Failure of the Taisho Democracy

Taisho Democracy, the period in Japan’s rule between Hibiya Riot of 1905 and the Mukden Incident of 1931, was a time of idealism for the Japanese petty bourgeoisie class and working classes, who found themselves increasingly able to participate in national policy debate. Many historians debate whether this period was a success or a failure in Japan’s critical years of expansion. This paper will yield to the notion that The Taisho Democracy failed to be effective in solving the problems that existed at the time and gave way to the militaristic movement.


Immediately after the time period preceding the Showa Restoration, democracy had set foot in the Japanese turf promising the image of a nation being transformed to a country of full-fledged democracy. This picture, nevertheless, hid a huge abyss that was left to be filled as a direct result of the Taisho democracy towards the end of the 1920’s. There were three important circumstances at the beginning of the 1930’s that had shattered Japan’s democratic hopes, which had been in the first place from realistic. These factors were the downturn in the world economy, the shunning of Japanese immigrants in western countries, and the independence of Japan’s military.

The first circumstance, the downturn in the world economy, had wrecked disaster with Japan’s economy. The effects of World War I had permitted phenomenal industrial growth, but after the war ended, Japan had to compete with other Industrial Nations for economic dominance. This competition proved to be economically painful. The Japanese leadership was not used to such obstacles and thus proved to be slow to pass legislation and deal with its problems.

Another factor that contributed towards the Showa restoration was The Japanese Exclusion Act passed in 1924 by America to exclude Japanese immigrants. This affected the Japanese attitude that they were being viewed as inferior by Western Nations. This view was strengthened further as a series of mishaps at the meetings at Versailles, where it appeared to Japan that Europe was not willing to surrender its possessions in Asia. The Japanese legislation was not used to compromising in situations where it was being viewed weak and where negotiation acts seemed frivolous. Furthermore, the Japanese military had the conception that war with the west was inevitable and compromise was simply a waste of time and effort.

The third major circumstance was the independent Japanese military that utilized on the Taisho’s democratic efforts that had failed to halt the economic recession and submission of the Japanese government to the West. The Japanese military strenuously maintained that the parliamentarian government had capitulated to the west by making an unfavorable agreement about the size of the Japanese Navy (the Washington Conference and the Five Powers Treaty) and by reducing the size of the military.


Out of these three circumstances, the Japanese military seemed to sweep the nation’s attitude with efforts of regaining respect among western nations. The depression that struck Japan in 1929 especially favored the military’s movements and popularity. In particular, the military brutally accused government politicians for the failure to maintain the Meiji Restoration and called for a change in the country’s policy throughout the 1920’s. As the Japanese economy worsened, the military’s advocacy for a second revolutionary restoration, a “Showa Restoration” began getting popularity among people. International trade was at a standstill and countries resorted to nationalistic economic policies.

The young army officers and nationalist civilians closely identified with the “Imperial Way Faction.” This relative independence of the military from the parliament, transformed this sense of a national crisis into a total shift in foreign policy. Japanese nationalism overwhelmed Japan and the military continued to blame the parliamentarians for the economic despair and for surrendering to the western nations. It seemed that the parliamentary democracy of the Taisho and Meiji eras had been fully assumed by the independent military. Parliamentary control was weakening as the military controlled foreign policy. Japan’s political journey from its nearly democratic government of the 1920’s to its radical nationalism of the mid 1930’s, the collapse of democratic institutions, and the eventual military state was not an overnight transformation

In conclusion, the three main reasons that contributed to the failure of the Taisho democracy were economic instability, being shunned by western nations and the independent military. The military in particular had the better hand in the transformation of the country into the “Showa Restoration”. The military was well prepared in dealings with western nations and had a firm attitude on policies being passed by other nations that undermined Japan’s strengths.

Bibliography

  • Tetsuo Najita. Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138
  • Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987) 171.
  • Peter Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976) 156.
  • Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987) 171.
  • Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138.

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