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The Last Shogun: General Douglas MacArthur and the Institution of the Dictator in the Transition of Japan to a Constitutional Democracy Post-WWII

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The Last Shogun: General Douglas MacArthur and the Institution of the Dictator in the Transition of Japan to a Constitutional Democracy Post-WWII

Daniel Tyler Brooks

Extensive powers not exercised as far as was necessary have, I believe, scarcely ever failed to ruin the possessor.

-- General George Washington, letter to President Joseph Reed, July 4, 1780

I chose this quote by General George Washington, the First President of the United States because I believe he is one of the best historical examples of how a society transitioning to a democracy has to have a leader with the civic virtue necessary to exercise the selflessness and wisdom to be the last dictator.[i]  Last year, I wrote a paper titled “Legitimate Deliberate Democracy in Transition: Failure in the Democratization of Iraq by the US from 2003-2014,” published in the JAN 2015 issue of the Small Wars Journal.[ii]  One of the comparisons/contrasts I made in the article was an abbreviated discussion of the US occupations of Germany and Japan post-WWII, and the role the military commanders played in the reconstruction and Democratization of those countries.  These assertions drew criticism from practicing historians and political theorists alike regarding my interpretation of what actually occurred in Japan post-WWII, as well as whether the case study was a fair comparison to Iraq.  The most compelling criticisms I received were as follows:  1. The Democratization of Japan was not imposed by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), US General Douglas MacArthur, 2. Japan had governing Institutions and intact infrastructure (July 1945), whereas Iraq did not (March 2003), 3. Japan was a homogenous society following WWII (July 1945), whereas Iraq was deeply divided (March 2003), and 4. Culturally, the Japanese were better suited to democratic institutions than Iraqis.[iii]  These criticisms amount to “you are wrong about the imposition, and even if you are not, Japan was the easy case.”  Obviously there were structural differences between Iraq and Japan during their respective occupations by the US, but these structures (Government and Social Institutions) were to many degrees affected by decisions US occupiers made in the immediate post war periods, and the point of my argument is that failure in Iraq (after the invasion but during the occupation) was as self-inflicted as success was in the case of occupied Japan.  Structures in both cases were limiting on choices in the US democratization strategies, but not causal, and this distinction is important when drawing explanatory conclusions about success and failure.

The debate over imposition vs collaboration on the Japanese Constitution is a result, to some extent, of the Japanese autobiographical record of the constitutional process.  One good example would be the recollections of Kenzo Takayanagi, original chairman of the Japan Commission on the Constitution (1957-1964) and former member of the original drafting committee.[iv] Interestingly, in his recollection concerning the Commission’s 1964 findings into constitutional process, he admits that as a drafter he felt the constitution was imposed, but upon reflection (perhaps revision) of the historical record of constitutional process as Chairman of the Committee on Constitution, he felt that the drafting process was in fact collaborative.[v]  He explains his rationale by defining the three types of legislation that were generated under the SCAP government:[vi]

  1. SCAP Directed (Unilateral American imposed)
  2. Japanese drafted, but SCAP Approved (Bottom-up generated with SCAP Veto power)
  3. SCAP Drafted, but Japanese Diet Amended (Top-down generated, bottom-up refinement)

Takayanagi goes on to assert that most of the legislation passed under the SCAP government best fit the description of category 3 above; therefore, the process was, in his opinion, collaborative.[vii]  The framing of the SCAP government in these sorts of charitable, descriptive terms is perhaps more a function of how elites (like Takayanagi) within the Japanese government had an interest in obscuring any indication that the constitutional process was imposed by Western Occupiers.[viii]  My suggestion here may seem conspiratorial in its implications; however, when you look at the way the SCAP government actually functioned, compared with how it was described by those participating in it, there is enough cognitive dissidence in the descriptive language from elite (both American and Japanese) to the public that it can make one wonder if the psychological spin was deliberate and perhaps the most collaborative (between American occupier and Japanese Elite) aspect of the SCAP government.[ix]

While the SCAP regime looks very similar to the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches in the US at first glance, there is one major difference that gets glossed over by the literature:  the SCAP was not elected by the Japanese people, and the SCAP was not politically incentivized by the Japanese population by needing to seek reelection.[x]  Additionally, the SCAP had powers of drafting/presenting legislation without needing a sponsor within the Japanese government to put it on the agenda.[xi]  The SCAP’s primary political incentivization was the creation of a self-sustaining, peaceful, Japanese government, which was constantly getting weighed against political pressure from politicians back in the United States, primarily the Far Eastern Commission (FEC), who wanted to guide the US occupation in directions contrary to General MacArthur’s own best judgement.[xii]  Gen MacArthur understood his mission from the President of the United States as thus: “To insure that Japan will not again become a menace to the United States or to the peace and security of the world… [and] to bring about the eventual establishment of a peaceful and responsible government which will respect the rights of other states...”[xiii]  It is worth mentioning that these orders to MacArthur were publicly stated to the Japanese, and the public version added the following, “it is not the responsibility of the Allied Powers to impose upon Japan any form of government not supported by the freely expressed will of the people.”[xiv]

As a US Army General, MacArthur’s mission took precedent above all other considerations; success required more than submission of the Japanese people in the long term, but it was a place to start.  Ultimately, the Japanese people had as much power as MacArthur allowed them to believe they had, which was important if the Japanese people were to internalize the new constitutional government post-US Occupation.[xv]  Consider for a moment this excerpt from a declassified January 1946 telegram from General MacArthur to General Eisenhower concerning the FEC’s pressure for the SCAP to prosecute the Japanese Emperor as a war criminal:

[Emperor Hirohito’s] indictment will unquestionably cause a tremendous convulsion among the Japanese people, the repercussions of which cannot be overestimated.  He is a symbol which unites all Japanese.  Destroy him, and the nation will disintegrate… it is quite possible that a million troops would be required which would have to be maintained for an indefinite number of years.[xvi]

The coercive subtext underlying this exchange highlights not only the dependency of the SCAP on Japanese elites to garner popular support for his policy objectives, but also underscores the power of life or death Gen MacArthur had over these same Japanese elites.  The only person standing between members of the former regime and their execution as war criminals was the SCAP.  While this sort of brinksmanship was risky, as noted in Gen MacArthur’s telegram, it points out that in the SCAP’s mind, liquidating all of the elites from the previous regime was far from an ideal “plan A.”  Overlooking the coercive power dynamic in favor of a historical narrative that suggests the SCAP government approached government transition as “equals” with Japanese elites (because of mutual dependency) is absurd. 

As the FEC continued to pressure Gen MacArthur in directions that he deemed contrary to his mission, the SCAP, as far has he felt his rank and reputation could handle, blatantly ignored directives from the FEC when he felt it best.[xvii]  Whether or not it is acceptable for an US Army general officer to have this attitude toward orders given from civilian leadership is a separate question for another article, but the historical record must not be glossed over to paint Gen MacArthur to be someone other than who he was.[xviii]  In this particular case, Gen MacArthur ignored the FEC, and this point has to be taken in account when attempting to understand the outcome in democratization of Japan from the perspective of the SCAP as an actor, particularly when doing a comparative analysis of how military leaders in Iraq behaved when faced with similar circumstances. 

In the case of Iraq, the CPA was not unified under a military commander, but instead a politically-appointed, civilian diplomat, namely Ambassador Paul Bremer.[xix]  The difference in actor-type and motivation in outset of the two cases seems a much more compelling difference between the occupations of Japan and Iraq rather than governing institutions and cultures at their outsets.  The decision to De-Ba’athify Iraq and disband Iraqi Military and Police institutions was not a consequence of infrastructure destruction caused by the coalition’s invasion of the country.[xx]  It was a post-facto decision made by the CPA, which essentially destroyed US credibility with elite Sunni factions for the years that followed and abandoned a powerful coercive tool for maintaining the loyalty of essential members of the former Saddam Hussein political regime.[xxi]  General MacArthur, in his own time, knew better, and had the force of personality to act on his convictions at great professional risk.

The government institution under the SCAP regime is best described as a dictatorship, in the tradition of the ancient Roman Republic during periods of existential crisis.[xxii]  The CPA, under Paul Bremer, started out in this same structural circumstance, and through deliberate choices, Sunni factions evolved into an insurgency following the decision to allow Iraqi factions to generate the new constitution via democratic majority from the bottom-up.[xxiii] The most significant difference between the cases of Japan and Iraq amounted to a difference in actor-type at the helm of the reconstruction and democratization efforts: a Five-Star theater commander with a mission in Japan vs a political-appointed diplomat with a checklist in Iraq.  In both cases, factionalism existed within the host nation elites, albeit political-ideological in Japan rather than ethno-sectarian ideological in Iraq.

Where Gen MacArthur succeeded was in the creation of a self-enforcing constitutional institution in Japan.  In order to accomplish this, Gen MacArthur needed to create the perception among the Japanese populace that the constitution was a collaborative process between the Allied occupiers and the Japanese political elite.  The creation of the Japanese constitution could be imposed, but only if the US forces conducted protracted stability operations to allow time (in terms of generations, not months or years) for the final product to be internalized by the Japanese people.[xxiv]  At the time, internal factions existed that fought for shaping the structure of the new constitutional institution in the form of the Liberal Democratic Party (majority), the Socialist Party (minority), and Right-Wing Imperialists (minority).[xxv] Japan was not politically and ideologically homogeneous, even if it was not ethno-sectarian, and at all times, the threat of factionalism tearing the country apart loomed over the drafting of the MacArthur Constitution.

It was here that the cultural barriers between the SCAP and Japanese elites took form, creating a dangerous game in which Gen MacArthur had to ensure that the final product of the new constitution created perpetual competition between these competing factions.[xxvi]  An example of this was religious reform in Japan, in which the SCAP explicitly forbid the establishment of Shintoism and emperor worship as a state religion; whereas in Iraq, Islam was allowed as the state religion.[xxvii]  Additionally in Japan, MacArthur also made article 9 (outlawing war as a means of settling international disputes) a non-negotiable part of the Japanese Constitution that continues to remain a distinct feature of the document in spite of revisionist, interpretive debates about its meaning and limits on Japanese government.[xxviii]

“The rules of the game” were not exactly the same in both the Japan and Iraq cases, but the rules were similar.  US occupiers made decisions that were significantly different between the two cases, and these decisions lead to the different outcomes.  Those who advocate a structural argument are fatalistic in their implications.  The structural argument attempts to show occupations are unwinnable, and therefore should be avoided at all costs.[xxix]  The Japan case serves as a stark counter-example, and suggesting it is too dissimilar to the Iraq case is dismissive.  The actor-centric argument, on the other hand, puts the onus on the players in the game, and thus places the responsibility for failure on those who executed the occupation, rather than those who chose to play the game in the first place.[xxx]  In some cases, and some levels of analysis, the players in both decision-games (the initial invasion vs management of the occupation) are the same people, and it may be that the decisions made in both games were poor; however, it is a wrong conclusion to suggest that failure in the first game (invade or not invade) necessitates failure in the subsequent game (transition to democracy), when dealing with sequential decisions.  In the case of Iraq, the key differences between the two cases were the type of actor placed at the helm of the transitional government, not the structural differences.

We have examples in both cases were the SCAP or CPA respectively were both serving the role of transitional dictator in a crisis institution generated from an interregnum following a regime overthrow.[xxxi]   In the case of Japan, the SCAP replaced the emperor, and served as a “Last Shogun,” whereas the CPA was similarly a “Last Dictator,” whether or not the CPA leadership appreciated this similarity at the time.  One can draw conclusions concerning what constitutes a “good” transitional dictator, and what constitutes a “bad” one by judging the difference between the desired outcome (transition to a stable democracy) and the one that occurred.  In the case of Iraq, the CPA’s unwillingness to accept the role of transitional dictator ultimately lead to the creation of a constitution that was not self-sustaining.  The CPA demonstrated an injudicious disregard for the coercive role they needed to assume in the vacuum that followed the end of the Ba’athist regime, instead passing the buck to a democratic committee of sectarians weighted towards a tyranny of the majority.  In the case of Japan, the SCAP demonstrated the civic virtue and pragmatic non-partisanship needed to fill the leadership void as a Cincinnatus, a role that every transition to democracy needs, but so often lacks from within the transitioning state.  In the absence of a Cincinnatus, occupying countries can either assume the role as that non-partisan leader, or continue to be “waiting for Cincinnatus” indefinitely while the transitional government falls into chaos.[xxxii]

End Notes

[i] The mythology of President George Washington abounds, from the story of how he allegedly turned down an offer to be monarch of the colonies, to the example he set for all presidents that followed (minus President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to only serve two terms in office.  Schwartz, Barry. "George Washington And The Whig Conception Of Heroic Leadership". American Sociological Review 48.1 (1983): 18.

[ii] Brooks, Daniel. "Legitimate Deliberate Democracy In Transition: Failure In The Democratization Of Iraq By The United States From 2003-2014 | Small Wars Journal".   Last Accessed 25 Apr. 2016.

[iii] I chose July, 1945 for Japan, as it was the starting point for the US occupation lead by the SCAP (Potsdam Declaration signing) as a basis of comparison to the Establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (CPA).  These criticisms are what I gleaned as most coherent from the forum discussions, as well as face to face critiques from peers and professors who found my original article engaging.

[iv] Takayanagi, Kenzo. "Some Reminiscences Of Japan's Commission On The Constitution". Washington Law Review 43 (1967): 961-978.

[v] Ibid, 966-968

[vi] Ibid, 969-970

[vii] Takayanagi, Kenzo (1967), P. 971-972

[viii] Bix, Herbert P. "Inventing the "Symbol Monarchy" In Japan, 1945-52". Journal of Japanese Studies 21.2 (1995): 319-363

[ix] Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. "Baghdad, Tokyo, Kabul...: Constitution Making In Occupied States". William and Mary Law Review 49 (2007): 1139-1178. P.  1144-1147 and 1161-1164

[x] Maki, John M. "The Role of the Bureaucracy In Japan". Pacific Affairs 20.4 (1947): 391-406  P. 395-406

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Maki, John M. (1947) P.  395-406

[xiii] Taylor, P. H. "The Administration of Occupied Japan". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 267.1 (1950): 140-153.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2007) P.  1164-1168

[xvi] Bix, Herbert P. (1995) P.  336

[xvii] Bronfenbrenner, M. "Inflation Theories of the SCAP Period". History of Political Economy 7.2 (1975): 137-155. P.  138-139

[xviii] General Robert Caslen Jr, and CPT Nathan Finney. "The Army Ethic, Public Trust, and The Profession Of Arms". Military Review (2011): 13-20.

[xix] Terrill, W. Andrew. "Lessons Of The Iraqi De-Ba'athification Program For Iraq's Future And The Arab Revolutions". Strategic Studies Institute Monograph (2012): Last Accessed 6/3/3016  P.  13

[xx] Ibid, P.  15-23

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Lazar, Nomi Claire. "Making Emergencies Safe for Democracy: The Roman Dictatorship and the Rule of Law in the Study of Crisis Government". Constellations 13.4 (2006): 506-521.

[xxiii] I had an opportunity to ask General (ret) George W. Casey Jr, Commander of Multi-National Force Iraq from June 2004 – February 2007, about this during a public lecture one day at Josef Korbel School of International Studies (JKSIS at DU) in 2015.  He was patient enough to allow me a two part question, which amounted to: “Do you think that COIN violated the Principle of Simplicity when you consider that it depends on internalization and understanding by Soldiers at the lowest level?”  And “Do you think that it was a good decision to let the Iraqis deliberate and draft their own constitution rather than the US doing it for them?”  To the first question, he explained that “COIN” was a doctrine that was evolving as the insurgency itself was developing, and he spoke well of the adaptability of the American Soldier at the time.  He also humbly admitted that both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (another alumni of JKSIS at DU) and he were still wrapping their heads around the COIN doctrine at the time.  I believe it is telling that the Commander of MNF-I and the Secretary of State were expecting junior military leaders to improvise solutions to complex doctrinal problems that they themselves were having difficulty with in the environment of uncertainty.  The faith these two leaders placed in the quality of their tactical leaders is admirable, if perhaps optimistic given their own difficulty with the problem even with their superior expertise and resources.  The answer to the second question was perhaps even more interesting and relevant to this discussion, which is that Gen (ret) Casey stated that his coalition partners and the international community would not have accepted a constitution that was unilaterally drafted by the US, and given the time constraints he was given for the constitution creation process, the product that resulted was the best that Shia-Sunni-Kurd collaboration could produce.  This, I should point out, was the same period of time during which the Sunni’s boycotted the Constitutional convention following the CPA de-Ba’athification order.  The powers of the MNF-I commander in the Iraq case were not equal to the powers of the SCAP in the Japan case.

[xxiv] Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2007) P.  1164-1168

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Ibid P. 1166

[xxvii]Shibata, Masako. "Religious Education Reform under the US Military Occupation: The Interpretation of State Shinto in Japan and Nazism in Germany". Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 34.4 (2004): 425-442; and "Full Text of the Iraqi Constitution".  Reference Article 2.  Last Accessed 2 June 2016.

[xxviii] Ford, Matt. "Japan Curtails Its Pacifist Stance". The Atlantic.

Last Accessed 2 June 2016.

[xxix] Jan Teorell, 2010. Determinants of Democratization P.  39-76

[xxx] Joseph Wright and Abel Escribá-Folch “Authoritarian Institutions andRegime Survival. Transitions to Democracy and Subsequent Autocracy”, British Journal of Political Science, 2011: 1-27; Milan W. Svolik, 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-45.; Linz, Juan and Alfred Stepan. 1996. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pages16-37 and 50-83.

[xxxi] Gross, Oren. "The Concept Of "Crisis": What Can We Learn From The Two Dictatorships Of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus?" SSRN Electronic Journal n.

[xxxii] Weeks, Gregory. "Waiting For Cincinnatus: The Role of Pinochet in Post-Authoritarian Chile" Third World Quarterly 21.5 (2000): 725-738.


About the Author(s)

Daniel Tyler Brooks is a U.S. Army Captain with a MA in International Security at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is currently a student at CGSC.  CPT Brooks made 2 deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Spartan Shield.  His opinions expressed here are his own, and do not represent any official positions of the US Army, DoD, or the US Government.


Bill C.

Fri, 10/07/2016 - 12:07pm

There are two, additional, significant differences between the Japan and Iraq cases, I believe, that we may wish to consider:

a. First that, in the Iraq case alone, we go into the war believing -- due to our winning of the Old Cold War and our belief, accordingly, of the assent of such things as "universal Western values" -- that populations, "liberated" from their "oppressive" regimes, will now quickly, voluntarily, easily and mostly own their own (a) throw off their old ways of life, their old ways of governance, etc., and, in the place of these, (b) rapidly and readily adopt modern western ways.

b. Second that, again in the Iraq case alone, we understand that (compared to Japan) we are engaged in (a) a much less important war, (b) a "war of choice" and, thus, (c) a war in which we seek to achieve (compared to Japan) much less important/non-critical ends/goals.

These two matters, and especially the first item noted above, to best explain why -- post-our winning of the Old Cold War -- we could not have our "transitional leader" assume a more "coercive" role.

Why? Because the U.S./the West having to adopt -- post-the "liberation" phase of war -- a "coercive dictator;" this would have negated the "universal Western values" thesis (see my item "a" above), to wit: the very item upon which we had -- significantly -- based our decisions to invade Iraq (et al.?) in the first place.

(Thus, to suggest that -- should we have understood, from the get-go, that our "soft power"/the appeal of our way of life, etc., was exceptionally insufficient, actually non-powerful and, in fact, rather repelling -- then [a] we would not have invaded Iraq in the first place, and, if we had been compelled to do so [b] would have done so in a much more "coercive," and much more "compelling," manner/way.)