Empire and Domestic Politics in Japan
The Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 signaled the end of Japan’s isolationist policy and the start of modernization. Japan’s democratization process also began to take place during this period. Democratization is a process “whereby liberal democratic values, institutions, and practices are harmonized with indigenous political values, institutions, and practices to create a new political system in which the government is directed by and held accountable to its polity. Education was highly prioritized and Japanese learned science and technology from the west and this was done by recruiting Western experts and sending Japanese students to study abroad. Once they graduate, Japanese students come home to apply their learnings to the local context. In 1890 an Imperial Rescript on Education was passed and this policy highlighted the need to learn how to become a proper Japanese.
Although Japan learned a lot technically from Western nations, the leaders at these time emphasized the superiority of Japanese morals, values, and culture. This paper looks into the politics within Japanese society from the period of the Meiji Restoration leading to the Pacific War in the 1940s. There are two factors that this writer intends to highlight in the discussion: (a) Washington Consensus and (b) Manchuria incident. In discussing these two items, the author would be able to point out the politics within the Japanese military and the politics within its political systems. In many occasions there are clashes between these two groups in terms of decisions, policy, and actual implementations of government orders.
Just after the First World War, the countries around Japan, and those Japan has close contact with were experiencing difficulties at their home fronts. China was chaotic with the fall of the Chinese Imperial Order. The strength of European forces was diminished and Germany left Asia, Britain’s naval strength was decreased, and France not being able return to its prewar strength. The Russian empire was likewise dissolved and replaced by forces of the revolution. In contrast to these external conditions, Japan was in a stable position because it has managed to secure agreements and treaties with the other nation’s which would ensure that other countries would not launch any attack to the country.
The Washington Conference
Right after World War I, the military powers involved in the conflicts had a series of meetings aimed at addressing the effects of the war. The agreements that resulted from these meetings were meant to ensure security in the area. This meant that to minimize one country becoming militarily superior once again, there would be limitations in the number of military strength it possessed. Thus, there were limits in the number of battleships that were allowed. The Washington Conference were significant in Japan’s democratization because Japan sat at the bargaining table also recognized as a force to be reckoned with. Although there was a feeling of racial discrimination at various times, being part of the Conference made Japan strategize about its development and the rebuilding of its forces. Several agreements that Japan became part of were instrumental in many of its military decisions in the succeeding years.
The murder of Chang Tso-Lin is referred to as the Manchuria incident and this happened in September 1931 during an explosion at the South Manchurian Railway. This incident was a clear example of the Japanese military in Manchuria taking matters into their own hands and clearly rejecting orders from the government in Tokyo. The reasons for the Manchuria incident can be traced back to conflicts, negotiations, and plots within the army and , between the military and the civilian government. The most recent event that triggered the incident was the death of the Japanese Captain Nakamura by Manchurian soldiers a month before. The government was still deliberating on the best possible means of addressing the death of Captain Nakamura when the Japanese Army in the Asian continent proceeded with the plan to launch an incident in Manchuria.
The reason Manchuria was very important to the Japan was because control of this territory meant strategic military presence as well as access to natural resources. Manchuria possesses deposits of coal and iron which can provide Japan necessary resources to maintain its naval strength. Otherwise, the country would have to depend on accessing these resources from the west. In terms of military presence, Manchuria is critical because it is Japan’s way towards both Korea and entry into China. Establishing military presence in Manchuria is also seen as a way to prevent further expansion of the Bolshevik territory.
Chang Tso-Lin was a prisoner of Japanese forces during the Russian-Japanese war but he was spared because the Japanese believed that he would be of use in the future. He was to be guided so that he would always remember that it was because of Japan’s support that he was able to hold power in Manchuria. The policy of Japan’s Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi was to support Chang Tso-Lin because he was the instrument of Japan in Manchuria. However, Tso-Lin had other plans as he saw Japan’s support as his means to control China. Tso-Lin at this time was at war with Peking. The head of Japan’s Kwantung army Colonel Kumoto created an incident that would make it necessary for the Japanese army to control Manchuria.
This incident was filled with politics within the Japanese military. Months before the incident, there were young officers, brilliant Japanese officers, who came together to discuss Japanese policies and their own plots to take over Manchuria. When the Manchurian incident took place and Japanese troops proceeded to take over, the government at Tokyo gave Cabinet approval to the invasion but did so reluctantly. There was intense pressure from the Army thus, the approval was granted.
The honor of the military was likewise protected and the Japanese government did not make public the details of the murder of Chang Tso-Lin because there was pressure from the officers and other government officials that Colonel Kumoto should not be disgraced. Thus, from the beginnings of the Manchuria incident up to Japan’s occupation of Manchuria there was a very complicated system of politics among the military themselves, between the military and the civilian government, and between Japanese officials and outside government. One thing though that was very prominent in all these was the Japanese show of unity to the outside world. Although there were instances when the Tokyo government seemed unsupportive of the Kwantung army, the government still owned the movements of the army as officially within their policy. When the military acted ahead of the civilian government’s orders, the government’s next policies were made in consideration of these actions.
The 1920s in Japan was considered the “Liberal Twenties” and the years of 1918-1932 was referred to as the “Era of Party Rule.“ This was the time when there were organizations and federations that were formed. More importantly, this period was the time when the common people or the ordinary people became more involved in Japan’s political systems. There was the formation of political parties or “popular parties” These parties were comprised of businessmen, rich farmers, and professionals such as journalists and lawyers. Traditionally, the Japanese government was ruled by members of the oligarchy and it was difficult for a commoner to gain entry into the government. However, this practice soon changed with the rise of the political parties. The two major political parties of Japan at this time was the Seiyukei and the Doshikai. These parties ushered in the entry of commoners into the Japanese government.
A very important development at this period was the appointment of Hara Kei (Takashi) as Japan’s prime minister beginning in 1918. Although Hara came from a samurai-class family, he chose to renounce the class and became classified as a commoner. Thus, Hara became the first commoner prime minister. During his time, he instituted changes in the government wherein he replaced people within his cabinet that he believed were not capable of doing their jobs. It was during the time of Hara that the right to suffrage was extended to more male adults. Such expansion enabled small landowners from the countryside to vote because of the minimum requirement. At this time, landholders who per paying at least three yen in direct national taxes were allowed to vote. It was the governments after Hara that universal suffrage was enacted in Japan, but his legacy was in working hard for democracy to be instituted in governmental administration.
Aside from political parties, there were other groups that were formed at this time, such as the labor unions. An example of this is the Japan Farmers Union. Another organization was the Suiheisha formed in 1922 by the younger generation of burakumin. The burakumin is the outcaste group of Japan, but over the years, there were already members of this group who has managed to own property and became well-off. It was from these group that the Suiheisha was formed and this grouped advocated for equality and better living conditions.
Democracy and decision-making
Japan’s road to war became clear in the Manchuria incident when its officers manipulated a series of events to gain military control over Manchuria. However, the years before Japan engaged in hostilities in the Pacific war, there was a series of events that transformed its society into a force to be reckoned with, not only in terms of military strength, but in its civilian rule. From an isolationist policy Japan opened its doors and took part in the world’s affairs. The rise of political parties and the integration of these into the political system of Japan is evidence that there was a democratization process that was taking place. Representatives of more sectors were able to get an opportunity to join the government. The government was not anymore just in the hands of a few elite members who get their mandate from the Emperor’s divine power. An opportunity was opened to Japanese citizens who were commoners to hold office and govern the country.
The years before the Second World war was indeed a time where there was a complicated interplay of the dynamics in Japan’s rulers. There was the emperor, the military, and the civilian government. However, this was a time where the democratization process was clearly evident. It was a period of transition as well. From the accounts made by Jansen, one can see the power play, manipulations, and attempts to come up with effective policies. This writer believes that this was democracy taking place. True, the military acted on its own at times, however, from the Manchurian incident one can see that it was a result of long-time planning and negotiations by different individuals and different groups. Unlike a dictatorship, the officers acted as a separate entity. Thus, the Manchuria incident was also a result of democratization.
Mary Alice Haddad, p.xvi
Mark D. Roehrs and William . Renzi, World War II in the Pacific, p. 6.
Jansen p. 355
Janet Hunter, Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History, p.120
Sheldon Garon, in Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia, p.155
Rebecca Ramilo Ongsotto, Reena R. Ongsotto, Reynaldo Castillo Ramilo, Asian History Module-based learning, p.247
Sheldon Garon, p. 161
Jansen, Marius. Japan and China: From War to Peace 1894-1972. Chcago: Rand McNally College Publishing Company, 1975. pp. 354-408.
Roehrs, Mark d. and William A. Renzi. World War II in the Pacific. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 2004.