In the summer of 1918, “rice riots” swept the country. They began in a fishing village on the Sea of Japan in remote Toyama Prefecture. By September, some 2 million people in hundreds of municipalities had taken to the streets. They looted, bombed, demonstrated, struck.

The immediate cause was wartime inflation, especially the soaring price of rice. Rural and urban alike, the poor reeled. In the cities, factory hands toiled long hours for low pay under slave-like conditions. Industrialization comes at a cost and they were paying it. “The most violent strikes in Japanese history occurred in this period,” writes American historian Herbert Bix (in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” 2000).

The Russian Revolution was in full swing. Authorities were alarmed. Was Japan going Bolshevik? Some 25,000 “rice rioters” were arrested. Suspected ringleaders were hanged. The liberal newspaper Toyo Keizai Shimpo editorialized in disgust, “Unfortunately the political process in our country works effectively only for the property-owning minority. … In one sense it is possible to say that those without property have no government at all.”

Prime Minister Masatake Terauchi resigned to take responsibility for the breakdown of order. His successor, Takashi Hara, was Japan’s first “commoner” prime minister — the first also to come from the ranks of elected Diet members. With him, “Taisho Democracy” begins.

“Taisho Democracy” is what the era bequeathed to the future, but at the time it must have seemed a secondary current, perhaps little more than a sideshow. Parliamentary democracy was not the main issue in 1918. The most urgent demands of the masses were lower prices and a fairer distribution of wealth, not voting rights.

The leading thinkers of the day were revolutionary, not parliamentary. The authorities were not parliamentary either. The battle for Japan’s soul was fought between revolutionaries and authoritarians. The authoritarians yielded briefly to the parliamentarians but won in the end, the nation suffering in consequence a precipitous descent into militarism, total war and temporary annihilation.

What a revolution would have wrought in the 1920s we will never know. An apocalypse, perhaps. “We must topple the despot,” said Bunji Suzuki, founder of the Yuaikai labor federation, in 1919. By “despot” he meant not one particular villain but the state of civilization as it then was.

Yuaikai was symbolic of one tidal movement of the time: unionization. In 1914 there had been 49 labor organizations nationwide. By 1919 there were 187, with a total membership of 100,000.

The Yuaikai soon split between Marxist-Leninists and anarcho-syndicalists, the latter favoring spontaneous “direct action” and deploring the former’s insistence on an orchestrating, not to say dictatorial, vanguard. “Anarcho-syndicalists,” wrote historians Peter Duus and Irwin Scheiner (in “The Cambridge History of Japan,” 1988), “had a vision of a secular millennium; they sought a future in which workers autonomously united to govern themselves in small communities. Workers needed neither a party nor an ideology.”

Leading the anarchist cause was the charismatic Sakae Osugi (1885-1923). His ideal was “clean-slatism” — starting over from scratch. Destroying evil, in his view, could not be evil, and dog-eat-dog capitalism, he thought, had rendered the civilization of his time irredeemably evil. Students and laborers flocked to his standard. Duus and Scheiner quote one of his disciples among the factory workers: “We will lose our families … we will lose our human pleasure. We will live only by a revolutionary resistance toward capitalism.”

This is what the authorities meant by “dangerous thoughts” — their catch-all phrase for that against which civilization must, at all cost and by whatever means, defend itself. Historian Michael Lawrence Lewis (in “Rioters and Citizens,” 1990), cites an exchange of letters between Aritomo Yamagata, the leading arch-conservative politician of the day, and journalist-historian Tokutomi Soho. In February 1920 Yamagata wrote, “I am constantly and greatly apprehensive that in the midst of the present difficulties in society caused by high prices. … these conditions will ferment chaos from dangerous thoughts.”

Soho’s reply: “The rise in prices and the importation of anarchism fan each other and will give rise to a major social revolution. … You cannot imagine how much the thinking and the ideals of the young today are confused.”

The indications are, in fact, that Yamagata could imagine only too well.

The Taisho Era saw a great female awakening. Throughout Japanese history women had figured as subordinate beings — courtesans, prostitutes, servant-wives, military pawns. No more of that. The clarion call of women’s liberation was sounded by Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971), founding editor of the women’s literary magazine Seito (Blue-Stocking). “In the beginning,” she wrote in its first issue in 1911, “woman was the sun. She was a genuine being. Now woman is the moon. She lives through others and glitters through the mastery of others. She has a pallor like that of the ill. Now we must restore our hidden sun.”

“I have such an antipathy towards the institution of marriage,” she wrote, “I cannot even bear the names husband and wife.”

That tide flowed into numerous channels. One was “Naomi-ism” (see main story). Another was birth control — in 1921, Baroness Shizue Kato, a friend of American birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, cofounded the Birth Control League of Japan, which ran a fertility research institute and published a magazine titled Small Family. In 1922 the league invited Sanger to lecture in Japan. The government’s initial refusal to grant her a visa provoked such a clamor that it backtracked. Public opinion was counting more and more in public life.

A third channel was unabashed, proud lesbianism, and the fact that its leading exponent, novelist Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973) was the bestselling author of her day suggests that it was an idea whose time had come, whatever ups and downs it has encountered since.

On Sept. 16, 1923, with Tokyo still reeling from the Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, “clean-slatist” Osugi, his 6-year-old nephew and his lover, fellow anarchist Noe Ito, were arrested and beaten to death by police. The officer in charge was sentenced to 10 years and served three. Osugi’s death sealed the fate of the anarchists. Their influence had been waning in any case. The revolutionary future was to belong to the Marxists, and a tortured, ultimately aborted future it turned out to be. The Peace Preservation Act of May 1925 saw to that, decreeing up to 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone forming or joining “an association for altering the kokutai (the political status quo) or the system of private property” — and what could happen in prison Osugi’s fate showed clearly enough.

“Dangerous thoughts” begot dangerous measures — at any rate illiberal ones. The Peace Preservation Law pointed the way to the militarism to come. And yet the same government that passed it had passed, two months earlier, the Universal Manhood Suffrage Act, at a stroke increasing the electorate from 3.3 million to 12.5 million. Where was Japan headed? We know now. But nobody knew then.

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