Australia, Social Justice and Labour Reform in Occupation Japan

This is the sub-title to a fascinating recent book by University of Wollongong CAPSTRAN Research Fellow, Dr Christine de Matos, Imposing Peace and Prosperity (Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2008, ISBN 1740971612 ix + 427 pp). This eminently readable work is based on her PhD dissertation submitted to the University of Western Sydney in 2003. But those readers (like myself) who do not specialise in history per se may like to fast-forward first to her “Concluding Thoughts” in Chapter 8, “The Context of Australian Policy Towards the Japanese Labour Movement” (pp 328-9):

The United States came to promote a capital-led economic recovery in postwar Japan, while the Chifley government [in Australia, 1945-9] favoured a labour-led one. These essential differences could never be reconciled in terms of Allied labour policy in Japan. A labour-led recovery was essential to the pragmatic Australian aims of security, trade and maintenance of ‘White Australia’. A labour-led recovery would negate the traditional fear held towards a ‘yellow’ nation, once economically and militarily powerful, yet a nation with low living standards and an exploited workforce deemed inimical to living standards and jobs in Australia and Australian regional trade ambitions. For the United States, the Japanese labour movement was too radical, too militant and too political – thus the free rein given to labour was, after 1947, tightly drawn back. For Australia, the Japanese labour movement was not radical enough, or sincere enough, or had developed roots deep enough to play its integral role in Australian policy – a role for which permission and approval was never sought. Japanese workers were, in the end, not trusted by a nation steeped in suspicion, fear and insecurity. The United States enacted a controlled and superficial revolution from above; Australia envisaged the conditions and structures from outside that would, over time, nurture a controlled but penetrating revolution from below. Time was what Australian policy demanded; time was what US policy was not willing to concede.

Early in this Chapter 8 de Matos highlights ideological differences between Australia and the US. Chifley’s Labor Party proclaimed democratic socialism, whereas the US favoured a more “laissez-faire model with minimal government intervention”, with transitory “influence of the [American] New Dealers and other left-liberals in the GHQ/SCAP [General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, namely General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the Australian-led British Commonwealth Occupation Forces]” (p 278). Yet she follows RN Rosecrance (Australian Diplomacy and Japan, 1945-51, Melbourne UP, Parkville, 1962) in suggesting that both “frontier countries”, aware of their distinctiveness from parent European societies, tended to feel entitled to pass judgment on others. Accordingly (pp 276-7):

The Allied Occupation of Japan became a forum of conflict between competing ‘frontier ideologies’. In Australian eyes, aspects of the Australian System, including State paternalism and [compulsory] wage arbitration, could help create a more equitable society in Japan, which would in turn serve Australian interests in protecting Australia’s industries and export market, and its ‘White Australia’ policy. The primary difference between Australia and the United States was, of course, that the United States had far more political, military and economic resources and power at its disposal in order to attempt the ‘Americanisation’ of postwar Japan.

Thus, Australian ideology of that era fed into three pragmatic assumptions (pp 290-304). First, future security could be attained by turning Japan into a real democracy, but one underpinned by a strong labour movement and redistributivist policies. Relatedly, trade with Australia could be advanced by encouraging stable long-term growth (securing an export market less susceptible to the booms and busts of laissez-faire capitalism), underpinned by better conditions for the Japanese labour force (even at a cost to Japanese industry, hence dampening further floods of cheap imports into Australia). Likewise, underpopulated but ecologically fragile “White Australia” could be preserved against overpopulated countries like Japan by addressing social, political and economic discontent at their source (as urged more generally by an Australian diplomat around the 1940s, WD Forsyth).
Perhaps I am not the only reader to detect some continuity even in contemporary Australian foreign policy more generally. Think of security affairs (including AusAID’s projects to develop the Rule of Law and human rights particularly in the Asian region); cross-border trade and investment (tempered by a greater appeal to market forces since the 1980s, but now challenged by the Global Financial Crisis); and immigration (despite the dismantling of the White Australia policy essentially in 1973). But in Japan during the Occupation, the pragmatic elements and some supporting ideology were not enough for Australia to leave too much influence. As de Matos points out, the nation was hampered by various “internal factors and contradictions in Australian policy” (p 305). Not just its relative paucity of resources, power and authority internationally, but also the fact that more immediate “retributive aims had greater resonance with [Australian] public opinion than reformist aims” (p 307).
De Matos further suggests that external factors were also not conducive for Australia. Japan’s diplomatic rights were terminated on 25 October 1945, and communications were then channeled through SCAP – under the dominance of MacArthur and the Americans – even in Japan’s dealings with other Allied Powers. Further, some initial influence of New Dealers and reformists on US policy was paralleled by strong anti-communist elements, and those intensified from 1947 (spreading through the State Department) along with the Cold War. Indeed (pp 320-1):

Not only was the Russian bogey exploited by some US officials, but so was the ‘Australian bogey’. US officials played upon Japanese fears of alleged Australian retributivist policies and attitudes in order to scare Japanese officials into support of US policies. For example, in the case of the postwar constitution, Japanese leaders were informed that if they ‘procrastinated’ over the US draft, the issue would be ‘taken up by the newly-formed Far Eastern Commission, where less charitable and generous attitudes towards the emperor could be anticipated’. Australian fears of a future remilitarized and vengeful Japan were cited by MacArthur to encourage the adoption of pacifist Article 9 in the postward constitution.

De Matos succeeds in a major aim of her work by challenging, with the benefit of hindsight and archival research, a still-common “simplistic notion that the Australian government’s policies towards Japan during the Allied Occupation were solely ‘harsh’ or vengeful” (p 4). On the other hand, she extends the argument of JW Dower that advancing reforms in Japan – compared, for example, to postwar Germany – reflected neocolonialism and “orientalism” by “denaturing an oriental adversary and turning it into at least an approximation of an acceptable, healthy, westernized nation” (Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays, New York, New Press, 1993, p 281, original emphasis). Australian policy had parallels, De Matos contends, in pressing for “an acceptable, healthy, Australianised labour movement” (p 323). Further, she considers that “Australian Orientalism, like that of the United States, was hierarchical in its application” (p 326) – entrenching a special role for Japan compared to its Asia-Pacific neighbours.
These provocative views present a salutary warning even today. Australians examining contemporary developments in corporate and securities law, for example, may well question empirical or normative claims of further ‘Americanisation’ – but at the risk perhaps of over-promoting ‘Australianisation’. Instead, we should remain conscious of another aim of this book – “to explore paths of possibility otherwise forfeited to history” (p 7).
Indeed, not just in Japan. For it is worth remembering that Australia’s then Foreign Minister, “Doc” Evatt, not only appealed for the entrenchment of social and economic rights in Occupation Japan. He and the Australian government were also central in having them included in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the basis for many subsequent conventions and national constitutions. Evatt was even the first to suggest a European Court of Human Rights to make all such human rights more readily enforceable, at least in that continent. Imagine, following the lead of Geoffrey Robertson (The Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights, Vintage, North Sydney, 2009, pp 30-8), if such efforts had resulted then in enactment of some form of Bill of Rights for Australia itself – still being debated for application nation-wide, even as a mere statute rather than constitutional ‘supreme law’. Ironically, Japan’s constitution of 1947 did end up including an expansive Bill of Rights that do represent supreme law, trumping inconsistent statutes.
De Matos’ work, like all good history books, is therefore highly thought-provoking for those from a variety of backgrounds – including international relations, economics and law – who are interested in deeper or novel perspectives on contemporary issues facing Australia and Japan. These readers will also find interesting observations and quotes littered throughout the first seven chapters. They, along with professional historians, should also find themselves neatly drawn into the detailed arguments and sources marshaled in support of her general conclusions outlined above.
Chapters 1 and 2 detail the influences that coalesced in the policies of the Australian government, both retributivist and reformist. Chapters 3 and 4, drawing primarily on archival sources, narrate chronologically how the policies played out in practice for Australian diplomats in the Occupation control machinery. Chapter 5 concentrates on Evatt in Canberra and his controversial visit to Japan in 1947. Chapters 6-7 refocus on Japan and the subsequent efforts of Australians to pursue the policies of Evatt and Chifley in civilian forums like the FEC in the shadow of SCAP, despite the worsening Cold War environment. The only additions I personally would have liked comprise a Glossary reminding me of the various acronyms, and a few more photos from the Occupation featuring fewer military figures, but perhaps such material is or can be made available separately online.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.