Sonno joi, “Restore the Emperor and expel the Barbarians,” was the battle cry that ushered in the Showa Restoration in Japan during the 1930’s. 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 1920’s, 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. Yet, underneath this seemingly placid surface, lurked momentous problems that lead to the Showa Restoration. The transition that Japan made from its parliamentary government of the 1920’s 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, feed by a complex combination of internal and external factors.
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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 lead to the Showa Restoration. The transformation was also feed by several immediate causes; such as, the downturn in the global economy in 1929 and the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. It was the convergence of these external, internal, underlying and immediate causes that lead to the military dictatorship in the 1930’s.
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. 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 figure head. 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 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. These then groups 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 militarists groups and the general populace took the nationalists’ claims of devotion to the Emperor at face value, further bolstering the popularity of the nationalists. 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’s who were benefiting from the growing industrialization. The peasants, who outnumbered the urban population were touched little by the momentous changes this lead to discontent in a 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 1920’s. Three precipitating circumstances at the beginning of the 1930’s 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 to not only restore the Showa Emperor, Hirohito to power, but 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. It 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 1920’s, Japan grew more slowly than at any other time since the Meiji Restoration. During this time the whole world was in an economic slump, 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.
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. 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. 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 principals, 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. 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. 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.
The third circumstance was the independent Japanese military that capitalized on the economic downturn and capitulation of the Japanese government to the West. 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 their attack on the government politicians for the failure of the Meiji Restoration. Throughout the 1920’s, they demanded change. 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.
1929 marked the world wide Great Depression. International trade was at a standstill and countries resorted to nationalistic economic policies. 1929 became a Japanese turning point. The Japanese 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, that decreased the size of the Japanese military, and made Japan dependent of 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 Western. 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 now that the parliamentary democracy of the Taisho and Meiji eras 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 come 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 League of Nations condemned Japan for the Manchurian invasion, Japan, now controlled by the military, simply walked out of the conference.
The parliamentary cabinet of the 1930’s 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.
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. 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.