Japan: 1853-1952 The Centennial Struggle Between Militarism and the Transition to Liberal Constitutionalism

A Picture of Meiji Imperial Family: the parents and older siblings embrace western modern clothing, while the youth and the toddler’s princes and princesses are in traditional kimonos as they grow up with a strong sense of Japanese identity, Source:Facinghistory


At the end of Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, the country stood at a precipice. After a hundred years of stunningly rapid modernization, militarization, and expansion, Japan faced yet another turning point: a transition from militarist, totalitarian imperialism to a pacifist constitutional monarchy. Its experience offers a case study in how a non-European or Western society can transform on a fundamental basis to move from aggressive ultranationalism to a position as one of the world’s most stable democratic states.

Rise and Fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate

From the 800s onwards, Japan was ruled by shoguns (military commanders-in-chief, appointed by the emperor from the ranks of the samurai warriors), with the daimyo (regional feudal rulers) falling below them in rank. Historically, the shogunates had been interrupted by various civil wars waged by the rival daimyo who aspired to become shogun. In a series of civil wars leading up to 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals to establish a new line of leadership and usher Japan into the Edo period. In this period, also known as the Tokugawa period, Japan’s government introduced effective, radical reforms that restructured Japan. Tokugawa’s centralized army, bureaucracy, and efficient taxation system turned the country into a highly cohesive state. [1]

Yet, it faced a new challenge from Christian missionaries in the country and their growing numbers of Japanese allies. In the preceding century, European Christian missionaries had established a growing Christian community centered around several influential daimyo families. Concerned by the increasingly autonomous and powerful Christian daimyos whose commerce depended on European colonial powers, Shogun Tokugawa (1623-1651) banned Christianity and ordered the persecution of Christians. After a final bloody conflict with the Christians, Tokugawa Japan withdrew to an almost total isolation from the rest of the world until the US Navy’s 1853 incursion into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay), under the leadership of Commodore Matthew Perry.[2]

Charter Oath, 6 April 1868, that was the hallmark of Japanese ruling elite’s resolve to attain modernism, Source: Britannica

Driven by the United States’ commercial rivalry with other Western powers, the Perry Expedition dealt a shock to the core of the Tokugawa shogunate. The following year, after the arrival of a larger fleet that coerced the shogun into opening Japan completely, Perry concluded the expedition with the US-Japanese Convention of Kanagawa.[3] This marked the beginning of a series of “unequal treaties” between various Western powers and Japan – labelled as such by the Japanese due to their unprecedented and unilateral curtailment of Japanese sovereignty via mechanisms including low-rate import duties that were excluded from Japanese government control, as well as a system of extraterritoriality that left foreigners subject to the laws of their own countries rather than to the Japanese legal system.

In reaction to the unequal treaties and their unilateral opening of Japan to Western trade, modernist factions emerged from the ranks of the ruling and urban classes, determined to end these treaties’ concessions to foreign powers. The shogunate tried to allay the modernists’ worries through small measures such as building new port defence and establishing military training schools but resisted wholesale modernization of Japan, ultimately resorting to exile and execution of the modernists during the Ansei Purge (1858-1860).

Nonetheless, resentment over the growing foreign influences in Japan continued to build, and by 1863, a clan under one daimyo’s leadership led an armed attack on Western diplomats with the intention of “expelling the barbarians.” However, Western navies bombarded their strongholds in what became known as the Shimonoseki campaign, ultimately keeping the unequal treaties in place.[4] This, however, did not quell the anger among Japan’s modernist and pro-emperor factions. A new round of modernizations by the shogunate fell short of their demands, and in November 1867, they forced the last shogun to resign. In eight weeks, a new emperor proclaimed the Meiji Revolution.[5]

The Meiji Revolution

On January 4, 1868, Emperor Mutsuhito succeeded his father, Emperor Kōmei, and proclaimed the Meiji restoration (meiji meaning “shining” or “enlightened”).[6] This would usher in decades of transformative change for Japan via an ambitious program of industrialization and modernization. No aspect of Japanese society, from education to the legal system, was left untouched, and Japan’s political system began a shift, albeit a limited one, towards constitutional democracy. Meanwhile, the country began to assert itself on the global stage, winning key military victories that, while boosting Japan’s international status, also planted the seeds for the eventual takeover of military rule.

As part of the Meijirestoration, all members of the ruling classes and public servants were soon required to take an oath of loyalty that established the foundational principles of Japan’s new government and laid the groundwork for the establishment of a modern nation-state. Known as the Charter Oath, it decreed: 1) decision-making in all affairs of state by public discussion; 2) national unity and devotion to serve the country; 3) meritocracy in serving the country regardless of family heritage or class; 4) abandonment of “evil customs of the past”; 5) and seeking of knowledge “throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.” [7]

The Founding Years, 1868-1880: Emerging Capitalism and Civil Society

The Meijigovernment’s reforms in the ensuing two decades were comprehensive. Japan dispatched missions to the US and Europe to report back on Western educational, industrial, legal, and political advances, with the express purpose of charting out Japan’s modernization plan. This paved the way for a holistic national educational system, as professional colleges, including the University of Tokyo and its provincial branches, were founded with the help of Western instructors, along with a national elementary and secondary educational system. Meanwhile, the state established mandatory three-year universal military conscription for all male subjects at age 20 and launched family registries that would keep the state apprised of demographic changes.

At the same time, the government imported major manufacturing industries, modernized textile manufacturing and production, and constructed modern roads, railways, ports, and telecommunication networks. The Meiji state used aggressive subsidies and systemic exploitation of the working classes to develop the zaibatsu: banking-industrial monopolies.[8] This drove a transformation from an agrarian society to an industrialized one.

The “unequal treaties” and the aggressive push for modernization impacted Japanese from all walks of life, causing a tectonic shift in people’s perceptions and expectations of a just and representative government. The state’s political reforms included the establishment of a state council and modern cabinet, but the Japanese people soon began demanding more. In 1874, a group of political activists published a petition in a major daily newspaper calling for a representative legislature.[9] Concurrently, civil society grassroots organizations and local advocacy associations sprang up across the nation. [10] Quite a few village associations and local civil society groups engaged with translations of Western democratic thinkers and drafted local constitutions that held as self-evident that power emanated from the people and not the sovereign monarch.[11]

Meiji Modernism, Rule of Law, and the Dilemma of Constitutionalism

By the 1880s, Meiji modernizers recognized that there was a pressing need to develop a modern legal and constitutional system of government. In their vision, a Meiji constitution would fulfill three major goals. First, it would defuse the growing discontent among the urban and local gentry. Additionally, they believed it would make the achievements of the Meiji Revolution irreversible. Equally important was the consideration that only after such a system of government had been established would Western powers deem Japan an equal member of “the community of civilized nations governed by the ‘rule of law’”.[12]

Between 1870 and 1890, with the assistance of European jurists, Japan developed a judicial system with civil and penal codes and procedures.[13] Next, deliberations began to adopt a constitution. Concerned by the potential “destabilizing” impact of an “overly liberal” constitution modelled after the contemporary American, British, and French constitutions, in 1889 the ruling elite opted for the German-Prussian constitution as the appropriate model for Japan.[14]

The Meiji Constitution concentrated all sovereignty in the emperor, not the people, and assigned the emperor a divine status. This divinely ordained sovereign was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the chief of the executive, legislature, and judicial branches of government, all of which were to support his rule of the state and enforcement of its laws. People’s rights to free speech, private property, privacy, and mobility were recognized, but not as fundamental binding principles; their scope was left to be determined by parliamentary statutes. As for the judiciary, the constitution guaranteed judicial independence, but courts could not review the constitutionality of laws or executive ordinances.[15]

The constitution enshrined a bicameral legislature, the Imperial Diet, composed of an elected lower house of representatives and an appointed upper house of peers, all of whom would be appointed by the emperor from among members of the imperial family and hereditary peerage. The first parliamentary elections, held in 1890, enabled tax-paying male citizens ages 25 and over to vote for the 300 members of the lower house, who in turn were limited to tax-paying non-aristocratic male subjects, ages 30 and over.[16]

The lower house’s authority in many areas was limited, as it shared its legislative powers with the emperor, who had the prerogative to dissolve the lower house at any time. The emperor’s authority was unquestionable, with the constitution offering a nominal acknowledgement of the legislature’s role in that “the emperor exercises legislative power with the consent of the imperial diet.” Limited as this legislative role was, it would still later become a bone of contention between liberal democratic activists and ultranationalist militarists who considered parliamentary democracy to be “un-Japanese.”  

Against the backdrop of this ambitious modernization, Japan demanded an end to the “unequal treaties.” Western powers had previously insisted that they could not consider any changes to the treaties until Japan’s legal system had been reformed. With this done, the stage was now set for a new era in Japan’s history in which the country asserted itself on an international level. Between 1893 and 1908, Japan leapt from a developing East Asian state with regional aspirations to a powerful world actor as a constitutional empire governed by the rule of law.

The Meiji Era’s Final Years (1895-1912)

Beginning around 1894, Japan’s growing military-industrial power and its modernized legal system changed the calculus for Western powers as they considered the future of the “unequal treaties.” One by one, those powers entered into new “equal” treaties with Japan. Meanwhile, Japan clashed with its closest neighbors, China and Russia. In the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Japan battled China over influence in the Korean peninsula, which Japan saw as critical to its own national security. After an overwhelming display of Japanese military superiority, the Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan to Japan, imposed hefty war reparations on China, and recognized Korean independence. This victory fueled an even more ambitious militarist spirit in Japan.

Japan’s victory in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war further solidified its new position on the regional and world stage.  Had there remained any questions in Europe and North America about the success of Japan’s modernization project, all such doubt was now dashed.[17]  The impact of this victory – the first by an Asian country over a Western power in modern history – had reverberations around the world, where anti-colonial movements saw Japan as a beacon of hope. Iranian and Ottoman revolutionaries found in Japan an inspiring example of modernization that demonstrated how a non-Western nation could modernize without fundamentally compromising its traditional and cultural identity. That said, they all conveniently overlooked Japan’s imperialist colonial treatment of Korea and China.

Throughout history, foreign military adventures have rarely been a boon to either republics or constitutional monarchies, in that they have often given rise to a militarist class contemptuous of civilian authority.  For Japan, too, these military victories did not bode well for constitutionalism. The more foreign victories Japan’s imperial armed forces achieved, the more their top brass expected deference from elected politicians in state policy, both domestic and foreign.  The Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, which brought Japan and Britain together to protect their interests in China and Korea while safeguarding against Russian expansionism, further emboldened the Japanese military and its imperialist ambitions. From this point on, every military victory for Japan bolstered militarist ultranationalists and undermined democratic constitutionalists.

Taishō Democracy (1912-1926)

In 1912, Emperor Taishō succeeded Emperor Meiji upon his death, launching      the era known in Japanese history as Taishō democracy. During this period, Japan rose to the status of a world power, even as a liberal democratic movement rose up on a domestic level, forming nationwide civil society networks and political parties that sought to transform domestic and foreign policy. Towards the end of this era, Japanese constitutionalism reached a democratic pinnacle as universal male suffrage was finally enacted into law. Shortly thereafter, however, Japan began its descent into militarist oligarchy.

Between the Militarist Rock and the Right-wing Paramilitary Hard Place

Long before the 1895-1905 victories, from among the ranks of the old samurai class that had resisted the Meiji Revolution emerged a few secret paramilitary ultranationalist societies that wished Japan to become a regional and global power. To these men, Japan’s civilian government – however limited and elitist its parliamentary constitutionalism may have been – was an obstacle to Japan’s ascension to the ranks of Western hegemons. Soon after their emergence in the late 1870s, the secret societies won allies within the upper echelons of the government and military. In 1901, they formed the Black Dragon Society, or Kokuryūkai, to pressure the civilian government to aggressively promote Japan’s commercial interests in East and Southeast Asia by military means.[18]

Even as Japan’s anti-democratic elements redoubled their efforts to influence the state, nascent civil society movements were on the rise to pose a growing challenge to ultranationalists. During the preceding decades’ push towards modernization, industries including steel and coal industries had reached their success in large part from harsh exploitation of the working classes they hired. Now the labor movement joined the struggle for influence over the political elite via newspaper petitions, pamphleteering, and civic associations. The labor movement in turn gave rise to socialist and social democratic political parties and farmers’ associations which ultimately founded farmers’ political parties. [19]

International networking was a key aspect of Japanese civil society’s growth during this era, as the labor movement, as well as the suffrage movement and the anarchist movement, all networked with their counterparts in Asia and the West.[20] While these movements had limited success, aside from the extension of suffrage to all men age 25 and up in 1925, they nonetheless offered a spirited challenge to the right-wing ultranationalists – at least, until the ultranationalists seized power in the late 1930s.[21]

A picture of Japanese Modern Artillery during Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Source: Britannica

World War I catapulted Japan to the world stage as a global power as it entered on the side of Britain, France, Russia, and the United States in order to expand its territory. While securing strategic sea lanes against the German navy, Japan expanded into eastern China by acquiring German colonial possessions there. By the war’s end, Japan took its place at the table in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and became a founding member of the League of Nations. However, this did not stop Japan’s Western allies from rejecting the Racial Equity Proposal it sought as part of the Treaty of Versailles. These powers refused to recognize Japanese as racially equal to whites, thus keeping in place restrictions against Japanese immigration to Australia and Canada.[22] Convinced that major Western powers would never treat Japan equally, Japanese ultranationalists now accelerated their push for increased military control of the government and further imperialist expansion. [23]

Political Violence and Universal Male Suffrage

The first sign of trouble for Japanese parliamentary politics was the 1921 assassination of the moderate conservative Prime Minister Hara Takashi by a right-wing fanatic. Hara’s attempts to reduce the military’s power and his institution of a limited amount of self-rule in Korea had won him the enmity of the ultranationalists. Shortly after his assassination, the 1922 Nine-Power Treaty guaranteed Japan’s territorial integrity in East Asia and recognized Japan’s imperial and colonial status there. Three years later, the government that succeeded Hara passed a male universal suffrage law – but in a less democratic development, that same year, new Public Security Laws placed tight controls on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, banned workers from organizing and striking, and restricted socialist and communist parties’ ability to run for the lower house.[24]

Despite these efforts to quash dissent, in the last years of the Taishō era, social movements struggled onward, with the Social Democratic, Labor, and Labor-Farmer parties formed in the aftermath of the 1925 reforms seizing a victory over the dominant Liberal and Conservative parties in the 1928 general elections.[25] But this was not enough to turn the tide of militant ultranationalism, which was growing ever stronger as the Taishō era ended in 1926 with the emperor’s death.

The Rise and Fall of Militarism: 1928-1945

The early to mid-1930s witnessed a power struggle between Japan’s civilian government and its military and ultranationalist elements. Ultranationalist secret societies that actively pursued violent measures against the government were growing, and the Kwantung Army, while nominally an army group subordinate to headquarters, was taking bolder steps on its own to achieve its aggressive, expansionist goals.[26]

Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria in 1931, Source: Britannica

From 1927-29, Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi, a retired military officer himself, clashed with the ultranationalists in the military. After the Kwantung Army’s unauthorized assassination of a Manchurian warlord and a failed effort to seize Manchuria, where Japan had a permanent garrison protecting its commercial interests, Giichi confronted military leaders to press for a court-martial. However, the military establishment covered up the Kwantung Army’s plot, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Tanaka administration.Tanaka’s successor, the former finance minister Hamaguchi Osachi, attempted to fortify the position of the civilian government against the military, but his administration was weakened by the global economic depression in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash. After Hamaguchi’s accession to the 1930 London Naval Treaty, which reduced the size of the Japanese Imperial Navy, a member of an ultranationalist secret society shot him near the very place where Prime Minister Hara had been assassinated by another right-winger just nine years before. Hamaguchi died months later from an infection in his wounds.

The Manchurian Crisis and the Decline of Civilian Government

1931 marked a turning point in the decline of Japan’s civilian government. That year, the      government adopted the Greater Eastern Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere Policy, which called for a pan-Asian bloc of nations to be led by Japan, independent of Western colonial rule.[27] This new imperialist policy further emboldened Japan’s ultranationalists and put Japan on an irreversible course of conflict with the United States in East Asia.

This laid the groundwork for the 1931 Mukden Incident, in which the Kwantung Army – without authorization from Tokyo – engineered a conflict with China in Manchuria in order to justify an invasion. Upon China’s petition to the League of Nations, an investigative commission called for Japan’s withdrawal and restoration of Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria.[28] The Japanese government was now torn between Emperor Hirohito’s orders to      secure the trust of the international community and the military’s drive to continue its regional aggression.

After the government’s resignation, the succeeding Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi attempted to limit further military deployments to Manchuria and to negotiate with the Chinese government as the conflict in China spread to Shanghai. In response, factions within the imperial navy attempted a coup against the government; although this effort failed, they succeeded at assassinating Inukai in 1932. The military was now completely outside civilian control. By the following year, the military had effectively annexed Manchuria, and Japan withdrew from the League of Nations, demonstrating its determination to continue its regional aggression and making a mockery of the League’s ability to enforce its edicts.[29]

Militarist Rule: 1937-1945

The late 1930s saw a consolidation of military imperial power in Japan. In 1936, extremist forces within the military launched yet another coup attempt, this time against Prime Minister Okada Keisuke’s government. This attempt, like its predecessors, failed, and Okada escaped a plotted assassination. However, he resigned shortly thereafter, and the execution of some of the junior officers and civilians involved in the coup attempt did not preclude the ultranationalist military leadership’s accomplishment of the objective many had sought since 1930: a hostile takeover of the civilian government.[30] From 1936 until 1945, Japan’s cabinet was either appointed upon consent of the military top brass or was directly run by the military leadership. From 1941 to 1945, it was the formidable General Tojo Hideki and his allies who turned Japan into an absolute militarist state, isolated the emperor, and ran Japan as if it were a modern-day shogunate.[31]

Upon taking control of the government in 1937, the first item on the militarist rulers’ agenda was to complete their Manchurian adventure and bring the full brunt of their expansionism to the rest of China, in the second Sino-Japanese War. Although Japan’s leaders professed a goal of sharing modernist advances with the rest of Asia through the establishment of a “new order,” this was belied by Japan’s crimes against humanity in China, including the Nanjing Massacre, the sadistic human experimentation conducted by the army’s Unit 731, and biological warfare that went so far as to poison children with anthrax, trigger multiple plague epidemics, and contaminate water sources with typhoid and cholera bacteria.[32]

General Hideki Tojo, Japan’s militarist PM (1941-1944) taking the stand for the first time during the Tokyo Trials in Japan on Dec. 26, 1947. Tojo was executed for war crimes in 1948, Source: Ndezvous

In 1940, Japan began preparing for an invasion of French Indochina, in an effort to cut off supply lines to China and strengthen its position against the American, British, Chinese, and Dutch presence in the region. Fearful of German designs on French Indochina as well as the Dutch East Indies, Japan decided to defuse the threat by entering the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, just one year after World War II had begun in Europe.

As Japan embarked on its invasion of Indochina, the United States was concerned over the growing danger posed by this aggressive country which was now part of the Axis. The American Export Control Act froze Japanese assets in the US, embargoed Japan’s access to steel and scrap metals, and banned Japan’s access to shipping through the Panama Canal. The following year, the act was expanded to include a ban on oil exports to Japan, which proved to be a fateful decision. With Japan dependent on the US for 80 percent of its oil, this thrust the country into a crisis that threatened its ability to continue its war against China. In this context, Japan’s leaders saw expansion into the resource-rich region of French Indochina as even more crucial to its military and economic survival – and they saw the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as a key threat to that southeast Asian expansion. In order to neutralize that danger, Japan launched a stunning surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and declared war on the Americans and British in December 1941.[33]

The Thermo-Nuclear Tragedy: Collapse of the Militarist Rule and Imperial Surrender, 1945

In the first years of Japan’s involvement in World War II, the country cut a victorious – and brutal – swathe through East Asia and the Pacific, all the way to Burma. However, in late 1942, the allied powers led by the United States began turning the tide, putting Japan on the defensive across the Pacific theater. Once the war in Europe ended in May 1945, President Harry Truman’s US administration was bent on ending the war with Japan as soon as possible. It discarded plans for a ground invasion of Japan, believing it would result in excessive casualties on their side, and instead evaluated options that would involve minimal risk to American lives. Ten days after the successful test of the first nuclear bomb in July 1945, the allied powers issued the Potsdam Declaration calling on Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” However, Japan’s leadership, particularly the military, rejected the concept of unconditional surrender.

A week and a half later, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. With the Japanese government still determined to fight on, three days later the US bombed Nagasaki, and just days after that, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Together, the bombings would ultimately kill over 100,000 Japanese, approximately one-third of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite this destruction, the Japanese government remained divided on how to respond. At this point, Emperor Hirohito stepped in to preserve his throne and the country, or what was left of it. He made what he called a “sacred decision” to accept the terms of surrender, on the condition that his sovereignty remain intact. A military faction attempted a coup to block the surrender, but it failed, and the next day, the emperor’s message of surrender was broadcast on the radio to the Japanese people. After the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), American General Douglas MacArthur, arrived in Tokyo, he accepted Japan’s official surrender on September 2, 1945.[34]

Occupation and Transition

Japan’s military occupation, lasting between 1945 and 1952, was a time of sweeping reforms intended to transform Japan into a parliamentary democracy, revive its economy, and enact repercussions for its past militarism and prevent any recurrence of its military aggression. MacArthur set in place SCAP oversight on the Japanese civilian government’s activities so that the occupation could work through the local government rather than rule directly. While working closely with Japanese leaders who shared liberal values, MacArthur embarked on an ambitious series of policies.

One of MacArthur’s key responsibilities was to dismantle the Japanese military and try their leaders for war crimes, as was being done with Nazi leaders in Europe. In 1945, occupation forces dissolved the imperial military and destroyed leftover war supplies. Subsequently, thousands of Japanese military and political leaders, from General Tojo Hideko (who was executed for his crimes) to lower-level military members, were charged with war crimes, including in the 1946-48 Tokyo Trials. Throughout World War II, the Japanese army had executed and tortured prisoners of war, inflicted brutal forced labor and mass killings on POWs and civilians, and systematically forced sexual slavery onto women across the Pacific theater. But despite seeking accountability for other Japanese leaders, SCAP deliberately shielded Emperor Hirohito from any potential charges, based on a strategic calculation that the preservation of his position was critical to keep the peace and ensure the success of the occupation mission in Japan.[35]      

Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP): Stabilization and Reforms

Restabilizing Japan was a necessary prerequisite to any further reforms, particularly given the country’s dire post-war state. In the wake of the war’s devastation, millions of Japanese civilians and soldiers began returning home, putting an even greater strain on the country’s limited resources and increasing the challenge facing the SCAP administration. Japan simply lacked the capacity to feed all of its citizens. During the war, food production had declined as efforts were focused on military supplies; the situation was worsened by crop failures, the wartime destruction of food distribution channels, and the post-war liberation of Japan’s rice-producing colonies of Korea and Taiwan.

Amid this famine, the United States donated food and instituted a school lunch program to address child hunger. Moreover, in order to ensure that the occupying forces did not encroach upon the local populace’s food supplies, MacArthur ordered the construction of a hydroponic farm to grow produce strictly for SCAP forces. Overall, the US’s contribution of 2.2 billion dollars of assistance played a key role in funding SCAP reforms and ensuring a successful and sustainable transition to democracy.[36]

An Eight Month-Long Transition

SCAP was adamant that there would be no return to militarism in Japan, and pursued this goal with a rapid series of changes designed to democratize Japanese politics and neutralize the military. Other reforms targeted both business and land monopolies, as well as enforcement of labor rights and enactment of education reform.

Political Reforms and the New Constitution

SCAP swiftly embarked on political reforms that startled many moderates in Japan’s provisional government. These steps began with the release of all political prisoners, chiefly communists. SCAP also ended most censorship and limitations on freedom of speech (while somewhat ironically maintaining censorship of criticism of the US). Within eight months of the start of occupation, parliamentary elections were held. Additionally, SCAP directed the Japanese government to purge the public service and political parties of tens of thousands of statesmen who had collaborated with the military (although in 1950, a number of those individuals were allowed to return to government).[37]

The constitutional reform engineered by SCAP was the occupation’s crowning achievement. At SCAP’s directive, the provisional government drafted a constitution in 1945-46. The occupying forces, however, saw the draft as only providing cosmetic changes – not the drastic reform necessary to remove any possibility of the resurgence of militarism and ultranationalism. Hence, SCAP itself drafted its own model constitution and directed the government to present it to the newly elected parliament and the emperor.[38] Both houses of the Japanese imperial parliament adopted the new constitution as an amendment to the Meiji Constitution with very few amendments.

Crucially, the constitution guaranteed equality and fundamental human rights and liberties akin to those of Western liberal democratic constitutions, in particular the US constitution (articles 1-14).[39] The constitution also set up a bicameral parliamentary system in which powers were chiefly concentrated in the lower house, or House of Representatives. The upper house, or House of Councillors, which had been an appointed body in the Meiji Constitution, became an elected body with limited powers.[40]

Significantly, the constitution bound Japan to “forever renounce war” and abolished the armed forces, allowing only a standing self-defence force.[41] In another ground-breaking change, the constitution declared that sovereignty rested with the people rather than the emperor, who now became “the symbol of the State and the unity of the people,” as opposed to the living god he had historically been considered by the Japanese people.[42] The constitution also designated the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of any dispute about citizens’ rights and the powers of the government (article 81).[43] In another advance for Japan, the new constitution granted suffrage to women, who were able to vote for the first time in the 1946 general elections. While Japan did away with a number of SCAP’s reforms in the post-occupation period, the constitution has remained a constant, with no amendments or revisions in the decades since it was adopted.

Corporate, Land, and Labor Reforms

Economic, land, and labor reforms targeted deep-rooted inequalities in Japanese society and empowered millions of farming and working-class citizens. SCAP forced the zaibatsu, or business conglomerates that were at the heart of Japan’s imperialist military-industrial complex, to sell their shares in the Tokyo stock market. It also purged military collaborators from the ranks of their CEOs and boards of directors. Nevertheless, in the end many of the zaibatsu were able to escape dissolution (an effect of the later US drive to reindustrialize Japan as a defense against communism).

Meanwhile, a trade union law passed in 1945 and backed by SCAP guaranteed workers the right to organize, strike, and engage in collective bargaining.[44] Sanbetsu, Japan’s most active labor union, quickly exercised those rights in nationwide strikes in 1946, which prompted a backlash from ultraright groups, including an assassination attempt on Sanbetsu’s president. SCAP invoked emergency powers to break the strikes and later took further anti-labor measures as part of an anti-communist shift in priorities. Even so, workers’ right to organize and strike remained a permanent fixture of the post-war Japanese political and economic order.

SCAP also instructed the government to purchase land from large or absentee landlords and sell it at the lowest possible price to Japanese peasants.[45] With approximately 40% of Japan’s cultivated land sold off, there was a major shift in power from landowners to workers, coupled with an unprecedented empowerment of rural areas. These reforms laid the groundwork for the resurrection of the labor, peace, and women’s rights civil society movements that predated the 1937-45 period and that had been strongly repressed by militarist rule.

Regional Administrative and Education Reforms

None of the reforms imposed by SCAP would be sustainable without educational reform. As of the war’s end, Japan’s education system was a tool of the militarists, with the Ministry of Education doing their bidding, military officers directly holding educational positions, and textbooks filled with militarist propaganda.

In 1946, with the help of American experts, Japanese educators and local officials proposed a blueprint to democratize Japan’s education system. Courses in history, ethics, and geography, which had all been used to inculcate students with militarist, ultranationalist ideology, were suspended while new textbooks were written and teachers were trained and screened for democratic ideals.

Additionally, the education system shifted from a centralized model where the Ministry of Education exercised total control over schools, teacher training, curricula, and textbooks to a decentralized model where elected local school boards were able to make these decisions while the MOE acted only as an advisor. Education was also made compulsory for nine years and co-educational for the first time.[46] Although some of the occupation-era reforms were later undone, and internal conflict within Japan over the teaching of its history has continued, these changes nevertheless provided a foundation for the evolution of Japan’s education system into one that today performs at the top of many international surveys. Beyond that, in the decades since the end of the occupation in 1952, Japan has further entrenched its position as a stable constitutional monarchy.


Across the century between the late Tokugawa shogunate and the end of US occupation, Japan underwent a dizzying series of political and societal changes. Against a backdrop of rapid modernization and military expansion, ultranationalist factions clashed with more liberal elements of society. But despite the victory of totalitarian militarism in the early 20th century, the seeds planted by previous movements for liberal reform played a key role in Japan’s ultimate transition to democracy. Japan’s current status as a model of orderly democratic governance demonstrates the ability of liberal movements to ultimately prevail over ultranationalism and militarism, even if that victory is decades in the making.

[1] Mason, R. H. P., and J. G. Caiger. A History of Japan. R. H. P. Mason [and] J. G. Caiger. Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1997. 212-405.

[2] Ibid, 198-207. And, Walker, Brett L. A Concise History of Japan. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 91-95. The isolation was not total. The shogun granted a heavily guarded trade outpost to Dutch merchants. The fateful arrival of the US Navy fleet ended this isolation once and for all in 1853.

[3] The full treaty was signed in 1858. See Mason and Caiger. A History Japan. 258.

[4] Walker. A Concise History. 144-149.

[5] The traditionalist vs modernist conflict continued. The traditionalists sought to take advantage of rural poverty and the inevitable societal fractures brought upon the Japanese society by Meiji rapid modernization. Rural riots was indeed prevalent in early Meiji and the last one occurred in 1877. Walker, 183.

[6] Mason and Craig. 254-256.

[7] Ibid, 159-160.

[8] Walker, 172-174. The zaibatsu became the backbone of the Japanese economy and a valuable source of revenue for expansion of the Japanese imperial military industrial complex.

[9] Joos, Joël. “‘Newspaper Funerals’ and Popular Protest in the Early Meiji Period.” Newspaper Research Journal 41, no. 4 (2020): 506–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739532920966680.

[10] Kim, Kyu Hyun. The Age of Visions and Arguments. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.191-223.

[11] Steele, M. William. “From Custom to Right: The Politicization of the Village in Early Meiji Japan.” Modern Asian Studies 23, no. 4 (1989): 195–301. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X00010180.

[12] Ibid. 174-175

[13]  Takayangi, Kenzo. “A Century of Innovation: the development of Japanese law, 1868-1961, in Von Mehren, Arthur Taylor, ed. Law in Japan; the Legal Order in a Changing Society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963. 15-31.

[14] Ibid. 6-12.

[15] Matsui, Shigenori. The Constitution of Japan: A Contextual Analysis. Oxford (UK), Portland (Oregon): Hart Publishing, 2011. 7-13.

[16] Walker, 232-233, and Mason and Caiger, 285-290. Out of approximately 450,000 eligible voters, 422,000 cast their ballots in a country of about 40 million people.

[17] Mason and Caiger, 261-265. The US mediated Russo-Japanese peace treaty awarded Japan major territorial gains from Russia. It is no surprise that President Theodore Roosevelt would immediately step up to the plate, upon request from Japan, to mediate between Russian and Japan; the US itself was also a rising world power, having acquired Spanish Pacific territories, primarily the Philippines, in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War, and was anxious to be on good terms with Japan. Shortly thereafter, Japan turned Korea into a protectorate. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea.

[18] Saaler, Sven. “THE KOKURYŪKAI (BLACK DRAGON SOCIETY) AND THE RISE OF NATIONALISM, PAN-ASIANISM, AND MILITARISM IN JAPAN, 1901–1925.” International Journal of Asian Studies 11, no. 2 (2014): 125–60. https://doi.org/10.1017/S147959141400014X. Thanks to the covert support they received from like-minded ultranationalist allies in the military and the government, they promoted an agenda of anti-Western “pan-Asianism” and provided monetary and military assistance to nationalist leaders in China and the Philippines with the twofold objective of destabilizing China and loosening the United States’ grip over the Philippines. 

[19] Ropers, Erik. “Labour, Capitalism and Ideology in Interwar and Wartime Japan.” Intersections (Perth, W.A.) 26 2011.

[20] Molony, Barbara. “Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870-1925.” Pacific Historical Review 69, no. 4 (2000): 639–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/3641228.

[21] Raddeker, Helene Bowen. “Anarchist Women of Imperial Japan: Lives, Subjectivities, Representations.” Anarchist Studies 24, no. 1 (2016).13-35.

[22] Mason and Caiger, 319-324. Despite ultranationalist propaganda, Japan had emerged a world power from World War I, and the Paris Peace Conference negotiations helped it tighten its grip over Korea, reinforce its presence in Chinese Manchuria, and acquire mandates from the League of Nations over the South Pacific islands, which it ran as its own until 1945.

[23] Walker 322. The refusal to grant Japan a racially equally status convinced many Japanese ultranationalists that British style liberal democratic powers were inherently hypocritical.

[24] Mason and Caiger, 324-327.

[25] Metzler, Mark. “Partisan Policy Swings in Japan, 1913–1932.” Asiatische Studien 69, no. 2 (2015): 477–510. https://doi.org/10.1515/asia-2015-0020.

[26] LARGE, STEPHEN S. “Nationalist Extremism in Early Showa Japan: Inoue Nissho and the ‘Blood-Pledge Corps Incident’, 1932.” Modern Asian Studies 35, no. 3 (2001): 533–64. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X0100302X.

[27] Akami, Tomoko. Internationalizing the Pacific: The United States, Japan and the Institute of Pacific Relations, 1919-1945. Vol. 3. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2002. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203165539. 62, 234, 267.

[28] Walker, 240-243.

[29] Mason and Caiger, 329-332.

[30] Kitaoka, Shin’ichi. From Party Politics to Militarism in Japan, 1924-1941 . Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2021. 137-210.

[31] Ibid., 211-306.

[32] Ibid., 251-259.

[33] Ibid., 295-313.

[34] Ibid., 208-214.

[35] Morris, Seymour. Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan. First edition. New York, NY: Harper, 2014. 73-80.

[36] Ibid., 124-129.

[37] Ibid, 130-141.

[38] Morris, Supreme Commander, 144-152.

[39] Shigenori, The Constitution of Japan, 153-230.

[40] Ibid., 65-69.

[41] Ibid., 233-255.

[42] Ibid., 37-62.

[43] Ibid., 119-151.

[44] Ibid. 230-244.

[45] Ibid. 113-113, 169, 219.

[46] Kitamura, Yuto. “Background and Context of Education System in Japan”, in Kitamura, Yuto, Toshiyuki Omomo, and Masaaki Katsuno, ed. Education in Japan: A Comprehensive Analysis of Education Reforms and Practices. 2019. 1-13.

More Publications ...