U.S. Must Learn Lessons from Occupation of Japan

January 19th, 2003

“We are a nation that defeated Japan–then distributed food, wrote a Constitution, encouraged labor unions and gave women the right to vote. Japanese who expected retribution received mercy instead.”

–U.S. President George W. Bush in his first major foreign policy speech as a presidential candidate, on Nov. 19, 1999.

Great powers that are proud of their achievements have one thing in common–they pass on history in easily digestible terms to their schoolchildren, showing themselves in their best light and even discarding “minor” facts toward this end.

In doing so, nations can bask in their greatness, reaffirm their sense of dignity as a world power and carry on their glory.

Such national pride, in and of itself, has great value.

It is dangerous, however, for the United States to apply such thinking–similar to myth-making–to real political situations. When the time comes to rebuild Iraq after a possible war, the United States should respect verifiable historical facts.

Reforms on own steam

The reason Japan was able to democratize during the postwar Allied Occupation was, first of all, because the Japanese government faithfully adhered to Article 10 of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, which stipulated Japan’s obligation to democratize. The article reads in part, “The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people.”

By “revival and strengthening,” an Allied official in charge of drafting the declaration felt like putting stress on his fond memory of what was referred to as the Taisho Democracy–the democratic practices and movements that had flourished until immediately before the 1931 Manchurian Incident. The Taisho Democracy takes its name from the Taisho era (1912-1926).

Anyway, even without the Potsdam Declaration, Japan had nowhere to go back except for the Taisho Democracy, once the war had been brought to an end.

The first postwar Cabinet, led by liberal Prince Higashikuni as prime minister, threw its support behind full guarantees of freedom of speech and association–despite the Occupation’s worry that some radical reforms would have a negative impact on public peace and order. The Higashikuni Cabinet thus started to put an end to a long period of wartime government control.

The subsequent administration, headed by Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara, rallied Shidehara’s allies from the Taisho Democracy days and launched a set of democratic reforms that had been pending since the Taisho era. Women were given the vote; progressive trade unions gained legal recognition; and land reforms were launched to enable tenant farmers to own their land.

All these reforms were initiated by the Japanese government and, eventually, legalized under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, or the Meiji Constitution–the fundamental law that was in place before the current Constitution was promulgated.

In fact, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, having learned that the reform plans had already been started, without waiting for his order, exclaimed “Excellent!”

The initial phase of the Occupation went without a hitch. By Imperial decree, the Japanese military was completely dismantled and the public remained peaceful and orderly. When a food crisis occurred, relief arrived in the form of emergency food supplies imported on MacArthur’s orders. This left a deep impression on many Japanese at the time, who felt Japan as a nation could not match U.S. beneficence.

MacArthur’s worries

But things took a turn for the worse after the Occupation developed into a full-fledged bureaucracy. Allied bureaucrats made changes that would leave more negative than positive legacies to Japanese politics and society–not to mention relations with the United States–for the next half-century.

Certain key factors contributed to this.

With Joseph Grew’s resignation as U.S. undersecretary of state, U.S. policy on Japan changed. The Far Eastern Commission was launched and the Soviet Union had a greater say. The Tokyo Tribunal, officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, began. All of these factors militated against this country’s naturally nurtured democratization process, as the factors were conducive only to exerting pressures for more retaliatory and harsh treatment of Japan.

MacArthur worried that the combination of these factors would jeopardize his plan to retain Japan’s emperor system–the core strategy for the success of the Occupation.

As a preemptive step, he had the new Constitution hurriedly drafted and then compelled the Japanese government to adopt it, with the clauses on retention of the emperor system and an extreme form of pacifism as its two guiding principles.

The Constitution created a slew of lingering problems, mainly because of its extremely impractical pacifist goals and its lack of legitimacy, having been written by a handful of Allied bureaucrats in a mere week or so. The will of the Japanese people is not reflected in the Constitution at all.

Moreover, another serious problem was that New Deal leftists held key positions in the Allied bureaucracy.

While publicly admitting their ignorance of Japan’s history and traditions, these New Deal bureaucrats said they would create a “new Japan,” and proceeded to brand everything in the nation’s history as evil. They wanted nothing less than the complete destruction of Japanese traditions.

To achieve this end, they relied mainly on two measures. One was the strict restrictions on the freedom of speech, which were clearly in violation of the Potsdam Declaration, both the Meiji Constitution and the existing Constitution, as well as the Constitution of the United States. The other was the purge of a large number of people, whom they arbitrarily labeled “reactionary,” from public offices. These marked blemishes on the record of the Occupation, constituting sources of resentment among the Japanese people as details about the Occupation policy have recently been elucidated by Japanese scholars.

That policy did not last long. Even Occupation insiders were appalled by these irresponsible whims of shallow leftist policymakers and accused these military bureaucrats of licentiousness of their “colonial life,” as they abused the absolute power of the Occupation.

Lingering evils

Nonetheless, these policy goals–the emasculation and destruction of Japan both spiritually and militarily–left the country ripe for picking under the Cold War by the Communist International, an organization dedicated to advancing communism worldwide.

Even after the Occupation forces ended this policy, the mode of thinking it spawned lived on in the powerful propaganda disseminated by the communists and came to permeate all fields of thought in this country, mainly through the postwar education system and media organizations’ trade unions, both of which were virtually under the sway of leftists.

The media in particular opposed the U.S. Far East policy, in which Washington wanted to enlist Japan as an active partner working for peace and stability in East Asia. Though Japan’s successive conservative governments, backed by the majority of the people, supported this policy, the media and so-called public opinion continued to oppose the U.S. policy at every point.

Little wonder, then, that U.S. policy toward Japan often met with frustration and caused disappointment.

I am not writing this as a criticism of the United States for its occupation policy. Instead, I hope to make some contribution to help the United States formulate an occupation policy for Iraq.

The biggest mistake of the Allied Occupation in Japan was when Dean Acheson, Grew’s successor, deliberately alienated Japan experts in the Occupation policy team, for example, by sending, not fellow Japan experts, but China experts from the State Department to Japan.

‘Friends of Iraq’ required

If Japan experts such as Grew and Eugene Dooman had served as aides to MacArthur, the New Deal bureaucrats would have had no room to ride roughshod over Occupation policy. Japan’s democracy would have become far more sophisticated and would have been allowed to mature confidently on the basis of its own history and traditions. Moreover, bilateral relations between Japan and the United States would have been far more solid, with the two countries sharing the fundamental values of freedom and democracy.

The lesson for the United States is that, when it turns to an occupation policy toward Iraq, it should not alienate the Iraq experts. Preferably, those experts should be “friends of Iraq,” statesmanlike figures who are competent enough to cultivate friendships with Iraqi politicians, scholars and other opinion leaders, rather than anthropologists specializing in Iraq. In this way, both sides will learn to respect each other. Iraq’s “friends” might not necessarily be just Americans, but also British, French, Egyptians and Turks.

Historically, Iraq does not differ greatly from many countries now enjoying the fruits of democracy.

In fact, Iraq already tasted democracy in the early post-World War II era. With the mounting threat of communism under the Cold War, a pro-Western, anticommunist dictatorial regime emerged, but subsequently was overthrown by nationalistic sentiment that boiled over into a leftist revolution. This revolution led to the dictatorship of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The fact that countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia and Latin American nations achieved stable democracies in the 1990s after many political vicissitudes would seem encouraging for anyone with an interest in the future of Iraq.

Democracy is a product of experience.

It took Britain five centuries of trial and error to go from the Magna Carta of 1215, which set the groundwork for later democracies, to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, which gave Parliament a theoretical supremacy over the throne.

When the Taisho Democracy led to public disenchantment because of the weakenss inherent to democracy, such as evils of partisan struggle for power and money power scandals, people were easily enticed to cast their support behind another alternative, a military regime, which eventually ended in the nation’s historic disaster. In Japan, the Taisho Democracy, in terms of its actual political achievements, differed little from the democracy we have today–but for one remarkable exception; that is, the lack of experience of the disaster.

War tribunal ill-advised

Because of this experience, people today, unlike in prewar times, take it for granted that democracy is the only way to run the country.

In the same way, it is to be hoped the experiences the Iraqi people have had with Saddam’s personal form of dictatorship will prove beneficial to the future growth of democracy in that country.

Of course, Iraq’s myriad problems are inherently different from and much more complicated than Japan’s problems during the Occupation, and include ethnic and religious conflicts.

If, however, the taste of freedom after the harsh Saddam regime is so sweet that it washes away the country’s bitter problems, Iraq may be able to look ahead to a bright future.

A war tribunal, irrespective of what shape it takes, is questionable in the eyes of international law. So the United States should have the wisdom to refrain from forcing a war tribunal on Iraq. A better course would be to leave it in the hands of the Iraqi people , who will have plenty of reasons to bring Saddam and his associates to justice over their abuses of power.

Finally, there is one final tool that the United States should realize can help it win over the Iraqi people–affluence.

The U.S. Occupation policy in Japan, however faulty it might have been, was, simply put, irresistible. The Japanese people were overwhelmed by all the visible signs of the affluence they could achieve under a U.S.-style democracy.