During the 1920’s, Japan appeared to be developing ademocratic and peaceful government. It had a quasi-democratic governmental body,the Diet,Footnote3 and voting rights were extended to all malecitizens. Footnote4 Yet, underneath this seemingly placid surface, lurkedmomentous problems that lead to the Showa Restoration. The transition that Japanmade from its parliamentary government of the 1920’s to the Showa Restorationand 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 theShowa Restoration in the 1930s is not an easy story to relate. Thetransformation in Japan’s governmental structure involved; the historical periodbetween 1868 and 1912 that preceded the Showa Restoration.
This period ofdemocratic reforms was an underlying cause of the militarist reaction that leadto the Showa Restoration. The transformation was also feed by several immediatecauses; such as, the downturn in the global economy in 1929Footnote5 and theinvasion of Manchuria in 1931. Footnote6 It was the convergence of these external,internal, underlying and immediate causes that lead to the military dictatorshipin the 1930’s. The historical period before the Showa Restoration, 1868-1912, shapedthe political climate in which Japan could transform itself from a democracy toa militaristic state. This period is known as the Meiji Restoration.
Footnote7The Meiji Restoration of 1868 completely dismantled the Tokugawa political orderand replaced it with a centralized system of government headed by the Emperorwho served as a figure head. Footnote8 However, the Emperor instead of being asource of power for the Meiji Government, became its undoing. The Emperor wasplaced in the mystic position of demi-god by the leaders of the MeijiRestoration. Parliamentarians justified the new quasi-democratic government ofJapan, as being the “Emperor’s Will.
” The ultra-nationalist and militaristicgroups took advantage of the Emperor’s status and claimed to speak for theEmperor. Footnote9 These then groups turned the tables on the parliamentarians byclaiming 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, theparliamentarians compromised with the nationalists and militarists groups andthe general populace took the nationalists’ claims of devotion to the Emperor atface value, further bolstering the popularity of the nationalists.
Footnote10 Thetheory of “Imperial Will” in Japan’s quasi-democratic government became anunderlying flaw in the government’s democratic composition. It was also during the Meiji Restoration that the Japanese economy beganto 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 andAmerican industries.
Footnote11 In 1889, the Japanese government adopted aconstitution based on the British and German models of parliamentary democracy. During this same period, railroads were constructed, a banking system wasstarted and the samurai system was disbanded. Footnote12 Indeed, it seemed as ifJapan had successfully made the transition to a western style industrializedstate. Almost every other non-western state failed to make this leap forwardfrom pre-industrial nation to industrialized power. For example, China failed tomake this leap. It collapsed during the 1840s and the European powers followedby Japan, sought to control China by expropriating its raw materials andexploiting 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 powerthrough its expansion of colonial holdings. Footnote14 During the first World War,Japan’s economy and colonial holdings continued to expand as the western powerswere forced to focus on the war raging in Europe. During the period 1912-1926,the government continued on its democratic course. In 1925, Japan extendedvoting rights to all men and the growth of the merchant classcontinued. Footnote15 But these democratic trends, hid the fact that it was onlythe urban elite’s who were benefiting from the growing industrialization.