The democratization of a further third of the world’s countries during the second half of the 20th century was a remarkable and inspiring achievement. At the start of the 21st century, however, the difficulties inherent in exporting democracy have become starkly apparent.
It was 60 years ago this month that the American Occupation authorities under Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued a directive that proved to be crucial for democracy in Japan. Having lived through the transition from totalitarianism, I am acutely mindful of the need to never take for granted the basic freedoms of thought, expression and belief that democracy brings.
I was 17 in October 1945. The scars of war were everywhere and chaos penetrated every aspect of life. Although I paid little attention at the time, the events of that month would signal great changes in my life and the lives of millions of others. They introduced us to new ways of thinking and acting that have profoundly shaped our society in the decades since then.
MacArthur’s directive ordered the government to revoke all laws restricting freedom of thought, religion, assembly and speech, or which “operate unequally in favor of or against any person by reason of race, nationality, creed or political opinion.”
Josei Toda, who later became my mentor in life, was quick to appreciate the full significance of this directive. Together with the educator and philosopher Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, in 1930 he had founded an association of educators who sought to reform Japan’s nationalistic education system.
I experienced firsthand indoctrination under the nationalistic system. Its overriding goal was to inculcate blind, unthinking loyalty. As young students, we had to recite the Imperial Rescript on Education, which read in part: “Should emergency arise, offer yourself courageously to the State.” Later, unable to continue my schooling, I had to work at a munitions factory where manned suicide torpedoes were made. The factory housed a school of sorts and compulsory military training was part of the curriculum.
What Toda and Makiguchi proposed was heretical in militarist Japan. They proclaimed that the life of each child is infinitely precious and that the happiness of children must be the true goal of education. They not only criticized the education system, but also the rites of State Shinto that worshipped the Emperor as a “living god” and were used to justify Japan’s wars of aggression. This drew the attention of the dreaded Special Higher Police, and Toda and Makiguchi were arrested as “thought criminals” under the Peace Preservation Act, which forbade voicing any views critical of the government.
Makiguchi was 72 at the time of his arrest. He died in prison, having refused to recant his beliefs and continued to assert the primacy of individual human rights until the end. Toda, ravaged by severe malnutrition and abuse, was provisionally released just weeks before the end of the war.
For Toda, the Oct. 4 directive and its implementation on Oct. 11 were events of momentous significance. In a stroke, the law under which he was charged was struck down and the Special Higher Police abolished. No longer in the limbo of provisional release awaiting trial, he stepped into the full sunlight of freedom. But he saw an even greater meaning in this directive. For the first time, the Japanese people were granted the essential rights of free citizens that are the bedrock of democracy.
Having endured persecution under a system that granted favored status to one religion, teaching it in schools and making it a tool of state coercion, Toda welcomed the new climate in which people were free to follow their own conscience in matters of faith and individual expression. He devoted himself to building the foundations of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist association, as Japan experienced the rise of many new political, religious and civil movements.
The process of democratization is long and arduous; in many senses, Japanese democracy remains immature. But I think we need to remember that democracy everywhere is by its nature incomplete, a work in progress. The great American philosopher John Dewey warned against confusing the means, the forms and procedures of democracy, with its end — a truly empowered and autonomous citizenry. He urged us to take up the challenge of reinventing democracy with each new generation and saw education as vital to this process.
Education, where the rising generation is fostered and shaped, can, as was the case in wartime Japan, instill a violent and racist ideology. Or it can open people to a full humanistic appreciation of the inherent dignity of all people everywhere, laying the foundations for democracy and peace. Such education makes us truly free.