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2 September 2020

From the NS archive: What government in Japan?

1 September 1945: The day before the Second World War reached an official end, an unsigned editorial asked what lay ahead for the Allies and Japan.

By New Statesman

On Sunday 2 September 1945, on board the USS Missouri floating in Tokyo Bay, and under the eye of General MacArthur, the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu on behalf of the Japanese government, and General Yoshijiro Umezu on behalf of the Japanese armed forces, signed the official terms of surrender and so brought the Second World War to an official end. The day before, the magazine published an editorial that looked to the future. The path ahead was not clear: “Will Allied incapacity to supervise Japanese life in detail lead to a repetition of the mistakes made in Weimar Germany?” the anonymous writer asked. “Will prejudice, ignorance or conflicts of policy among the major Allies produce a situation where the militarists, exercising their authority underground, maintain the myth of civilian collapse, and quietly prepare long-term plans for another war?” The key would be a sympathetic understanding of Japanese society and history.


The Act of Surrender is the end of an epoch of Japanese history. The bid for mastery of the Far East has been broken, Japan forced to accept the piecemeal capitulation of her armies, and to withdraw into her four over-populated islands. So far so good. But what government are the Allies now planning for Japan? There is not among the Allies any adequate personnel for the immense task of administering Japan.

Obviously, the occupying armies will have, from the outset, to rely on the use of Japanese officials and institutions. The existing machinery of government will have to be taken over and adapted to the demands of whatever Control Commission the Allies see fit to establish. And, naturally, that path is beset with pitfalls. Will Allied incapacity to supervise Japanese life in detail lead to a repetition of the mistakes made in Weimar Germany? Will prejudice, ignorance or conflicts of policy among the major Allies produce a situation where the militarists, exercising their authority underground, maintain the myth of civilian collapse, and quietly prepare long-term plans for another war? These dangers can only be avoided if the Allies make a serious attempt to understand the social development of modern Japan and the underlying struggle for power between a number of competing groups.

The Japanese Revolution of 1868 has never been completed. For the past seventy years, four major groups have been struggling with each other for control over the economic and political life of Japan. Assassination, intrigue, the use of economic power, religious and dynastic propaganda have all been employed as instruments in this struggle between the Imperial Household Ministry, the army, the cabinet and bureaucracy, and, lastly, big business.

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Nominally, the Emperor is the source of authority, and each of the main groups has sought to exploit his prestige in support of its sectional aims. The Imperial Household Ministry, which consists of permanent appointed advisers to the Emperor and acts as a link between him and the cabinet, has always been most influential in times of national crisis. Its members have the preservation of the prerogatives of the Imperial Dynasty as their main concern, and, in the present negotiations, were doubtless the authors of the inquiry whether the Potsdam ultimatum endangered those prerogatives. Admiral Suzuki, who was prime minister from April of this year until the capitulation, was at one time a member of the Imperial Household Ministry in his capacity as Grand Chamberlain — a position from which he resigned after he was wounded by young army officers in 1936.

The violent interference of the army in Japanese politics is not checked or balanced by any provision of the Japanese Constitution or by political practice and convention. The increased ascendancy of the army groups dates from the period of the Manchurian invasion of 1931. In 1931, they killed the prime minister, Hamaguchi, because he signed the London Naval Treaty; in 1932, they murdered Prime Minister Inukai, thus putting an end to party government. In 1936, in their biggest coup, three members of the Imperial Household Ministry were killed or wounded. It was also the army which made Tojo – up till then, a relatively obscure figure – prime minister in November 1941. Most of the army officers are drawn from the ranks of peasant farmers. Their philosophy is based on vague ideas of social reform and a hatred of big business. They have the constitutional right of direct access to the emperor.

The Japanese cabinet has little resemblance to the same body in a European democracy. Though supported by the local bureaucracy and national civil service, which provide most of the cabinet (for professional politicians are few in Japan), the Premier has never been powerful, except perhaps during the years just before the war. He acted chiefly as chief executive officer for the Imperial Household Ministry and informed the Japanese Diet of its requirements. His office grew in importance in recent years when Konoye – just appointed vice-premier – proved to be an adept at playing the army, the Imperial Household Ministry and big business off against each other. During the war, the job of the prime minister and his cabinet has been to satisfy the economic and man-power demands of the army. Until Suzuki took office last April, final decisions on strategy and policy always rested with the army. Suzuki’s appointment brought a change. On April 16th, a revealing Japanese broadcast announced that “in consideration of the current war situation, the prime minister will hereafter be given a seat in the Imperial Headquarters so that he may form an idea of the war situation.”

Relations between the army and big business have been strained throughout the war. The controlling groups in the big monopolies have always feared that the army would overplay its hand and land them in disaster. They would have preferred a more subtle expansion. Their programme for the control of East Asia would have been economic imperialism, aided by rationalisation of industrial plant, lower wages, a deflated currency and subsidised exports. For them, a war against Britain and the United States before the Chinese “incident” was liquidated, was a folly which has only intensified their dislike of the army leaders. All the same, they did well out of the war while Japan conquered.

The manoeuvring of these groups has taken place with little reference to the Japanese people, who scarcely understand their constitutional institutions. The revolution of 1868, the constitutional reforms of 1889, and the award of adult manhood suffrage in 1925 were all granted from above. Democratic forms were merely external imitations of institutions which, in the West, men valued because they struggled for them. Similarly, when Fascism began to look powerful in Europe, the rulers of Japan copied the forms of the Fascist States. By 1932, party government had ceased to exist in Japan; by 1940, the parties themselves were wound up; and in January, 1941, Konoye’s Government tried to restrict the vote to the male heads of families and to ex-servicemen. This, however, ended in failure; the opposition came from those who regarded any alteration of the Constitution as sacrilege, since the document was held to partake of the emperor’s sacred character and so could be amended only on his initiative.

Belief in the divinity of the emperor is, however, by no means universal in Japan. Apart from the big industrialists and the high army leaders, who regard the myth as a convenient propaganda line, most of those educated at Japanese universities in the period of relative freedom developed Liberal or Communist tendencies and were agnostic about the emperor. Industrialisation had the effect of also undermining the divinity myth among the workers. With the peasants, however, whose main concern is with their poverty, faith in the emperor’s sacred character is still strong.

It is barely ninety years since the grandfather of the present emperor was rescued from obscurity by the revolting groups that used him as a national symbol to overthrow the Tokugawa clan — the de facto rulers of Japan since 1600. The Imperial dynasty had been living almost forgotten in penury for 250 years. It was at this time that the traditional Shinto doctrine was revived and Buddhism disestablished, as part of the revolutionary tactics designed to break the power of the Tokugawa clan and make the emperor the central figure in Japanese life. Clearly the doctrine of State Shinto must be discouraged by the Allies. They have, for instance, to decide the future of the Imperial dynasty. To find a substitute for monarchy in some form may not prove immediately possible. Even Susumo Okano, the Communist leader at present in Yenan, does not say more than that “the future of the throne must be decided by the people themselves. The militarists are using the emperor’s name to bolster up their own position.” What the Allies can certainly do is to see that the blame for the war, the capitulation and its consequences fall upon the emperor and his military advisers. Constitutionally, a useful change would be to see that the power of the future political head of the Japanese state is derived not from his Sun-born ancestors, but from the people.

Democractic government is not easy to foster in Japan. There is no political tradition of democracy and there are few voluntary associations in which Japanese citizens can have learnt even the rudiments of self-government or democratic procedure. As in Germany, it seems probable that a start may best be made with the development of local self-government. Local councils and their mayors are already locally elected and are fairly closely related to the everyday life of their people. But in Japan, as in Germany, the chances for democracy depend, in the long run, even more on the rival pressures of the victorious States than on changes of internal structure.

The USA, the USSR, China and (in a less degree) the British Commonwealth will all influence Japan. Some believe the Manchurian Army will return home “infested with Communism”, as it did in the years after the Wars of Intervention against the Soviet Union. The presence, on the other hand, of United States Forces of Occupation will encourage Japanese business interests which desire to orientate themselves towards America. In the early 1930s, Hollywood films exercised considerable influence on the industrialised worker. The same may be true again, but it is difficult to believe that the imitation of American customs and methods will be more than superficial. Not the least likely long-term development is a rapprochement with China. For centuries China filled the Japanese horizon and influenced her culture. It may do so again. The tension and strains which have been continuously visible in Japanese political and social life have been due in large part to the failure to reconcile her rapid westernisation with the traditional modes of thought. In the future conflict between Powers and cultures for influence in Japan, it may well prove that China, herself struggling to reconcile her ancient culture with the development of modern industry, will once again be the nation from which Japan derives most.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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