Important Changes in Japan During the 20th Century

Important Changes in Japan During the 20th Century

The 20th century was by all accounts an era of considerable progress for Japan. As a result of the remarkable success in the postwar era, Japan has become a model of the industrialized society for the world to take note. In this paper I will attempt to illustrate the important changes that Japan went through during this time of progression, using 1945 as a dividing point. These changes include a different role of the emperor, a new political system, social reform and the rise and downfall of the economy.

Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) was the emperor of Japan from 1926 to 1989. He chose to designate his reign with the term "Showa" (Enlightened Peace) and he is sometimes referred to as the Emperor Showa. His reign was the longest of any monarch in Japanese history.

Under the Japanese political system before World War II, the Emperor was in theory all-powerful. The emperor was sovereign, and everyone who worked for the government in effect worked for the Emperor. That meant, in effect, that power was divided among several different groups within the Japanese political system, most importantly, the military, the civilian bureaucracy, and to some extent the Diet, the Japanese parliament.

In the pre-war period, before the Second World War, the fact that the Emperor was in theory all-powerful meant in effect that those groups who could claim to speak for the Emperor were the ones who were in fact all-powerful. So that we know in the 1930s it was the Japanese military, which claimed to speak on behalf of the Emperor, which managed to secure virtually all political power unto itself.

After the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II in 1945, American forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur occupied Japan until 1952. During this occupation Japan was forced to undergo a kind of democratization. One of their main goals was to make the all-powerful Emperor Hirohito into a symbol of this new democracy. His political power would be stripped from him and he would now just be a symbol of unity and culture, the real power would rest with the people of Japan who could now freely elect representatives to Japan’s parliament. This was the basis for democracy and Hirohito was only needed to make this transition easier for the Japanese people. This was accomplished by the drafting of a new constitution, sometimes called the MacArthur Constitution because of the major role the Americans played in its drafting. This new constitution was completely different than that of the Meiji Constitution of 1889. The people now saw Hirohito not as an all-powerful god but as a human being just like them, which was strange to them but he still held their respect.

The new constitution also established new civil liberties that didn’t exist before. Women could now vote and were given equal rights unlike during the pre-war period. Japanese people now had the right of free speech and the powers of the police were weakened and strictly regulated. Trade unions were now allowed and by 1949 about half of all industrialized workers belonged to one, compared to only a few in the pre-war period. Family members were now treated more equally compared to the male head of household having all the control. The Japanese education system was modeled to become more like that of America’s. Moral training was abolished and students were instructed in democratic ideas. The control of education and censorship was taken away from the central government and given to local administrations. The majority of these changes are still in effect to this day.

After WWII, Japan was very close to being on the verge of bankruptcy. Industrial production was down by almost 89% compared to before the war. Inflation was high and there was a food shortage. Under the leadership of the USA, the allies proclaimed three fundamental changes that would prove to be ground breaking in terms of revitalizing Japan’s economy. The first was banning Zaibatsu, or “money clique”, the great family-controlled banking and industrial conglomerates. The intention of this breakup was to decentralize economic power. In 1937 the four leading zaibatsu controlled directly one third of all bank deposits, one third of all foreign trade, one half of