Promoting Democracy in Japan (1953)

In the summer of 1952 Harry Carman, executive director of the US Committee for Intellectual Interchange with Japan, invited ER to visit that country as part of a new exchange program for western and Japanese intellectuals. The exchange was part of a larger effort to promote western culture and values in a nation that had only recently begun to establish democratic institutions in the aftermath of its defeat in World War II.

ER’s five-week visit in the late spring and early summer of 1953 came at a difficult time for the Japanese. Although the American Occupation had formally ended in April 1952, US influence remained strong. Under the terms of the 1952 US-Japan Security Treaty, the US had the right to maintain bases and troops in Japan. The treaty also allowed the US military to intervene in the country’s domestic affairs and required Japan to seek US permission before leasing military bases to a third power. In a reversal of its previous policy, the US had also asked Japan to rearm in order to help forestall further communist inroads in East Asia following the fall of China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

Concurrently the Japanese were still adjusting to a host of US-imposed changes in economic and social norms including land and labor reforms, educational reforms and rights for women. They were also continuing to come to grips with the fact that they had been defeated in World War II. A US Information Service memo from Tokyo summed up the issues “in the forefront of public controversy” this way:

Criticism of U.S. Security Forces, centered in the question of bases and prostitution; the question of rearmament…the existence of Marxism as evidence in the left-of-center convictions of large groups of students, professors and intellectuals; the special problems of women including their pacifist attitude; the traditional problems inherent in mother-in-law domination of the home; and the apparent lack of vigorous leadership toward reform on the part of Japanese women of prestige and social influence, despite appointment to government jobs and election to the Diet; the left-wing orientation of many labor unions, including the Teachers Union; the demand from both business and labor for trade with Communist China; and the rise of anti-Americanism, much of it caused by the problems above noted.

ER inadvertently fueled the controversy when she discussed the hot button issue of rearmament at her very first press conference. Her view that Japanese rearmament was “necessary” because of the adversarial relationship between the US and the Soviet Union caused a firestorm of protest especially among students, women, labor union members and intellectuals that lasted throughout her time in Japan.

“These people don’t want to rearm,” she later wrote her friend, Joe Lash. “I think they’d prefer to let the Soviets walk in than to fight. They don’t like us deep down… because they think we’ll force them to rearm to the fight Asians!” To her daughter, Anna, she wrote, “These people don’t want war again period, & if Russia invades [,] well, it may not be worse than present conditions is their feeling. Freedom & democracy are so new & so hard for the masses to understand & the communist ideal is easier to grasp & they know nothing of the reality.”

Aside from its costs and the fear that rearming would make Japan a target in a future war between the US and the Soviet Union, Japanese opposition to rearmament also stemmed from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which destroyed both cities and killed hundreds of thousands of residents. Visiting Hiroshima and meeting with some of the survivors was “painful” and “a great strain” ER reported. “I know we were justified in dropping the bomb,” she wrote her friend Broadway theatrical producer John Golden, “but you can’t help feeling sorry when you see suffering.” Humanity’s best hope to avoid another Hiroshima, she believed, lay in efforts to eliminate “the causes of war…” and the use of “the machinery set up through an organization such as the U.N.”

Not all ER’s stops were as grim as Hiroshima. She spent time touring the ancient imperial cities of Kyoto and Nara, met with prominent businessmen in Osaka which she called “the Chicago of Japan” and watched women sorting coal at a mine in Fukuoka. She also visited factories and farms, met and spoke with countless university students, gave major addresses, lunched and dined with Japanese prime minister and interviewed the Emperor and Empress of Japan. Everywhere she went, she was received with a friendliness that surprised her given that the Japanese “had been defeated by our armed forces and that many of our peacetime actions had been most irritating to them.”

ER’s visit to Japan is among the best documented of all her trips with itineraries, correspondence, press coverage and drafts of her unpublished articles on Japanese rearmament and her interview with the Japanese Emperor and Empress. She also devoted considerable space to this trip in My Day. In addition, ER’s papers include English translations of nineteen articles written for a Japanese newspaper detailing her activities and reactions. Some of this material appears here. More of it will appear in volume three of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers.

Ultimately ER concluded that Japan in 1953 was a nation “in flux.” Its problems were great she told Harry Carman but they were solvable. She was less certain of her own impact on the Japanese. At the outset she had set herself a modest goal: to do whatever she “could to help spread the idea of democracy.” However, she achieved much more. According to Father George Ford, another participant in the exchange program, ER had been “an incomparable ambassador of good will and finest international understanding. No one could possibly measure the extent of her influence.”


Eleanor Roosevelt to John Golden (on Kabuki performance)

Kyoto itinerary

ER answering questions in Osaka (image)
ER answers questions from Japanese people

ER in Hiroshima (image)
ER in Hiroshima at wreath-laying (image)
Report from the Hiroshima students

ER visits a coal mine

Tokyo (again):
ER's account of this trip



“Dean Carman, 80 of Columbia Dies,” New York Times, 27 December 1964, 64; Chizuru Saeki, U.S. Cultural Propaganda in Cold War Japan (Lewiston, NY: The Edward Mellen Press, 2007; Harry Carman to ER, 13 August 1952, AERP, FDRL; John Hunter Boyle, Modern Japan: The American Nexus (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993); Foreign Service Despatch, Saxton Bradford, UNIS, Tokyo to United States Information Agency, Visit of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 17 August 1953 (RG59, NARA II); “Mrs Roosevelt Believes Rearmament Necessary,” The Mainichi, 23 May 1953, AERP, FDRL; Lash, Joseph P., A World of Love: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1984); Asbell, Bernard. Mother and Daughter: The Letters of Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1988); ER to John Golden 12 June 1953, AERP, FDRL; My Day 16 June 1953; Eleanor Roosevelt, On My Own (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958); Japan Committee for Intellectual Interchange Scheduled for Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt, May 23-June 25, 1953, AERP, FDRL; A Report To The Committee on Japanese-American Intercultural Exchange, n.d., AERP, FDRL.