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Japan in 1960 was insane.

Seriously, it was a really wild (and dark) year.



"I speak of the old Japan, because out of the ashes of the old Japan there has risen a new Japan.” –Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, 1951

“Received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government…I deem this reply…the unconditional surrender of Japan.”

There’s this moment after World War II, where the world is suddenly changing really quickly, and Japan is being completely remade. Because, armed with an unconditional surrender and the atomic bomb, America could do anything to Japan. But when soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur entered Tokyo, their assignment wasn’t to punish the country that had just started a war that killed 30 million people.[1]

Instead, their task was to rebuild Japan and, more importantly, to transform it into a peaceful, democratic nation.

And today, that’s what Japan has become: a democratic country famous for its technology and innovation…and for its peacefulness. But this American transformation didn’t happen overnight, and its success was far from guaranteed.

There was a time when anything was possible. A time when leading politicians declared friendship with communists and swore opposition to America; when massive crowds dominated the streets of Tokyo, storming parliament, attacking American officials, and chanting “Yankee go home;” when many believed Japan was on the verge of a Socialist revolution.[2] That is until this wave of resistance hit its final crescendo, when in one year, three enormous events combined to set Japan on the path to becoming the country we know today.

First, a new treaty with America.

Then, the largest protest in the country’s modern history.

And finally, a brutal samurai-sword assassination televised for the entire country to witness. But these three events don’t just explain why Japan is the way it is today, because this story actually helps explain a fundamental truth about why every society is the way it is. This is Japan, 1960: the year that made a nation. This is the year of blood.


“We must restore security, dignity, and self-respect to…a warrior nation which has suffered an annihilating defeat. –Douglas MacArthur, 1945 [3]

The American occupation of Japan began with nearly boundless idealism. Immediately, the political and military leaders responsible for the conflict were arrested, many charged with war crimes, while the Emperor was forced to renounce his divinity and endorse a shockingly progressive constitution. This new founding document established Japan as a liberal democracy, of course, but it went further, guaranteeing equality between men and women and enshrining the rights of workers to unionize and self-advocate: measures absent even from America’s own constitution. At the same time, large farms were divided and re-distributed, and massive, monopolistic corporations were slated to be broken up.[4] Old, hierarchical Japan was quickly giving way to a new, democratic Japan.

These were big pills to swallow for the Japanese, but perhaps the biggest break from the past was the constitution’s article 9.[5] “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right…Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”[6]

These were massive, controversial societal changes. But despite some discontent, Japan’s path to democratic modernity seemed clear. Until one day, everything changed.

Communism was spreading, and suddenly, America was no longer basking in the post-war glow of victory. A new war was on. The Cold War. Idealism vanished. Instead of a progressive democracy, Washington now needed a forward military base with a stable, friendly government.[7]

Most of the war-era leaders—experienced and reliably anti-communist—were suddenly pardoned and allowed to seek political office. Few renounced their wartime actions. Instead, Communists were now purged from the government, and many progressive policies favoring organized labor and the break-up of monopolies were abandoned, even reversed.[8] Article 9 remained in force, but America did allow the formation of a small pseudo-military, the Japan Self-Defense Force.[9]

What came next, however, was downright humiliating. As a condition of the occupation’s end, America proposed a treaty. It stipulated the American military could freely station and move troops throughout Japan, all without being under any obligation to defend the country in the event of attack. And the treaty had no expiration date. Japan had no choice but to accept.[10]


So, Japan’s gripped by an identity crisis. Two images show who was winning this fight in Parliament (or the Diet as they call it), by 1960. This shows how many seats each party controlled after the 1955 election. These are the two biggest parties, the Liberals and Democrats.[11] They’re both conservative, and they’re totally dominant. But here’s the Diet after the next election. The two biggest parties are just…gone. In reality, they’re just hiding, because this is the Liberal Democratic party, or LDP — a sort of conservative super-party formed in a merger that was actually organized in part by the CIA, who wanted Japan’s anti-communist parties to join forces.[12] Heading up the new party was this guy, Nobusuke Kishi: a war criminal and former minister in the wartime government. By 1957, he was Prime Minister, and he had two core goals: first, revise the constitution to eliminate Article 9 and re-militarize Japan, and second, renegotiate the humiliating treaty with America.[13] Now, treaty renegotiation was widely popular in Japan, not just with the right wing.[14] So when Kishi, after three years of haggling with the American government, secured key concessions—a ten-year term of voluntary renewal, mandated consultation with the Japanese government about American troop movements, and a defense pledge from America—he expected to be hailed as a hero.[15]

But there were two problems. While treaty renegotiation was widely popular, revising the constitution was anything but.[16] Most Japanese wanted nothing to do with war, and eliminating Article 9 to remilitarize the country threatened a return to those dark days. Moreover, Kishi wasn’t a hero. He was a horrible man who’d helped steer Japan into a devastating war from which he massively profited while the rest of the country suffered. [17]

He was also just elitist, arrogant, and corrupt. He openly disdained the media and the Japanese public as beneath him and centralized power in an inner circle of allies.[18] Under Kishi, many feared a comeback of the old Japan. As a result, he’d galvanized not only the left but a wide swathe of Japanese society against him. And when he attempted to force through legislation expanding police powers to stifle this widespread public dissent, protestors took to the streets and forced him to back down.[19] By January of 1960, even though he’d seriously improved the treaty terms, nobody trusted him, and mass resistance was guaranteed.[20] Instead of calming things down, Kishi had fired the country up.[21] The fight for Japan’s future was getting uglier.

But Kishi didn’t care. He wanted to get the job done. Still, months of massive protests unnerved some LDP legislators, so he delayed the vote…until May 19: the last day of the Diet’s session. But even then, Kishi couldn’t be sure he’d get his way. He needed more time, so he moved to extend the session. But the opposition saw it coming, and they blockaded the halls of the Diet, barricading the Speaker in his office.[22]

Here was an unprecedented confrontation between the two sides of the core identity crisis facing Japan, and millions of Japanese across the country were watching it unfold on their television sets. For hours, it dragged on, until Kishi finally called police into the Diet—an unprecedented move—and had the officers physically carry the opposition members one by one, some literally kicking and screaming, out of the building. Then, mere minutes before the session expired at midnight, a mass of officers assembled and forced the Speaker through the remaining crowd and up to the rostrum. A 50-day extension was carried, but to everyone’s shock, with only his own party present in the chamber, Kishi went further. He called an immediate vote on the treaty. It passed, unanimously.[23]


If we accept the events of May 19–20, we would be accepting that the government is allowed to use force to get anything it wants…Then we cannot also accept democracy.” –Professor Masao Maruyama, 1960

That core conflict over Japan’s identity was heating up, moving from the ballot box to boxing bouts, as both major parties resorted to force to either obstruct or jam through a political agenda. Kishi won this round, but the treaty’s opponents weren’t finished. In their view, Kishi had made it clear he’d stop at nothing to get his way, and maybe they should do the same.

Crucially for the opposition, the Diet is bicameral. While the lower house voted on May 20, Japan’s upper house still had a say in the matter.[24] They couldn’t reject the treaty outright, but they could delay the bill until the next election, when a new lower house might reconsider.[25] If the upper house didn’t intervene, however, the treaty would automatically ratify in 30 days, on June 19: coincidentally, the very day President Eisenhower was scheduled to make the first US Presidential visit to Japan. Convenient timing for a victory lap for Kishi.[26]

But hardly anybody in Japan wanted to grant him the satisfaction. Soon, hordes of citizens took to the streets, every day featuring a major protest somewhere in the country. The energy had transcended partisan politics to encompass a majority of the population. These weren’t just student radicals or urban laborers—they were office workers and housewives. Even a number of conservatives, fed up with Kishi’s suicidal politics began funneling money from Japan’s business establishment to left-wing groups organizing the protests.[27]

Still, the Diet’s upper house wasn’t budging…yet. But the whole exercise was turning into a real problem for Kishi, until on June 10, just over a week before the treaty was slated to ratify, it got a whole lot worse.

Ahead of his arrival, Eisenhower sent his Press Secretary, Jim Hagerty. But on the way from the airport to meet Kishi, Hagerty’s car was assaulted by protestors who surrounded the vehicle, cracked the windows, and caved in the roof, all while shouting anti-American slogans. Eisenhower’s security, and by extension the viability of his visit, was called into question: a massive embarrassment for Kishi and a coup for the protestors.[28]

It was a small victory, though, because time was running out. The protestors had staged massive demonstrations, unprecedented strikes, even intimidated the President of the United States. Yet still the country was hurtling toward the ratification date without a hint of delay from the Diet. It was now or never—they needed to do something big.

On June 15th, 1960, tens of thousands of Japanese gathered before the Diet building. They were faced by 5,000 police officers. At first, the protests were non-violent. One group even managed to break into the Diet compound, where they peacefully occupied a garden, sang songs, and gave speeches. Elsewhere in the vicinity, though, a cohort of right-wing counter-protestors assaulted the demonstrators using planks driven through with nails. A melee ensued.

Now things were completely out of hand. The police, who had been instructed to exercise restraint, now decided that the time for such things was over. They attempted to force the protestors out of the Diet compound, beating many of them unconscious. Blood began to run, instigating a mass panic. In the crowd crush that followed, Michiko Kanba, a female student at Tokyo University, was trampled to death.[29]

By midnight, Kishi had given police full authority to clear the building out. But out here, the protest, inflamed by Michiko’s death, raged on.[30] Kishi contemplated calling in Self Defense Force troops, but his cabinet talked him down. Instead, he announced he would resign within the month.[31] Eisenhower canceled his visit; it would be another 15 years before a sitting US president first set foot on Japanese soil.[32]

Still, protests continued to rock the country, reaching their peak on June 18th, one day before the treaty’s deadline.[33] As one student protestor put it, “Despite US approval of the new treaty, I felt certain that the revision would fail in the face of such widespread opposition, a conviction shared by the adults around me.”[34]

However, the upper house remained silent, and on June 19th, the treaty was ratified.[35]


"Even now, we all still have vivid recollections of you giving all those speeches in every corner of this nation.” –Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, 1960

In one sense, the Japanese left and the broader protest movement had failed. It was a critical victory for the conservative side of Japan’s identity crisis. The treaty was ratified, and the country had taken a clear step toward US alignment which was more or less legally locked in until the treaty was due for renewal in 10 years. But in another sense, the opposition had scored a major victory. Eisenhower backed out, and Kishi resigned, proving that two could play political hardball.

In turn, neither had this episode truly settled the fundamental question about what kind of nation Japan would become. If anything, the choice in the upcoming election seemed more polarized than ever, as the Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma visited the Chinese communists, still not recognized by Japan as the official government, where he treated with Party Chairman Mao Zedong, gave speeches declaring his friendship with China and opposition to America, and returned to Japan wearing Mao’s signature outfit. Asanuma wasn’t just radical; he was popular. Famous for his shabby dress and for living in public housing his whole life, Asanuma connected with the public about as well as Kishi repulsed it.[36]

By contrast, if a Mao suit and shabby clothes defined Asanuma’s radicalism and appeal, wire-rimmed glasses and double-breasted suits defined the LDP’s new leader: Kishi’s Minister for International Trade and Industry, Hayato Ikeda.[37] This was the uniform of a graduate of an elite school, an economist, and a finance minister: hardly the look of a man destined to repair the party’s elitist reputation.[38]

But it wasn’t just Ikeda’s clothing that seemed to doom his odds. Indeed, his party had chosen him, because he was thought to be an empty shirt, someone with no real base of support within the party who could stand in until the impending election determined the better man for the job. After all, Ikeda’s career was littered with political mis-steps. Back in 1950 he’d infamously suggested that Japan’s poor should cope with high food costs by eating more cheap barley and less expensive rice, prompting comparisons to Marie Antoinette. Worse still, Ikeda had been trade and industry minister once before in 1952, but had lasted less than a month, after he was quoted in the press, remarking coldly “even if five or ten small businessmen commit suicide, it can't be helped.” [39]

Asanuma the everyman couldn’t have asked for a better opponent.

But he had more than Ikeda to contend with. On October 12, 1960, Inejiro Asanuma stood on-stage for a debate inside this building in Tokyo, with Ikeda seated a few feet away, in the front row. Millions were watching on TV, when suddenly a man rushed on stage and seemed to collide with Asanuma. He wielded a wakizashi, a kind of short sword, and as he lunged at Asanuma a second time he was tackled to the ground. But it was too late. The assailant’s first strike had been a deep blow through the ribs. Asanuma died within minutes.[40]

It was Japan’s first political assassination since the war. The killer was a 17 year-old right wing radical who would hang himself in jail a few weeks later, after scrawling “Long live the emperor” on his cell wall in toothpaste.[41]

Most believed the murder would buoy support for the Socialists, both for reasons of sympathy and because it reinforced the fear which spread under Kishi’s leadership: that behind the LDP, in the shadow of Japan’s right-wing, lurked violence and terror.

However, just days after Asanuma’s death, Ikeda stood before the Diet to give a speech. Where many expected characteristically direct and concise remarks, where Kishi may have even made a campaign speech, Ikeda shocked his colleagues by delivering an impassioned eulogy for Asanuma, reciting the lyrics of one of his late rival’s campaign songs from the 1920s and commending his commitment to the Japanese public. His words left many in tears.[42]

But this wasn’t just a one-off performance. The storming of the Diet had been traumatic, the death of a protestor tragic, but witnessing a colleague stabbed to death mere feet away—that changed Ikeda. Gone were the wire-rimmed glasses and double-breasted jackets. In their place, he adopted chunky plastic frames and simple suits: the clothes of a man who no longer considered himself above the people.[43]

Nor was Ikeda’s transformation limited to a new outfit. He now fully grasped the gravity of Japan’s political chaos. He saw how Kishi’s confrontational, winner-take-all politics had taken his country to a deeply dark place. Politics was too polarized, too existential, too violent.[44] In his campaign, Ikeda sought to bring himself closer to the people, touring the country to discuss food prices, unemployment, and other kitchen-table issues, promising, if elected, to double the national income within a decade and to abstain from the golf and lavish geisha parties so beloved by his predecessor.[45]

It worked. In the 1960 election, the LDP gained a number of seats as Japan’s left wing shrank.[46] More importantly, Ikeda kept his word. While in office, he never did play golf, nor was he seen at any parties.[47] He attended studiously to governance and though he died of cancer before his promise to the nation could be realized, Ikeda’s policies doubled Japan’s national income in just seven years.[48] But his most lasting legacy was his abandonment of the LDP’s platform of constitutional revision. Article 9 would stay. Japan would not remilitarize.[49]

But not everyone celebrated Ikeda’s achievements. Kishi, for one, lamented the move away from constitutional revision, while many LDP members decried his administration in general as do-nothing: a critique Ikeda seemed to embrace. As his close confidant and future Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa recalled, “The issue was not what policies should be followed, but how policies should be decided in the Diet, and this issue was not really a joking matter. In America or Britain, this how has been decided as the result of a long history and centuries of tradition. It might take Japan many more years to get to that point…Ikeda’s attitude was that, in order to promote the healthy development of parliamentary democracy, the conservative party, but also the progressive parties as well, should exercise a bit more self-control…By nature, the younger the democracy, the more difficult and delicate this exercise of democratic leadership.”[50]


“Our basic policy is that the kind of disregard for law and order that prevailed during the Anpo protests never be allowed to recur.” –National Police Agency document, 1961

Ikeda didn’t just moderate the LDP. He moderated Japan. By abandoning his party’s more divisive and extreme policies, he defused the most potent criticisms from Japan’s left, resulting in a political system which the LDP has more or less dominated ever since.[51]

These highly stable politics have brought benefits, encouraging Japan’s meteoric economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s, while Ikeda helped institute a less winner-take-all, more consultative legislative culture in the Diet. But it has brought downsides as well. Political choice in Japan is very limited. Police regulations have rendered large-scale protests a nearly extinct form of political speech, and economic successes have given way to near-paralyzing stagnation.[52]

In one sense, this story is ultimately about one simple tradeoff that defines practically every political question. This is a spectrum of political possibility. At the far left, is chaos. Think of war, revolutions, even anarchy. There’s no telling what politics might look like in a year, a week, even a day. The horizons of political possibility are wide, even boundless, but the cost of such opportunity is ever-present instability and the threat of violence. At the other end is autocracy. Politics is stable, consistent, and reliable. Society is largely static. When it’s good, it’s great, but when it isn’t, there’s little that can be done to change it.

Most regimes fall somewhere on this spectrum, trading between the benefits of opportunity and stability. Of course, some regimes, like Putin’s Russia, have the worst of both worlds: extremely narrow political horizons and an unpredictable, ever-present threat of violence meted out by a capricious dictator. But the spectrum is useful because it articulates this principle: that to gain in either opportunity or stability requires some sacrifice in the other. A political system can’t afford boundless opportunity and reliable stability and safety. Liberal democracy, as a regime, attempts to straddle the difference, providing democratic means to increase political choice and possibilities, while at the same time constraining that choice within inviolable principles of individual rights, increasing stability. Where exactly each nation sits varies, because every society, particularly its leaders, must make this choice in formative moments.

For Japan, 1960 was that formative moment. And, with the support of most Japanese, Ikeda made a choice. Faced with the horrors of pre-war fascist chaos, the devastation of a suicidal nationalist war, and the resurgence of domestic political instability and conflict, Japan chose stability. Japan chose economic prosperity. And in turn, Japan chose narrow political horizons: a system governed largely by one party, where political disputes are resolved quietly in backroom deals, rather than public brawls and polarized elections.

In many ways, Japan is less “democratic” for its choice, less responsive to the needs and demands of the people and less tolerant of public dissent. But it remains, fundamentally, a democratic society. At what point that tradeoff—between stability and opportunity, between safety and freedom—becomes unacceptable is a difficult question indeed.


  1. “The Miraculous Deliverance From a Titanic Tragedy,” for the National World War II Museum, 25 August 2020. ↩︎

  2. Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism, ed. James L. Huffman (Routledge, 2013), 16; Nick Kapur, Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo (Harvard University Press, 2018), 14 ↩︎

  3. [American Caesar], p.472 ↩︎

  4. Japan at the Crossroads, 8-9. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 9. ↩︎

  6. Constitution of Japan, Chapter II, Article 9. ↩︎

  7. _Japan at the Crossroads, _9-10. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., 9-10. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., 19. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 11. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 10. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 10. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 12. ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 11-13. ↩︎

  15. Ibid., 17-18. ↩︎

  16. Ibid., 25. ↩︎

  17. Ibid., 2. ↩︎

  18. Ibid., 25. ↩︎

  19. Ibid., 18. ↩︎

  20. Ibid., 17-18. ↩︎

  21. Ibid., 20-21. ↩︎

  22. Ibid., 22-23. CORRECTION: The Diet session was scheduled to end on May 26. All succeeding event dates are correct. ↩︎

  23. Ibid., 23. ↩︎

  24. Ibid., 23. ↩︎

  25. Robert Fahey, “Japan Explained: The House of Councilors,” in TokyoReview, 18 July 2019. ↩︎

  26. Japan at the Crossroads, 23. ↩︎

  27. Ibid., 26. ↩︎

  28. Ibid., 27-29. Notably, it was later revealed that Hagerty’s driver (MacArthur’s nephew and the then-US Ambassador to Japan) intentionally drove into the crowd to provoke an incident which might give Kishi the necessary coverage to crack down. This obviously backfired and is an immaterial detail for this particular story. ↩︎

  29. Ibid., 29-30. ↩︎

  30. Ibid., 31. ↩︎

  31. Ibid., 32. ↩︎

  32. Ibid., 50. ↩︎

  33. Ibid., 34. ↩︎

  34. Ibid., 169. ↩︎

  35. Ibid., 34. ↩︎

  36. Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism, ed. James L. Huffman (Routledge, 2013), 16. ↩︎

  37. Ibid., 74, 84 ↩︎

  38. Ibid., 75-76. ↩︎

  39. Ibid., 76. ↩︎

  40. Ibid., 254. ↩︎

  41. Ibid., 254. ↩︎

  42. Ibid., 85-86. ↩︎

  43. Ibid., 84. ↩︎

  44. Ibid., 77-78. ↩︎

  45. Ibid., 84-85, 98. ↩︎

  46. Wikipedia, “1960 Japanese general election.” ↩︎

  47. Japan at the Crossroads, 84. ↩︎

  48. Ibid., 105. ↩︎

  49. Ibid., 80-81. ↩︎

  50. Ibid., 82. ↩︎

  51. Ibid., 265. ↩︎

  52. Ibid., 267; Michelle Toh, “Living standards are still falling in Japan. That’s a recipe for more stagnation,” CNN 12 April 2023; Naoki Abe, “Japan’s Shrinking Economy,” for the Brookings Institute, 12 February 2010. ↩︎


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