‘Taisho Democracy’ pays the ultimate price

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Party politics seems as natural to many of us today as government itself, but imagine how it looked to the uninitiated 150 years ago.

“A perplexing institution was representative government,” wrote Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), Japan’s great popularizer of Western civilization. In England in 1862 as part of an official delegation, Fukuzawa took in “the mother of parliaments,” and wrote: “I learned that there were different political parties — the Liberal and the Conservative — who were always ‘fighting’ against each other in the government.”

Strange “fighting” it must have seemed to a born samurai. The reformers of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) wanted no part of it. “The government must always take a fixed course,” said Prime Minister Kiyotaka Kuroda in 1889. “It must stand above and outside the political parties and cleave to the path of supreme fairness and justice.”

“At that time” — the mid-to-late 19th century — “we had not yet arrived at the stage of distinguishing clearly between political opposition and treason,” wrote Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister (1885-88) and prime minister three times thereafter.

The Meiji modernizers, all with samurai roots, were oligarchs to the marrow. A guided revolution was what they had in mind, with themselves as guides and the masses doing what they were told. Obedient masses need no representatives.

In the 1870s the oligarchy split over a plan to invade Korea. The peace faction prevailed — not that they were pacifists. Japan, they felt, had its hands full at home. War could wait.

Balked, the hawks took their case to the sensationalist popular press. The press rallied the impressionable masses. War fever raged. The first calls for representative institutions were an attempt by pro-war oligarchs to tap that popular belligerence. The lip service paid to Rousseau, Mill and the other household names of progressive philosophy was just that — lip service.

The English Parliament, with roots in the 13th century, preceded parties by hundreds of years. In Japan it was the reverse. Parties came first, parliament later. Japan’s first parties were the Jiyuto (Liberal Party), established in 1881, and the Kaishinto (Progressive Party), founded the following year. (As with the Liberal Democratic Party of our own day, the names cloak a most illiberal conservatism.) British historian Richard Storry (in “A History of Modern Japan,” 1960) wrote of them, “The two parties had little in common save the smallness of their numbers and their dislike of the government. They attacked each other with great bitterness, thus making it all the easier for the government to deal with them.”

“Dealing with them” meant in part setting the police on them. Partisan politics might never have got off the ground but for Ito, who saw the future more clearly than others and resolved to gain control of it. He successfully wooed the Jiyuto and turned it into his own instrument, renaming it the Rikken Seiyukai (Friends of Constitutional Government). Ito appears liberal compared to political rivals for whom parties were evil incarnate — but Ito’s authoritarian bent is plain in the Meiji Constitution of 1890, drafted under his supervision. It called for a bicameral legislature composed of an unelected House of Peers and a House of Representatives elected by substantial property owners only — a mere 1.9 percent of the population. The Cabinet was responsible not to the Diet but to the Emperor.

It’s not responsible government as we understand the term today, but with the infant political parties and the Constitution in place, the stage is set for “Taisho Democracy,” which Ito (1841-1909) did not live to see.

Hero, or at least emblem, of Japan’s nascent parliamentary democracy is Takashi Hara (1856-1921). He was born a samurai in the rural northeast, bastion of loyalty to the Tokugawa Shogunate deposed in 1867. Early in life he shook off his past, turning Christian at 17 and assuming commoner status two years later. In 1900 he joined Ito’s Seiyukai. He won election to the Diet in his native Iwate Prefecture and worked his way up. He served as Home Minister and Minister of Communications. By 1914 he was party president. When the 1918 rice riots (see accompanying story) forced the resignation of Prime Minister Masatake Terauchi, Hara was appointed his successor.

It was a historic occasion. Hara was Japan’s first-ever commoner prime minister — “the Great Commoner,” he was called — and its first-ever prime minister who was also an elected Diet member.

Critics point out that, all the same, he was no liberal. Storry writes of him, “He was not at all in favor of extending the franchise to the great mass of people. He deplored the prevalence of radical thought and viewed the labor movement with hostility.” Dutch-born scholar Ian Buruma (in “Inventing Japan,” 2003) describes him as “setting up a network of rich pork barrels: railways here, bridges, roads, and new factories there. Sweet deals and kickbacks made it worth the while of bureaucrats to be involved in Hara’s party machine. It worked, up to a point. But when Hara became prime minister, criticisms of official corruption met with harsh crackdowns. Special ‘thought police,’ established in 1911, went after writers and publishers of ‘dangerous’ books.”

Hara is remembered less for what he accomplished than for what he was — the symbol of a hope that even Buruma, not charitably inclined, acknowledges: “Still, in the early Taisho Era it looked as if parliamentary democracy might yet have a chance.”

Hara was stabbed to death by a rightwing railroad switchman in 1921. “Taisho democracy” survived him, but not by much. The Taisho Era ended with the death of Emperor Yoshihito on Christmas Day 1926. The global Great Depression of 1929 lay just ahead. In the deepening poverty that gripped the early Showa Period (1926-1989), people lost patience with the impotent squabbling and corrupt machinations of politicians and parties. Politicians were murdered in the streets and in their homes. Their day was done. The army’s was dawning — with consequences the world knows only too well.

And what if, instead of dying at 47, the mentally unstable and incapacitated Yoshihito had lived out his normal span? The Taisho Era might have carried on into the 1950s — ero-guro-nansensu and gradually maturing democracy instead of militarism, fascism, total war and national annihilation.