The Taishō era (大正時代, lit. “Great Righteousness”, 1912-1926) is the period of the Taishō Emperor‘s reign. The health of the new emperor was weak, which prompted the shift in political power from the old oligarchic clique of “elder statesmen” (genrō) to the parliament and the democratic parties. Thus, the era is considered the time of the liberal movement known as the “Taishō democracy” in Japan; it is usually distinguished from the preceding chaotic Meiji Era and the following militarism-driven Showa Era.
- Meiji Legacy
- World War I and Hegemony in China
- Japan after World War I: Taisho Democracy
- Communism and the Response
- Taisho Foreign Policy
- End of the Taisho Democracy
On July 30, 1912, The Meiji emperor died, and his Crown Prince Yoshihito succeeded the throne, beginning the Taisho period. The end of the Meiji era was marked by huge government domestic and overseas investments and defence programs, nearly exhausted credit, and a lack of foreign exchange to pay debts.
The influence of western culture in the Meiji era continued. Kobayashi Kiyichika (1847-1915) adopted western painting as well as continued working in ukiyo-e. Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913) kept an interest in traditional Japanese painting. Mori Ogai (1862-1922) and Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) studied in the West and introduced a more modern view of human life.
The events flowing from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 had seen not only the fulfillment of many domestic and foreign economic and political objectives–without Japan’s first suffering the colonial fate of other Asian nations–but also a new intellectual ferment, in a time when there was interest worldwide in socialism, and an urban proletariat was developing. Universal male suffrage, social welfare, workers’ rights, and nonviolent protest were ideals of the early leftist movement. Government suppression of leftist activities, however, led to more radical leftist action and even more suppression, resulting in the dissolution of the Japan Socialist Party (Nihon Shakaito), only a year after its 1906 founding, and in the general failure of the socialist movement.
The beginning of the Taisho period was marked by a political crisis that interrupted the earlier politics of compromise. When Kinmochi Saionji tried to cut the military budget, the army minister resigned, bringing down the Seiyokai cabinet. Both Yamagata and Saionji refused to resume office, and the genro were unable to find a solution. Public outrage over the military manipulation of the cabinet and the recall of Katsura Taro for a third term led to still more demands for an end to genro politics. Despite old guard opposition, the conservative forces formed a party of their own in 1913, the Rikken Doshikai (立憲同志会, Constitutional Association of Friends), a party that won a majority in the House over the Seiyukai in late 1914.
On February 12, 1913, Yamamoto Gonbee (1852-1933) succeeded Katsura as prime minister. In April 1914 Okuma Shigenobu replaced Yamamoto.
World War I and Hegemony in China
Seizing the opportunity of Berlin’s distraction with the European War and wanting to expand its sphere of influence in China, Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914, and quickly occupied German-leased territories in China’s Shandong Province and the Mariana, Caroline, and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. On November 7, Jiaozhou surrendered to Japan.
With its Western allies heavily involved in the war in Europe, Japan sought further to consolidate its position in China by presenting the Twenty-One Demands to China in January 1915. Besides expanding its control over the German holdings, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia, Japan also sought joint ownership of a major mining and metallurgical complex in central China, prohibitions on China’s ceding or leasing any coastal areas to a third power, and miscellaneous other political, economic, and military controls, which, if achieved, would have reduced China to a Japanese protectorate. In the face of slow negotiations with the Chinese government, widespread anti-Japanese sentiments in China, and international condemnation, Japan withdrew the final group of demands, and treaties were signed in May 1915.
Japan’s hegemony in northern China and other parts of Asia was facilitated through other international agreements. One with Russia in 1916 helped further secure Japan’s influence in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and agreements with France, Britain, and the United States in 1917 recognised Japan’s territorial gains in China and the Pacific. The Nishihara Loans (named after Nishihara Kamezo, Tokyo’s representative in Beijing) of 1917 and 1918, while aiding the Chinese government, put China still deeper into Japan’s debt. Toward the end of the war, Japan increasingly filled orders for its European allies’ needed war matériel, thus helping to diversify the country’s industry, increase its exports, and transform Japan from a debtor to a creditor nation for the first time.
Japan’s power in Asia grew with the demise of the tsarist regime in Russia and the disorder the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution left in Siberia. Wanting to seize the opportunity, the Japanese army planned to occupy Siberia as far west as Lake Baikal. To do so, Japan had to negotiate an agreement with China allowing the transit of Japanese troops through Chinese territory. Although the force was scaled back to avoid antagonising the United States, more than 70,000 Japanese troops joined the much smaller units of the Allied Expeditionary Force sent to Siberia in 1918.
World War I permitted Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. Acting virtually independently of the civil government, the Japanese navy seized Germany’s Micronesian colonies.
On October 9, 1916, Terauchi Masatake (1852-1919) took over as prime minister from Ōkuma Shigenobu (1838-1922). On November 2, 1917, the Lansing-Ishii Agreement noted the recognization of Japan’s interests in China and pledges of keeping an “Open Door” policy. In July 1918, the Siberian Expedition was launched with the deployment of 75,000 Japanese troops. In August 1918, rice riots erupted in towns and cities throughout Japan.
Japan after World War I: Taisho Democracy
The postwar era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the “Big Five” of the new international order. Tokyo was granted a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and the peace treaty confirmed the transfer to Japan of Germany’s rights in Shandong, a provision that led to anti-Japanese riots and a mass political movement throughout China. Similarly, Germany’s former Pacific islands were put under a Japanese mandate. Japan was also involved in the post-war Allied intervention in Russia and was the last Allied power to withdraw (doing so in 1925). Despite its small role in World War I (and the Western powers’ rejection of its bid for a racial equality clause in the peace treaty), Japan emerged as a major actor in international politics at the close of the war.
The two-party political system that had been developing in Japan since the turn of the century finally came of age after World War I. This period has sometimes been called that of “Taisho Democracy,” after the reign title of the emperor. In 1918 Hara Takashi (1856-1921), a protege of Saionji and a major influence in the prewar Seiyokai cabinets had become the first commoner to serve as prime minister. He took advantage of long-standing relationships he had throughout the government, won the support of the surviving genro and the House of Peers, and brought into his cabinet as army minister Tanaka Giichi (1864-1929), who had a greater appreciation of favourable civil-military relations than his predecessors. Nevertheless, major problems confronted Hara: inflation, the need to adjust the Japanese economy to postwar circumstances, the influx of foreign ideas, and an emerging labour movement. Prewar solutions were applied by the cabinet to these postwar problems, and little was done to reform the government. Hara worked to ensure a Seiyokai majority through time-tested methods, such as new election laws and electoral redistricting and embarked on major government-funded public works programs.
The public grew disillusioned with the growing national debt and the new election laws, which retained the old minimum tax qualifications for voters. Calls were raised for universal suffrage and the dismantling of the old political party network. Students, university professors, and journalists, bolstered by labour unions and inspired by a variety of democratic, socialist, communist, anarchist, and other Western schools of thought, mounted large but orderly public demonstrations in favour of universal male suffrage in 1919 and 1920. New elections brought still another Seiyokai majority, but barely so. In the political milieu of the day, there was a proliferation of new parties, including socialist and communist parties.
In the midst of this political ferment, Hara was assassinated by a disenchanted railroad worker in 1921. Hara was followed by a succession of non-party prime ministers and coalition cabinets. Fear of a broader electorate, left-wing power, and the growing social change engendered by the influx of Western popular culture together led to the passage of the Peace Preservation Law (1925), which forbade any change in the political structure or the abolition of private property.
Unstable coalitions and divisiveness in the Diet led the Kenseikai (憲政会, Constitutional Government Association) and the Seiyū Hontō (政友本党, True Seiyokai) to merge as the Rikken Minseito (Constitutional Democratic Party) in 1927. The Rikken Minseito platform was committed to the parliamentary system, democratic politics, and world peace. After that, until 1932, the Seiyokai and the Rikken Minseito alternated in power.
Despite the political realignments and hope for a more orderly government, domestic economic crises plagued whichever party held power. Fiscal austerity programs and appeals for public support of such conservative government policies as the Peace Preservation Law–including reminders of the moral obligation to make sacrifices for the emperor and the state–were attempted as solutions. Although the world depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s had minimal effects on Japan – indeed, Japanese exports grew substantially during this period – there was a sense of rising discontent that was heightened with the assassination of Rikken Minseito Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi (1870-1931) in 1931.
Communism and the Response
The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 and their hopes for a world revolution led to the establishment of the Comintern (a contraction of Communist International, the organisation founded in Moscow in 1919 to coordinate the world communist movement). The Comintern realised the importance of Japan in achieving a successful revolution in East Asia and actively worked to form the Japan Communist Party (日本共産党, Nihon Kyōsan-tō), which was founded in July 1922. The announced goals of the Japan Communist Party in 1923 were an end to feudalism, the abolition of the monarchy, recognition of the Soviet Union, and withdrawal of Japanese troops from Siberia, Sakhalin, China, Korea, and Taiwan. Brutal suppression of the party followed. Radicals responded with an assassination attempt on Prince Regent Hirohito. The 1925 Peace Preservation Law was a direct response to the “dangerous thoughts” perpetrated by communist elements in Japan.
The liberalisation of election laws, also in 1925, benefited communist candidates even though the Japan Communist Party itself was banned. A new Peace Preservation Law in 1928, however, further impeded communist efforts by banning the parties they had infiltrated. The police apparatus of the day was ubiquitous and quite thorough in attempting to control the socialist movement (see The Police System). By 1926 the Japan Communist Party had been forced underground, by the summer of 1929 the party leadership had been virtually destroyed, and by 1933 the party had mostly disintegrated.
Ultranationalism was characteristic of right-wing politicians and conservative military men since the inception of the Meiji Restoration, contributing greatly to the prowar politics of the 1870s. Disenchanted former samurai had established patriotic societies and intelligence-gathering organisations, such as the Gen’yosha (Black Ocean Society, founded in 1881) and its later offshoot, the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society, or Amur River Society, founded in 1901). These groups became active in domestic and foreign politics, helped foment prowar sentiments, and supported ultranationalist causes through the end of World War II. After Japan’s victories over China and Russia, the ultranationalists concentrated on domestic issues and perceived domestic threats, such as socialism and communism.
Taisho Foreign Policy
Emerging Chinese nationalism, the victory of the communists in Russia, and the growing presence of the United States in East Asia all worked against Japan’s postwar foreign policy interests. The four-year Siberian expedition and activities in China, combined with big domestic spending programs, had depleted Japan’s wartime earnings. Only through more competitive business practices, supported by further economic development and industrial modernisation, all accommodated by the growth of the zaibatsu (wealth groups–see Glossary), could Japan hope to become predominant in Asia. The United States, long a source of many imported goods and loans needed for development, was seen as becoming a major impediment to this goal because of its policies of containing Japanese imperialism.
An international turning point in military diplomacy was the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, which produced a series of agreements that effected a new order in the Pacific region. Japan’s economic problems made a naval buildup nearly impossible and, realising the need to compete with the United States on an economic rather than a military basis, rapprochement became inevitable. Japan adopted a more neutral attitude toward the civil war in China, dropped efforts to expand its hegemony into China proper, and joined the United States, Britain, and France in encouraging Chinese self-development.
In the Four-Power Treaty on Insular Possessions (December 13, 1921), Japan, the United States, Britain, and France agreed to recognise the status quo in the Pacific, and Japan and Britain agreed to terminate their Treaty of Alliance formally. The Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty (February 6, 1922) established an international capital ship ratio (5, 5, 3, 1.75, and 1.75, respectively, for the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy) and limited the size and armaments of capital ships already built or under construction. In a move that gave the Japanese Imperial Navy greater freedom in the Pacific, Washington and London agreed not to build any new military bases between Singapore and Hawaii.
The goal of the Nine Power Treaty (February 6, 1922), signed by Belgium, China, the Netherlands, and Portugal, along with the original five powers, was the prevention of war in the Pacific. The signatories agreed to respect China’s independence and integrity, not to interfere in Chinese attempts to establish a stable government, to refrain from seeking special privileges in China or threatening the positions of other nations there, to support a policy of equal opportunity for commerce and industry of all nations in China, and to reexamine extraterritoriality and tariff autonomy policies. Japan also agreed to withdraw its troops from Shandong, relinquishing all but purely economic rights there, and to evacuate its troops from Siberia.
End of the Taisho Democracy
Overall, during the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential. These shifts in power were made possible by the ambiguity and imprecision of the Meiji constitution, in particular as the Emperor was regarded to be above the constitution.
- 1912: The Taisho Emperor assumes the throne (July 30). General Katsura Taro becomes prime minister for a third term (December 21).
- 1913: Katsura is forced to resign, and Admiral Yamamoto Gonnohyoe becomes prime minister (February 20).
- 1914: Okuma Shigenobu becomes prime minister for a second term (April 16). Japan declares war on Germany, joining the Allies side (August 23).
- 1915: Japan sends the Twenty-one Demands to China (January 18).
- 1916: Terauchi Masatake becomes prime minister (October 9).
- 1917: Lansing-Ishii Agreement goes into effect (November 2).
- 1918: Siberian expedition launched (July). Hara Takashi becomes prime minister (September 29).
- 1919: March 1st Movement begins against colonial rule in Korea (March 1).
- 1921: Hara is assassinated, and Takahashi Korekiyo becomes prime minister (November 4). Hirohito becomes regent (November 29). Four Power Treaty is signed (December 13).
- 1922: Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty is signed (February 6). Admiral Kato Tomosaburo becomes prime minister (June 12). Japan withdraws troops from Siberia (August 28).
- 1923: Great Kanto Earthquake devastates Tokyo (September 1). Yamamoto becomes prime minister for a second term (September 2).
- 1924: Kiyoura Keigo becomes prime minister (January 7). Prince Hirohito marries Princess Nagako (January 26). Kato Takaaki becomes prime minister (June 11).
- 1925: Peace Preservation Law is passed. Princess Shigeko, Hirohito’s first daughter, is born (December 9).
- 1926: Emperor Taisho dies: Hirohito becomes emperor (December 25).
- Beasley, W. G., Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 (Clarendon Paperbacks), Oxford University Press 1991
- Jansen, Marius B., The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
- Mason Richard H.P., Caiger John Godwin, A History of Japan, Revised Edition, Tuttle Publishing 1997
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
Kobayakawa Kiyoshi Tipsy 1930, Honolulu Academy of Arts