Taisho Democracy

   A term associated with the reign of the Taisho Emperor Yoshihito and used to symbolize the wave of liberal reform that swept Japan in the early twentieth century. Although Yoshihito occupied the throne only between 1912 and 1925, “Taisho Democracy” more generally refers to the critical transition period between the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and the Manchurian Incident of 1931. The Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito died in 1912. But military victory over the great continental empire of Russia, signaled the triumph by 1905 of the principal goals of his reign: national unity, industrialization, military might, empire, and imperial sovereignty. By contrast, postwar developments hinted at a new and unsettling era: the rise of individualism, public opposition to war and excessive armaments, mounting labor agitation, a plot to assassinate the emperor, and the emergence of modern China, not on the model of Japanese constitutional monarchy but of American republicanism. The death of the Meiji emperor in July 1912 confirmed the end of an exalted age. Only seven months later, a coalition of political parties toppled an oligarchic cabinet for the first time in Japanese history.
   World War I spurred the most dramatic reforms associated with Taisho. Propelled by an enormous boost in overseas trade, Japan experienced a new wave of industrialization, urbanization, and commercialization that spawned a new middle class. The principal consequence was the rise of political party government in place of oligarchic rule. By 1918, Japan welcomed its first party cabinet. From 1924 to 1932, two bourgeois political parties commanded policy-making in Japan. At the same time, new advocacy groups championed the rights of urban labor, rural tenants, women, and outcastes.
   The 1920s also brought dramatic change in Japanese external affairs. After the steady advance of empire and arms under Meiji, the interwar years invited a retraction of empire, disarmament, and a new commitment to internationalism. Japan became a charter member of the League of Nations in 1920; withdrew troops from Shandong, China, and Siberia; slashed naval arms in compliance with the Washington 1922 and the London 1930 naval treaties; and cut four divisions from the Imperial Army. When members of the Japanese “Guandong Army” sparked an “incident” along the Manchuria Railway in 1931, they signaled their strong displeasure of these dramatic symbols of “Taisho democracy.”
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Silberman, Bernard S., and H. D. Harootunian, eds. Japan in Crisis: Essays in Taisho Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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