We the Japanese People: World War II and the Origins of the Japanese
vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. xvii + 826 pp.
Notes, appendices, index, bibliography. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8047-3454-2 .
Donald L. Robinson , Department of Government, Smith College.
Embraced Imperialism: Japan
as a Case Study
middle 1940s, the
United States took
strong steps toward its apparently inescapable destiny as a world power.
There were precedents, of course, in Theodore Roosevelt's diplomacy in Latin
America and to end the Russo-Japanese War and in Woodrow Wilson's attempt to
create a league of nations. But these earlier gestures produced strong
isolationist reactions. In the 1940s, America crossed the Rubicon.
Hellegers's massive book, in two volumes, eventually focuses on the
occupation of Japan,
but its most impressive parts are devoted to the embrace, by a broad
diplomatic and military elite, of the notion that America
must take responsibility, this time, for building democratic nations from
the ashes of defeated foes.
publication of Hellegers's long-awaited study of the origins of the Japanese
Constitution is a joyous event. As Hellegers, an independent scholar, notes
in her acknowledgements, this project has been many years in the making.
Many people have been aware of its gestation--participant-observers and
scholars with whom she explored these matters on countless panels and at
conferences. Everyone knew that she was sitting on a gold mine of material,
particularly the interviews she conducted with participants in the early
1970s. People had learned to respect what she had and the gentle but
penetrating wisdom she showed in interpreting it.
volumes will not disappoint her many admirers. This is a tremendous piece of
work: a two-volume set, of daunting heft and cost. Sadly, it is unlikely to
sell many copies. Our commercial culture will not support a 390-page text
with 230 pages of notes and 156 pages of appendices. Thank heaven there are
still academic publishers who will undertake such a project! These volumes
are a treasure-trove for anyone interested in the American effort, during
and in the wake of World War II, to transform Japan from fanatical enemy
into a stable constitutional democracy.
account of the framing and adoption of Japan's postwar Constitution, this
book tells only part of the story. Hellegers calls her two volumes
"Washington" and "Tokyo," respectively. In the nine chapters of volume 1,
she focuses on policy-making in the American capital; in chapters 10 through
15, she shifts the focus to Tokyo. But her timeframe is severely restricted.
It begins with the summit meeting at Casablanca in January 1943, when
President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Allies would fight until
the Axis powers surrendered "unconditionally." It ends, abruptly, on March
6, 1946, when Emperor Hirohito announced publicly that his government had
prepared a draft of a revised constitution and General Douglas MacArthur
brightly added his endorsement.
great deal happened between March 1946 and the promulgation of Japan's
postwar Constitution in November 1946, including intense negotiations in
April between the cabinet and MacArthur's headquarters, presentation of the
revised draft to the Privy Council in May, then four months of debate in the
House of Representatives and the House of Peers, leading to several
significant amendments. One can dismiss these events of the spring and
summer of 1946 as relatively meaningless. That indeed has been the practice
of most historians. In this tradition, Hellegers (p. 784 n.100) quotes
Narahashi Wataru, a glib cabinet aide, as saying on March 6 that the Diet of
course would have power to amend or even reject the "government draft," but
he expected that the cabinet would be able to "push it through." But to
summarize the events of the spring and summer of 1946 this way is to miss
essential parts of the story of Japan's
democratization. By March 6, Japan's cabinet had agreed to present a text
drafted by the American Occupation as its own project. It had agreed, in
other words, to join General MacArthur in a conspiracy to revise Japan's
Constitution. But Japan had not yet committed itself to constitutional
democracy. That process began on March 6; it did not end there.
a mistake, though, to complain that Hellegers has not written a different
book. Her book is not about how Japan came to affirm constitutional
democracy. It is a study of America's emergence as an imperial power. Seen
in that light, it is thoroughly admirable, and often brilliant.
opens with a highly critical analysis of Roosevelt's
insistence on "unconditional surrender" as the basis for dealing with the
three Axis Powers.
Roosevelt, she shows, stuck doggedly to this mantra, even as some of his
leading military officers sought to encourage resistance within Italy,
Germany, and Japan by holding out carrots even while applying their
pulverizing sticks. Hellegers chastises Roosevelt for refusing to accept
this counsel. She calls such statements of ideals as the Atlantic Charter
"lovely but ludicrous" (p. 167), and she shows that the State Department was
never able to move significantly beyond such platitudes. She argues that the
President's refusal to be more specific complicated and postponed the
resolution of disputes about post-war policy (toward the retention of the
Throne in Japan
and the treatment of Hirohito personally, for example). To her credit, she
presents the other side of the argument: that spelling out the prospects
after surrender ran the risk of being misunderstood and ridiculed by the
enemy. But she insists that the costs outweighed the dangers.
of the best reading in the book deals with military history. Her accounts of
the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa are vividly and movingly written. They
set the stage for her detailed analysis of planning for the American
invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands, which some
thought might not occur until 1946 or even 1947. Hellegers includes a
painstaking dissection of projected estimates of casualties on both sides.
It is a pity that this masterly summary was not available when controversy
flared at the Smithsonian Institution over an exhibit about the atomic
bombing of Hiroshima. Hellegers explains the ghastly choices facing
President Truman. Her account helps to explain the president's elation when
he learned that the atomic bomb was ready, in time not only to lessen the
bloodshed, on both sides, but to head off Soviet intervention.
her themes is the difference in planning styles between military and
diplomatic personnel. Soldiers want as much specificity as possible.
Diplomats want flexibility, freedom to adjust to the unexpected. Of course,
soldiers given responsibility for administering policy want broad
discretion, too, but that is a different matter. In contemplating a task,
soldiers want to know all they can about what to expect. These stylistic
differences led inevitably to tensions.
Another factor complicating postwar planning was Roosevelt's
strong preference for civilian over military direction. This presidential
instinct strengthened the hand of civilians at the command schools set up on
Charlottesville, New Haven and elsewhere. Despite the advantage of
presidential support, however, these academies never got very far in
preparing for the work of occupation. When the time came, especially when
the atomic bomb led so abruptly to Japan's surrender, generals took command
and were left pretty much to their own devices.
second volume, Hellegers turns to the events that led directly to the
framing of the American draft of Japan's
postwar constitution. She devotes a chapter to each of the two official
commissions established by the Japanese government to "inquire" into the
need for constitutional revision. One, headed by Prince Konoe Fumimaro,
based its authority on its appointment by Emperor Hirohito. Konoe, who as
prime minister during the late 1930s was responsible for Japan's
aggression against China but had a reputation for liberalism, named a
commission led by academics from his alma mater in Kyoto. >From audiences
with MacArthur and his staff, Konoe learned that SCAP (the Supreme Command
for Asia and the Pacific) expected far-reaching revisions. But he made a
fatal mistake in exaggerating his mandate from MacArthur. Hellegers gives
him credit for sensing the need for radical reform, for attracting (though
often misusing) able collaborators, and for generating some promising ideas.
She also tells how he got outmaneuvered by his foes in the Japanese cabinet
and fell victim to MacArthur's ruthless instincts for self-preservation. She
concludes with a moving account of Prince Konoe's suicide in December 1945.
Konoe, as a student, had translated a story by Oscar Wilde; the magazine
that published it had been suspended. In his study after his suicide,
American intelligence found an open copy of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis,
with a passage marked in red: "I must say that I ruined myself...."
cabinet minister, Matsumoto Joji, headed the other official commission.
Unlike Konoe, Matsumoto pointedly, even arrogantly, separated himself from
MacArthur's headquarters (which, it must be said, regrettably reciprocated
the hauteur after its embarrassments over Konoe). Matsumoto believed that
military leaders and politicians who betrayed the emperor had caused Japan's
catastrophe. Reflecting the cabinet's orthodoxy, from Prime Minister
Shidehara Kijuro on down, Matsumoto saw no need for radical constitutional
these views, as Hellegers makes clear, he had good company in the West.
George Sansom, for example, Britain's eminent historian of Japan and an
attache at the British embassy in late 1945, believed that Japan had made
solid progress toward parliamentary democracy during the 1920s and that,
with the disgrace of militarists and imperialists, Japan was now positioned
to resume its course on the road to democracy under a revised, but not
replaced, Meiji Constitution. This view also found sympathy at the highest
reaches of the American government, from people like Secretary of War Henry
Stimson, John J. McCloy at the War Department, and Joseph McGrew, Acting
Secretary of State.
Matsumoto's basic position was not untenable. But his style of leadership
rendered him worse than useless. He surrounded himself with cronies from the
law faculty of Tokyo's Imperial University,
men deemed "great authorities" on the Meiji Constitution. "Sequestering
[themselves] on an academic Olympus," Hellegers writes, the cabinet's
commission disdained to seek guidance from outside the cabinet's staff or
the law faculty of Todai. "No practicing attorneys, procurators, or judges
were consulted ...; no public administration specialists ...; no members of
the ... Diet" (p. 468). Neither was any effort made to assess public
opinion, nor to engage in some quiet diplomacy with General Headquarters
(GHQ). (It would be as if constitutional reform in the United States,
following calamitous defeat in an ill-advised war, were to be entrusted to a
commission consisting of professors like Bruce Ackerman, Laurence Tribe, and
Jack Rakove, operating in seclusion from practicing jurists, politicians,
trade union leaders, or journalists.) Matsumoto's commission failed utterly,
because it was out of touch with political realities, those created by the
Occupation and by the Japanese people.
left constitutional revision to the Americans, who dramatically seized the
initiative in February 1946. It is remarkable how little of what went
before, in Washington or at GHQ, mattered when SCAP made its move. All the
fussing about whether the imperial institution should be retained or not,
which was still going on in Washington, was resolved by MacArthur's cryptic
directive to the drafters: "Emperor is at the head of the state.... His
duties and powers will be exercised in accordance with the Constitution and
responsible to the basic will of the people as provided herein." Boom!
Operating with this guideline and one or two others (including a version of
the clause that would renounce war), twenty or so staffers at GHQ, operating
in absolute secrecy, put a draft together in a week's time. It is a stunning
story, and it has been told many times.
Hellegers's principal contribution is the testimony of people she has
interviewed over the years, mostly in the early 1970s. These reflections are
valuable because the primary records of that famous first week of February
1946 are so scant. They must, however, be used with care. People speaking a
quarter-century after an event are inevitably going to be influenced by the
circumstances at the time they are speaking. To take an obvious example,
where did the inspiration for Article 9 (renouncing war) come from? In 1946,
it was put forward as a harbinger of mankind's commitment to peace and to
hold at bay those who were bent on treating the emperor as a war criminal.
By 1970, China and half of Korea were Communist powers, the United States
was trying desperately to prevent Vietnam from falling into the Communist
camp, and we needed as much help from Japan as we could get. Disarming Japan
looked like idealism in 1946. By 1970, it looked like folly, except to
leftists in Japan who were happy not to be part of the conflict in south Asia.
In those latter circumstances, it was hard to get a straight answer about
where Article 9 came from, or what it meant. Notes on page 787 of
Hellegers's book report various recollections, but contribute little to the
resolution of these questions.
Hellegers's book includes nine appendices that trace the development of the
SCAP text through the week of February 3. Her footnotes give indications of
other constitutions (Weimar,
Scandinavian, Mexican, etc.) that contain similar language, usually without
indicating specifically whether a given text was the source. Notes in the
back of the book add recollections by several of the participants regarding
intentions. These are often interesting, but are presented in a relatively
sum, Hellegers's two volumes, many decades in the making, are a tremendous
achievement. They are beautifully written and painstakingly documented, and
they are strongly argued, particularly when dealing with the bureaucratic
wars in Washington. Their principal contribution, besides the long-awaited
publication of her interview data, is the analysis that she offers of America's
first attempts to project itself as an imperial power. The great value of
Hellegers's book is her analysis of these moves. She traces the intense
struggle of elites--bureaucratic, military, political--to control this
process. She also shows how vulnerable they all were to accidents and
unexpected events, how plans "gang aft aglee," how vain these men were to
invest time and energy in quarrels that were so totally swamped by events.
An eminent social scientist once warned me against using the term "miracle"
in my historical work. Our job, he said, is to explain what happened, to
find causes and trace effects, as carefully as we can. To speak of miracles
is to confess defeat. I take his point, but sometimes the conjunction of
events and personalities seems to defy explanation. Hellegers's wonderful
book is full of such tales.
Hellegers concludes her study by pointing to the irony in her title. "We the
Japanese people," by her account, played virtually no role in bringing
popular sovereignty to Japan. Taking the story beyond March 6 modifies that
picture quite a bit--but that is matter for a different book. In any case,
it only partly qualifies Hellegers's fundamental point: that democratization
is not itself a democratic process.
Call Number: D813.J3 H45 2002
World War, 1939-1945--Armistices.
World War, 1939-1945--Japan.
Japan--History--Allied occupation, 1945-1952.
Citation: Donald L. Robinson . "Review of Dale M. Hellegers, We the Japanese
People: World War II and the Origins of the Japanese Constitution," H-Law,
H-Net Reviews, August, 2002. URL:
“Whereas other authors have stuck to the general story
of occupation government influence in the making of the modern Japanese
Constitution, Hellegers details the procedure and accents the Japanese
involvement, the off-and-on level of American confusion, the clash of
cultures over the meaning of democracy, and the resulting compromise that
became a working constitution…For anyone who values good research, a good
read, and cross-cultural politics, Helleger’s We, The Japanese People
is a must buy.”
Timothy P. Maga, review of We, The Japanese People:
World War II and the Origins of the Japanese Constitution, by Dale M.
Hellegers, The Journal of American History 90 (September 2003):