By Mark J. Ravina, University of Texas at Austin
Post WW II, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, approved the new constitution in November 1946 as an amendment to the 1889 constitution. So, technically, it updated the prewar constitution. But the two documents could not be more different.
The Old and the New Constitution
Under the old constitution, the emperor was the sovereign of Japan. He gave the Japanese people the 1889 constitution as a gift, from the throne down to the people, and he did so based on his authority as a direct descendant of the ancient Japanese gods.
On the other hand, the 1946 constitution began with something that rings familiar:
We, the Japanese people, acting through our duly elected representatives in the National Diet, determined that we shall secure for ourselves and our posterity the fruits of peaceful cooperation with all nations and the blessings of liberty throughout this land, and resolved that never again shall we be visited with the horrors of war through the action of government, do proclaim that sovereign power resides with the people and do firmly establish this Constitution.
The Emperor Was Merely a Symbol
The Japanese emperor was merely a symbol of the state and all the key legislative powers lay with the Diet. And, the cabinet was responsible to the elected representatives of the people.
The declaration “We the people” and “secure for ourselves and our posterity”—not only does the Japanese constitution lift from the US constitution but also from US state constitutions. It was written in English and translated into Japanese.
A Progressive and Idealistic Constitution
The 1946 constitution was a boldly progressive and idealistic document. Among other things, it states an explicit right to vote. The US constitution merely implies such a right. There is also an explicit right to academic freedom, again implied but not explicit in the US constitution.
The Japanese constitution mandated gender equality in broad areas of laws, based on the principle of ‘individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes’.
The Japanese constitution also guaranteed the right to collective bargaining, and for children to receive an ‘equal education correspondent to their ability’.
The constitution also explicitly endorsed pacifist idealism. Article 9 declared the Japanese people as ‘aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a mean of settling international disputes’.
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Initially, the occupation entrusted a Japanese committee to draft the new constitution. This committee was led by the Japanese legal scholar Matsumoto Jōji, and included Yoshida Shigeru, a former ambassador to the UK and future prime minister, and Shidehara Kijūrō, then prime minister.
But the committee merely tinkered with the earlier Meiji Constitution. Both Yoshida and Shidehara had enjoyed successful careers under the 19th century constitution and didn’t see the need for radical revision.
Their goal was to slightly expand the authority of the Diet without touching on questions of rights or sovereignty. But when American general Douglas MacArthur and his advisers saw the Japanese draft, they were appalled.
On February 4, MacArthur directed his legal office to draft a new constitution for Japan.
He gave them a week. Literally! MacArthur had a certain flair for the dramatic. So, the core of the Japanese constitution was written swiftly, with the drafting team usually starting at 7 am and ending at midnight.
The head of the team was the American soldier and lawyer Charles Kades, a New Dealer in both spirit and practice who’d worked as legal counsel for the Work Projects Administration in Washington during the 1930s.
The American Version of the Constitution
When the American version of the constitution was presented to the committee of Matsumoto, Yoshida, and Shidehara, they were stunned.
The transformation of the Japanese emperor from a sovereign monarch to a ‘symbol of the State’, and the transformation of the Japanese people from imperial subjects to sovereigns was beyond anything the Japanese leaders thought appropriate, much less necessary.
They balked, and MacArthur’s office issued an ultimatum. Japan could reject the constitution but then occupation forces would no longer guarantee the existence of the imperial institution of the emperor.
It was a quid pro quo. The price of absolving the emperor of responsibility for the war was accepting a radically new constitution. As prime minister, it was Shidehara’s duty to explain the new charter to the emperor.
A New Diet Elected
To the politician’s amazement, the emperor was completely supportive. It was a relatively small price for saving himself and the monarchy.
Shidehara and Yoshida were also stunned by the popular response. A new Diet was elected in April 1946, and even the conservative Japanese embraced the American draft.
Of course, the occupation had purged many open militarists. Parliamentary conservatives didn’t like that the occupation imposed an American-style constitution. But they could soothe their pride with the knowledge that the emperor and the imperial house survived.
Debating the New Constitution
The Diet debated the new Japanese constitution for 114 days. In several cases they made the document more progressive. Schoolteachers won the right for equal education expanded from primary school to all education. And Socialist parliamentarians inserted a clause guaranteeing all Japanese ‘the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living’.
In the end, the new constitution was ratified with almost unanimous support. Only the communists—who wanted to see the office of the emperor abolished—objected.
Renunciation of War
The renunciation of war in the constitution remains popular even today. Japan, like many places, is gripped by new nationalism in the 21st century. Its conservative party and its stridently nationalist wing have enjoyed considerable electoral success.
But even with nationalists at a postwar peak, public support for Article 9 remains strong. Two-thirds of the Japanese public opposes changing Article 9 even as they vote for changes that could lead to Japan assembling a conventional army.
Common Questions about the U.S. and the New Japanese Constitution
The Japanese constitution lifted the declaration, ‘We the people’ and ‘secure for ourselves and our posterity’ not only from the US constitution, but also from US state constitutions.
As prime minister, it was Shidehara Kijūrō’s duty to explain the new charter to the emperor.
Public support for Article 9 remains strong. Two-thirds of the Japanese public opposes changing Article 9 even as they vote for changes that could lead to Japan assembling a conventional army.