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Postwar Reform and Recovery, Demilitarization and Democratization Under the Occupation

Meiji constitution, zaibatsu, Political democratization, Meiji Restoration, general Douglas MacArthur

Beginning with Japanís formal surrender on September 2, 1945, the Allies placed the country under the control of a U.S. army of occupation. An international Allied Council for Japan, sitting in Tokyo, was created to assist the Americans, who presided over the dissolution of the Japanese colonial empire and the disbanding of all Japanese military and naval forces. In 1946 an 11-nation tribunal convened in Tokyo to try a number of Japanese wartime leaders, including Tojo, for war crimes. American occupation policy aspired to more than a simple demilitarization of Japan. It aimed at destroying the social, political, and economic conditions that had made Japan an aggressor nation, and transforming Japan into a peaceful democratic nation that would never again threaten its neighbors or world peace. Under the guidance of U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied powers, the Japanese were subjected to the most sweeping program of reform they had experienced since the Meiji Restoration.

Political democratization centered on a revised constitution, promulgated in 1947. The new constitution stripped the emperor of the enormous powers granted to him by the Meiji constitution, making him instead the symbol of the Japanese nation and restricting his official functions to largely ceremonial duties. It placed the National Diet, formerly the Imperial Diet, at the center of the political process. The constitution provided for a British-style parliamentary system, with a cabinet elected by and responsible to the House of Representatives. The electorate was expanded to include all adults, including women. The constitution also guaranteed basic civil and political rights, including a number of rights not included in the U.S. constitution, such as the right of labor to bargain collectively. But the most radical article of the new constitution was Article 9, under which Japan renounced war and the use of force to settle international disputes, and pledged not to maintain land, sea, or air forces to that end. Although this ďpeace constitutionĒ was originally drafted in English by American occupation officials, it was debated and ratified by the Japanese Diet.

To build a rural base for democracy, occupation officials promoted a land reform program that allowed tenant farmers to purchase the land they farmed. In cities, the occupation encouraged the growth of an active labor union movement. By the end of 1946 about 40 percent of Japanís industrial labor force was unionized. To weaken the power of big business, the occupation adopted a program of economic deconcentration, breaking up the large conglomerates known as zaibatsu. Occupation authorities also purged the business community of those leaders thought to have cooperated with wartime militarists.

On the whole, the Japanese population welcomed these changes. The Americans encouraged an atmosphere of free public debate and discussion on nearly every kind of issue, from politics to marriage to womenís rights. After years of wartime censorship and thought control, most Japanese appreciated their new freedom. At first the Americans also encouraged the emergence of a vital and active left wing, including a legal Japanese Communist Party, in the hopes that it would play the role of a strong democratic opposition.

Nevertheless, conservative parties, with agendas aimed at rebuilding Japanís economy and strengthening its international position, dominated domestic politics in postwar Japan. After the first postwar elections, held in 1946, conservative politician Yoshida Shigeru became prime minister. Divisiveness within the conservative ranks gave an election victory to the Japan Socialist Party in 1947, but in 1948 Yoshida returned to power, continuing to serve as prime minister until 1954.

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