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The Taishō period (大正時代, Taishō-jidai, "period of great righteousness"), or Taishō era, is a period in the history of Japan dating from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926 and coinciding exactly with the reign of Emperor Taishō (Taishō Tenno, personal name Yoshihito), the 123rd ruling descendant of the Japanese imperial family. Emperoro Taishō reigned during a period in which Japan continued the modernization of its economy and its political system.
Yoshihito was proclaimed crown prince on November 3, 1889, after the deaths of his two elder brothers, and ascended the throne on July 30, 1912. Unlike his predecessor, the Meiji emperor, the Taisho emperor had been sickly as a child and played almost no political role. In 1921, he became mentally deranged, and his son, Crown Prince Hirohito (later Emperor Hirohito), was appointed prince regent.
His reign, referred to as the Taisho (“Great Righteousness”) period, was characterized by foreign policy congenial to Western powers, especially to Great Britain and the United States. In domestic affairs there was increasing use of parliamentary procedures and a broadening of the suffrage. The poor health of the new emperor prompted a shift in political power from the old oligarchic group of "elder statesmen" (元老 genrō) to the Diet of Japan (国会) and the democratic parties. Thus, this era is associated with the liberal movement known as the "Taishō democracy" in Japan; it is usually distinguished from the chaos of the preceding Meiji period and the militarism of the first half of the Showa period which followed.
On July 30, 1912, the Meiji Emperor (明治天皇 Meiji Tennō) died and Crown Prince Yoshihito (嘉仁) succeeded to the throne, beginning the Taishō period. The end of the Meiji period was marked by huge government investments at home and overseas; and by defense programs, nearly-exhausted credit, and a lack of foreign reserves to pay debts.
The influence of western culture on Japan during the Meiji era continued in the Taishō period. Kobayashi Kiyochika (小林 清親, 1847–1915) adopted a western style of painting, while continuing to work in ukiyo-e (浮世絵). Okakura Kakuzo (岡倉 覚三 or 岡倉 天心 Okakura Tenshin, 1862–1913) maintained an interest in traditional Japanese painting. Mori Ōgai (森 鴎外, 1862–1922) and Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867–1916) studied in the West and introduced a more modern outlook on human life to literature.
The events following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 had not only fulfilled many domestic and foreign economic and political objectives, including the protection of Japan from colonization by western powers, but brought about a new intellectual ferment, at a time when there was worldwide interest in socialism and an urban working class was developing. The early leftist movement promoted universal male suffrage, social welfare, workers' rights, and nonviolent protest. Government suppression of leftist activities, however, led to more radical actions by the leftists and even more suppression, resulting in the dissolution of the Japan Socialist Party (日本社会党 Nihon Shakaito), only a year after its 1906 founding, and in the general failure of the socialist movement.
The beginning of the Taishō period was marked by a Taishō political crisis in 1912 and 1913 that interrupted the earlier politics of compromise. When Prime Minister Saionji Kinmochi (西園寺 公望) tried to cut the military budget, the army minister resigned, bringing down the cabinet of the Seiyūkai Party (立憲政友会 Rikken-Seiyūkai, "Association of Friends of Constitutional Government Party"). Both Yamagata Aritomo (山県 有朋) and Saionji refused to resume office, and the genro were unable to find a solution. Public outrage over the military manipulation of the cabinet and the recall of Katsura Tarō (桂 太郎) for a third term led to still more demands for an end to genro politics. Despite old guard opposition, the conservative forces formed a party of their own in 1913, the Rikken Doshikai (立憲同志会, "Constitutional Association of Friends"), a party that won a majority in the House over the Seiyūkai in late 1914.
On February 12, 1913 Yamamoto Gonbee (山本 権兵衛, 1852–1933) succeeded Katsura Taro as Prime Minister of Japan, and in April, 1914, Okuma Shigenobu (大隈 重信) replaced Yamamoto Gonbee.
World War I and Hegemony in China
World War I permitted Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. Acting virtually independently of the civil government, the Imperial Japanese Navy seized Germany's Micronesian colonies.
Seeing an opportunity in Berlin's preoccupation with the European War (World War I, 第一次世界大戦) and wanting to expand its sphere of influence in China, Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914 and quickly occupied German-leased territories in China's Shandong Province and the Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands in the Pacific. On November 7, Jiaozhou surrendered to Japan.
With its Western allies heavily involved in the war in Europe, Japan sought further to consolidate its position in China by presenting the Twenty-One Demands (Japanese: 対華21ヶ条要求; Chinese: 二十一条) to China in January, 1915. Besides expanding its control over the German holdings, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia, Japan also sought joint ownership of a major mining and metallurgical complex in central China, prohibitions on China's ceding or leasing any coastal areas to a third power, and miscellaneous other political, economic, and military controls, which, if achieved, would have reduced China to a Japanese protectorate. In the face of slow negotiations with the Chinese government, widespread anti-Japanese sentiments in China, and international condemnation, Japan withdrew the final group of demands, and treaties were signed in May, 1915.
Japan's hegemony in northern China and other parts of Asia was facilitated through other international agreements. One with Russia in 1916 helped further secure Japan's influence in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and agreements with France, Britain, and the United States in 1917 recognized Japan's territorial gains in China and the Pacific. The Nishihara Loans (named after Nishihara Kamezo, Tokyo's representative in Beijing, 北京) of 1917 and 1918, while aiding the Chinese government, put China still deeper into Japan's debt. Toward the end of the war, Japan increasingly filled orders for war materials needed by its European allies, thus helping to diversify the country's industry, increase its exports, and transform Japan from a debtor to a creditor nation for the first time.
Japan's power in Asia grew with the demise of the tsarist regime in Russia and the disorder the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution caused in Siberia. The Japanese army planned to take advantage of the confusion and occupy Siberia as far west as Lake Baikal. In order to accomplish this, Japan had to negotiate an agreement with China allowing the transit of Japanese troops through Chinese territory. Although the force was scaled back to avoid antagonizing the United States, more than 70,000 Japanese troops joined the much smaller units of the Allied Expeditionary Force sent to Siberia in 1918.
On October 9, 1916, Terauchi Masatake (寺内 正毅, 1852–1919) took over as Prime Minister from Okuma Shigenobu (大隈 重信, 1838–1922). On November 2, 1917, the Lansing-Ishii Agreement (石井・ランシング協定) recognized Japan's interests in China and pledged to keep an "Open Door Policy" (門戸開放政策). In July 1918, the Siberian Expedition was launched with the deployment of 75,000 Japanese troops. In August 1918, rice riots erupted in towns and cities throughout Japan.
Japan after World War I: Taishō Democracy
The postwar era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. Tokyo was granted a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and the peace treaty confirmed the transfer to Japan of Germany's rights in Shandong (山東), a provision that led to anti-Japanese riots and a mass political movement throughout China. Similarly, Germany's former Pacific islands were put under a Japanese mandate. Japan was also involved in the post-war Allied intervention in Russia, and was the last Allied power to withdraw (in 1925). Despite its minor role in World War I (and the Western powers' rejection of its bid for a racial equality clause in the peace treaty), Japan emerged as a major actor in international politics at the close of the war.
The two-party political system that had been developing in Japan since the turn of the century finally came of age after World War I. This period has sometimes been called that of "Taishō Democracy," after the reign title of the emperor. In 1918 Hara Takashi (原 敬, 1856-1921), a protege of Saionji and a major influence in the prewar Seiyūkai cabinets, had become the first commoner to serve as prime minister. He took advantage of his long-standing relationships with political figures throughout the government, won the support of the surviving genrō and the House of Peers, and brought into his cabinet as army minister Tanaka Giichi (田中 義一, 1864-1929), who had a greater appreciation of the value of a positive relationship between the civilian government and the military than his predecessors. Nevertheless, Hara faced major problems: inflation, the need to adjust the Japanese economy to postwar circumstances, the influx of foreign ideas, and an emerging labor movement. The cabinet applied prewar solutions to these postwar problems, and little was done to reform the government. Hara worked to ensure a Seiyūkai majority through time-tested methods, such as new election laws and electoral redistricting, and embarked on major government-funded public works programs.
The public grew disillusioned with the growing national debt and the new election laws, which retained the old minimum tax qualifications for voters. Calls were raised for universal suffrage and the dismantling of the old political party network. Students, university professors, and journalists, bolstered by labor unions and inspired by a variety of democratic, socialist, communist, anarchist, and other Western schools of thought, mounted large but orderly public demonstrations in favor of universal male suffrage in 1919 and 1920. In the next elections, the Seiyūkai party barely won a majority. In the political milieu of the day, there was a proliferation of new parties, including socialist and communist parties.
In the midst of this political ferment, Hara was assassinated by a disenchanted railroad worker in 1921. Hara was followed by a succession of non-party prime ministers and coalition cabinets. Fear of a broader electorate, left-wing power, and the growing social change engendered by the influx of Western popular culture, culminated in the passage of the Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法, 1925), which forbade any change in the political structure or the abolition of private property.
Unstable coalitions and divisiveness in the Diet (国会) led the Kenseikai (憲政会, "Constitutional Government Association") and the Seiyū Hontō (政友本党 , "True Seiyūkai") to merge into the Rikken Minseitō (立憲民政党, "Constitutional Democratic Party") in 1927. The Rikken Minseitō platform was committed to the parliamentary system, democratic politics, and world peace. From 1927 until 1932, the Seiyūkai and the Rikken Minseitō alternated in power.
Through all the political realignments and efforts to create a more orderly government, domestic economic crises plagued whichever party held power. The government attempted solutions such as fiscal austerity programs and appeals for public support of conservative government policies such as the Peace Preservation Law, including reminders of the moral obligation to make sacrifices for the emperor and the state. Although the world depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s had minimal effects on Japan (Japanese exports grew substantially during this period), there was a sense of rising discontent that was heightened with the assassination attempt on the Rikken Minseitō prime minister Hamaguchi Osachi (浜口 雄幸, 1870-1931) in 1930. Hamaguchi survived the attack, and tried to continue in office despite the severity of his wounds, but was forced to resign the following year. He died not long afterwards.
Communism and the Response
The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 and their hopes for a world revolution led to the establishment of the Comintern (a contraction of Communist International, the organization founded in Moscow in 1919 to coordinate the world communist movement). The Comintern realized the importance of Japan in achieving successful revolution in East Asia and actively worked to form the Japan Communist Party (日本共産党 Nihon Kyōsantō), which was founded in July, 1922. In 1923, the Japan Communist Party announced their goals: an end to feudalism, abolition of the monarchy, recognition of the Soviet Union, and withdrawal of Japanese troops from Siberia, Sakhalin, China, Korea, and Taiwan. A brutal suppression of the party followed. Radicals responded with an assassination attempt on Prince Regent Hirohito. The 1925 Peace Preservation Law was a direct response to the "dangerous thoughts" perpetrated by communist elements in Japan.
The liberalization of election laws (General Election Law, 普通選挙法), also passed in 1925, benefitted communist candidates even though the Japan Communist Party itself was banned. A new Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法) in 1928, however, further impeded communist efforts by banning the parties they had infiltrated. The police apparatus was ubiquitous and thorough in attempting to control the socialist movement. By 1926 the Japan Communist Party had been forced underground, by the summer of 1929 the party leadership had been virtually destroyed, and by 1933 the party had largely disintegrated.
Ultranationalism had been characteristic of right-wing politicians and conservative military men since the inception of the Meiji Restoration, contributing greatly to the prowar politics of the 1870s. Disenchanted former samurai had established patriotic societies and intelligence-gathering organizations, such as the Gen'yōsha (玄洋社, "Black Ocean Society," founded in 1881) and its later offshoot, the Kokuryūkai (黒竜会, "Black Dragon Society," or "Amur River Society," founded in 1901). These groups became active in domestic and foreign politics, helped foment prowar sentiments, and supported ultranationalist causes through the end of World War II. After Japan's victories over China and Russia, the ultranationalists concentrated on domestic issues and perceived domestic threats, such as socialism and communism.
Taishō Foreign Policy
Emerging Chinese nationalism, the victory of the communists in Russia, and the growing presence of the United States in East Asia all worked against Japan's postwar foreign policy interests. The four-year Siberian expedition and activities in China, combined with big domestic spending programs, had depleted Japan's wartime earnings. Only through more competitive business practices, supported by further economic development and industrial modernization, all accommodated by the growth of the Zaibatsu (財閥, "wealth cliques"), could Japan hope to become predominant in Asia. The United States, long a source for many imported goods and for loans needed for development, began to be seen as a major impediment because of its policies of containing Japanese imperialism.
An international turning point in military diplomacy was the Washington Conference of 1921–1922, which produced a series of agreements that effected a new order in the Pacific region. Japan's economic problems made a naval buildup nearly impossible and, realizing the need to compete with the United States on an economic rather than a military basis, Japan came to view rapprochement as inevitable. Japan adopted a more neutral attitude toward the civil war in China, dropped efforts to expand its hegemony into China proper, and joined the United States, Britain, and France in encouraging Chinese self-development.
In the Four Power Treaty on Insular Possessions (December 13, 1921), Japan, the United States, Britain, and France agreed to recognize the status quo in the Pacific, and Japan and Britain agreed to formally terminate their Treaty of Alliance. The Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty (February 6, 1922) established an international capital ship ratio (5, 5, 3, 1.75, and 1.75, respectively, for the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy) and limited the size and armaments of capital ships already built or under construction. In a move that gave the Japanese Imperial Navy greater freedom in the Pacific, Washington and London agreed not to build any new military bases between Singapore and Hawaii.
The goal of the Nine Power Treaty (February 6, 1922), signed by Belgium, China, the Netherlands, and Portugal, along with the original five powers, was the prevention of war in the Pacific. The signatories agreed to respect China's independence and integrity, not to interfere in Chinese attempts to establish a stable government, to refrain from seeking special privileges in China or threatening the positions of other nations there, to support a policy of equal opportunity for commerce and industry of all nations in China, and to reexamine extraterritoriality and tariff autonomy policies. Japan also agreed to withdraw its troops from Shandong, relinquishing all but purely economic rights there, and to evacuate its troops from Siberia.
End of the Taishō Democracy
Overall, during the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, when military leaders became increasingly influential. These shifts in power were made possible by the ambiguity and imprecision of the Meiji constitution, particularly regarding the position of the Emperor in relation to the constitution.
- 1912: The Emperor Taishō (大正天皇 Taishō Emperor of Japan|Tennō) assumes the throne (July 30). General Katsura Tarō (桂 太郎) becomes Prime Minister of Japan for a third term (December 21).
- 1913: Katsura is forced to resign, and Admiral Yamamoto Gonnohyōe (or Yamamoto Gonbee,山本 権兵衛) becomes prime minister (February 20).
- 1914: Okuma Shigenobu (大隈 重信) becomes prime minister for a second term (April 16). Japan declares war on Germany, joining the Allies side (August 23).
- 1915: Japan sends the Twenty-One Demands to China (January 18).
- 1916: Terauchi Masatake (寺内 正毅) becomes prime minister (October 9).
- 1917: Lansing-Ishii Agreement (石井・ランシング協定) goes into effect (November 2).
- 1918: Siberian expedition launched (July). Hara Takashi (原 敬) becomes prime minister (September 29).
- 1919: March 1st Movement begins against colonial rule in Korea (March 1).
- 1920: Japan helps found the League of Nations.
- 1921: Hara is assassinated and Takahashi Korekiyo (高橋 是清) becomes prime minister (November 4). Hirohito (裕仁) becomes regent (摂政 Sessho, November 29). Four Power Treaty is signed (December 13).
- 1922: Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty is signed (February 6). Admiral Katō Tomosaburō (加藤 友三郎) becomes prime minister (June 12). Japan withdraws troops from Siberia (August 28).
- 1923: Great Kantō earthquake (関東大震災) devastates Tokyo (東京, September 1). Yamamoto becomes prime minister for a second term (September 2).
- 1924: Kiyoura Keigo (清浦 奎吾) becomes prime minister (January 7). Prince Hirohito (the future Emperor Shōwa) marries Nagako Kuniyoshi (the future Empress Kōjun), January 26. Katō Takaaki (加藤 高明) becomes prime minister (June 11).
- 1925: General Election Law (普通選挙法) is passed, all men above age 25 gain the right to vote (May 5). The Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法) is passed. Princess Shigeko, Hirohito's first daughter, is born (December 9).
- 1926: Emperor Taishō dies: Hirohito becomes emperor (December 25).
- Conference on Taishō Japan, Bernard S. Silberman, Harry D. Harootunian, and Gail Lee Bernstein. 1974. Japan in crisis; essays on Taishō democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Keene, Donald. 1995. Modern Japanese diaries: the Japanese at home and abroad as revealed through their diaries. New York: Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0805020551
- McClain, James L. 2002. Japan, a modern history. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393041565
- Najita, Tetsuo, and J. Victor Koschmann. 1982. Conflict in modern Japanese history: the neglected tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691053642
- Oka, Yoshitake. 1986. Five political leaders of modern Japan: Itō Hirobumi, Ōkuma Shigenobu, Hara Takashi, Inukai Tsuyoshi, and Saionji Kimmochi. [Tokyo]: University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 4130370146
- Tipton, Elise K. 2002. Modern Japan a social and political history. London: Routledge. ISBN 0585453225
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The transition between the reign of the powerful Emperor Meiji and that of his weak successor Taisho was marked by the emergence of a new individualism in Japanese society, a separation of culture and politics that led to the demise of the traditional Japanese self-dedication to the interests of the state and to a corresponding dedication to modernization in all spheres of existence. The widespread social, political, economic, and cultural changes that occurred during the years of Japan's modernization movement in the early twentieth century are discussed in thirteen essays by Japanese and American scholars.
The contributors employ a diversity of disciplinary and historical approaches: the volume contains essays on intellectual, literary, economic, diplomatic, political, and social history covering the period from 1900 to 1945. The essays relate the new individualism of the Taisho years to such phenomena as literary naturalism, political socialism, the failure of economic expansion, and industrial and agricultural unrest.
Bernard S. Silberman is Director of the Workshop on East Asia and Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago. H. D. Harootunian is Director of the Program in East Asian Studies and Professor of History, New York University.
Praise / Awards
"Essential reading for anyone interested in early twentieth-century Japan."
--Peter Duus, Journal of Asian Studies
"No better study of those years, in the English language at any rate, has been published."
--Richard Storry, American Political Science Review