Causes of the Showa Restoration Essay

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Sonno joi, “Restore the Emperor and expel the Barbarians,”was the battle cry that ushered in the Showa Restoration in Japanduring the 1930’s.
Footnote1 The Showa Restoration was a combination ofJapanese nationalism, Japanese expansionism, and Japanese militarismall carried out in the name of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito. Unlike theMeiji Restoration, the Showa Restoration was not a resurrection of theEmperor’s powerFootnote2, instead it was aimed at restoring Japan’sprestige. During the 1920’s, Japan appeared to be developing ademocratic and peaceful government. It had a quasi-democraticgovernmental body, the Diet,Footnote3 and voting rights were extendedto all male citizens. Footnote4 Yet, underneath this seemingly placidsurface, lurked momentous problems that lead to the Showa Restoration.
The transition that Japan made from its parliamentary government ofthe 1920’s to the Showa Restoration and military dictatorship of thelate 1930s was not a sudden transformation. Liberal forces were nottoppled by a coup overnight. Instead, it was gradual, feed bya complex combination of internal and external factors. The history that links the constitutional settlement of 1889to the Showa Restoration in the 1930s is not an easy story to relate. The transformation in Japan’s governmental structure involved; thehistorical period between 1868 and 1912 that preceded the ShowaRestoration.
This period of democratic reforms was an underlying causeof the militarist reaction that lead to the Showa Restoration. Thetransformation was also feed by several immediate causes; such as, thedownturn in the global economy in 1929Footnote5 and the invasion ofManchuria in 1931. Footnote6 It was the convergence of these external,internal, underlying and immediate causes that lead to the militarydictatorship in the 1930’s. The historical period before the Showa Restoration,1868-1912, shaped the political climate in which Japan could transformitself from a democracy to a militaristic state. This period is knownas the Meiji Restoration. Footnote7 The Meiji Restoration of 1868completely dismantled the Tokugawa political order and replaced itwith a centralized system of government headed by the Emperor whoserved as a figure head.
Footnote8 However, the Emperor instead ofbeing a source of power for the Meiji Government, became its undoing. The Emperor was placed in the mystic position of demi-god by theleaders of the Meiji Restoration. Parliamentarians justified the newquasi-democratic government of Japan, as being the “Emperor’s Will. ”The ultra-nationalist and militaristic groups took advantage of theEmperor’s status and claimed to speak for the Emperor.
Footnote9 Thesethen groups turned the tables on the parliamentarians by claiming thatthey, not the civil government, represented the “Imperial Will. ” Theparliamentarians, confronted with this perversion of their own policy,failed to unite against the militarists and nationalists. Instead, theparliamentarians compromised with the nationalists and militaristsgroups and the general populace took the nationalists’ claims ofdevotion to the Emperor at face value, further bolstering thepopularity of the nationalists. Footnote10 The theory of “ImperialWill” in Japan’s quasi-democratic government became an underlying flawin the government’s democratic composition.
It was also during the Meiji Restoration that the Japaneseeconomy began to build up its industrial base. It retooled, basingitself on the western model. The Japanese government sent outinvestigators to learn the ways of European and Americanindustries. Footnote11 In 1889, the Japanese government adopted aconstitution based on the British and German models of parliamentarydemocracy. During this same period, railroads were constructed, abanking system was started and the samurai system wasdisbanded. Footnote12 Indeed, it seemed as if Japan had successfullymade the transition to a western style industrialized state.
Almostevery other non-western state failed to make this leap forward frompre-industrial nation to industrialized power. For example, Chinafailed to make this leap. It collapsed during the 1840s and theEuropean powers followed by Japan, sought to control China byexpropriating its raw materials and exploiting its markets. By 1889, when the Japanese ConstitutionFootnote13 wasadopted, Japan, with a few minor setbacks, had been able to make thetransition to a world power through its expansion of colonialholdings. Footnote14 During the first World War, Japan’s economy andcolonial holdings continued to expand as the western powers wereforced to focus on the war raging in Europe.
During the period1912-1926, the government continued on its democratic course. In 1925,Japan extended voting rights to all men and the growth of the merchantclass continued. Footnote15 But these democratic trends, hid the factthat it was only the urban elite’s who were benefiting from thegrowing industrialization. The peasants, who outnumbered the urbanpopulation were touched little by the momentous changes this lead todiscontent in a majority of the populace. During the winter of 1921-1922, the Japanese governmentparticipated in a conference in Washington to limit the naval armsrace. The Washington Conference successfully produced an agreement,the Five Power Treaty.
Part of the Treaty established a ratio ofBritish, American, Japanese, Italian, and French ships to the ratiorespectively of 5:5:3:1. 75:1. 75. Footnote16 Other parts of the FivePower Treaty forced other naval powers to refrain from buildingfortifications in the Pacific and Asia. In return, Japan agreed togive up its colonial possessions in Siberia and China. Footnote17 In1924, Japan cut its standing Army and further reduced the size of theJapanese military budget.
It appeared to all that Japan was content torely on expansion through trade instead of military might. Footnote18However, this agreement applauded by the Western Powers, symbolized tomany of the nationalists and militarists that the Japanese Governmenthad capitulated to the West. During the Showa Restoration, ten yearslater, these agreements were often cited as examples of where thequasi-democratic Japanese government had gone astray. Footnote19 The time preceding the Showa Restoration appeared at firstglance to be the image of a nation transforming itself into afull-fledged democracy. But this picture hid huge chasms that wereabout to open up with the end of the 1920’s.
Three precipitatingcircumstances at the beginning of the 1930’s shattered Japan’sdemocratic underpinnings, which had been far from firm: the downturnin the world economy, Western shunning of Japan, and the independenceof Japan’s military. Thus, the shaky democracy gave way to the ShowaRestoration. This Restoration sought to not only restore the ShowaEmperor, Hirohito to power, but lead Japan into a new period ofexpansionism and eventually into World War II. The first event that put Japan on the path toward the ShowaRestoration was the downturn in the world economy. It wrecked havocwith Japan’s economy. World War I had permitted phenomenal industrialgrowth, but after the war ended, Japan resumed its competition withthe other European powers.
This renewed competition provedeconomically painful. During the 1920’s, Japan grew more slowly thanat any other time since the Meiji Restoration. Footnote20 During thistime the whole world was in an economic slump, Japan’s economysuffered inordinately. Japan’s rural economy was particularly hard-hitby the slump in demand for its two key products, silk and rice. Thesudden collapse of the purchasing power of the nations that importedJapanese 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.
Agreat gap in productivity and profitability had appeared between thenew industries that had emerged with the industrialization of Japanand the older traditional industries. The Japanese leadership was notattuned to such obstacles and thus was slow to pass legislation todeal with its problems. Footnote22 The Meiji government had supportedits economic planning by claiming it would be beneficial to theeconomy in the long-run. When Meiji government promises of economicgrowth evaporated, the Japanese turned toward non-democratic groupswho now promised them a better economic future. Footnote23 Thenationalist and militaristic groups promised that they would restoreJapanese economic wealth by expanding Japanese colonial holdings whichthe democratic leaders had given up.
At the same time that Japan was struggling economically, andcapitulating to the West in adopting democratic principals, many inJapan believed that western nations did not fully accept Japan as anequal. It appeared to Japan, that the West had not yet accepted Japaninto the exclusive club of the four conquering nations of World WarI. Footnote24 Events such as the Washington Conference, at which theFive Power Treaty was signed, seemed to many Japanese hostile toJapan. (This belief was held because the Treaty forced Japan to have anumber of ships smaller than Britain and the United States by a factorof 3 to 5. ) The Japanese Exclusion Act passed in 1924 by America toexclude Japanese immigrants again ingrained in the Japanese psychethat Japan was viewed as inferior by the West. Footnote25 This viewbecame widely believed after the meetings at Versailles, where itappeared to Japan that Europe was not willing to relinquish itspossessions in Asia.
Added to this perceived feeling of being shunnedwas the Japanese military conception that war with the west wasinevitable. This looming confrontation was thought to be the war toend all wars saishu senso. Footnote26 The third circumstance was the independent Japanese militarythat capitalized on the economic downturn and capitulation of theJapanese government to the West. Footnote27 The Japanese militaryargued that the parliamentarian government had capitulated to the westby making an unfavorable agreement about the size of the Japanese Navy(the Washington Conference and the Five Powers Treaty) and by reducingthe size of the military in 1924. With the depression that struckJapan in 1929; the military increased their attack on the governmentpoliticians for the failure of the Meiji Restoration. Throughout the1920’s, they demanded change.
As the Japanese economy worsened theiradvocacy for a second revolutionary restoration, a “Showa Restoration”began to be listened to. Footnote28 They argued that the ShowaRestoration would restore the grandeur of Japan. Leading right-wingpoliticians joined the military clamor, calling for a restoration notjust of the Emperor but of Japan as a global power. Footnote29 1929 marked the world wide Great Depression.
Internationaltrade was at a standstill and countries resorted to nationalisticeconomic policies. 1929 became a Japanese turning point. The Japaneserealized that they had governmental control over only a small areacompared to the large area they needed to support theirindustrializing economy. Footnote30 Great Britain, France, and theNetherlands had huge overseas possessions and the Russians andAmericans both had vast continental holdings. In comparison, Japan hadonly a small continental base. To many Japanese, it appeared they hadstarted their territorial acquisitions and colonization too late andhad been stopped too soon.
The situation was commonly described asa “population problem. ”Footnote31 The white races had already grabbedthe most valuable lands and had left the less desirable for theJapanese. The Japanese nationalists argued that Japan had beendiscriminated against by the western nations through immigrationpolicies and by being forced to stop their expansion into Asia. Theonly answer, the nationalists claimed, was military expansion onto thenearby Asian continent. The nationalists and independent military became the foremostadvocates of this new drive for land and colonies. Young army officersand nationalist civilians closely identified with the “Imperial WayFaction.
”Footnote32 The relative independence of the Japanese armedforces from the parliament, transformed this sense of a nationalcrisis into a total shift in foreign policy. These “restorationists”in the military and in the public stepped up the crisis by convincingthe nation that there were two enemies, the foreign powers and peoplewithin 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 BureaucraticElite who had capitulated to the Western powers in the WashingtonConference and in subsequent agreements, that decreased the size ofthe Japanese military,Footnote34 and made Japan dependent of tradewith other nations. The independence of the Japanese military allowed them tofeed this nationalist sense of crisis and thus transform Japaneseforeign policy. On September 18, 1931 a group of army officers withthe approval of their superiors who were angry at the government forits passage of the Five Powers Treaty, bombed a section of the SouthManchurian Railway and blamed it on unnamed Chinese terrorists.
Footnote35 Citing the explosion as a security concern, the Japanesemilitary invaded Manchuria and within six months had set up the PuppetState of Manchukuo in February, 1932. Footnote36 Following the invasion of Manchuria, Japanese nationalismoverwhelmed Japan. The Japanese public and military continued to blamethe former quasi-parliamentarians for the economic woes and forcapitulating to the Western. The Japanese populace saw the militaryand its nationalist leaders as strong, willing to stand up to Westernpower and restore the grandeur of Japan. Unlike the parliamentarianleaders, these new nationalist leaders backed by the military, had avision and the public flocked to their side. Footnote37 This new moodin Japan brought an end to party cabinets and the authority of thequasi-democratic government.
It seemed now that the parliamentarydemocracy of the TaishoFootnote38 and Meiji eras had been fullyusurped by the independent military. Nationalism swept through Japanafter the invasion of Manchuria, thus further strengthening the handof the military. In the invasion of Manchuria and its aftermath, allthe discontent with the Meiji system of government come together andcombined with the military claim to leadership ordained by the powerof the Emperor. With this convergence of events, the shallow roots ofdemocracy and the liberal reformism of the Meiji Restoration wereuprooted and replaced with a combination of nationalism and militarismembodied under the idea of the Showa Restoration.
When League ofNations condemned Japan for the Manchurian invasion, Japan, nowcontrolled by the military, simply walked out of theconference. Footnote39 The parliamentary cabinet of the 1930’s became known as“national unity” cabinets and the parliament took on more and more ofa symbolic role as the military gradually gained the upper hand overpolicies. The Japanese Parliament continued in operation and the majordemocratic parties continued to win elections in 1932, 1936 and 1937. But parliamentary control was waning as the military virtuallycontrolled foreign policy. Footnote40 Japan’s political journey from its nearly democraticgovernment of the 1920’s to its radical nationalism of the mid 1930’s,the collapse of democratic institutions, and the eventual militarystate was not an overnight transformation.
There was no coup d’etat,no march on Rome, no storming of the Bastille, no parliamentary votewhereby the anti-democratic militaristic elements overthrew thedemocratic institutions of the Meiji Era. Instead, it was a politicaljourney that allowed a semi-democratic nation to transform itself intoa military dictatorship. The forces that aided in this transformationwere the failed promises of the Meiji Restoration that wererepresented in the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the perceivedcapitulation of the Japanese parliamentary leaders to the westernpowers, and an independent military. Japanese militarism promised torestore the grandeur of Japan, a Showa Restoration. —Footnote1Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword (Boston: HoughtonMifflin Company, 1989) 76.
Footnote2Marius 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 Emperorto power.
Only later did the Meiji Restoration come to embody liberalreformism. Footnote3Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985)158-159. Footnote4Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 121. In 1925universal male suffrage was enacted. Footnote5Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press,1980) 113. Footnote6Edwin O.
Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 170-171. Footnote7Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: RandomHouse, 1990) 375-376. During the Meiji Restoration Japan saw itsmission to be to catch up with the already industrialized Westernpowers. Footnote8Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987)125.
Footnote9Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 115. Footnote10Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard UniversityPress, 1988) 98. Footnote11Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985)165-166.
Footnote12Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 119. During the Meiji Restoration Samurais werestripped of their positions and even prohibited from wearing theSamurai Sword in 1869. Footnote13Frank K, Upham Law and Social Change in Japan (Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press, 1987) 49.
The Japanese constitution was adopted in1889. It set up a British type parliament. The constitution did notprovide the parliamentary government with power over the militarybranch. Footnote14Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: RandomHouse, 1990) 38.
At the turn of the century Japan had started itscolonizing effort in China and other parts of Asia. It was theseefforts at Colonization that developed into the Russo-Japanese War(1904-1905). After winning the war Japan continued with even moregusto to snatch up colonies in Asia. Footnote15Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 121. In 1925universal male suffrage was enacted although in most elections ballotswere only made available to the urban elite.
Footnote16Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard UniversityPress, 1988) 96. Footnote17Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 150.
Footnote18James B. Crawley Japan’s Quest For Autonomy (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1966) 270-280. Footnote19Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press,1980) 128. Footnote20Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: RandomHouse, 1990) 380-381. In her Book Karel van Wolferen writes, “TheSuccess of the Meiji oligarchy in stimulating economic development wasfollowed by a further great boost for Japanese industry deriving fromthe First World War. This good fortune came to an end in 1920, and a‘chain of panics’ caused successive recessions and businessdislocation”.
Footnote21Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 117. Reischauer makes the point in his book thatexternal factors significantly hurt Japan’s economy. Unlike a nationlike the United States which had vast reserves of natural resourceswhen projectionist trade laws were implemented around the world Japansuffered significantly because it lacked raw materials and markets. Japan’s economy which was guided during the Meiji Era to be primarilyan export based economy. Footnote22Nakamura Takafusa Economic Growth in Prewar Japan (New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 1983) 151-158.
Nakamura Takafusa states that Japanwas growing at vastly different rates between the urban areas andrural areas. Footnote23Frank Gibney Japan the Fragile Superpower (New York: Meridian, 1985)165-166. Footnote24James B. Crawley Japan’s Quest For Autonomy (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1966) 270-280.
Footnote25David M. Reimers Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes toAmerica (New York: Columbia Press, 1992) 27. Footnote26Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 128. “The exclusionof Japanese Immigrants by the United States in 1924 and the growth ofmechanized Soviet Power on the Asian continent all confirmed in theJapanese public eye the impending confrontation with the west.
”Testsuo views the rise of Japanese nationalism and militarizationresulting in the Showa Restoration to be to a large degree the faultof the west for its maltreatment of Japan diplomatically. Tetsuo alsoviews the Showa Restoration to be largely caused by external factorsthat in consequence unbalanced the fragile Japanese political system. Footnote27Robert Story The Double Patriots (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957)138. Footnote28Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: RandomHouse, 1990) 380-381. Footnote29Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 114.
One of thefamous political leaders of the time Miyake Setsurei called for a newJapan that had “truth, goodness, and beauty”. Footnote30James Morley Dilemmas of Growth in Prewar Japan (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1971) 378-411. Footnote31Peter Duus The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976). Many of the nationalists of this period claimed the West had trickedJapan into giving up its colonies in Asia so it could take them. TheNationalists also claimed that renewed Japanese expansionism wouldliberate the Asians of their European Colonizers. Footnote32Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 130.
The ImperialWay Faction was a right wing political party that called for the ShowaRestoration. It was lead by Kita Ikki, Gondo Seikei, and Inoue Nissho. Footnote33Karel van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: RandomHouse, 1990) 381-382. Footnote34Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 128. Footnote35Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138.
Historianssuch as Testuo Najita cite this incident as the turning point in themilitary role in Japan. For after this incident the Military realizedthat the parliamentary government did not have the will or the powerto stop the military power. Footnote36Edwin O. Reischauer The Japanese Today (Cambridge: Harvard UniversityPress, 1988) 96. Footnote37Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 171.
Edwin O Reischauer writes in his book, “Therecould be no doubt that the Japanese army in Manchuria had beeneminently successful, The people as a whole accepted this act ofunauthorized and certainly unjustified warfare with whole heartedadmiration”. Footnote38Peter Duus The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976)156. The period preceding the Showa Restoration and coming after theMeiji Era is known as the Taisho Era. It is named after the TaishoEmperor who was mentally incompetent and thus the parliamentariansduring this time had control of the government. His reign lasted onlya decade compared to the Meiji Emperor’s 44 year reign.
Footnote39Edwin O. Reischauer Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Charles TuttleCompany, 1987) 171. Footnote40Tetsuo Najita Japan The Intellectual Foundations of Modern JapanesePolitics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 138.

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