The Occupation of Japan and Democratic Reform

The Occupation of Japan and Democratic Reform

Background Information.

Ed. Note: For more background information, please see Professor Peter Frost's essays: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Postwar Japan.

Although nominally an Allied effort, the postwar occupation of Japan (1945-1952) was essentially an American operation, overseen by the charismatic General Douglas MacArthur. Despite the savagery of World War II in the Pacific, the American occupiers were generally compassionate and generous while the Japanese, humbled and exhausted by defeat, proved receptive and even welcoming to their former enemies. The Americans were initially fired by a passion for reform and were dedicated to the thorough demilitarization and democratization of Japanese society.  The Japanese military was disarmed, settlers and soldiers were repatriated from the former empire, and war criminals (a group which the occupation decided should not include the Emperor Hirohito) were tried and punished.  Democratization policies ranged from a very popular land reform (which allowed cultivators to purchase their farms from large landlords) to strict antitrust regulation of industry and finance.  A new constitution was written for Japan by officials in the American occupation and presented to the Japanese government for translation and enactment.  Although The document has been widely praised for its progressive guarantees of rights and freedoms (and the Japanese have chosen not to amend it over the last sixty years), critics have argued that Japan was “forced to be free” by its American occupiers.

After 1947, the occupation rapidly scaled back its programs of democratization and sweeping institutional change. Policymakers in Washington, insistent that Japan be rehabilitated as a U.S. ally in the developing Cold War in Asia, dictated a substantial shift in occupation policy from reform to reconstruction. As the focus shifted to economic recovery and social stabilization, the occupation supported Japanese remilitarization, led crack-downs on left-wing politicians and union activists, and bolstered conservative political forces and corporate interests. Critics on the left called this change in occupation policy the “reverse course” and suggested that the Americans ended up betraying the Japanese people: while the occupiers promised sweeping democratic reform, they ultimately just buttressed the conservative status quo. The long-term impact of the American occupation, and particularly the consequences of the decisions to impose a constitution on Japan, leave Emperor Hirohito on the throne, and undertake the “reverse course,” is still actively debated by Japanese and U.S. historians.

Learning Goals.

1. Understand the relationship between the Japanese people and the Occupation, and the nature of the Occupation’s democratic reforms.

2.  Understand the origins, content, and implications of the 1947 “MacArthur” Constitution.

3.  Understand why the decision was made to retain Emperor Hirohito on the throne and what the larger, long-term implications of this decision might have been.


Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Standard 3.  Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Standard 4.  Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Standard 6.  Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Standard 1.  Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
McRel Standards
Language Arts

McRel Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

McRel Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

McRel Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

World History

Standard 43. Understands how post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.

Standard 44. Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.

Key Concept. The United States was influential in setting the tone for postwar Japan.  This relationship can be seen both as a model of peacful collaboration between former enemies and as strongarm, self-serving tactics by the victor.

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.

1. The “MacArthur” Constitution (1947) and the Meiji Constitution (1889). Both texts can be found online through the Hanover Historical Texts Project.
2.  The September 27, 1945 photograph of General MacArthur meeting Emperor Hirohito at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, available at wikimedia.

3. Documentary photographs of Japan during the Occupation, available online by anthropologist John W. Bennett and from the Walter A. Pennino Postwar Japan Photo Collection, courtesy of the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Māno.

Thought Questions.

1. What impact do you think that the new 1947 Constitution had on Japanese society?

2. How do you think the Japanese people responded to having a new constitution drafted by their American occupiers? What does the fact that this constitution has not been amended in 60 years reveal about Japanese attitudes?

3. If you had been in General MacArthur’s position, would you have made the same decision to keep Hirohito on the throne? What other options were available and what do you think the consequences would have been?

4. Why were the Japanese so respectful and receptive to the Occupation and its democratizing reforms? Given the brutal combat of World War II (and the destruction of so many Japanese cities by bombing), why didn’t the Japanese respond with more hostility to the American occupiers? At the same time, why did the Americans treat their former enemies with such compassion and generosity?



Focus Activity Ideas.

 Have students briefly brainstorm: What is the role of an emperor? 

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

1. Compare and discuss the Meiji Constitution and the 1947 Constitution, drafted by the American occupiers and presented to the Japanese authorities for translation and enactment. How do the documents differ? Note, in particular, substantial changes in where sovereignty is vested, the role of the emperor, the rights and responsibilities of the Japanese people, and the position of women under the law. A comparison of the 1947 Constitution to the U.S. Constitution might also be enlightening, as some commentators have suggested that the Japan’s “MacArthur” Constitution is even more progressive than our own. 

2. Debate the decision made by the Occupation not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. What were the short-term advantages to this strategy? What long-term consequences do you think there might have been? What kind of message do you think this decision sent to the Japanese people? The American occupiers left the Emperor in place for the sake of expediency, using the symbolic power of the throne among the Japanese people to maintain order in society and promote the Occupation’s program of reform. Critics have argued, however, that retaining the Emperor undermined the Americans’ whole project of democratization and allowed the Japanese people to avoid addressing the issue of war responsibility.

3. Use photographs from the Occupation as primary sources. The image of MacArthur and Hirohito was widely distributed and is one of the most famous photographs in the history of modern Japan. What attitudes and power relationships do the clothes, postures, and expressions of MacArthur and Hirohito suggest? Why was the Occupation so eager to have both the Japanese and American publics see this photograph? The documentary photographs of Japan during the Occupation available online present a different vision of Japanese life under American rule. Based on these images, how would you characterize the lived experience of “average” Japanese people during the Occupation? 

Summative Activity Ideas. Have students imagine that they were in General MacArthur's position.  Which aspects of the 1947 Constitution they would keep and which they would alter.  Why?


“Reinventing Japan,” episode 5 of the 1993 PBS series “The Pacific Century” is a useful, if somewhat dated, overview of the period and the historical debates surrounding it. Portions of this episode could be shown to provide general background information.
There are many excellent scholarly sources on the Occupation period. 
A magisterial work is John Dower’s Pulitzer Prize-winning study Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999). Chapter 12 provides a detailed overview of the drafting of the 1947 Constitution while Chapters 9-11 deal with Emperor Hirohito under the Occupation. 

American  policy toward women in Japan is the subject of Beate Sirota Gordon’s memoir, The Only Woman in the Room (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001). Gordon was almost single-handedly responsible for the insertion of the clause affirming the equality of women in the 1947 Constitution. 
Selections from a unique and fascinating archive of primary sources—personal correspondence written by Japanese citizens to General MacArthur during the Occupation—are included in Sodei Rinjirō, Dear General MacArthur: Letters from the Japanese during the Occupation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
Additional  Resources:
Japanese Surrender aboard USS Missouri
Photo of the signing of the surrender document at the end of World War II on board the USS Missouri by Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, Sept. 2, 1945.
Surrender Ceremony aboard USS Missouri
Picture of the surrender ceremony with original picture caption.