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Unconditional Democracy: Education and Politics in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952

Unconditional Democracy: Education and Politics in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952

by Toshio Nishi

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The difficult mission of a regime change: Toshio Nishi gives an account of how America converted the Japanese mindset from war to peace following World War II.


The difficult mission of a regime change: Toshio Nishi gives an account of how America converted the Japanese mindset from war to peace following World War II.

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Unconditional Democracy

Education and Politics in Occupied Japan 1945â"1952

By Toshio Nishi

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 1982 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-7443-5


An Overview of Prewar Japan

The British industrial revolution of the eighteenth century precipitated the blossoming of state-supported capitalism in Europe. The American Revolution and the French Revolution triggered a profound ideological reorientation toward the governance of a nation state. But Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns (1604–1867) chose to remain isolated from changes so drastic — and so hazardous.

The western industrial nations, believing themselves enlightened, considered it their humanitarian obligation to propagate their new perspectives throughout the world. Although their intentions may have been virtuous, their behavior in Asia and Africa degenerated into European cultural chauvinism. The Western cultural superiority complex, supported by Western military superiority, served to justify imperialistic expansion. Aggressive Western mercantile activity along the Asian coastline disfigured the face of Asia. Many Japanese intellectuals were well aware of the British exploitation of India and China. The Japanese knew that they had no choice but to physically resist the West in order to avoid a debacle similar to the one their neighbors had suffered.

The End of Isolation

As early as 1844 King William II of the Netherlands (the only Western nation with which Japan traded during the nearly two hundred fifty years of isolation) warned of imminent Western gunboat diplomacy. He urged the Tokugawa Bakufu (Warrior Administration) to open the country. The Bakufu refused. In 1844, 1845, and 1846, British and French warships visited Nagasaki and requested commercial relations; so, too, did Commodore James Biddle of the American East Indian Fleet when he came to Uraga in 1846. Each time the Bakufu refused. Finally, in July 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, special envoy of US president Millard Fillmore, arrived at Uraga with his imposing naval squadron. At gunpoint he demanded trade concessions from the Tokugawa Bakufu. The Bakufu, frightened by its own inability to fight back, asked Perry to return in a year for a formal reply, and then for the first time solicited opinions from local lords and officials. This action suggested the Bakufu's serious lack of confidence in its own ability to govern.

Perry returned in January 1854 and successfully concluded the Treaty of Peace and Amity. Two ports were made accessible to American ships for fuel and provisions; and England, Russia, and the Netherlands soon acquired the same privileges. Four years later Townsend Harris, the first American consul, skillfully concluded the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the Bakufu. This treaty introduced the concept of extraterritoriality to the Japanese people. England, the Netherlands, as well as this time France, and Russia, followed suit and concluded similar treaties. The Bakufu did not fully comprehend the practice of extraterritoriality. The differential treatment of foreigners, who were now immune from Japanese laws, and the resulting conflicts between Japanese and Westerners, soon caused bitter resentment among the Japanese. Extraterritoriality smacked of colonization. The Bakufu felt that the Western powers, by capitalizing upon Japanese ignorance of foreign affairs, had cheated.

The series of concessions to the foreign powers revealed the Bakufu hegemony at bay. Such signs of weakness in turn encouraged the rebellious activities of young low-ranking samurai (the warrior class) who advocated the "restoration" of imperial rule. The rebels regarded the treaties as a national disgrace. They recognized, however, the frightening difference in military might between Japan and the West. The difference compelled them to appreciate the paramount importance of military strength for national defense and foreign expansion. The Japanese rebels insisted that only a new imperial regime could remedy the disgraceful situation. However, the Imperial House during the efficient Bakufu administration possessed no political power; rather, it retained the "sacredness" associated with the continuity of "the original Japanese family."

In 1860 the desperate Bakufu arranged the marriage of the presiding Shogun Iemochi and Princess Kazunomiya of the Imperial House. The Bakufu's reason for the marriage was to "unite the hearts of all the country" and to "clear the barbarians (Westerners) out of the country." The marriage did not enhance the position of the Bakufu; instead, the Imperial House gained power, prestige, and authority at the Bakufu's expense. The marriage confirmed for the Japanese people the ultimate legitimacy of imperial governance.

While the Bakufu was compelled by crushing Western pressure to abrogate its isolationist policy, the young samurai rebels demanded the continued maintenance of national isolation. The rebels' frustration at their unanswered demands frequently exploded in the murder of foreign officials and merchants. Western naval forces retaliated by bombarding cities. While these sensational incidents publicized its impotence, the Bakufu sat paralyzed. To finalize the transition of power, the Bakufu and the rebels waged a civil war. The Bakufu's surrender, to the Imperial House, signified the "restoration" of imperial governance. The new regime was named "Meiji" or Enlightened Reign. The year was 1868.

The New Order

The fundamentally authoritarian style of national governance hardly changed after the transition from the Tokugawa Bakufu to the imperial oligarchy. The Japanese people experienced little need to alter their basic attitude toward hierarchical authority. The stability of their attitude was due to the Bakufu's successful development of a vertical class structure based upon Confucian ethics. A harmonious vertical integration, without an antagonistic dichotomy between superior and inferior, constituted the ideal order of the family, the fief, and the nation. In this society an individual independent of his group, like a farmer without his rice field, a samurai without a fief lord, or "a Japanese without Japan," was meaningless. A superior expected loyalty and obedience from a subordinate, and his benevolence toward the subordinate implied his compassion and wisdom. This traditional homogeneity coalesced in the face of Western colonialism.

To the Japanese imperial oligarchs, industrialization was a pressing national objective. They believed that it could be accomplished by adopting Western technological skills. The imperial government constructed new industrial plants and sold them to a few private merchants. Government protection, no competition, and great opportunities for expansion enabled those merchants to develop their firms into huge conglomerates, commonly called zaibatsu (literally, "financial cliques"), that dominated the market through oligopoly. At the same time Japanese leaders suspected that the culture of the West might contain some vital secrets that were responsible for its superior technology. Various missions and many bright students were sent abroad to search them out. Anything that suggested Western civilization was imported under the banner of "modernization," which — especially during the early Meiji period of Imperial Japan — was confused with westernization.

It was appropriate that imperial Japan's national slogans were Fukoku Kyohei ("Enrich the Nation! Strengthen Its Arms!"), which mirrored Japanese perception of superior Western industrial and military technology, and Bunmei Kaika ("Civilization and Enlightenment"), which reflected Japanese admiration for the seemingly advanced culture of the West. The regime neither questioned nor resisted the imperialistic propensity that was inherent in these idealistic slogans. With remarkable solidarity, the Japanese leaders dreamed of a civilized and mighty utopia. They wanted to combine harmoniously the best of the West (its technique) with the best of the East (its spirit). Ito Hirobumi, a rebellious young samurai who later became Japan's first prime minister, proclaimed confidently in 1909 that bushido ("the warrior's code") offered the nation "splendid" moral standards that were "rigorously enforced" among the educated classes. The result of bushido, he said, was

an education which aspired to the attainment of Stoic heroism, a rustic simplicity and a self-sacrificing spirit unsurpassed in Sparta, and the aesthetic culture and intellectual refinement of Athens. Art, delicacy of sentiment, higher ideals of morality and of philosophy, as well as the highest types of valor and chivalry — all these we have tried to combine in the man as he ought to be. We laid great stress on the harmonious combination of all the known accomplishments of a developed human being, and it is only since the introduction of modern technical sciences that we have been obliged to pay more attention to specialized technical attainments than to the harmonious development of the whole.

In its determined endeavor to build a paradise with "splendid standards of morality" and "modern technical sciences," insular Japan grew into imperial Japan. The glorious empire expanded with every war. In the game of conquest, peace became a misfortune.

Imperial Expansion

Imperial Japan wished to lead the other Eastern nations in its own right, not by the default of its cultural ancestor, China. In 1895 China was thoroughly defeated by a Japanese army. Japan's umbilical cord had finally been severed. Japan's new position was confirmed when, in 1905, its troops went on to humiliate Czarist Russia. US president Theodore Roosevelt rejoiced and declared that Japan had truly become one of the great world powers.

Japanese confidence, supported by world recognition, nurtured farther ambition. Japan's participation on the victorious side in World War I placed the Japanese Empire firmly among the top-ranking nations of the world. Victory after victory created a self-fulfilling prophecy: uncivilized Asia was only waiting to be civilized by a fellow nation, civilized Japan. The Japanese sense of imperial destiny — and corresponding aptitude for imperial exploitation — began to surpass anything currently seen in the West.

Imperial Japan, because of its xenophobic fascination with the West, was extraordinarily sensitive to the military and political movements of the Western powers. This sensitivity found expression in a fervent and uncompromising nationalism; the Japanese oligarchs of the late nineteenth century had "rectified" the nation's indulgent dependence upon the West and restored the "real Japan." Militarism began to pervade Japanese domestic and foreign policies. Imperial Japan, winning all its wars, grew arrogant. The stronger it became internationally, the more apprehensive were the other imperialistic nations. Japan's annexation of Korea and obvious territorial appetite for China and Southeast Asia frightened the Western colonizers.

The 1921–22 Washington Naval Conference was called primarily to limit the naval strength of imperial Japan. Japan grudgingly accepted an inferior ratio of three to the American and British navies' five each. This imposition left a lasting bitterness in the minds of the Japanese people. Concurrently, a further national humiliation, perhaps more painful than anything Japan had yet experienced, continued unabated in the United States: racist treatment of Japanese immigrants. The crowning insult to the Japanese race came in 1924, when the US Congress passed a law declaring Japan an unacceptable source of immigrants. Ironically, the American treatment of Japanese immigrants matched the Japanese treatment of Koreans and Chinese people in Japan as well as in their native countries. Imperial Japan abused its far superior military force to create a new pecking order in Asia. Equal treatment of those people did not form part of the Japanese sense of justice; the measure of a nation's worth was overt military strength. Perhaps because of this "might is right" mentality, and because imperial Japan did not at all feel militarily "inferior" to the United States, American treatment of Japanese immigrants critically upset the Japanese sense of equity.

In 1930 Japan took part in the London Naval Conference with the United States and Britain. Although Japan reluctantly agreed to slow down its military buildup, it did not hesitate to express its abhorrence of the American and British demands. Then, in September 1931, the Japanese Army invaded Manchuria and quickly and completely occupied it. When, in February 1933, the League of Nations harshly condemned the invasion, the Japanese delegates walked out of the league meeting. One month later Japan withdrew from the league.

Japanese leaders felt that they were humiliated every time they succeeded in the very game that the West had introduced to Asia. Their humiliation aggravated their suspicion that the West was always conspiring against Japan. The ubiquitous Japanese militarists collectively interpreted the civility of one nation toward another as a clear sign of weakness. They were sure that foreign policy was not a matter of diplomacy but of conspiracy. Some Japanese openly asserted that the difficulties between Japan and the West would eventually lead to interracial war. Young military officers, frustrated by domestic and foreign affairs, frequently planned coups d'état and actually assassinated several cabinet members and a prime minister who, they thought, were detracting from the glory of the Imperial Household. Though they always failed to gain power, their bloody violence silenced other domestic dissidents, especially those who would question the military's predominance in the Japanese government.

The increasing political power of the Japanese military was well reflected in budget allocations. In 1933, 39.9 percent of Japan's gross national product went to military expenditures; in 1934, this rose to 43.7 percent; in 1935, to 46.1 percent; and in 1937, to 68.9 percent. Nazi Germany's spectacular successes in Central Europe enchanted the Japanese military and their civilian cohorts. With mutual antipathy against communism, Germany and Japan signed the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact which, by including Italy in 1940, became the infamous Tripartite Pact. The Japanese government abrogated the Washington Naval Agreement in December 1934 and the London Naval Agreement in January 1936. Japan was physically and psychologically prepared for war. In October 1934 the Ministry of the Army printed 1.3 million copies of Kokubo no hongi to sono kyoka no teisho (Principle of national defense and proposal for its reinforcement), the well-known "army pamphlet." Its first sentence read, "War is the father of creation and the mother of culture."


When one national hegemony replaces another, new political slogans determine not only the nation's educational orientation but also the shape and content of its learning. With the emergence of imperialistic Japan, the question was, What role should the national educational system perform for the new imperial regime committed to building a new Japan?


Education in Japan was never isolated from government ideological objectives. For the imperial government, compulsory education was the most effective means of generating nationalism, and was especially important while the nation was struggling to stabilize its still fragile government and cope with its ambivalence — a mixture of admiration and fear — toward the West.

The new national identity had ancient connotations. It activated the Japanese people's faith in their Emperor's sanctity and omnipotence — a faith that had never wavered. Domestic governance for the imperial oligarchs was thereby simplified, as was their task of presenting, to an unfamiliar world of superior powers, the spectacle of a unified Japan. In this respect, the oligarchs demonstrated their extraordinary talent for governing. They swiftly issued a series of laws and ordinances that, they claimed, were based upon sacred imperial wishes. The laws and ordinances reflected the prevailing values and mood of the nation; at the same time, they projected the wishes and ideals of the government in power. The oligarchs proclaimed that the national slogan of Civilization and Enlightenment would be best reflected in law and order. It followed that the people — especially displaced samurai — should have their weapons confiscated.

The basic ideological position of imperial Japan became clear at the birth of the new imperial regime in 1868. The young Emperor Meiji proclaimed the Charter Oath:

1. Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion.

2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.

3. The common man, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent.

4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.

5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.


Excerpted from Unconditional Democracy by Toshio Nishi. Copyright © 1982 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Toshio Nishi is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1991 to the present, Nishi has been a distinguished guest professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, and from 2004 a graduate school professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

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