With the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 a great deal of uncertainty about Japan’s future followed. Many believed that Meiji Japan had flourished under the steadfast rule of the emperor who reigned for more than 40 years. Now his first son, Yoshihito, ascended to the throne and took the name Taisho, ushering in the next era. Those deeply loyal to Emperor Meiji and resistant to modernization efforts were particularly vulnerable. Some would hold fast to the centuries of Japanese tradition, rejecting any shifts in gender roles or education and military reforms, while other reformers embraced change.
The young Taisho emperor was born in 1879 and at an early age contracted cerebral meningitis. The ill effects of the disease, including physical weakness and episodes of mental instability, plagued him throughout his reign. Because of his sickness there was a shift in the structure of political power from the old oligarchic advisors under Meiji to the members of the Diet of Japan—the elected representative officials increasingly gaining influence and power. By 1919 Emperor Taisho’s illness prevented him from performing any official duties altogether. By 1921 Hirohito, his first son, was named ses-ho, or prince regent of Japan. From this point forward, Emperor Taisho no longer appeared in public.
Despite the lack of political stability, modernization efforts during Taisho continued. A greater openness and desire for representative democracy took hold. Literary societies, mass-audience magazines, and new publications flourished. University cities like Tokyo witnessed a burgeoning culture of European-style cafés, with young people donning Western clothing. A thriving music, film, and theater culture grew, with some calling this period “Japan’s roaring '20s.”
For these reasons the Taisho era has also been called Taisho democracy as Japan enjoyed a climate of political liberalism unforeseen after decades of Meiji authoritarianism.1 One of the leading political figures, and the man who coined the term Taisho democracy, was professor of law and political theory Dr. Yoshino Sakuzo. After observing and traveling extensively in the West, he returned to Japan and wrote a series of articles promoting the development of a liberal and social democratic tradition in Japan. In the preface to his 1916 essay “On the Meaning of Constitutional Government,” Yoshino wrote:
[T]he fundamental prerequisite for perfecting constitutional government, especially in politically backwards nations, is the cultivation of knowledge and virtue among the general population. This is not the task that can be accomplished in a day. Think of the situation in our own country [Japan]. We instituted constitutional government before the people were prepared for it. As a result there have been many failures. . . . Still, it is impossible to reverse course and return to the old absolutism, so there is nothing for us to do but cheerfully take the road of reform and progress. Consequently, it is extremely important not to rely on politicians alone but to use the cooperative efforts of educators, religious leaders, and thinkers in all areas of society.2
With such ideas openly circulating, Japan also saw the rise of mass movements advocating political change. Labor unions started large-scale strikes to protest labor inequities, political injustices, treaty negotiations, and Japanese involvement in World War I. The number of strikes rose from 108 in 1914 to 417 strikes in 1918. At the outset of World War I, there were 49 labor organizations and 187 at the end, with a membership total of 100,000.3 A movement for women’s suffrage soon followed. While the right of women to vote was not recognized until 1946, these early feminists were instrumental in overturning Article 5 of the Police Security Act, which had prevented women from joining political groups and actively participating in politics. They also challenged cultural and family traditions by entering the work- force in greater numbers and asserting their financial independence.
One of the most widespread political protests occurred in 1918 with Japan’s rice riots. Like the rest of the world, Japan was experiencing wartime inflation and low wages. The dramatic increase in the price of rice, a staple of the Japanese diet, had an impact on the entire country. In August 1918 in the fishing village of Uotsu, fishermen’s wives attempted to stop the export of grain from their village in protest against high prices. By October more than 30 separate riots were documented, the vast majority organized by women workers. They refused to load grain, attacked rice merchants, and protested the continued high prices. They inspired other protests, such as the demand by coal miners for higher wages and humane work conditions.
Much of this social unrest, political uprising, and cultural experimentation came to a halt on September 1, 1923. On this day a powerful earthquake struck Japan measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. This natural disaster is referred to today as the Great Kanto Earthquake. The force of the quake was so strong that a 93-ton Buddha statue 37 miles from the epicenter moved almost two feet. The disaster devastated the entire city of Tokyo, the third largest city in the world at that time, destroyed the port city of Yokohama, and caused large-scale destruction in the surrounding area. The earthquake and subsequent fires killed more than 150,000 people and left over 600,000 homeless. Martial law was immediately instituted, but it couldn’t prevent mob violence and the targeting of ethnic minorities. Koreans living in Tokyo were targeted, as rumors spread that they were poisoning the water and sabotaging businesses. Newspapers reported these rumors as fact. According to standard accounts over 2,600 Koreans and 160–170 Chinese were killed, with about 24,000 detained by police. The numbers include political opponents such as the anarchist Osugi Sakai, his wife, and their six-year-old nephew, who were tortured to death in military police custody. The officer responsible for this crime later became a high-ranking official in Manchuria.4
Using the social unrest as an excuse, the Japanese Imperial Army moved in to detain and arrest political activists they believed were radicals. After events surrounding the earthquake, the relationship between the military and the emperor began to shift. According to the Meiji Constitution, the emperor led the army and navy. However, all military decisions were actually made by the prime minister or high-level cabinet ministers. As political activists became more vocal, many were abducted and were never seen again. Local police and army officials who were responsible claimed these so-called radicals used the earthquake crisis as an excuse to overthrow the government. More repression and violence soon followed. Prime Minister Hara (1918–1921) was assassinated, and a Japanese anarchist attempted to assassinate Taisho’s first son, Hirohito.
Order was firmly restored when a more conservative arm of the government gained influence and passed the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. Besides threatening up to 10 years imprisonment for anyone attempting to alter the kokutai (rule by the emperor and imperial government, as opposed to popular sovereignty), this law severely curtailed individual freedom in Japan and attempted to eliminate any public dissent.5The transition in the emperor’s role to one of greater power began with the death of Emperor Taisho on December 18, 1926. Following tradition, his son Hirohito ascended to the throne and chose the name Showa, mean- ing “peace and enlightenment.” Hirohito neither suffered from physical or mental ailments like his father nor held the commanding presence of his grandfather. Rather, Hirohito began his reign by per- forming all the ceremonial duties flawlessly but appearing in public only for highly orchestrated formal state occasions. Over time as the political climate within Japan shifted to a more militaristic stance, so did the role of the emperor. One specific gesture is emblematic of the changes occurring in the role and power of the emperor. When Hirohito first appeared in public in the early years of his reign, commoners would always remain dutifully seated to avoid appearing above the emperor, but they were permitted to look at him. By 1936 it was illegal for any ordinary Japanese citizen to even look at the emperor.
- 1 Professor Kevin M. Doak also argues that it is important to recognize that “nationalism, especially the popular ethnic version, were the central ingredient in what has come to be known as Taisho democracy.” Doak, “Culture, Ethnicity, and the State in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” 19.
- 2 Wm. Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2nd edition, vol. 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 838.
- 3 In 1914 over 5,700 workers were involved in strikes and by 1918 over 66,000 were involved.
- 4 Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (professor, York University), private correspondence with the author, January 22, 2014.
- 5 Ironically, this conservative faction passed the 1925 Universal Manhood suffrage Act, increasing the number of males eligible to vote from 3.3 million to 12.5 million. It also transformed the most devastated areas of earthquake-ravaged cities by building parks and erecting modern concrete buildings that would withstand future quakes with funds that came from cutting military spending in half. Nevertheless, the early stages of repression and militarism during the final years of the Taisho era foreshadowed the extreme rise in nationalism and militarism that followed in the coming decades.