Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy

Japan was defeated in World War II and occupied by the United States, which forced Japan to accept democracy in place of authoritarianism as the basis of a new political system. This new, American-imposed system was codified in the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which made government responsible to the people and included safeguards aimed at preventing a revival of militarism or imperialism.

Summary of Event

In 1889, Japan adopted the Meiji Constitution, which assigned supreme political authority to the emperor and a place of dominance in government to an aristocratic elite. It also created a position of privilege and power for the military. Thereafter, Imperial Japan used force to extend its territorial control in East Asia, culminating in a war to subjugate China in 1937. The United States tried to halt this expansion with verbal protests and then economic sanctions, causing Japan to attack U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Almost immediately after entering World War II, the U.S. government began to plan for the postwar reconstruction of Japan, focusing attention on the future structure of its government and the status of the emperor. In public declarations, the United States identified democratization of Japan as a major war aim. Achievement of this goal required replacing a constitution that Americans believed had provided the foundation for Japanese militarism and imperialist aggression. Japan;Constitution of 1947
Japan;postwar occupation
Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution]
[kw]Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy (May 3, 1947)
[kw]Constitutional Democracy, Japan Becomes a (May 3, 1947)
[kw]Democracy, Japan Becomes a Constitutional (May 3, 1947)
Japan;Constitution of 1947
Japan;postwar occupation
Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution]
[g]Asia;May 3, 1947: Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy[02050]
[g]Japan;May 3, 1947: Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy[02050]
[c]World War II;May 3, 1947: Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy[02050]
[c]Government and politics;May 3, 1947: Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy[02050]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May 3, 1947: Japan Becomes a Constitutional Democracy[02050]
MacArthur, Douglas
[p]MacArthur, Douglas;governorship of Japan
Kades, Charles L.
Matsumoto Joji
Shidehara, Kij{umacr}r{omacr}
Ashida Hitoshi

General Douglas MacArthur (seated) presides over the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, September 2, 1945.

(Digital Stock)

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur occupied a central place in the process of Japan becoming a constitutional democracy. President Harry S. Truman appointed him to command the U.S. occupation that began in August, 1945. As the supreme commander of the Allied Powers, MacArthur and his staff—the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers (SCAP)—worked with Japan’s postwar leaders to create an open society based on capitalism and popular rights. Among the reforms SCAP sponsored, perhaps the most important and permanent was adoption of a new constitution.

MacArthur, acting on instructions from Washington, informed Japan’s postwar government of the need for constitutional revision in October, 1945. In response, Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara created a special committee and appointed as its chair former Tokyo University professor Matsumoto Joji. The Matsumoto Committee drafted a document that provided for only modest revision of the Meiji Constitution, reaffirming the emperor’s political supremacy. The U.S. State Department instantly rejected this draft, because the terms of surrender dictated by the Allies to Japan stipulated that Japan could retain its monarchy only if the emperor had no real governmental authority.

MacArthur assigned the task of preparing an American version of Japan’s new constitution to the Government Section of SCAP, with Lieutenant Colonel Charles L. Kades, a graduate of Harvard Law School, chairing the drafting committee. His instructions established as required provisions only preservation of the emperor, renunciation of war, and an end to Japan’s feudal system. Nine subcommittees worked in secrecy on different parts of the constitution, completing the document in just ten days. Japanese leaders did not learn that the Matsumoto version was “completely unacceptable” until February 13, 1946, when MacArthur presented the American draft as its substitute. Shidehara was stunned. MacArthur acted quickly to reassure Japan’s leaders. He emphasized that acceptance of the draft would exclude Emperor Hirohito Hirohito from prosecution as a war criminal, which most Americans and many of the Allies favored. Moreover, it would speed restoration of sovereignty, thereby ending foreign control of Japanese politics.

MacArthur’s arguments, added to recognition of the futility of resistence, persuaded influential conservatives, especially Foreign Minister Shigeru Yoshida Yoshida, Shigeru and Ashida Hitoshi, to accept the American draft and arrange for its expeditious adoption. On April 17, newspapers in Japan published the complete text of the “MacArthur Constitution” in colloquial Japanese, making it accessible to the general public. Another reason for the broad and genuine popular appeal of the constitution was Ashida’s efforts as chair of the Committee to Popularize the Constitution to build support. Japanese conservatives moved quickly to secure the approval of the Privy Council. In August, the House of Representatives of the Diet (legislature) appointed a special committee to review the document. After the lower house approved a slightly modified version, the upper House of Peers gave its consent in October. On November 3, 1946, the new constitution was promulgated, with a provision for it to become effective six months later.

Japan became a constitutional democracy on May 3, 1947. Divided into chapters, the new constitution was a detailed document containing 103 articles. It assigned sovereignty to the people, making Emperor Hirohito, who had denied his divinity in 1946, “the symbol of the state.” Abolishing prewar peerage and advisory positions for the elite, it vested governmental power in the Diet, a bicameral legislature whose representatives were to be elected without regard to sex, income, or social status.

A lower house with 466 members held primary power. People at least twenty years of age were to vote in 124 districts for three to five representatives, who would serve four-year terms. The lower house elected a prime minister, who named cabinet members, half of whom had to be members of the Diet. The upper House of Councilors had 250 members, elected at the prefectural level and nationwide for six-year terms, but the lower house could override decisions of the upper house by a two-thirds majority vote. Also, the lower house controlled the budget and ratified treaties. The cabinet selected and voters confirmed justices on a supreme court, who had the power to decide the constitutionality of the Diet’s legislation and to name judges to sit on lower courts.

Perhaps the most famous and controversial provision of the constitution was Article 9, which renounced war forever. It also pledged that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” although minimal forces were allowed for a purely self-defensive purpose. Thirty-one articles guaranteed an assortment of “fundamental human rights,” among them respect for individuals, freedom of thought, a right to education, and “minimum standards of wholesome and cultural living.” Of special significance at the time were those provisions ensuring sexual equality in a wide range of areas, including suffrage, property rights, inheritance, divorce, and matters pertaining to marriage and the family. These guarantees reflected the desires of Japanese feminists, who found champions in several female staff members of SCAP. Other chapters dealt with national finance and local self-government. Amendments required a two-thirds vote of the Diet and approval of a majority of voters in a special referendum.


Adoption of a new constitution in 1947 was arguably the most important event in modern Japanese history, because it swept away all vestiges of militarism and authoritarianism. Political parties, interest groups, and business leaders replaced the outlawed aristocracy and military as the new power brokers in postwar Japan. The constitution remained controversial among the Japanese people, however, not least because global politics had a direct impact on how they judged whether its provisions served the interests of the nation and its people. The escalating Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which not only halted reforms during the U.S. occupation but also led to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (1951)[U.S. Japan Security Treaty] of 1951, polarized Japanese politics. Conservative nationalists called for revision of the constitution that had been “imposed” on Japan. Pacifists vigorously defended the “peace constitution,” because revision invited rearmament.

The Cold War had another, quite unforeseen effect: The U.S. government soon came to favor modification of Article 9 to allow Japan to arm itself. This would allow the country to make a greater contribution to the American anticommunist security system in East Asia. The Japanese refused all attempts to amend the constitution, saying that they had had enough of militarism and war. In later years, however, a liberal interpretation of the self-defense clause allowed for creation of a significant military and its limited deployment overseas. This and other economic, social, and political reforms that have had an impact on Japan have not always coincided with the intentions of U.S. officials, providing perhaps the best example of Japan’s talent for achieving national strength through adaptation to what it borrowed from the outside world. Japan;Constitution of 1947
Japan;postwar occupation
Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution]

Further Reading

  • Brands, Hal. “Who Saved the Emperor? The MacArthur Myth and U.S. Policy Toward Hirohito and the Japanese Imperial Institution, 1942-1946.” Pacific Historical Review 75 (May, 2006): 271-305. Argues that MacArthur expedited implementation of a U.S. wartime policy of allowing the Japanese to retain the monarchy if the constitution gave the emperor no real power.
  • Hellegers, Dale M. We, the Japanese People: World War II and the Origins of the Japanese Constitution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Reaffirms the traditional view that MacArthur ordered his staff to write the 1947 constitution and compelled Japanese leaders to accept authorship of it with few changes.
  • Inoue Kyoko. MacArthur’s Japanese Constitution: A Linguistic and Cultural Study of Its Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Describes how the translation of the 1947 constitution into Japanese created disagreements with the Americans that exposed differences on its meaning, with Japan’s version reflecting its values and traditions.
  • Koseki Shoichi. The Birth of Japan’s Postwar Constitution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. Emphasizes how Japanese conservatives reinterpreted the American draft of the Japanese Constitution of 1947 to conform with Japan’s legal, political, and cultural traditions, thereby winning public support for the document.
  • Matray, James I. Japan’s Emergence as a Global Power. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000. Provides a succinct description of how Japan became a constitutional democracy, as well as covering later debate about constitutional revision. Reprints portions of the 1947 constitution.

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