Causes of the Showa Restoration

 

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