THE defeat of August 1945 has rocked Japanese life and institutions to their foundations. Never in two thousand years have the Japanese people suffered such a collapse. The dislocation has been far greater than anyone could have imagined at the time of the surrender, and we are still in the midst of a revolution. No one in Japan dreamed that the surrender would lead to the proclamation of popular sovereignty and to such a change in the position of the Emperor; the one thing that the government and the majority of the people earnestly desired was to preserve the Throne intact. We expected that the ultimate form of government in Japan would be a constitutional monarchy, and yet events have made the position of the Throne very different even from that of the British Crown, which has remained serene and unaltered through the vicissitudes of the world war and social change.

Thus, as with all who take the sword, we too have perished with the sword. The life of the nation has crumbled. The traditions of Japanese civilization have been mercilessly discarded. Even the language has undergone a far-reaching modification. The people have no real confidence in themselves, and the resulting moral slackness is alarming. Witness the notorious scandals among high officials, or the recent case of cold-blooded poisoning of the whole staff of a bank by a mysterious thief, or the criminal ill-treatment and deaths of more than a hundred babies in a disreputable lying-in-hospital.


Great strides have been made, however, toward the objectives of the Potsdam Declaration -- the demilitarization and democratization of Japan. The complete destruction of the military, the abolition of state Shinto, the establishment of the new Constitution, the reconstruction of the entire system of education, the reorganization of agriculture, industry and labor have eliminated the feudalistic influences and opened the way for constructive democracy. In fairness to ourselves, and in recognition of the gigantic work accomplished by the Occupation, it should be pointed out that decided changes have been brought about in the attitudes and ideas of the Japanese people, and that there are hopeful signs of the rebirth of the nation.

Although there is much to be said for the traditional institutions, the release of the individual from the authority of state and family is the fundamental requisite for the establishment of democracy in Japan. The Constitution unmistakably asserts the concept of human rights and liberty. This marks a new epoch in Japanese history, and the enhancement of the legal, political and social status of women is particularly noteworthy.

Whether the people will live up to the spirit of the new Constitution is another question. The present disintegration of life in Japan cannot be explained merely by the devastation of the war and the stupor of the people; its deeper roots lie in the mentality of the Japanese. Buddhism, adopted in the sixth century, puts its emphasis on pity and compassion, but it has failed to develop a sense of moral responsibility among the people. Somewhat similarly, the Confucian teachings which were taken up especially by the ruling class after the thirteenth century and looked upon as the embodiment of feudal morality and discipline nurtured the idea of obedience and submission rather than independent judgment. This is probably the most crucial aspect of the problem of the development of democracy in Japan, and I propose to discuss it more fully below.

The second of the major developments is the advancement in the position of labor through a series of reforms beginning with the Labor Union Law and crowned by the establishment of a Labor Standards Act and the new Department of Labor. Today labor is strongly organized and forms an increasingly powerful pressure group. It must be said also that the readiness of the labor unions to resort to force seems to evidence a lack of understanding of the basic democratic idea that responsibility accompanies liberty. The government and public workers' unions, for example, show a tendency to strike on the slightest pretext, whatever the cost to the public interest. Reminders from the Occupation to the effect that -- as a famous statement once put it -- "There is no right to strike against the public safety, for anybody, anywhere, any time," have brought sighs of relief from the public on several occasions. Whether the unions of laborers, farmers and employees are swayed by democratic or Communist ideas will be of decisive importance in the reconstruction of Japan.

Land reform has been vigorously pressed. The Japanese homeland is smaller than California in area, and only one-eighth of it is suitable for cultivation. The defeat accentuated the food problem, and the land system has been changed by a very drastic scheme of compulsory sale of land to the Government, for resale in small lots. (Non-cultivating owners, with some exceptions, have been restricted to plots of one cho, approximately 2.5 acres, and cultivating owners to plots of three cho, approximately 7.5 acres; and rents are now to be paid in cash.) The objective is to create a class of independent farmers, but the fundamental problem is indicated by the minute size of Japanese farms: the average is less than three acres, and more than 70 percent of the landowners possess less than 7.5 acres. Mechanization and coöperative farming may be necessary for real agricultural progress. Nonetheless, the land reform has plainly helped to create wholesome rural communities, and will contribute to the development of democracy.

The fourth major reform lies in the field of education. With the advice and assistance of the American Educational Mission and SCAP, a blueprint for the reorganization of the entire educational system of the country has been prepared and adopted. The new "6-3-3" school system -- six years in primary school, three years in middle school, three years in high school -- is based upon the American pattern. Colleges and universities are to be radically reorganized, and there are plans for a national Diet library, on the model of the American Library of Congress. The purpose is to make education available to all in a free society. In principle, the way is now open for every Japanese to learn and to better his station in life, but, of course, the program is now only an ideal; the extent to which it can be made a reality remains to be seen. In connection with educational reforms, the extremely significant Imperial Rescript of January 1, 1946, which denied the divinity of the Emperor, should be noted. This, and the abolition of state Shinto, will exercise an influence on the development of freedom of religion and of thought in Japan which cannot be overestimated.


The awakening of the concept of individual personality is the prerequisite for the democratization of Japan. The consciousness of individuality -- by which I mean the free play of the human conscience and the exercise of individual judgment -- provides the only firm foundation on which the nation can be rebuilt. Japanese history has known no Renaissance or Reformation; it is this, I think, which explains the essential difference between her civilization and that of the west. The modernization of Japan, particularly in the Meiji era, is often called a wonderful achievement, but it was incomplete. The Japanese people did not earn modern liberalism by sacrificing and fighting for it, as western nations did, and the idea of human rights and dignity apparently takes root only through such a costly process. Hence it was that the dazzling superstructure of machine civilization in modern Japan had no solid foundation; and when the rain descended and the floods came, and when the winds blew and beat upon that house, the fall was great indeed.

The idea of individual responsibility must be inculcated by the experience of self-government. But the immediate obstacles are economic. The economic dislocation has, for example, prevented steps from being taken to put into effect the new school system, though the Government earnestly desires to get it under way; the economic experts of the Occupation apparently felt that this reform was less urgent than other objectives. In spite of the continuing efforts of the Occupation and the generosity of the American people, inflation is still growing; prices have risen about 130 percent above their prewar level. Economic stability is not possible unless Japanese industry is reëstablished. Japan, of course, has to realize the meaning of retribution, and she knows that measures of deterrence are an important part of post-surrender policy. But, in full appreciation of these factors, it seems to her that her industries should have been restored more rapidly. The revival of coal production, for example, has been very slow, though here there have been a variety of obstacles such as the disintegration of the labor force by the withdrawal of Korean miners, the attitude of newly-organized unions, absence of necessary equipment, and excessive bureaucracy and even corruption in the Government. The wholesale decentralization of industry and the purging of industrialists are major obstacles to economic rehabilitation; a recognition of individual circumstances might properly release some of those who were automatically purged and enable them to render much needed service for national reconstruction. If the industrial plant can be started going again, with aid from abroad, and if the crucial shortage of raw materials and food can be overcome, an increase in consumers goods will offer an incentive for work and some reason to hope for the future. Then the attitude of the labor unions will tend to be more constructive. It is democracy, not militarism, which is traditionally associated with the idea of progress; sound economic conditions are the basis of democratic development, in Japan as everywhere.

Control of the Japanese Government, and indeed of the whole life of the nation, by the Occupation inevitably lessens the initiative of the people. It would seem that the time to end this control has come. The Constitution should crystallize the ideas of the people themselves -- an imposed constitution is a contradiction in terms -- and self-government cannot be achieved without the schooling which comes from assumption of responsibility for the conduct of public affairs by the people. Government by directive, or by "suggestion" or "advice" (whatever it may be called), defeats the ultimate purpose of the Occupation, however much the incapacity of the people presumably requires it.


As I have said, Japan has experienced neither Renaissance nor Reformation, in the sense in which the terms are used in history, and the earlier Buddhist influence with its philosophy of Non-Being (anātman) was hardly conducive to the development of the concept of personality, or to the idea that life offers a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. In the first half of the seventeenth century, when in England "Bacon and Coke, Hooker and Sandys, Hampden and Milton, Lilburne and Baxter, Hobbes and Locke argued, wrote, quarreled, and fought over every principle of religion, self-government and personal freedom known to mankind," and thus through storm and stress laid the real foundation of democracy, Japan was beginning her well-known two hundred and fifty years of peaceful slumber under the firm grip of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Four-and-a-half centuries of feudalism had preceded that. And while in England, "although newspapers were already in existence, forty thousand pamphlets circulated," the Tokugawa régime supported Confucianism as the sole source of learning. Propriety rather than justice was the ideal, and learning meant expounding the old precepts and commentaries. Such teaching paralleled the tradition of devotion to the authority of the state, and emphasized the virtue of obedience. Until the Restoration of 1868, it was forbidden by law for three or more of the common people to come together and discuss public affairs. When this is contrasted with the traditions of the town meeting of North America, the dimensions of the task of establishing democracy in Japan become apparent.

The Meiji Restoration produced glorious results, but it did not go deep enough to change this old concept. Thus there was no humanist awakening, and none of the inner discipline which comes with the awareness that every man is responsible to the Supreme Being for the decision of his own conscience. In the subsequent period of the so-called new learning in Japanese history and literature, the ideal of loyalty was transferred from the feudal lord to the Emperor, but there was the same emphasis on obedience. The sense of individual personality remained unawakened. This feudalistic code of morality, which emphasizes conventional loyalties and duties in a tight and crowded community, explains, at least in part, the strength of the idea of batsu -- relationships in cliques or coteries -- in various fields of Japanese national life.

The achievements of the exponents of "Bushido" -- the ideals of Japanese civilization -- were in many ways brilliant, but the Japanese people were not made to understand the spiritual need of the nation. Even Fukuzawa, the personification of the Meiji civilization, a great leader in the westernization of Japan, a great democrat, publicist, educator, founder of the Keio University, who stressed the importance of independence and self-respect, was not able to awaken the consciousness of individual personality in the people. He warned repeatedly of "the gregarious tendency of the Japanese mind," and the more one studies Fukuzawa's life and ideas, the deeper becomes one's appreciation of the affinity between this first Japanese democrat and such an American leader as Jefferson. But Fukuzawa's humanism could not alone save his country. Jefferson could build on the spiritual heritage of Puritanism, which in America permeates the life of individual and society with a profound consciousness of the worth of the human personality. Japan has no such inheritance.

The proclamation of popular sovereignty in Japan, and the recent reforms, are in the tradition of Jeffersonian and Wilsonian democracy; but Japan has not yet dug down to the rock on which they can rest secure. The Anglo-American founders of democratic ideas and institutions, Locke and Jefferson and the others, were at once rationalists and believers in the Christian faith. Until we Japanese can appreciate the significance of this fact, we shall fail to grasp the real meaning of democracy. Japan needs Protestant Christianity, with emphasis on the teachings of Christ, not on institutionalism. Great leaders like Jefferson and Lincoln seem to show that the reality of Christianity can be expressed in the lives of those who earnestly seek the truth, whatever name they may give to their religion and whatever their relation to the churches. There are now small, scattered groups of followers of Christ in Japan, quietly and seriously working in different walks of life; and this is a hopeful sign, for only the deliberate and resolute acceptance of Christianity can bring a consciousness of individuality. Japan's spiritual revolution will remain incomplete until Christianity is integrated in the Japanese code of morality. Here lie the ideals of humanity which are worth dying for -- higher precepts than the old ones, yet embracing and revitalizing what is best in the tradition of obedience and loyalty. This is the reformation that will prepare the Japanese people to work side by side with other peoples in the constructive progress of mankind. Then, and then only, will the Japanese speak the universal language of humanity; and then her Bushido, the Way of Knighthood, will be of full value to her and perhaps of value to others.

But the great majority of the people are indifferent to all of this, and, indeed, it seems as if the nation were in danger of repeating the mistake of the Meiji era, when a new superstructure was raised on incomplete foundations. And yet one cannot but ask, in the present circumstances, how it is possible for the Japanese to do more than somehow to try to meet the needs of the moment. To neglect the practical problems at hand would be to risk irreparable loss. The menace of a Communist revolution is looming upon the horizon, and Communism is based precisely on the familiar relationship of master and followers which seems all too natural to the Japanese people. It might not be too difficult for the Communist faction and the old right-wing organizations to decide to exploit this common bond; and, in fact, developments of the sort are reported in certain regions. A reversion to the old type of militarism is hardly conceivable, but who can tell whether the militarists of yesterday, who are today waving the Stars and Stripes,will not be carrying the Red flag tomorrow?

The Preamble of the new Japanese Constitution begins: "We, the Japanese people . . . do ordain and establish . . ." The phrase called forth an acid American paraphrase: "We, the mimics of the American people." In the face of this taunt, what can a Japanese do save -- as the saying goes -- "bite my lip and keep quiet?" Perhaps we thoroughly deserve the rebuke. We have indeed borrowed from other civilizations -- but sometimes perhaps to our credit. Whether the Japanese nation is to go down in history as a nation of mimics, only the Japanese people themselves can decide. Carlyle once wrote down the French as of a "gregarious imitative nature." That was when, in the excitement of the Revolution, they rushed to worship the Goddess of Reason; but it was not the last word about the French -- nor indeed about the Revolution. Perhaps the question for Japan is what is admired -- and whether it is assimilated.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now