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Ruling and Reigning in Japan

Updated on June 29, 2016

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Perry’s black ships appeared off the coast of Edo, demanding Japan open its borders after 250 years of seclusion. The initial contact with the Americans revealed to the Japanese how far they were behind both technologically and economically. The realization that their country was no match for western powers motivated a group of young, lower class samurai to rise up and remake Japan in the image of the West. These samurai, dubbed the Meiji Oligarchs would do away with the old feudal system and restore power to the emperor. Fast-forward to the end of WWII and this time it is General MacArthur, come to remake Japan into a democracy in the image of America. Japan once again underwent a metamorphosis, this time in an attempt to become a liberal state.

Japan has a history of one party ruling and a separate power reigning as a figurehead or symbol. In their respective eras MacArthur and the Meiji Oligarchs were the clear decision makers and held real political power, however, both parties deferred to the Diet or the Emperor as the legitimate government. This power dynamic was created to legitimize created by the ruling party and push any legislation they feel is necessary quickly and efficiently. The ruling party maintained the reigning party by establishing them through institutionalization.

Bust of Commodore Matthew Perry at his landing site in
Bust of Commodore Matthew Perry at his landing site in | Source

The Emperor as the Face of the Meiji Oligarchs

When the Meiji government initially formed, there was no national symbol to rally the people around. Concerned the people would become disorderly if they were not able to establish a Japanese identity; they formed a mythical past to create and cultural identity revolving around Confucian ideals. In doing so, the Meiji oligarchs were able to use the Emperor as a symbol of the government’s authority. The Emperor, not the bureaucracy was in charge, in the minds of the Japanese people, and all looked to him for leadership and guidance.

The new Constitution written by the Oligarchs enshrined the Emperor as the supreme central authority within the Japanese government. By keeping the Emperor in power the bureaucracy was able to issue proclamations through him. Although the bureaucracy created the legislation, it bore the seal of the Emperor and was read to the people as a proclamation from God, not a law made by man. This system effectively hid the bureaucracy from view as the true rulers of Japan, instituting the Emperor as the supreme ruler of all, from the inside and out.

Wielding the Chrysanthemum Crest

The established constitution failed to mention the role of the Meiji Oligarchs who described themselves as a transcendent of the government, giving them supreme power. One such example of the power of the Meiji Oligarchs power lies with the writing of the Constitution. The Constitution was never presented to the people or voted on by elected representatives. Instead, the oligarchs presented the constitution to the Emperor, who then presented it to the people as a gift. The bureaucracy then attempted to preempt the coming social conflict resulting from the industrialization process by passing Article 17 of the Peace Preservation Law, banning unionization. Political parties and newspapers with a socialist agenda were also shut down in the name of preserving social unity. Shutting down these avenues of political expression prevented the working class from attaining rights they would normally have had.

Although this style of government enabled industrialization to occur without the social drawbacks, the process enacted a great toll upon the people of Japan. The most obvious was the human cost. Battleship Island is a symbol of the terrible working conditions laborers had to endure as well as how destructive environmentally industrialization can be. The rapid industrialization, enabled by the bureaucracy, robbed the people of the opportunity to provide input. As shown in the case of the socialists, the bureaucracy preempted conflict and destroyed any hope of opposition. Being above reproach allowed the bureaucrats to pass authoritarian policies. Robbed of the democratic process, the people were never given the opportunity to bring about social or economic change on their own. Rather they were forced to proceed with the plans of the bureaucracy, whether they liked it or not.

Keeping the Emperor in Power

The bureaucracy was able to keep the Emperor as a legitimate governmental authority by institutionalizing his position in the minds of the people. This was done first through the constitution the bureaucracy made the emperor a supreme, unquestionable authority. Next Japanese leadership forced a series of new customs upon the people of Japan by promoting a Confucian state with the Emperor as the father of the nation and the citizens his children. In addition to creating a chain of command within society, this also made the Emperor’s order unquestionable. Enabling the bureaucracy to institutionalize the Emperor, as the benevolent leader and symbol of the nation.

Emperor Hirohito, the post-Meiji Revolution emperor, as a child.
Emperor Hirohito, the post-Meiji Revolution emperor, as a child. | Source

Macarthur and the Diet

Over two hundred years later, MacArthur had come to Japan to reform the people he felt still clung to feudal values. The Diet was maintained in order to give the new Japanese government legitimacy. Although many of the new laws were imposed upon the people by the military bureaucracy, they were delivered via the Diet.

One example would be the new constitution of Japan; although presented by the Diet as a Japanese construct, the writing made it very obvious it was created by the Americans. However, MacArthur forced the Diet to pass it and present it as a Japanese construction (Pyle pg. 219). By forcing the Japanese Diet to pass the constitution then present it to the people MacArthur could claim the written constitution was democracy at work in Japan. This gave the Diet the appearance of the new symbol of hope for democracy in Japan. Encouraged by the new constitution, political parties began to form. The institution of the Diet as the face of the government gave Japan the appearance a country moving towards democracy.

MacArthur and the Occupation

MacArthur in the spirit of the Meiji Oligarchs, instituted top down reforms upon the Japanese people in hopes these reforms would change Japan for the better. One of his reforms included allowing for the unionization of workers, releasing the Communist party back into the Japanese working class. MacArthur also instituted educational reform, doing away with the old multi track system and replacing it with a single-track system. Both of these reforms were executed by the Diet, but were drawn up by MacArthur who then pressured the Diet to execute them.

The drawback to this system is MacArthur doesn’t give the Japanese people a chance to create change and reform on their own. As a result the Japanese people don’t feel these changes are grassroots efforts native to the country. The nature of this bureaucratic system also made it easy for the Occupation government to reverse some of their new policies, such as restricting unions, and re-establishing the mercantilist economic system due to the Cold War (Reinventing). As with the Meiji system, this change was not brought about by the people and therefore, made it an elite invention.

How MacArthur Kept the Diet

By having the Diet present the constitution to the people, he was also able to legitimize the Diet as an actual governing force rather than a mere puppet government. MacArthur further continued to institutionalize the Diet by having them pass laws that were drawn up by the Occupation government. Although the Diet, like the Emperor before them only approved of the policies, this gave the impression they were the ones writing them. These actions made it appear as though the Diet was an actual working democracy.

However, the Occupation government did not end the bureaucracy’s reign. Instead, MacArthur and his subordinates perpetuated the old Japanese system of a division of labor. Therefore when the occupation of Japan ended, it was very easy for the pre war system to once again take hold in Japan. By refusing to end the division of labor between ruling and reigning, the new laws and institutions couldn’t become institutionalized within the Japanese environment.

How to Insulate the Legislators

In the Meiji and Occupation era the ruling parties of MacArthur and the Meiji Oligarchs kept the division labor between the ruling and reigning power. The ruling power propped up the reigning in order to give the new order legitimacy. Although this process provided many short-term benefits, in the long term it may have cost the people dearly. Due to the insulation of the decision makers in the Japanese government it is difficult for the people of Japan to advocate for change. The lack of true participation has contributed to a distinct lack of political innovation in the Japanese government. As time has gone on both parties have become more and more similar to each other. The result is a stagnant Japan that has not been able to get past its struggles in the past 20 years. If no change is made, it is possible Japan could be mired in mediocrity for a long time to come.


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