Japan and World War I

The Rise and Fall of Taishō Democracy: Party Politics in Early-Twentieth-Century Japan


Before descending into the authoritarianism of the World War II era, Japan made considerable progress in implementing a democratic system of government. This flowering of liberalism, known as “Taishō Democracy” for its rough correspondence with the reign of Emperor Taishō, though weakened and ultimately destroyed by assassinations and coup attempts, helped lay the foundations for full democracy after 1945.

Japanese Democracy Before World War II

Now that a century has passed since the start of World War I, what links that era with the Japan of today? Human rights and democracy have become the basis for Japan’s contemporary political system, and their influence extends beyond politics to every corner of society. Democracy in Japan is commonly associated with the reforms implemented during the Allied Occupation following World War II, particularly the adoption of a new constitution including explicit provisions for a parliamentary system of government. But the origins of Japan’s democracy predate this period. Even the Allies who defeated Japan in 1945 realized this: Among the terms for surrender given in the Potsdam Declaration, there is reference to the removal of obstacles to “the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people.” This demonstrates the need to look back to Japan’s political history in the period before World War II.

Japan experienced a groundswell of liberalism in the early twentieth century that was dubbed “Taishō Democracy” by historians in the 1950s.(*1) The term “Taishō Democracy” refers to the flourishing of new ways of thinking, strengthening of social movements, and development of party politics in a period centered on the Taishō era (the reign of Emperor Taishō, 1912–26). From 1924 to 1932, seven successive cabinets were formed by political parties, laying the foundations for genuine party politics in the Diet; this was lauded at the time as “the normal course of constitutional government” and had a high degree of legitimacy. In this article, I will consider the World War I centennial from the perspective of Taishō Democracy, sketching the history of the party politics that developed in Japan’s interwar period.(*2)

An Era of Change in Japanese Politics

Japan declared war on Germany in August 1914, entering World War I on the side of the Allies shortly after the conflict broke out in Europe. At the time, Japanese politics was in an era of change. Following the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867 and formal restoration of imperial rule under Emperor Meiji (the Meiji Restoration) the following year, Japan embarked on the construction of a new set of political institutions befitting a modern nation-state, including its first constitution, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Meiji Constitution), adopted in 1889, and a national legislature, the Imperial Diet, established in 1890. In the early years following the establishment of the Diet, the government continued to be dominated by hanbatsu, the cliques of former samurai from the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū who played leading roles in the Meiji Restoration. However, around the turn of the twentieth century, hanbatsu dominance came under challenge from political parties, particularly Rikken Seiyūkai (Friends of Constitutional Government), a party founded in 1900 by Itō Hirobumi.

Japan entered a new era of politics in the twentieth century in two senses. The first was that older leaders from the time of the Meiji Restoration passed on the torch to a new generation. The second was that the political order shifted from one strongly influenced by the genrō, senior statesmen from the hanbatsu, to a more open system of governance. From 1901 to 1913 power alternated between the next-generation leaders Katsura Tarō, a Chōshū bureaucrat and former army general, and Saionji Kinmochi, who succeeded Itō Hirobumi as the head of Seiyūkai, the majority party in the House of Representatives.

This transitional stability did not last. In 1912, the first year of the Taishō era, Japanese politics entered into turmoil. When Saionji would not increase the army by two divisions, the army refused to supply a minister and his second cabinet fell. The first Movement to Protect Constitutional Government erupted with calls for abolishment of hanbatsu government. Under the Meiji Constitution, the prime minister was appointed by the emperor, with the selection being made in practice through discussion among the genrō, but the new movement demanded “the normal course of constitutional government,” a prime minister chosen by the majority party in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Diet). Social pressure reached a boil in the Taishō Political Crisis of 1913, forcing Katsura, who had just replaced Saionji and started his third term as prime minister, to resign after little more than 50 days in office. A naval corruption scandal in early 1914 brought further outrage and political upheaval.

Hara Takashi and Japan’s First Party Cabinet

Prime Minister Hara Takashi. © Jiji.

In some ways, World War I boosted the development of party politics in Japan, though in other respects it held it back. Katō Takaaki was foreign minister in the second cabinet of Ōkuma Shigenobu, and handled diplomacy related to Japan’s entry into the war. He was the leader of Rikken Dōshikai (Constitutional Association of Friends), originally founded by Katsura Tarō, which opposed Seiyūkai in the Diet, and tried to remove the genrō from the decision-making process. However, there were misgivings about the hastiness of the government’s resolution to go to war, combined with domestic and international criticism of the Twenty-One Demands, an ultimatum that Japan attempted to force on the Chinese government in 1915.

When the army’s Terauchi Masatake was appointed prime minister in the spirit of wartime national unity, it was as if the country had returned to the days before the first Movement to Protect Constitutional Government. But as Terauchi’s cabinet was denounced as “non-constitutional,” he set up the Advisory Council on Foreign Relations to shore up the government’s political legitimacy. The council allowed party leaders to participate directly in foreign policy decision-making for the first time. Terauchi’s government lasted until spiraling rice prices sparked the rice riots of 1918, massive disturbances that took place throughout Japan, and he was replaced by Hara Takashi of Seiyūkai, the country’s first prime minister from the House of Representatives.

Hara formed what was seen as Japan’s first full-fledged “party cabinet,” consisting mainly of elected legislators from the prime minister’s party, appropriate to a postwar era that seemed to promise new hope for democracy. Saionji Kinmochi and former Foreign Minister Makino Nobuaki led the Japanese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Although unsuccessful in its proposal to include a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations, Japan joined the new international body and took a permanent seat on its council.

The postwar mood of pacifism manifested itself in various ways in Japan. In January 1920, Emperor Taishō issued an “imperial ordinance on the restoration of peace,” exhorting citizens to take advantage of peace and move forward in line with the progress of the age. Then, from November 1921 to February 1922, Japan, the United States, and Britain came to agreement on reducing naval strength at the Washington Naval Conference, helping to maintain harmony between the three powers. Supporting party politics and this period of international cooperation were cultured members of the imperial court with the global-mindedness sought by Hara. Crown Prince Hirohito visited Europe and its battlefields from March to September 1921, and would be advised by Saionji and Makino until the mid-1930s. (Hirohito became emperor on his father’s death in 1926, which marked the end of the Taishō era; the new emperor’s reign was named Shōwa.) 

Increased Normalization of Party Politics

Prime Minister Katō Takaaki. © Jiji.

The formation of the Hara cabinet in itself was a sign of democracy, and though some still considered the very idea of popular rule to be a dangerous ideology, it was strongly supported by the opposition Kenseikai (Constitutional Association, a successor to Dōshikai), which under Katō Takaaki advocated alternation of power between the ruling and opposition parties and described World War I as “a victory for justice, freedom, and humanitarianism.” The party cabinets formed by Hara and his successor Takahashi Korekiyo were followed by a string of cabinets made up of bureaucrats, but people’s aspirations for the norms of constitutional government were unabated. In January 1924, the appointment of Kiyoura Keigo and the formation of the third consecutive cabinet dominated by members of the House of Peers, the upper house of the Diet, triggered the second Movement to Protect Constitutional Government.

After Kenseikai won the most seats in the next general election, Katō was named prime minister in June 1924, leading a three-party coalition with Seiyūkai and Kakushin Kurabu (Reform Club). Before the collapse of the coalition in August 1925, it passed an amendment eliminating tax payment requirements to extend suffrage to all males over 25 and reformed the House of Peers; with a broader base of citizen franchise, the House of Representatives naturally came to be viewed as taking political precedence over the unelected upper house.

Prime Minister Saionji Kinmochi. © Jiji.

The era of party cabinets continued until 1932, the seventh year of the Shōwa era. The last of the surviving genrō, Saionji Kinmochi, was distrustful of Kenseikai for its connection to the Twenty-One Demands made to China in 1915, which worsened relations with Britain and the United States as well as with China. However, Katō described Japanese, British, and US battleships in the Pacific Ocean as “symbols of civilization and peace” in the region and appointed Shidehara Kijūrō, Japan’s plenipotentiary at the Washington Naval Conference as foreign minister, ushering in a period of harmonious “Shidehara diplomacy.” Reassured by these actions, Saionji approved the transfer of power between parties, and generally took a hands-off approach to the politics of the time. Taishō Democracy has sometimes been described as combining the pursuit of constitutional government at home with imperialism overseas, but in the years after World War I there was both increased democracy within Japan and cooperation in the international arena.

Constitutional politics fostered democratic government, and by 1927, when Rikken Minseitō (Constitutional Democratic Party) was formed as a successor to Kenseikai, a political system with two major parties—Minseitō and Seiyūkai—and popular elections based on universal male suffrage was in place. Meanwhile, disarmament efforts continued, and though Britain and the United States failed to resolve their differences at the Geneva Naval Conference of 1927, a treaty to limit naval strength was successfully signed at the London Naval Conference of 1930.

The Kellogg–Briand Pact on the renunciation of war was concluded in 1928, and Japan ratified it despite some grumbling that a treaty with the phrase “in the names of their respective peoples” was not appropriate to a country where the emperor had the final say in matters of war and peace. Saionji responded to such criticisms by saying that he had participated in the Paris Peace Conference with the emperor’s ultimate authority firmly in mind.

Great Depression Sets Back Democracy

Meanwhile, further reform of domestic politics was under consideration. Typically power transfers took place when the majority party reached an impasse and ceded power to the opposition, which then became the new majority party at the next election, but some argued for a more direct connection between elections and changes in government. There were also calls to give women the vote, at first in local elections and later in national elections. And with the introduction of universal male suffrage, the “proletarian” (socialist) parties gained a voice in national politics from the 1928 election onward.

However, under the heavy impact of the Great Depression that started in 1929, the tide began to turn away from democracy. Anticipating all-out war following the army’s provocation of the Manchurian Incident in 1931, the army and navy resisted toeing the line drawn by party politicians and strongly opposed further development of party politics and pursuit of international disarmament. And they undertook an unabashed propaganda campaign aimed at turning the people against the party-led government.

Amid the heightening discord between politicians and the military, Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated in the May 15 Incident of 1932, an attempted coup d’état. Saionji set up a temporary cabinet of bureaucrats, while calling for a future return to party politics. But with the February 26 Incident of 1936, another unsuccessful but destabilizing coup attempt, all hope of a return to “the normal course of constitutional government” was lost. Having ended its post–World War I domestic movement toward democracy, it was only natural that Japan would go on to reject the international order of the time.

An Important Turning Point

Japan’s democracy after World War II was based on a rebuilding of its democracy from between the wars—a return to the combination of popular rule at home and a foreign policy based on international cooperation. It was a revived and strengthened version of the country’s post–World War I Taishō Democracy. In that sense, World War I was an important turning point in Japanese politics, acting to open the curtain to the modern age in Japan in the same way it did in the West. As we look back in this centennial year, we are reminded once more of the clear fact that Japanese history is not some separate domestic matter but a part of global history. In the same way, today’s popular efforts to bring about a more peaceful world are inextricably linked to those of the post–World War I era.

Major Events of the Party Cabinet Era

June 11, 1924– 1st Katō Takaaki Cabinet (parties: Kenseikai, Seiyūkai, Kakushin Kurabu)
Tenant Dispute Mediation Law, Soviet–Japanese Basic Convention, revision of House of Representatives Election Law to allow universal suffrage for males over 25, Peace Preservation Law, four-division reduction of army strength by Army Minister Ugaki Kazushige, reform of House of Peers Cabinet resigns due to disagreement between coalition members.
August 2, 1925– 2nd Katō Takaaki Cabinet (Kenseikai)
Katō leads Kenseikai cabinet following collapse of coalition.
Cabinet resigns due to death of Katō from pneumonia.
January 30, 1926– 1st Wakatsuki Reijirō Cabinet (Kenseikai)
Labor Dispute Mediation Law, introduction of universal male suffrage in local elections, end of Taishō and start of Shōwa era, Shōwa Financial Crisis
Cabinet resigns due to opposition from Privy Council.
April 20, 1927– Tanaka Giichi Cabinet (Seiyūkai)
Establishment of two major parties, Geneva Naval Conference, Shandong Expeditions, Jinan Incident, crackdown on communism, assassination of Zhang Zuolin, Kellogg-Briand Pact
Cabinet resigns due to criticism from the emperor.
February 20, 1928: first House of Representatives election is held following the introduction of universal male suffrage.
Results: Seiyūkai 217, Minseitō 216, Others 33
July 2, 1929– Hamaguchi Osachi Cabinet (Minseitō)
Wall Street Crash (start of Great Depression), lifting of gold embargo, Shōwa Depression, London Naval Conference, dispute over violation of imperial right of supreme command, attempted assassination of Hamaguchi, March Incident (attempted coup)
Cabinet resigns due to Prime Minister Hamaguchi’s poor health following assassination attempt.
February 20, 1930: House of Representatives election is held.
Results: Minseitō 273, Seiyūkai 174, Others 19
April 14, 1931– 2nd Wakatsuki Reijirō Cabinet (Minseitō)
Manchurian Incident, October Incident (attempted coup)
Cabinet resigns due to internal discord.
December 13 1931–May 26, 1932 Inukai Tsuyoshi Cabinet (Seiyūkai)
Reimposition of gold embargo, Shanghai Incident, League of Blood Incident, May 15 Incident
Cabinet resigns due to Inukai’s assassination in May 15 Incident.
February 20, 1932: House of Representatives election is held.
Results: Seiyūkai 301, Minseitō 146, Others 19


(Originally published in Japanese on July 30, 2014. Banner photo: Sannō Hotel in Akasaka, Tokyo, the base for the February 26 Incident of 1936, one of a series of attempted coups that contributed to the waning of democracy in Japan in the period before World War II. © Jiji.)



(*1) ^ For a systematic presentation of “Taishō Democracy,” see Mitani Taichirō, Taishō demokurashī ron: Yoshino Sakuzō no jidai (On Taishō Democracy: The Yoshino Sakuzō Era), 3rd ed. (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 2013).

(*2) ^ Quotations from historical documents and other details are taken from the author’s books: Seitō naikakusei no seiritsu: 1918–27 nen (The Establishment of the Party Cabinet System 1918–1927) (Tokyo: Yūhikaku, 2005) and Seitō naikakusei no tenkai to hōkai: 1927–36 nen (The Development and Breakdown of the Party Cabinet System 1927–1936) (Tokyo: Yūhikaku, 2014). This article mainly discusses the establishment of party politics, but both books also consider Yoshino Sakuzō, Ichikawa Fusae, and other thinkers of the time as well as the development of social movements based on party politics. Frederick R. Dickinson, World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919–1930 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), also takes a multifaceted look at Japan in the post–World War I era.

Katsura Tarō Saionji Kinmochi Inukai Tsuyoshi Hara Takashi World War I Taishō Democracy Seiyūkai Kenseikai May 15 Incident February 26 Incident