Unlike Iraq, Germany, Japan knew democracy

History: Using Germany and Japan as examples of success in reconstructing a nation after war can be misleading in the case of Iraq.

March 30, 2003|By Gene Oishi | Gene Oishi,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

President Bush, who once rejected nation-building as an important American role, has now embraced it as his vision for the future of Iraq and possibly the Middle East as a whole, citing the political reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II as examples.

The U.S. role in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II was an outstanding example of magnanimity and statesmanship, but the United States did not introduce the concept of democracy or modern economic and industrial practices in either country. To use the German and Japanese experience as case histories for what is possible in Iraq and in the Middle East in general is an exercise in self-delusion.

Consider Japan, whose history is less familiar to Americans than Germany's. Institutions were established virtually from the ground up by the Japanese in the 19th century.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which began the transformation of Japan from a feudal society to a modern nation state, Japan sent or sponsored numerous missions to the United States and to European capitals to study their schools, their courts, their military, their banking practices, industrial techniques, transportation systems and, most particularly, their forms of constitutional government.

The Japanese were quick studies. Within three decades, they succeeded in establishing a centralized school system, western-style courts, central banking, a network of railroads, steam-shipping, light and heavy industries, a national army and navy and a constitutional form of government.

By the first decade of the 20th century, Japan was a world power, both in military and economic terms, and was recognized as such by the West, making Japan the first Asian nation to be treated diplomatically and commercially as an equal by western powers.

Resentment of commercial encroachment and fear of military and political domination by the West had spurred Japan to modernize, but the point here is that the initiative for action creating the necessary institutions for modernization came from within, from the Japanese themselves.

It is true that Japan was never a true democracy, as we today would see it, until the imposition of a new constitution by the U.S. occupational forces after World War II. But constitutional government was not a foreign concept to the Japanese in 1946.

The 1889 Meiji constitution was fatally flawed by the provision that the emperor was "sacred and inviolable," and the rights of sovereignty invested his person, but it was based on European models and in some ways more liberal than those of many European countries.

It established a national assembly, or diet, around which political parties were formed, and until the 1930s it functioned, if imperfectly and in its unique way, as a parliamentary form of government.

In the beginning, suffrage was limited to wealthy males, who constituted about six percent of the population, but voting rights were gradually expanded until universal suffrage for all males 25 and over was achieved in 1925. In the 1920s, labor unions were formed as well as socialist and communist parties. They were severely suppressed or eliminated as the nation turned fascist in the 1930s, but they were manifestations of a liberal undercurrent in Japanese society that could be traced to the late 19th century.

Perhaps just as important as voting rights, compulsory education and literacy rates were growing steadily since the Meiji reforms so that by 1905 about 95 percent of children of both sexes were enrolled in public schools. By the 1930s, enrollment in the primary grades was practically 100 percent.

All of the above is to point out that even after the devastation brought upon Japan in World War II, the political, economic, social and intellectual substructure for modernization already existed.

There was also a sense of nationhood, a consensus that the 100 million people living in Japan belonged to one people, one culture and tradition so that the struggle for reconstruction was not impeded by tribal or ethnic conflicts.

In the case of West Germany after World War II, it should be even less surprising that democratization proceeded so smoothly. Germans have been part of the intellectual development in what we call Western Europe from its beginning. The Weimar Republic, for all its shortcomings, was a functioning democracy, which might have survived had it not been for the Great Depression.

With their disastrous experience with Nazism, moreover, West Germans hardly needed to be persuaded to re-establish democracy in their country. All they needed was economic assistance from the United States; they already had the unity, means and the will for the establishment of a modern democratic state.

Iraq is one of the nations carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I by France and Great Britain. It is made up of Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds, each with their own aspirations and ethnic or tribal loyalties. It lacks a unified national identity as well as a real, self-mediated experience with democratic forms of government.

To point to Japan and Germany as examples of what can be accomplished through war and rehabilitation in the Middle East is unrealistic; it is an analogy not supported by history.

The American public needs to know that any project to transform Iraq into a functioning democratic state, if possible at all, is one that will take decades, not years. To be successful, the motivation for transformation would have to come from the Iraqi peoples themselves, not imposed by foreigners.

Gene Oishi was a reporter for The Sun from 1965 to 1980 and a foreign correspondent stationed in Germany from 1972 to 1976.

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