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Japan defaulted on its public debt after the Second World War. This article addresses the question of how Japan lost its ability to sustain its public debt. We explore the sustainability of public debt in Japan before the War. We conduct statistical tests for the relationship between public debt and primary fiscal balance, and find that Japanese public debt was sustainable until 1931, and unsustainable in and after 1932. Narrative modes of analysis indicate that Japan lost its fiscal discipline because of the military’s effective veto over budgetary processes and because of the absence of pressure for sound fiscal policy from international financial markets.