Buruma on Japan’s New Deal(ers)

A final excerpt from Ian Buruma’s chapter on the U.S. Occupation period in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003), highlights two unintended consequences of occupation policy:

State intervention in the economy was one area where New Dealers, Japanese bureaucrats, and the Marxists saw eye to eye. In 1947 and 1948, Japan had its first socialist prime minister. One of the most sweeping reforms, encouraged by the Americans but planned and carried out by Japanese bureaucrats, was the redistribution of land from big landowners to their tenants. It was at once a progressive measure, applauded by the Left, and a way to avert the kind of rural unrest that was helping the communists in China. Poor tenant farmers, brutalized by their wretched lives, had been the harshest foot soldiers of Japan’s holy war. Now a new class of rural smallholders was born, with the unintended consequence of helping the conservatives remain in office until this day.

Another thing that cannot have been intended was that SCAP reforms boosted Japanese bureaucrats at the expense of elected politicians. The newly created Ministry on International Trade and Industry (MITI) was put in charge of central economic planning. New Dealers were also convinced that private big business was largely to blame for Japanese imperialism. The solution, as they saw it, was to take these businesses out of the hands of the families that owned them. This task, too, was left up to the bureaucrats, the same bureaucrats, in fact, who had integrated the zaibatsu into the war economy, often against the private owners’ wishes. Unwittingly, American left-wingers, because of their instinctive hostility to big business, were handing over more powers to the very institutions that helped to drive Japan toward war. As a result, politicians were reduced to being brokers between corporate and bureaucratic interests.

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