The American Occupation of Japan,
1945-1952

Political and Economic Changes during the American Occupation of Japan

When the war ended, it was the common intent of all the Allied Powers to render Japan incapable of ever returning to the field of battle. "Demilitarization" was thus the first policy of the Occupation authorities and was accompanied by abolishing Japan's armed forces, dismantling its military industry, and eliminating the expression of patriotism from its schools and public life.

But the American government, which had led the Allied war effort and whose representative, General Douglas MacArthur, was named the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces, felt that only a democratic Japan would be truly peace-loving. It was assumed that democratic countries like the United States and Great Britain were more peaceful than nondemocratic countries such as Hitler's Germany and prewar Japan under the emperor. But what makes a country "democratic"? Is a country democratic simply because of certain political institutions, like free elections and free speech? Can these political institutions survive if economic power is concentrated in just a few hands, and social structures like the educational system and the family preach unlimited obedience to authority?

The American government believed that establishing democracy in Japan involved change in all areas of Japanese life. Under MacArthur and with the cooperation of the Japanese, Japan undertook tremendous changes in just seven short years — the Occupation lasted from 1945 to 1952. The success of the Occupation can be judged by the fact that forty years later, Japan has not fought a war, is a close ally of the United States, and has not changed most of the important reforms made by the Occupation.

Political Changes

The most obvious changes were political. During the Occupation, Japan adopted a new constitution (sometimes called the MacArthur Constitution because of the major role Americans played in its drafting). This constitution was completely different from the Meiji Constitution of 1889.

  • The biggest change was that it declared that sovereignty rested with the people, not the emperor. This is the political basis of democracy.
  • The emperor was to continue as a symbol of Japanese unity and culture, somewhat like the Queen of England in Britain's democracy, but without any political authority whatsoever.
  • The supreme political institution was now to be Japan's parliament, the Diet, which was to be made up of freely elected representatives of the people.
  • Women were given equal rights under the new constitution, including the right to vote.
  • Local governments were strengthened to encourage "grass-roots level" political participation.
  • The constitution established many new civil liberties, such as the right of free speech, and the powers of the police were weakened and carefully regulated.
  • Finally, the military forces were completely abolished and Article 9 of the new constitution forbade Japan to maintain an army or go to war ever again.

Economic Changes

To support these political changes, the Americans instituted reforms to make economic power in Japan more "democratic." In prewar Japan, two-thirds of the agricultural land was rented, not owned, by the farmers who farmed it. The farmers, who made up over 50 percent of the labor force, often rented the land from landlords who lived in distant cities and paid them as much as half of the crops they grew. Since the average "farm" was little more than an acre, many farm families lived in poverty. The land reform took land away from big landlords and redistributed it to the farmers, so that farm families could own the land they worked. Because farm families became more independent economically, they could participate more freely in the new democracy.

The Americans also tried to make workers in the industrial sector more independent by changing the laws to allow free trade unions. Before the war there were only a few small unions; by 1949, about half of all industrial workers belonged to a union.

To democratize economic power further and create competition, the Occupation intended to break up the giant business corporations, the zaibatsu, but this reform was not implemented, in part because it would have made Japan's economic recovery more difficult.

Changes in Civic Values

Besides changing Japanese institutions, the Americans wanted the Japanese people to understand better the idea of democracy. To do this, the occupation government used its control of newspapers and magazines to explain and popularize democracy.

They used American democracy as a model to be copied. The complete defeat and devastation of Japan after the war had left many Japanese shocked and disillusioned with their own military leaders, and they were open to the new ways of their American conquerors.

To ensure that Japanese children learned democratic values, the Americans insisted that the education system and the laws regulating families be revised. "Moral training" in schools was abolished, and instruction in democratic ideas was begun. Control of education and censorship of textbooks were taken from the central government and given to local administrations. The laws giving the head of the household complete control of every family member (for example, he could withhold his consent when his children wished to be married) were changed to make each family member more equal and thereby more democratic.

Support for Change Within Japan

After the Americans left, the reforms that did not find strong support within the Japanese system were discontinued. The anti monopoly laws were weakened, and new giant businesses appeared. The central government assumed control of the schools, although the democratic school structure and curriculum remained. The ruling conservative party suggested other changes, including re-introduction of "moral training" in the schools and abolition of the "peace clause," Article 9 of the constitution, but these were not adopted. In sum, there was great popular support for most of the changes, and the changed system thus continues to the present.

Discussion Questions

  1. What authorities designed and supervised the reforms carried out during the Occupation? Why were they able to do this?

  2. How many years did the occupation last? What were the dates?

  3. What did the Occupation authorities think made countries aggressive? How did they propose to make Japan less aggressive?

  4. What did the American Occupation authorities think was important to a lively democracy? Make a list of the factors.

  5. Describe what changes were made with regard to each of the areas listed below. Explain the purpose of each change. (You can outline your answer in chart form).
      • popular sovereignty
      • the emperor
      • women
      • civil liberties
      • military forces
      • land reform
      • trade unions
      • large business conglomerates
      • education
      • civic values
      • the family

  6. What were zaibatsu? How did the American occupation authorities see economic reforms — land reform, reform of the zaibatsu, and the strengthening of labor unions — to be related to a healthy democracy?

  7. While these economic reforms were being carried out in Japan, many Americans were criticizing them, saying, for example, that the existence of many small family farms was not important to democracy in the United States. This raises an interesting question: Could all Americans agree, do you think, on all elements that are important to democracy in the United States? What elements might they disagree on?

  8. How can you explain the successes of the Occupation — whereby a team of Americans tried to design reforms for another country based on their personal understanding of both their own country and Japan?

  9. Why did some reforms introduced by the American Occupation authorities not last? What can you conclude from this about the possibilities, and limits, of social change?

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Supplementary Reading for Student Reports

Using question 5 above as a starting point, have students research and report on the reforms within in one of these areas, showing the link between specific reforms and the overall goals of the Occupation.

      • Hugh Borton, Japan's Modern Century (New York: Ronald Press, 1970). This volume contains an excellent chapter on the Occupation.
      • Kazuo Kawai, Japan's American Interlude (University of Chicago Press)
      • John Curtis Perry, Beneath the Eagle's Wings: Americans in Occupied Japan (Dodd, Mead)
      • Toshio Nishi, Unconditional Democracy: Education and Politics in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952 (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University)

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Additional Student Activities

  1. Design a poster to promote one of the goals of the Occupation.

  2. Draw two political cartoons: the first, from the point of view of an American citizen who disagrees with one or more of the Occupation policies; the second, from the point of a Japanese citizen who is critical of the Occupation policies.

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu