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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 23-45

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Exporting Democracy?
American Women, "Feminist Reforms," and Politics of Imperialism in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, 1945-1952

Mire Koikari

Our experience in the Philippines and in the more recent reformation of Japanese life, where in reshaping the lives of others we have been guided by the same pattern from which is taken the design of our own lives, offers unmistakable proof that while American in origin and American in concept, these tenets underlying a truly free society are no less designed to secure, preserve and advance the well-being of one race than of another. . . . The lesson from past and contemporary events is that they are no longer peculiarly American but now belong to the entire human race.

General Douglas MacArthur, July 1947

Rethinking "Feminist Reform" Under U.S. Military Occupation

General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (scap) in occupied Japan, expressed a firm conviction in American democracy and its adaptability to all humanity in his 1947 Fourth of July message. 1 Following the end of World War II, MacArthur flew from the Philippines to Japan in order to take on a mission to reform "an alien race of spiritual growth stunted by long tenure under the physical, mental and cultural strictures of feudal precepts." While Japanese society and culture represented "the very antitheses of American ideals," the general had no doubt about his ability to transplant American democracy and "enlighten" the subjects of this alien nation. 2 He had evidence to support his conviction: American rule in the Philippines had proved America's capacity to "civilize" an "alien" and "inferior" race, and had shown the rightness of disseminating "American democracy" abroad. Just as the U.S. policy of "benign assimilation" in the Philippines uplifted its subjects from the state of ignorance and savagery, so MacArthur believed that the U.S. occupation would give the Japanese an unprecedented opportunity for civilization and enlightenment. Such sentiments were repeated [End Page 23] in the Senate hearings involving MacArthur in 1951, when he made a comparison between the postwar occupation of Japan and Germany, and elaborated extensively how Japanese made a "better pupil" under the U.S. tutelage. According to MacArthur:

The German people were a mature race. If the Anglo-Saxon was say 45 years of age in his development, in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite as mature. The Japanese, however, in spite of their antiquity measured by time, were in a very tuitionary condition. Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of 12 as compared with our development of 45 years. Like any tuitionary period, they were susceptible to following new models, new ideas. You can implant basic concepts there. They were still close enough to origin to be elastic and acceptable to new concepts. 3

Among numerous reform projects initiated during the occupation, the U.S. policies toward Japanese women were considered the best examples of the occupier's noble intention to uplift the uncivilized race. The occupiers perceived Japanese women as helpless victims who had been subjugated under centuries-old chauvinistic culture and tradition. Unlike Japanese men/soldiers who had overtly challenged the United States during the war, Japanese women had been at home, manipulated by the state ideology of "nationalistic mothers" and forced into war efforts—and were thus not directly accountable for the war. 4 Japanese women obviously needed, and deserved, enlightened guidance. Helpless and innocent, Japanese women were all the more "ideal" pupils in the school of American democracy. Convergence of racial and gender discourses resulted in the notion that liberating Japanese women from the "inferior" cultural tradition of the East and providing them with Western "superior" and more "democratic" political and educational guidance was a critical part of the U.S. mission in Japan. 5

Despite the centrality of "liberation of women" in the occupation rhetoric, historiography has rarely paid attention to women's...


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