When Fumio Kishida became Japan’s 100th prime minister in October, he had something in common with many postwar Japanese leaders, but little with one who was assassinated a century ago.

In addition to being a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled almost continuously since its formation in 1955, Kishida’s father and grandfather are among a long line of political relatives, leading commentators to ponder the wisdom of a nation seemingly obsessed with political dynasties.

“The Japanese are surprisingly fond of hereditary succession,” says political analyst Atsuo Ito during a radio interview, adding that one-third of the LDP’s candidates in the October Lower House elections were hereditary legislators, compared to around 5% in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Furthermore, all but three of the 13 prime ministers that have taken the helm since Tomiichi Murayama stepped down in 1996 have been dynastic leaders, Ito says.

Centuries of feudalism and the kazoku hereditary peerage system that followed it after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, may explain this predilection, but recent studies suggest succession did not sit well with Japan’s 10th prime minister, Takashi Hara — the “commoner prime minister” whose gradualistic approach and faction-hating, peace-loving global vision arguably cost him his life 100 years ago.

Prime Minister Takashi Hara in court uniform as he takes office in 1918 | COURTESY OF THE HARA KEI MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Prime Minister Takashi Hara in court uniform as he takes office in 1918 | COURTESY OF THE HARA KEI MEMORIAL MUSEUM

Named Kenjiro at birth in 1856, Hara hailed from the village of Motomiya, part of present-day Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. His ancestors had experienced mixed fortunes, at one time serving the powerful Nanbu clan, before being reduced to penury for dissent in 1703.

Successive generations strove to regain the clan’s trust by developing new rice fields and irrigation systems, leading to his grandfather’s appointment as karo-kaku (pseudo-chief retainer) for a clan-related nobleman.

His father, Naoji, died when Hara was a boy, meaning he and his six siblings were raised by his mother, Ritsu, who had a significant influence on his values and ideals, says Yukio Ito, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University who has researched Hara for more than 40 years.

A precocious child, Hara’s early education took him from a temple-run school to a scholarship at the Sakujinkan, an academy formerly operated by the Nanbu clan that sided with the Tokugawa shogunate during the Boshin War (1868-69).

Defeat in that civil conflict ruined the clan and its allies, forcing Ritsu to sell off a family storehouse to contribute to reparations imposed by the Meiji government and enable Hara to continue his education, Ito says.

Determined for the 15-year-old Hara to broaden his horizons, Ritsu sent him to Tokyo, where he attended various institutes, including one where he studied English.

Funds soon ran out and he moved again, first to Yokohama, then Niigata, to study French under the strict but even-handed guidance of Felix Evrard, a French missionary who, Ito says, greatly shaped Hara’s thinking.

“Despite financial hardships, Hara progressed in his studies because of his diligence and the good people he met,” says Ito, author of 2020’s “The Truth About Takashi Hara, the Prime Minister who Transcended the Restoration.”

“‘Honesty and diligence’ and ‘live life for others,’ were mottos he acquired from an early age,” Ito says.

Kyoto University professor emeritus Yukio Ito has written several books on former Prime Minister Takashi Hara, whom he first researched as a graduate student more than 40 years ago. | ROB GILHOOLY
Kyoto University professor emeritus Yukio Ito has written several books on former Prime Minister Takashi Hara, whom he first researched as a graduate student more than 40 years ago. | ROB GILHOOLY

In keeping with those principles, he renounced his clan ties, electing instead to become a commoner. He also changed his name to Takashi, though he was informally called “Kei” — another reading of the Chinese character for his name.

At age 20, he entered the law school within the Justice Ministry through a scholarship system that aimed to educate and recruit the most talented, and often impoverished, youth from Japan’s rural areas.

However, during his third year he was expelled following a student uprising and banned from future employment at state-run institutions — harsh punishment for someone who had merely been trying to negotiate the reinstatement of those involved in the revolt, says Akira Yamauchi, director of the Hara Kei Memorial Museum in Morioka.

He subsequently enrolled at a French-language school run by Chomin Nakae, a journalist and political theorist who popularized French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s egalitarian teachings in Japan and was central to the spread of liberalism in politics.

Inspired by Nakae, Hara started to write newspaper columns, leading to two spells in the media. During the latter, he became editor-in-chief and then president of the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. One series he wrote under the pen name detarame-kisha (“gonzo reporter”), explored Japanese manners and attitudes, advising readers in the preamble not to “stubbornly hold on to old customs” and to embrace foreign nationals.

“I think he chose the pen name because rather than preaching, he posed questions,” says Yamauchi. “He discussed old customs and practices… and asked readers if they thought it might not be better to reconsider them.”

His ruminations on Japan’s writing system also resulted in the reduction of Chinese characters in print media, making it more accessible to a broader readership.

According to one report, this and other pioneering modifications, including the employment of female stenographers and creation of an international communications network, more than doubled the circulation of his paper in eight months.

Between media stints, Hara’s political career began to take shape, his bureaucratic acumen and French capabilities landing him a place at the Foreign Ministry, where he was soon sent to Paris on the first of several diplomatic assignments.

Takashi Hara speaks to Rikken Seiyukai party delegates in Tokyo circa 1914. | COURTESY OF THE HARA KEI MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Takashi Hara speaks to Rikken Seiyukai party delegates in Tokyo circa 1914. | COURTESY OF THE HARA KEI MEMORIAL MUSEUM

Gradually, he rose through the ranks of the Rikken Seiyukai party, which was established in 1900 by Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito. After being elected to the Lower House, Hara served for seven years as interior minister, during which he visited Europe and the United States, trips that also shed light on his personality, Kyoto University’s Ito says.

“He barely saw any political leaders, but visited factories and mines, meeting workers and industrial leaders, which shows something else about his uniqueness,” Ito says.

Inspired by this experience, Hara made a perceptive entry in his diary, Ito adds. “In 1908, several years before the outbreak of World War I, he predicted that the U.S. would become world leader,” he says. “Of all the politicians, Hara was the one who grasped that Britain’s influence was waning and the U.S. was in the ascendency.”

Ito says Hara was seen as leadership material even during the early days of the Seiyukai, but a tendency persisted for those at the top of the political tree to be unelected statesmen from the Choshu and Satsuma domains — the architects of the Meiji Restoration — or those with inherited titles.

Indeed, Hara’s road to becoming prime minister could have been smoother, as his interior minister experience and other positions could have landed him a peerage, according to Ito. “But he resolutely was against that — he wanted to become prime minister under his own steam.”

Hara “foresaw the end of an era,” and the succession system he despised, was approaching, and felt it was up to him to accelerate that change, strengthening party politics from within as an elected lawmaker, he adds.

It was far from straightforward, and even as Japan entered the Taisho Era (1912-26), when the atmosphere was more conducive to a civilian leader, Hara’s progress was scuppered, first by the 1914 Siemens Scandal — a corrupt arms deal that led to the downfall of Gonbe Yamamoto’s Cabinet — and Hara’s objections to Japan’s participation in World War I and the Siberian intervention that followed, says Yuichiro Shimizu, a professor of politics and history at Keio University.

After victories in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), which boosted Japan’s territory, coffers and international clout, the Japanese people had grown accustomed to the gains from war, says Shimizu, adding this was exploited by other leaders championing Japan’s participation in the impending World War I.

“Hara believed this wasn’t the time for Japan to poke its nose into what was a European war, but rather to develop domestic industry and nurture citizens’ thinking,” Shimizu says. “War inevitably brings about huge social change, so he thought Japan should prepare for that.”

Hara’s eventual decision to back down on Siberia was a “huge mistake,” Shimizu says, though continuing to object would have hurt his leadership ambitions and any chance to implement meaningful change. “Politically, it was correct, but in terms of long-term foreign diplomacy, it’s difficult to give a positive evaluation.”

In September 1918, Hara became leader of Japan’s first full-fledged party Cabinet, consisting almost entirely of elected Diet members, rather than unelected statesmen. He was Japan’s first citizen prime minister, its first from Tohoku and its first Christian leader, having been baptized by Evrard as a teenager.

According to Shimizu, his elevation was largely due to widespread public unrest, originating in Japan’s wartime export boom, which led to severe domestic shortages — including on rice, which was sent to troops in Siberia — and escalating inflation, culminating in the 1918 Rice Riots.

“Hara was… connected to the people and in such turbulent times, he was seen as the right choice,” says Shimizu, author of “Hara Kei: Misconceptions and Realities of the ‘Commoner Leader,’”published in September. “His various experiences, as a diplomat, journalist and businessman, and someone who knew the bitter taste of defeat in war and had confronted many other hurdles along life’s road, gave him a wide-reaching understanding.”

Keio University politics and history professor Yuichiro Shimizu says Prime Minister Takashi Hara actively engaged with foreign media during his tenure to relay the message that Japan “believed in coexistence and co-prosperity” with other nations, including China. | ROB GILHOOLY
Keio University politics and history professor Yuichiro Shimizu says Prime Minister Takashi Hara actively engaged with foreign media during his tenure to relay the message that Japan “believed in coexistence and co-prosperity” with other nations, including China. | ROB GILHOOLY

Hara’s pacifist vision aligned with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” the January 1918 proposal to bring about world peace once the war ended, Ito says.

“Hara wrote in his diary that he was a Wilson sympathizer and agreed with Wilson’s internationalist views and quest for lasting peace,” Ito says.

Convincing others proved challenging. Back home, he urged citizens to accept “the new order of things” where “all countries… maintain harmony and cooperation with each other.” But overseas, efforts to gain recognition for the modernization Japan had already achieved and secure a bigger role in Wilson’s global community were rejected by the entente powers, who in an effort to stick to the imperialistic “old order,” objected to Hara’s request during the Paris Peace Conference for territory concessions and racial equality.

There were also concerns about Japan’s extended presence in Siberia, seen as a symbol of expansionist intent. Hara’s attempt to engage with the Paris Peace Conference and becoming a founding member of the League of Nations were partly to allay those fears and demonstrate a commitment to the wider goal of peace and global collaboration, says Shimizu, adding that Crown Prince Hirohito’s visit to Britain and Europe the following year served a similar purpose.

“When Hara became prime minister, there were high hopes internationally that Japan would somehow come onboard,” says Shimizu, adding Hara actively engaged with foreign media during his tenure to relay the message that Japan “believed in coexistence and co-prosperity” with other nations, including China.

However, in addition to being snubbed in Europe, his internationalist sympathies received a mixed reception back home, where inflation remained high and poverty levels were rising. Furthermore, Hara had made noises to suggest he was against enfranchisement and this — plus the furor whipped up by ultranationalists unhappy with the imperial visit to Europe — lead some to question if “Hara had forgotten his own standpoint and was now working not for the people, but those in power,” Shimizu says.

On Nov. 4, 1921, as Hara headed to a party conference in Kyoto, he was stabbed to death outside Tokyo Station by railroad worker Konichi Nakaoka, who court records reveal had earlier made a rant to his manager blaming Hara for Japan’s societal problems.

“At the time, a view was put forward of ultranationalist involvement, and there are small references to this in court records, but little else is known,” Shimizu says.

Takashi Hara, who eventually became known as the
Takashi Hara, who eventually became known as the “commoner prime minister,” visits Kamo Port in Yamagata Prefecture in 1917 when he was 61. | COURTESY OF THE HARA KEI MEMORIAL MUSEUM

Criticism of Hara continued even throughout the years of Japan’s post-World War II economic growth, when he became a scapegoat for many LDP shortcomings, Ito says.

His efforts to improve infrastructure, such as by building a nationwide railroad system that chugged its way toward insolvency as the country’s auto industry took off, were viewed by critics as the root of the LDP’s pork-barrel politics, he adds.

He was particularly lambasted for his objections to suffrage, though entries in his diaries and other documents unearthed from a Morioka storehouse in the 1980s suggest that criticism was unfounded, Ito says.

“He favored the gradualistic approach, like the one taken by Britain,” he says, with reference to Britain’s five-stage route to enfranchisement over a 100-year period, adding he demonstrated this intent by doubling the number of voters during the first year of his tenure.

Shimizu agrees, saying that while the opposition was pushing for men’s voting rights, Hara was already looking into universal suffrage.

“Until that point, the Japanese had only known the fruits of war, and Hara thought it would be too easy for them if they attained the same rights that had been afforded those in Europe who’d suffered so terribly (from war),” Shimizu says. “He worried what would happen if Japan didn’t nurture public understanding first.”

Ito is among many experts who believe such a mature and measured approach could have benefited countless leaders over the century since his death. Many of Japan’s problems — from its World War II forays to the more recent muddled response to the coronavirus pandemic — would have been handled very differently had Hara been at the helm, he says.

Hara’s great-granddaughter, Chizuko Iwaya, agrees, saying his humility and views on individual choice over succession were other admirable qualities.

“He was very altruistic and didn’t expect anything in return for what he did,” said Iwaya, whose father unearthed the Hara-penned documents from the Morioka storehouse after winning a court case that returned a stolen key to the family.

“He also believed in individual freedom to choose one’s own destiny and I hope people will learn from his spirit of confronting every challenge he faced.

“Having seen all the research activities and the efforts in Morioka and elsewhere to preserve his memory, it makes me think he must have been the greatest prime minister.”

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