It was all about the Western Front by September 1918, as British, French, Belgian and US forces drove German defenders back beyond the Hindenburg Line, recapturing small villages and landmarks that had become dark icons for the carnage of the previous four years. Under the circumstances, no surprise that the Western press paid precious little attention to the appointment of a new Japanese prime minister on 29 September 1918, or that today’s Western heritage industry shows no sings of commemorating Hara Takashi’s arrival in office. Understandable enough, and anyway it’s not as if Japan’s political future made much difference to the rest of us… oh, wait.
Most of my references to the Land of the Rising Sun during the last four years have concerned Japan’s aggressive territorial and economic expansionism on the back of its alliance with Britain, and by extension the Entente powers (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger). Japan’s expansionism during the First World War, particularly in its relations with China, clearly foreshadowed and in many ways shaped the country’s aggressive imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Most historians with any interest in the Great War beyond the French trenches regard Japan’s peripheral participation in the conflict as a learning experience, a rehearsal for future conquests, but you don’t hear much about Japan itself, about what turned the place into such an untamed tiger. It would take a book to do that subject any kind of justice, and it wouldn’t be my book, but at the risk of annoying proper scholars here’s a skeleton outline.
Japan’s storming industrial, economic and military progress through the late nineteenth century had produced a nationalist culture that had a lot in common with contemporary Germany. An authoritarian monarchy presided over a regime that had no time for popular politics. Wealth and political power were controlled by aristocrats, industrial oligarchs and a highly influential military elite, while the country’s large population remained essentially powerless, kept quiet with bread and circuses, the latter in the forms of imperial pageant, quasi-religious social codes and nationalist triumphalism. As in Germany, these circumstances generated enormous pressure for territorial and economic expansionism, as ruling elites sought to provide resources and challenges that would keep the fast-rising population away from the revolutionary politics of discontent, and open avenues for further growth of their own mushrooming military and industrial enterprises.
Let’s not go too far with the German analogy. Japan wasn’t a new country, and its militaristic, authoritarian character was rooted in martial traditions that had been central to social behaviour and development for centuries. It wasn’t burdened with a bipolar, autocratic man-child for a monarch, or with a population educated in the ideas and ambitions of mass politics, and it had no reason to fear imminent invasion by powerful neighbours or revolution. And while the horrific catastrophe of the First World War forced Germany’s ruling elites into the shadows, unleashing a storm of socio-political chaos that shaped Germany’s destiny for decades to come, Japan’s far more positive payoff from the same conflict merely provided its rulers with the money, expertise and confidence to go right on planning their imperial futures.
Army and naval influence in Japanese politics had been on a roll since the early twentieth century, boosted by the prestige attached to a military alliance with Great Britain in 1902 and, above all, to a comprehensive victory over Russia during the war of 1904–05. After a brief backlash during the short-lived Katsura administration of 1912–13, the military had recaptured control of key ministries with the appointment of Marquis Okuma Shigenobu as Prime Minister in April 1914. Okuma lasted until October 1916, when a hostile genro (senate) engineered his resignation in favour of the more aggressively expansionist General Terauchi Masatake, giving the military-industrial complex licence for unfettered pursuit of its territorial ambitions.
While military strategists focused on expansion into Manchuria and (after Russia’s October Revolution) Siberia, the global economic shifts created by world war were changing Japan from the inside. Sky-high transportation costs (and risks) reduced trade with Europe, but business with the USA and China multiplied and new markets opened up, especially for textiles and other manufactured goods in India and Australia. Diversification of output brought a lightning increase in Japan’s factory workforce – from 1.2 million in 1914 to 2 million in 1918 – but the country’s labour surplus meant that industrial wages remained relatively low and the only real winners were factory owners, while agricultural wages climbed even more slowly.
Japan wasn’t spared the curse of overheated wartime economies everywhere, and rapid inflation – with rice prices jumping by 400 percent during the conflict – combined with low wages to spark civil disturbance. Rural food riots broke out in July 1918, becoming steadily more serious until by September they were affecting thirty provinces. The ‘Rice Riots’ – which also involved industrial strikes, armed clashes, and bomb attacks on government buildings – remain the most violent and widespread civil disorders in modern Japanese history, and failure to keep the peace was the final straw for Matasake. Already coming under attack in the genro for its apparently uncertain handling of Japan’s Siberian adventure (12 January, 1918: Port in a Storm, Pt.1), his cabinet was forced to resign on 29 September.
The new prime minister, Hara Takashi, appeared at first glance to be something new in Japanese politics. He was the first commoner to hold the office and the first Christian, and this was the first time the elected leader of the country’s biggest political party had actually been given the job. He was no friend to the military, which generally regarded him as a despicable upstart, and could talk the talk when it came to liberal reform of economy and constitution. But although his government did seek to maintain good diplomatic relations with other world powers, and tried to maintain a broadly conciliatory attitude towards colonial populations in Korea and Taiwan, it was never willing or able to restrain military ambition, and definitely failed to walk the walk when it came to reform. Instead, demands for representation by rioters and workers were met with simple repression, and order was restored with a wave of more than 20,000 arrests and a (disputed) number of executions.
The Takasho administration never escaped the uninhabitable middle ground of Japanese politics. It was still considered too liberal by the military and regarded as its tool by would-be reformers when Takasho’s assassination by a lone right-wing malcontent brought its fall in November 1921, after which aristocrats and soldiers held the premiership for two decades. Its achievements are generally dismissed as negligible in the greater scheme of things, and from a reformist perspective there’s no arguing with that assessment, but its negative impact on the wider picture shouldn’t be ignored.
The Takasho regime’s ruthless burial of popular discontent in 1918 enabled Japan’s military-industrial complex to motor serenely into the post-War era. Well on the way to establishing complete control over the Manchurian economy, firmly established as world power to be reckoned with and laden with cash from wartime trading surpluses, the oligarchs, the army and the navy could proceed with their expansion plans untroubled by any real need to address the issues raised by popular politics. Thanks in no small part to Takasho’s diplomatic efforts, they were also free from any real fear of interference by other world powers.
In a geopolitical environment shaped by condemnation of military-industrial expansionism, but fixated on the political instabilities of European populations, its society’s superficial calm helped Japan look like part of the solution rather than the problem. Although the excess cash was destined to evaporate during a depression in the early 1920s, and military attacks on China would raise occasional squawks of disapproval from the Western powers, Japan’s acceptance into the supposedly pacifist world of post-War diplomacy would not be seriously challenged until long after its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. Bit of a mistake really, and one that seems worth remembering…