Japanese voters are frustrated because even if they throw the bums out of office, they know the opposition is much the same. These days money is the root of political scandals and influence buying, but here we examine how violence became institutionalized in Japan’s politics from the first parliamentary elections in 1890 with devastating consequences for democracy.

Eiko Siniawer evokes the tensions between violence and democracy, and the messy entanglements that ensued. This is a gripping tale because she tells fascinating stories about the colorful violence specialists and their way of politics. In the late 19th century, these menacing “activists” swaggered about on tall wooden sandals, thumping stick in hand. Disrupting political gatherings was a matter of course and after cracking some heads, and otherwise intimidating voters and politicians, these ruffians enjoyed their carousing. They had their own codes of conduct and it was sporting for gangs to allow rivals to at least briefly disrupt meetings that they were assigned to protect so that the intruders could collect their fees. Parties openly wielded their thugs, concentrating on the mere 1 percent of the population — male and relatively wealthy — that enjoyed the right to vote. It was only later when the suffrage was expanded that it made more sense to bribe than beat voters.

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