Sonno Joi, ‘Restore the Emperor and expel the Barbarians,’ was the battle cry that ushered in the Showa Restoration in Japan during the 1930s.
Footnote 1: The Showa Restoration was a combination of Japanese nationalism, Japanese expansionism, and Japanese militarism, all carried out in the name of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito. Unlike the Meiji Restoration, the Showa Restoration was not a resurrection of the Emperor’s power; instead, it was aimed at restoring Japan’s prestige. During the 1920s, Japan appeared to be developing a democratic and peaceful government. It had a quasi-democratic governmental body, the Diet, and voting rights were extended to all male citizens. Footnote 4: Yet, underneath this seemingly placid surface lurked momentous problems that led to the Showa Restoration.
The transition that Japan made from its parliamentary government of the 1920s to the Showa Restoration and military dictatorship of the late 1930s was not a sudden transformation. Liberal forces were not toppled by a coup overnight. Instead, it was gradual, fed by a complex combination of internal and external factors. The history that links the constitutional settlement of 1889 to the Showa Restoration in the 1930s is not an easy story to relate. The transformation in Japan’s governmental structure involved the historical period between 1868 and 1912 that preceded the Showa Restoration.
This period of democratic reforms was an underlying cause of the militarist reaction that led to the Showa Restoration. The transformation was also fed by several immediate causes, such as the downturn in the global economy in 1929 Footnote 5 and the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 Footnote 6. It was the convergence of these external, internal, underlying, and immediate causes that led to the military dictatorship in the 1930s. The historical period before the Showa Restoration, 1868-1912, shaped the political climate in which Japan could transform itself from a democracy to a militaristic state. This period is known as the Meiji Restoration Footnote 7. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 completely dismantled the Tokugawa political order and replaced it with a centralized system of government headed by the Emperor, who served as a figurehead Footnote 8.
However, the Emperor, instead of being a source of power for the Meiji Government, became its undoing. The Emperor was placed in the mystic position of a demi-god by the leaders of the Meiji Restoration. Parliamentarians justified the new quasi-democratic government of Japan as being the ‘Emperor’s Will.’ The ultra-nationalist and militaristic groups took advantage of the Emperor’s status and claimed to speak for the Emperor Footnote 9. These groups then turned the tables on the parliamentarians by claiming that they, not the civil government, represented the ‘Imperial Will.’ The parliamentarians, confronted with this perversion of their own policy, failed to unite against the militarists and nationalists. Instead, the parliamentarians compromised with the nationalists and militarist groups, and the general populace took the nationalists’ claims of devotion to the Emperor at face value, further bolstering the popularity of the nationalists Footnote 10. The theory of ‘Imperial Will’ in Japan’s quasi-democratic government became an underlying flaw in the government’s democratic composition.
It was also during the Meiji Restoration that the Japanese economy began to build up its industrial base. It retooled, basing itself on the Western model. The Japanese government sent out investigators to learn the ways of European and American industries. In 1889, the Japanese government adopted a constitution based on the British and German models of parliamentary democracy. During this same period, railroads were constructed, a banking system was started, and the samurai system was disbanded. Indeed, it seemed as if Japan had successfully made the transition to a Western-style industrialized state.
Almost every other non-Western state failed to make this leap forward from pre-industrial nation to industrialized power. For example, China failed to make this leap. It collapsed during the 1840s, and the European powers followed by Japan sought to control China by expropriating its raw materials and exploiting its markets. By 1889, when the Japanese Constitution was adopted, Japan, with a few minor setbacks, had been able to make the transition to a world power through its expansion of colonial holdings. During the First World War, Japan’s economy and colonial holdings continued to expand as the Western powers were forced to focus on the war raging in Europe.
During the period 1912-1926, the government continued on its democratic course. In 1925, Japan extended voting rights to all men, and the growth of the merchant class continued. But these democratic trends hid the fact that it was only the urban elite who were benefiting from the growing industrialization. The peasants, who outnumbered the urban population, were touched little by the momentous changes. This led to discontent in the majority of the populace. During the winter of 1921-1922, the Japanese government participated in a conference in Washington to limit the naval arms race. The Washington Conference successfully produced an agreement, the Five-Power Treaty.
Part of the treaty established a ratio of British, American, Japanese, Italian, and French ships to the ratio respectively of 5:5:3:1.75:1.75. Other parts of the Five-Power Treaty forced other naval powers to refrain from building fortifications in the Pacific and Asia. In return, Japan agreed to give up its colonial possessions in Siberia and China. In 1924, Japan cut its standing Army and further reduced the size of the Japanese military budget. It appeared to all that Japan was content to rely on expansion through trade instead of military might. However, this agreement, applauded by the Western Powers, symbolized to many of the nationalists and militarists that the Japanese Government had capitulated to the West. During the Showa Restoration, ten years later, these agreements were often cited as examples of where the quasi-democratic Japanese government had gone astray. The time preceding the Showa Restoration appeared at first glance to be the image of a nation transforming itself into a full-fledged democracy. But this picture hid huge chasms that were about to open up with the end of the 1920s.
Three precipitating circumstances at the beginning of the 1930s shattered Japan’s democratic underpinnings, which had been far from firm: the downturn in the world economy, Western shunning of Japan, and the independence of Japan’s military. Thus, the shaky democracy gave way to the Showa Restoration. This Restoration sought not only to restore the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, to power but also to lead Japan into a new period of expansionism and eventually into World War II. The first event that put Japan on the path toward the Showa Restoration was the downturn in the world economy, which wrecked havoc with Japan’s economy. World War I had permitted phenomenal industrial growth, but after the war ended, Japan resumed its competition with the other European powers.
This renewed competition proved economically painful. During the 1920s, Japan grew more slowly than at any other time since the Meiji Restoration. Footnote20 During this time, the whole world was in an economic slump, and Japan’s economy suffered inordinately. Japan’s rural economy was particularly hard-hit by the slump in demand for its two key products, silk and rice. The sudden collapse of the purchasing power of the nations that imported Japanese silk, such as America, and the worldwide rise in tariffs, combined to stagnate the Japanese economy. Footnote21 In urban Japan, there were also serious economic problems.
A great gap in productivity and profitability had appeared between the new industries that had emerged with the industrialization of Japan and the older traditional industries. The Japanese leadership was not attuned to such obstacles and thus was slow to pass legislation to deal with its problems. Footnote22 The Meiji government had supported its economic planning by claiming it would be beneficial to the economy in the long run. When Meiji government promises of economic growth evaporated, the Japanese turned toward non-democratic groups who now promised them a better economic future. Footnote23 The nationalist and militaristic groups promised that they would restore Japanese economic wealth by expanding Japanese colonial holdings, which the democratic leaders had given up.
At the same time that Japan was struggling economically and capitulating to the West in adopting democratic principles, many in Japan believed that western nations did not fully accept Japan as an equal. It appeared to Japan that the West had not yet accepted Japan into the exclusive club of the four conquering nations of World War I. Footnote24 Events such as the Washington Conference, at which the Five Power Treaty was signed, seemed to many Japanese hostile to Japan. (This belief was held because the Treaty forced Japan to have a number of ships smaller than Britain and the United States by a factor of 3 to 5.) The Japanese Exclusion Act passed in 1924 by America to exclude Japanese immigrants again ingrained in the Japanese psyche that Japan was viewed as inferior by the West. Footnote25 This view became widely believed after the meetings at Versailles, where it appeared to Japan that Europe was not willing to relinquish its possessions in Asia.
Added to this perceived feeling of being shunned was the Japanese military conception that war with the West was inevitable. This looming confrontation was thought to be the war to end all wars (saishu senso). Footnote26 The third circumstance was the independent Japanese military that capitalized on the economic downturn and capitulation of the Japanese government to the West. Footnote27 The Japanese military argued 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 in 1924. With the depression that struck Japan in 1929, the military increased its attack on the government politicians for the failure of the Meiji Restoration. Throughout the 1920s, they demanded.
As the Japanese economy worsened, their advocacy for a second revolutionary restoration, a “Showa Restoration,” began to be listened to. They argued that the Showa Restoration would restore the grandeur of Japan. Leading right-wing politicians joined the military clamor, calling for a restoration not just of the Emperor but of Japan as a global power. In 1929, the world was hit by the Great Depression, which caused international trade to come to a standstill, and countries resorted to nationalist economic policies. This became a turning point for Japan as they realized that they had governmental control over only a small area compared to the large area they needed to support their industrializing economy. Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands had huge overseas possessions, and the Russians and Americans both had vast continental holdings. In comparison, Japan had only a small continental base. To many Japanese, it appeared they had started their territorial acquisitions and colonization too late and had been stopped too soon.
The situation was commonly described as a “population problem.” The white races had already grabbed the most valuable lands and had left the less desirable for the Japanese. The Japanese nationalists argued that Japan had been discriminated against by the western nations through immigration policies and by being forced to stop their expansion into Asia. The only answer, the nationalists claimed, was military expansion onto the nearby Asian continent. The nationalists and independent military became the foremost advocates of this new drive for land and colonies. Young army officers and nationalist civilians closely identified with the “Imperial Way Faction.” The relative independence of the Japanese armed forces from the parliament transformed this sense of a national crisis into a total shift in foreign policy. These “restorationists” in the military and in the public stepped up the crisis by convincing the nation that there were two enemies: the foreign powers and people within Japan. The militarists identified the Japanese “Bureaucratic Elite” and the expanding merchant class, the “Zaibutsu,” as responsible for Japan’s loss of grandeur. It was the Bureaucratic Elite who had capitulated to the Western powers in the Washington Conference and in subsequent agreements, which decreased the size of the Japanese military and made Japan dependent on trade with other nations. The independence of the Japanese military allowed them to feed this nationalist sense of crisis and thus transform Japanese foreign policy.
On September 18, 1931, a group of army officers with the approval of their superiors, who were angry at the government for its passage of the Five Powers Treaty, bombed a section of the South Manchurian Railway and blamed it on unnamed Chinese terrorists. Citing the explosion as a security concern, the Japanese military invaded Manchuria and within six months had set up the Puppet State of Manchukuo in February 1932. Following the invasion of Manchuria, Japanese nationalism overwhelmed Japan. The Japanese public and military continued to blame the former quasi-parliamentarians for the economic woes and for capitulating to the West. The Japanese populace saw the military and its nationalist leaders as strong, willing to stand up to Western power, and restore the grandeur of Japan. Unlike the parliamentarian leaders, these new nationalist leaders, backed by the military, had a vision, and the public flocked to their side. This new mood in Japan brought an end to party cabinets and the authority of the quasi-democratic government.
It seemed that the parliamentary democracy of the Taisho era Footnote38 and Meiji era had been fully usurped by the independent military. Nationalism swept through Japan after the invasion of Manchuria, thus further strengthening the hand of the military. In the invasion of Manchuria and its aftermath, all the discontent with the Meiji system of government came together and combined with the military claim to leadership ordained by the power of the Emperor. With this convergence of events, the shallow roots of democracy and the liberal reformism of the Meiji Restoration were uprooted and replaced with a combination of nationalism and militarism embodied under the idea of the Showa Restoration.
When the League of Nations condemned Japan for the Manchurian invasion, Japan, now controlled by the military, simply walked out of the conference. Footnote39 The parliamentary cabinet of the 1930s became known as “national unity” cabinets, and the parliament took on more and more of a symbolic role as the military gradually gained the upper hand over policies. The Japanese Parliament continued in operation, and the major democratic parties continued to win elections in 1932, 1936, and 1937. But parliamentary control was waning as the military virtually controlled foreign policy. Footnote40 Japan’s political journey from its nearly democratic government of the 1920s to its radical nationalism of the mid-1930s, the collapse of democratic institutions, and the eventual military state was not an overnight transformation.
There was no coup d’etat, no march on Rome, no storming of the Bastille, no parliamentary vote whereby the anti-democratic militaristic elements overthrew the democratic institutions of the Meiji Era. Instead, it was a political journey that allowed a semi-democratic nation to transform itself into a military dictatorship. The forces that aided in this transformation were the failed promises of the Meiji Restoration that were represented in the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the perceived capitulation of the Japanese parliamentary leaders to the Western powers, and an independent military. Japanese militarism promised to restore the grandeur of Japan, a Showa Restoration. Footnote1 Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 76.
Footnote2 Marius B. Jansen Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 147-164. Marius B. Jansen makes it clear in this book that the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) was a movement centered around returning the Meiji Emperor to power. Only later did the Meiji Restoration come to embody liberal reformism. Footnote3 Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985), 158-159. Footnote4 Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), 121. In 1925, universal male suffrage was enacted. Footnote5 Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), 113. Footnote6 Edwin O.
Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987), 170-171. Footnote 7: Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random House, 1990), 375-376. During the Meiji Restoration, Japan saw its mission as catching up with the already industrialized Western powers. Footnote 8: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987), 125.
Footnote 9: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 115. Footnote 10: Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 98. Footnote 11: Frank Gibney, Japan: The Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985), 165-166.
Footnote 12: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987), 119. During the Meiji Restoration, samurais were stripped of their positions and even prohibited from wearing the Samurai Sword in 1869. Footnote 13: Frank K. Upham, Law and Social Change in Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 49.
The Japanese constitution was adopted in 1889. It set up a British-type parliament, but the constitution did not provide the parliamentary government with power over the military branch. Footnote 14: Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random House, 1990), 38.
At the turn of the century, Japan had started its colonizing effort in China and other parts of Asia. These efforts at colonization developed into the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). After winning the war, Japan continued with even more gusto to snatch up colonies in Asia. Footnote 15: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 121. In 1925, universal male suffrage was enacted, although in most elections ballots were only made available to the urban elite.
Footnote 16: Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 96. Footnote 17: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987), 150.
Footnote 18: James B. Crawley, Japan’s Quest For Autonomy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 270-280. Footnote 19: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 128. Footnote 20: Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random House, 1990), 380-381. In her book, Karel van Wolferen writes, “The success of the Meiji oligarchy in stimulating economic development was followed by a further great boost for Japanese industry deriving from the First World War. This good fortune came to an end in 1920, and a ‘chain of panics’ caused successive recessions and business dislocation”.
Footnote 21: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987), 117. Reischauer makes the point in his book that external factors significantly hurt Japan’s economy. Unlike a nation like the United States, which had vast reserves of natural resources when protectionist trade laws were implemented around the world, Japan suffered significantly because it lacked raw materials and markets. Japan’s economy, which was guided during the Meiji Era to be primarily an export-based economy.
Footnote 22: Nakamura Takafusa, Economic Growth in Prewar Japan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 151-158. Nakamura Takafusa states that Japan was growing at vastly different rates between the urban areas and rural areas.
Footnote 23: Frank Gibney, Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985), 165-166.
Footnote 24: James B. Crawley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 270-280.
Footnote 25: David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (New York: Columbia Press, 1992), 27.
Footnote 26: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 128. “The exclusion of Japanese immigrants by the United States in 1924 and the growth of mechanized Soviet Power on the Asian continent all confirmed in the Japanese public eye the impending confrontation with the west.”
Testsuo views the rise of Japanese nationalism and militarization resulting in the Showa Restoration to be, to a large degree, the fault of the west for its maltreatment of Japan diplomatically. Tetsuo also views the Showa Restoration to be largely caused by external factors that, in consequence, unbalanced the fragile Japanese political system.
Footnote 27: Robert Story, The Double Patriots (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957), 138.
Footnote 28: Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random House, 1990), 380-381.
Footnote 29: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 114. One of the famous political leaders of the time, Miyake Setsurei, called for a new Japan that had “truth, goodness, and beauty”.
Footnote 30: James Morley, Dilemmas of Growth in Prewar Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 378-411.
Footnote 31: Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976). Many of the nationalists of this period claimed the West had tricked Japan into giving up its colonies in Asia so it could take them. The nationalists also claimed that renewed Japanese expansionism would liberate the Asians of their European colonizers.
Footnote 32: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 130. The Imperial Way Faction was a right-wing political party that called for the Showa Restoration. It was led by Kita Ikki, Gondo Seikei, and Inoue Nissho.
Footnote 33: Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random House, 1990), 381-382.
Footnote 34: Tets Historians, such as Tetsuo Najita, cite this incident as the turning point in the military role in Japan. After this incident, the military realized that the parliamentary government did not have the will or the power to stop the military’s growing power. (Footnote 36: Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese Today, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 96. Footnote 37: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present, Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987, p. 171.)
Edwin O. Reischauer writes in his book, “There could be no doubt that the Japanese army in Manchuria had been eminently successful. The people as a whole accepted this act of unauthorized and certainly unjustified warfare with whole-hearted admiration.” (Footnote 38: Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976, p. 156.) The period preceding the Showa Restoration and coming after the Meiji Era is known as the Taisho Era. It is named after the Taisho Emperor, who was mentally incompetent, and thus the parliamentarians during this time had control of the government. His reign lasted only a decade compared to the Meiji Emperor’s 44-year reign. (Footnote 39: Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present, Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, 1987, p. 171. Footnote 40: Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980, p. 138.)