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Causes of the Showa Restoration

November 4, 2018 0 Comment

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.Footnote1 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 powerFootnote2, 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,Footnote3 and voting rights were extended
to all male citizens.Footnote4 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.

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 1929Footnote5 and the invasion of
Manchuria in 1931.Footnote6 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.Footnote7 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.Footnote8 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.Footnote9 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.Footnote10 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.Footnote11 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.Footnote12 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 ConstitutionFootnote13 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.Footnote14 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.Footnote15 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.Footnote16 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.Footnote17 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.Footnote18
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.Footnote19
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.Footnote20 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.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 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.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 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.Footnote28 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.Footnote29
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.Footnote30 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.”Footnote31 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.”Footnote32 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.Footnote33 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,Footnote34 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.

Footnote35 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.Footnote36
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.Footnote37 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 TaishoFootnote38 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.Footnote39
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.Footnote40
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.



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 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.
Footnote7
Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random
House, 1990) 375-376. During the Meiji Restoration Japan saw its
mission to be to catch up with the already industrialized Western
powers.


Footnote8
Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle
Company, 1987)125.


Footnote9
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 115.
Footnote10
Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1988) 98.


Footnote11
Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985)
165-166.


Footnote12
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.


Footnote13
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. The constitution did not
provide the parliamentary government with power over the military
branch.


Footnote14
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. It was these
efforts at Colonization that developed into the Russo-Japanese War
(1904-1905). After winning the war Japan continued with even more
gusto to snatch up colonies in Asia.


Footnote15
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 121. In 1925
universal male suffrage was enacted although in most elections ballots
were only made available to the urban elite.


Footnote16
Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1988) 96.


Footnote17
Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle
Company, 1987) 150.
Footnote18
James B. Crawley Japan’s Quest For Autonomy (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1966) 270-280.


Footnote19
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press,
1980) 128.
Footnote20
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”.


Footnote21
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 projectionist 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.


Footnote22
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.


Footnote23
Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985)
165-166.


Footnote24
James B. Crawley Japan’s Quest For Autonomy (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1966) 270-280.
Footnote25
David M. Reimers Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to
America (New York: Columbia Press, 1992) 27.


Footnote26
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University 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.


Footnote27
Robert Story The Double Patriots (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957)
138.


Footnote28
Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random
House, 1990) 380-381.


Footnote29
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University 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”.


Footnote30
James Morley Dilemmas of Growth in Prewar Japan (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1971) 378-411.


Footnote31
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.


Footnote32
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 130. The Imperial
Way Faction was a right wing political party that called for the Showa
Restoration. It was lead by Kita Ikki, Gondo Seikei, and Inoue Nissho.
Footnote33
Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Random
House, 1990) 381-382.


Footnote34
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 128.


Footnote35
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138. Historians
such as Testuo Najita cite this incident as the turning point in the
military role in Japan. For after this incident the Military realized
that the parliamentary government did not have the will or the power
to stop the military power.


Footnote36
Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1988) 96.


Footnote37
Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle
Company, 1987) 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”.


Footnote38
Peter Duus The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976)
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.
Footnote39
Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle
Company, 1987) 171.


Footnote40
Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese
Politics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138.