OPINION - Post-Hiroshima democracy: How Japan developed civil society from the ground up?

OPINION - Post-Hiroshima democracy: How Japan developed civil society from the ground up?

US’ decision to use nuclear weapons devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it also, once again, opened Japan to outside influences, especially North American

By Daniel P. Aldrich

- The author is the professor and director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program in Northeastern University.

ISTANBUL (AA) – Japan remains the only nation in the world to have experienced the horrors of not one but two nuclear weapons used against populated cities. Yet it emerged from the ashes of the World War II to become one of the largest and more dynamic economies in the world and a strong ally to the US.

Perhaps more importantly for its citizens, Japan has become an advanced, industrialized democracy with regular elections and a free press. In fact, the Asian nation has recently ranked higher than the US on several measures of democratic institutions. Observers have regularly focused on Japan’s postwar economic “miracle,” but this trajectory from fascism and imperialism to a stable democratic nation raises other interesting questions, including how Japan avoided anti-American sentiment and also navigated strong economic development with transparency and after its defeat at the end of WWII.


- Wave of democratization early in 1890s

Continuity, not change, may better characterize Japan’s history, and this observation can help explain much of its eight decades of economic growth and political stability from the 1940s until the present day. First, while most know early 20th Japan primarily in terms of its connections with war, expansionism and pan-Asianism, my colleague Mary Alice Haddad has argued that well before that popular period, Japan had already joined the second wave of democratization when it enacted the Meiji Constitution in the 1890s. Growing out of the Meiji Revolution of the late 19th century, this document – and a variety of accompanying political institutions, such as growing suffrage for the common man (women’s right to vote came with the post-war constitution) – set the stage for post war Japan. So too that period had brought national newspapers which could, as Benedict Anderson argued, help create an imagined community for the nation as it emerged from the pre-modern era and sought a common identity as a modern country.


- 1925 Peace Preservation Law: Undermining democracy

Military and conservative elites in Japan coordinated their efforts to hijack the nation off this course, undermining democracy with the 1925 Peace Preservation Law which set the stage for further erosion of rights and the growing expansion of the military abroad. Suppressing anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thought, writings, and assembly, the police used this law to coerce dissidents into silence during the period some have labeled “Showa Statism.” Until 1945 or so, these non-democratic interests sought to control home institutions such as the ubiquitous neighborhood associations (chonaikai), while sending both soldiers and farmers abroad to colonize East Asia.


- Increasing American influence after 1945

Japan’s forced surrender after the dropping of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki delegitimized these conservative and military interests. The US’ decision to use nuclear weapons devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it also, once again, opened Japan to outside influences, especially North American, much like the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry had done at the end of the 19th century. The result was that democratic-minded elites and the public were able to institutionalize democratic practices and, over time, democratic values spread and were modified in ways that allowed them to become an enduring part of Japan’s political culture. A number of revisions came forth, such as large scale land reform, educational reform, and the rise of new political and business leaders uninterested in maintaining the chokehold of the military.

As Len Schoppa has argued, the Allied occupiers – such as Beate Sirota Gordon, who enshrined progressive values in institutions such as Japan’s Constitution – helped build capacity among pro-democratic elites. (My mentor, Susan Pharr, wrote about Gordon’s contribution to women rights.) Those local Japanese leaders in turn fostered trust and a growth across the society through what social scientists call social infrastructure – the places and spaces where we build trust and connections. These included community spaces, schools, radio programs, and even gymnasiums and coffee shops, places where people could connect to new, progressive and often pro-American ideas. Japan’s civil society – the connections between the people outside the state and the market – grew stronger.

With their political opponents (conservatives and military) largely excluded from politics, this new generation of leaders could make rapid and far-reaching changes. And because of ties to the US – and its growing interest in a democratic bastion against communism in East Asia – Japan grew economically. As wages and a middle class expanded, democratic-minded actors gained legitimacy and retained the strong support of the population, which found itself able to take on middle class consumption patterns and further drive the economy. Rather than being seen as an enemy to be hated, the US became seen as a strong ally with similar democratic values. Some 43,000 military personnel from the US placed across the country – and even controversially in Okinawa – along with regular business, cultural, and academic exchange kept the nations intertwined.

In short, Japanese democracy flourished, as did pro-American sentiment, despite a more than 10 years of period of aggressive imperialism and a national defeat because of a combination of resilient democratic institutions, bottom up civil society leadership, and activism.


*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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