Failure to Reform: The Attempt to Americanize the Postwar Japanese Police

by Ryan Thiele

As a component of their ‘remote control’ mode of oversight, American Occupation forces depended upon traditional Japanese institutions to bring about reform in the post-World War II era; specifically, the disbanding of the Japanese military placed police in a vital role for maintaining social stability in a time of incredible political, social, and economic change. Occupation officials sought to institute a number of radical reforms to ‘democratize’ Japan, yet the recentralization of the police in 1954 and the continuation of prewar behaviors thought to have been reformed show a different conclusion than one American’s hoped for. Americans’ lack of acknowledgment for long standing traditions in Japan, in particular the role and structure of police in Japanese society, alongside the failure to properly institute reforms through vetted officials, inhibited the promised democratization of the postwar Japanese police. To assist in answering this critical question, we begin by understanding those long standing traditions of the prewar police, followed by evaluating the attempted reforms in the postwar period via both Japanese and American sources.

A History of Japanese Policing

In an attempt to match the power of the West and modernize their government, the Meiji administration sought a complete overhaul of criminal justice in 1870. The system was “heavily influenced by…France and Prussia, whose codified penal law, powerful procuracy and highly centralized police administration seemed natural choices to follow” within the structure of the Japanese imperial system. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police provides the first example of such Western influence within Japan’s monarchical system: the initial agency was modeled after France’s, which was well known for its centralization and administrative duties that included both preventative policing and political surveillance, a useful tool for the imperial court. 

The formation of a national police system followed, designed by Wilhelm Höhn, captain of the Berlin police. The result was the establishment of the kôban, known officially as a hashutsujo, the basic unit of policing: a three to six-man post that operated as a neighborhood police station, with its rural equivalent a single policeman residential box called a chûzaisho. Höhn’s national structure was meant to encourage constant interaction by the public and police. As the Japanese government became more authoritarian in its regulation of society, so too did police as they transitioned from protectors from crime to generalized law enforcers. Now under the control of the Home Ministry, the government’s main agency for regulating society, by 1912 the National Police Bureau was “divided between sections concerned with police affairs, peace preservation, and censorship.”

As general enforcers of public law, Japanese police duties ranged far beyond what Western countries would consider ‘policing.’ Their roles ranged from welfare, via distribution of resources or resolution of domestic/social disputes; economic regulatory enforcement through supervision of licensing and management of both financial and commercial institutions; to social control by ensuring public health and hygiene, as well as supervision/enforcement of rules regarding construction of buildings, fire prevention, and conservation of forests. Further, the newly established High Police engaged in political duties outlined by the Home Ministry, such as censorship of newspapers, monitoring political organizations, approving public gatherings or union activities, occasional influence of elections, as well as holding quasi-judicial powers in prosecuting and jailing people for minor offenses. Harry Emerson Wildes, former Chief of the Political and Social Affairs Division within the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), put it best in his 1953 reflection: 

“Foremost among the accusations levelled against prewar Japan was that it was a police state, not only in the broad sense of being totalitarian but in the narrower meaning that policemen dominated every social, political, or economic activity. The uniformed man in the police-box under the Imperial sixteen-petalled golden chrysanthemum crest ruled the neighborhood; the Home Ministry to which he was responsible controlled the Empire’s internal affairs.”

In short, the Meiji and subsequent Japanese administrations propelled Japan to a world power by combining Western policies with Japanese ideals. The adoption of a massive, centralized policing system emulated nations whose central governments were incredibly powerful, a trait that had no contention in finding its home in Japanese imperial governance. The evolution of law enforcement over decades from investigation and prevention of crime to a general supervisor and enforcer of public rules became a longstanding Japanese principle: where “the political imperatives of modernization compelled the government to centralize [all] administration, especially in education, taxation, and policing.” When Japan expanded its empire, its police were there to maintain order and ensure obedience in all public affairs.

Following Japan’s surrender, the United States rightfully recognized that the Japanese police “penetrate society more completely than any other governmental agency.” Therefore, as the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP) sought to democratize Japan and institute concepts of civil liberties and human rights, they found themselves facing an institution that had little knowledge of procedures designed to protect people from unwarranted government intrusion. Believing that the decentralized and limited role of American police facilitated American democracy, the Occupiers thought they could efficiently export those procedures and structures to a country that was unfamiliar, and disapproved, of both. 

Decentralization of the Police

The most important reform proposed by American forces was determining how the police should be structured in this new democratic era. Public Safety Division (PSD) recognized the longstanding tradition of the national police as a way to contain lawlessness, whereas Government Section (GS) was more concerned with the establishment of civil liberties and viewed the national police as an obstacle to that goal. The differences in plans would eventually lead to a hybrid system marked with inefficiencies that doomed it from the start, and failed to consider that Japan did not have the same connections with regions or localities that Americans do with their cities and states.

It is important to highlight the view of the Japanese government during these debates. Under Prime Minister Yoshida the Japanese government believed that “hasty reorganization of the system [might] not only bring about confusion and inefficiency…but would affect the functioning of other administrative agencies, creating public unrest and confusion in law and order.” Yoshida, recognizing that decentralization was going to be mandated by the United States in some capacity, attempted to find a compromise that would retain some form of a national police force, aligning with PSD’s sentiment. While PSD believed decentralization should happen gradually, followed by the establishment of a national force, Yoshida’s government proposed the establishment of a national force first, so as to assist in filling gaps found during devolution. Yoshida also proposed continuing the system of prefectural police departments under governors supervised by the national government, though that was rejected.

Via numerous backdoor meetings with both Japanese and Occupation leaders, PSD and GS proposed their differing plans on September 12th, 1947. PSD proposed a hybrid system that would see larger municipalities manage their own police departments, with the rest of the nation monitored by a National Rural Police (NRP). The devolution from national police to municipalities would happen gradually so as to ensure local governments were prepared to take on administration and funding of police forces. GS, on the other hand, proposed immediate decentralization of the entire national police to prefectural and municipal levels. They believed that civilian and local control was the only way to ensure democratization of the police. With support from Occupation General Douglas MacArthur, GS forced PSD to compromise and establish a revised hybrid system: a small NRP, alongside immediate decentralization, held together by the establishment of civilian oversight commissions to ensure independence and democratization.

Following the passage of the 1948 Police Law, PSD’s fears were immediately apparent. Local towns and cities, still in recovery from the war, could not afford to pay their police departments, running massive deficits. Local departments were also left with little firearms, radios, or motor vehicles to travel throughout their jurisdiction. Comedically, US officials were already aware of these issues well before the 1948 Police Law; for example, H.S. Eaton, chief police administrator, noted in December 1948 that there was one pistol for every five policemen, contrary to a 1945 report by the Army that there was an “adequate” number of firearms, with one for every three policemen. Though limited supplies would eventually be rectified by American donations of revolvers and other material, combined with issues of jurisdiction — where departments were discouraged from explicit cooperation and boundaries were not properly set — police were placed in a difficult position in that they were unsure where and how to police their assigned borders with what little supplies they had. 

A massive side effect was the rise in corruption, as organized crime bosses filled the “democratized” accountability boards that controlled local police. Further, both business owners and those involved in organized crime founded “Police Supporters’ Associations” to help fund the underfunded police departments. Under control of crime bosses or corrupt businesses via the civilian boards and financial “contributions,” police officers were hesitant to investigate larger crimes, particularly in the burgeoning black market. The American desire to democratize the police required functioning municipalities in order to maintain accountability and efficiency, yet, “the local entities, particularly the middle-or-small sized, [had] been financially incapable to maintain their own [police], because industrial and historical backgrounds…were somewhat different than those in the European and American countries, [leading to corruption and lack of supplies].”

Purging Prewar Officers

American policies demanded a restructuring of the police ethos with the inclusion of respect for the civil liberties found within the new Japanese constitution. To ensure respect for these ideals, a purging of prewar police and military officers would be needed so as to not continue the same invasive prewar police practices. However, while the mission had good intentions of re-envisioning a new Japanese police, it failed to properly root out pre-surrender leaders or transfer police’s social and economic duties to other institutions. Agencies such as the military police (kenpei) and Police Defense Corps (keibitai) were abolished and their duties or personnel transferred to civil police, a mere cosmetic change. The SCAP Civil Liberties Directive, which engrained the freedoms of speech, religion assembly, and press in law and freed political prisoners, also disbanded the secret High Police, or Tokkô. Many of the officers from these units, especially the Tokkô, were banned from public service, especially in the police. Yet, as Tsubaki Kenkichi, a 1945 patrolman, noted: “As in cases of other men holding positions in objectionable organizations, there are not a few instances where injustices have occurred when…men who were in their positions but a few days were dismissed, while men who held the positions for a good part of the war…were proceeding from one good position to another unaffected.”

Had the US had been more concerned and united in purging former officials, there might have been greater success in enacting civil liberties reform. Occupation forces were not unanimous in deciding policy, with an Occupation report dated September 1945 stating: “Since members of the Special Higher Police [Tokkô] are experienced in the detection of subversive activity, some modification short of complete elimination…might be considered.” This report highlights the central issue in American purge efforts: while the Occupation wanted police to revise its procedures to maintain order while respecting individual rights, it did not advise or train new officers, and all but encouraged in writing the continuation of pre-surrender policing tactics in order to maintain social stability. The continuation of these practices happened under prewar officers who were not completely purged from public service.

A November 1945 report asserted that “thousands of demobilized Kenpei and regular army and navy personnel are being recruited into the civil police,” exemplifying the failure of the earlier mentioned purges and barring of certain officers from joining the police. In fact, a month later, SCAP’s Civil Intelligence Section showed “that former officers and non-commissioned officers of the army and navy were being employed by the police and fire organizations.” Despite reforms presented by the 1946 Metropolitan Police Planning Group — consisting of American policing experts — that attempted to keep veteran patrol officers from quitting, with police leaving in droves Occupation forces tolerated the inclusion of ex-military in order to assist in filling vacant roles. 

This ran completely counter to the Occupation’s mission in reforming police practices and excluding those officers who participated in Japan’s military apparatus, as former military and special police personnel were more than happy to continue the policies of the prewar police. Americans may have been hesitant to completely purge from the start, as internal purges lead to a loss of knowledge, which, compounded with issues from lack of supplies, communication between police forces, and low pay/benefits, also leads to a broken system. Nevertheless, with a lack of resources and a booming black market in the country, the police resorted to their old ways in order to maintain social stability and Americans were more than happy to focus on political and economic reform knowing the police would maintain order.

Defining the Role of Police

Following surrender, unrest was common and a black market in contraband formed. The black market in particular grew to move and develop resources outside of government rations, such as dried fish, bundles of firewood and charcoal, and vegetables. Directives from SCAP to reduce the police footprint in every-day life, such as labor oversight, allowed the economic situation to continue spiraling out of control and the black market to expand as no substitute was properly created to enforce rules. In order to maintain stability, police continued to enforce the government’s price controls and economic regulations despite those duties officially being removed. This reflects one of the largest errors on the part of the US: they misunderstood the longstanding tradition of the police’s role as enforcer of everything from criminal justice to labor regulation to public health. 

The United States’ hands off approach to implementing Occupation policies depended upon using the Japanese government and its institutions to enact change. By relying upon the pre-war system to execute reforms, it legitimized the same system that Americans hoped to modify, not taking into account the difficulty of providing a stable environment and engaging in radical reform when societal stability was intertwined with police intervention in daily-life. A 1945 report titled “The Japanese Police System under Allied Occupation” asserted that “these two interests may conflict in practice since effecting in the police force…reforms vital to the achievement of the ends of the Occupation, or the diminution of police power under disorganized conditions, may impair the maintenance of public order and open the way of the operations of subsidized gangs (sôshi) with reactionary aims.”

The booming black market — which grew to number between 80,000 and 120,000 offenses per month — continued to demand heavy police presence. When the Economic Police Section of the Metropolitan Police Board was dissolved, no substituting agency was enacted to ensure compliance with commercial regulations. The Office of Strategic Services reported in particular “there [being] no other agencies immediately or economically available [and] abrupt transfer of functions from police control might lead to confusion.” These rollbacks of police duties with no substitute led to police continuing their role, albeit in a reactive rather than proactive manner. Numerous raids, inspections, and checkpoints were made to investigate and apprehend illicit goods, but little was available to the police to stop proactively inhibiting contraband.

The eventual hiring of numerous economic officials, some with police powers, further led to confusion over who was supposed to enforce commercial laws, causing “duplication of effort and an uncoordinated response to economic crime.” Further, civil liberties violations became common, usually in the search and seizure of private possessions thought to be involved in illegal trade despite the constitutional need for warrants. Although prosecutors and the newly free press’ attempted to hold police accountable, “if the Occupation had to suspend temporarily constitutional guarantees of freedom from police intrusion, then that was a price worth paying to facilitate economic rehabilitation.” Nevertheless, in the attempt to separate economic and social enforcement from police, the ultimate lack in administrative substitutes allowed Japanese police to maintain their long standing role as government enforcer.

Consequences of the Reforms

After the Occupation, a 1954 Police Duties Law reversed the decentralization plan and reorganized all police by prefecture, overseen by a National Police Agency (NPA), with revised public accountability boards and independent management. The police still contained many ex-officers and former military that should have been purged, slowing progress for the hope of bringing respect for civil liberties into police practice. Debate over the 1954 bill was sparked by an expansion of police powers: political opposition was worried that the new “bill would give [police] powers more extensive than those possessed in the common-law countries…that the Japanese police (because of their lack of democratic traditions and their susceptibility to political influence) cannot be trusted with the powers entrusted to police forces in the [West].” The police themselves “criticized the safeguards granted the offender in the new Constitution and the Code of Criminal procedure as making their work difficult and resulting in an increase of criminality.” Even Japanese prosecutors in 1951 knew of the incredible violation of civil liberties that remained in police practices: “the Civil Liberties Bureau, an official agency, reported a thousand violations monthly against basic human rights, mostly by police.”

American unwillingness to understand long standing traditions and institutional roles of the police, alongside a lack of intervention to ensure the effectiveness of reform directives, led to the reinstatement of a centralized police structure with little change in policing practices or personnel. Had the US invested in reliable substitutes for the enforcement of areas such as commercial regulation, a reformed centralized police structure may have successfully continued. Further, had they devoted more time into ensuring proper policing procedures that respected civil liberties and developed through vetted officials, the policing issues found in the post-Occupation period may have been mitigated. Lastly, if the United States had learned from its mistakes in building new institutions parallel to internal cultures, it is an interesting thought as to how the US’ foreign policy during the Cold War may have changed when intervening in countries from Vietnam to Latin America.


Aldous, Christopher. The Police in Occupied Japan. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Craig-Parker, L. The Japanese Police System Today: A Comparative Study. New York: Routledge, 2015. 

Katzenstein, Peter J. Cultural Norms and National Security: Police and Military in Postwar Japan. Cornell University Press, 1998.

Nakahara, Hidenori. “The Japanese Police.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 46, no. 4 (1953). 583-594.

Oppler, Alfred Christian. Legal Reforms in Occupied Japan: A Participant Looks Back. Princeton University Press, 1976.

Sissions, D. C. S. “The Dispute over Japan’s Police Law.” Pacific Affairs 32, no. 1 (March 1959). 34-45.

Wildes, Harry Emerson. “The Postwar Japanese Police.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 43, no. 5 (1953). 655-671.