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The American Experience

People & Events
Creation of the Japanese Constitution (1945-1946)

From the very beginning, it was clear that a primary objective of the occupation of Japan would be, as the Potsdam Declaration put it, "a peacefully inclined and responsible government" based on "the freely expressed will of the Japanese people." MacArthur himself commented early on that meeting this goal would certainly require a "revision of the Meiji Constitution." But even he could not have imagined that a few months later, his young American staff would write an entirely new constitution, one that has governed Japanese affairs ever since without the change of a comma.

The whole undertaking was a bit bizarre from the start. On October 4, 1945, toward the end of a meeting with MacArthur, a high-ranking Japanese cabinet member asked whether the supreme commander had any instructions "about the make-up of the government." The translator mistakenly used the word "constitution" for "make-up," and the official left thinking that MacArthur had commissioned him to draft a new constitution. The Japanese did go to work, but MacArthur rejected their efforts in early February 1946 as "nothing more than a rewording of the old Meiji constitution." Eager to avoid interference from other allies, MacArthur took matters into his own hands. He ordered his government section to draft a document themselves, and to do it before the first meeting of the Far Eastern Commission, set for February 26. Staff member Beate Sirota Gordon, then in her early twenties, still remembers the day well:

And one morning I came in..., it was ten a.m. and General Whitney [head of the government section] called us into a meeting room. It was too small for all of us. Some of us had to stand because there were about 25 of us. And he said, "You are now a constituent assembly." You can imagine how we felt. "And you will write the Japanese constitution. You will write a draft and it will have to be done in a week." Well, I mean, we were stunned of course. But, on the other hand, when you're in the army and you get an order, you just do it. You just go ahead.

Mrs. Gordon then recounts how she raced around the still-decimated Tokyo in a jeep, collecting all of the foreign constitutions she could find to provide models for the new "constituent assembly."

Their work resulted in a thoroughly progressive document. Although the emperor was acknowledged as the head of state, he was stripped of any real power and essentially became a constitutional monarch. A bi-cameral legislature with a weak upper chamber was established, and with the exception of the Imperial family, all rights of peerage were abolished. Thirty-nine articles dealt with what MacArthur called "basic human liberties," including not only most of the American bill of rights, but such things as universal adult sufferage, labor's right to organize, and a host of marriage and property rights for women. But the most unique and one of the most important provisions came in Article 9, which outlawed the creation of armed forces and the right to make war. It's not clear whether or not the "No-war clause" originated with MacArthur, but it certainly would not have been included without him, and its presence in the constitution has had an enormous impact on Japan's postwar history.

After marathon negotiations in early March, Japanese officials accepted the American draft with only minor revisions. General Whitney's comment at the outset -- "if the cabinet [is] unable to prepare a suitable and acceptable draft.... General MacArthur [is] prepared to lay this statement of principle directly before the people" -- probably helped. Emperor Hirohito, chagrined at having lost so much power but grateful that the throne had been retained, issued an "imperial rescript" endorsing the draft. That fall, after the Japanese people had voted overwhelmingly for candidates who backed the new consitution, Hirohito himself promulgated it before the Diet (Japanese Parliament). Although it ignored his own role in its birth, General MacArthur's message to the nation offered a pretty fair assessment: "The adoption of this liberal charter, together with other progressive measures enacted by the Diet, lays a very solid foundation for the new Japan."
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