability, as well as model of government.

            The current successes are easy to appreciate and praise, but the views of both sides during the actual Occupation even in today’s light and retrospect are difficult to clearly determine.  This was a very delicate time in Japanese as well as world history; a time full of mixed feelings.  The Occupation was a crucial period for Japan; it could be remembered as a bitter and difficult time (with unknown consequences and national direction), or it could be viewed as a point of inspiration, a time where a country began to rise above the past into a more promising future.

            The success of the Occupation can be credited to the spirit and hard work of the Japanese people and the edicts of “Emperor” MacArthur.  Much credit can be given to the Japanese since they have had ideas for capitalism and free enterprise and the roots for democratic ideals and constitutional government originating from the previous century.  But, without the structure and guiding hand of the American occupiers, this new “revolution” may never have happened.  Ideas such as democracy and free enterprise are arguably uncharacteristic of the Japanese.  For these ideas to flourish, some direction must come from the top.  After all, the revolutionary ideas during the Meiji Period became reality only after strict insistence from the new capital Tokyo (formerly Edo).  The new revolution resulted from the events and developments during and after the Occupation.  This revolution brought about a new Japan that is still continually evolving; and a Japan that will shape its own destiny.