Japan’s Imperial Period: 1868–1945

Although parts of the domestic political system such as the class structure and tax collection had also become dysfunctional, the crisis caused by the unwanted incursion of American and European powers eventually was the primary reason the Tokugawa government fell. In 1868 a group of young samurai from two domains that had always grudgingly accepted the regime led a successful revolution. The new leaders immediately returned to a political tactic employed in medieval Japan. They communicated to the country that they were restoring imperial authority and moved a very cooperative young emperor from Kyoto to Edo. The years encompassed in his reign name Meiji, or ‘‘Enlightened Rule,’’ 1868 to 1912, mark the time that Japan became an international power. The Meiji emperor, although he did not wield direct political power, agreed with the leadership’s desire to modernize the country and quite competently fulfilled his function as a symbol of state authority.

Although far from an all-powerful, absolute ruler, the emperor exerted significant political influence through interactions with top political leaders.

Japan’s new political leaders managed to make revolutionary changes yet retain key elements of the political system that emerged during the Tokugawa era. The samurai bureaucracy was gradually changed to a systematic national bureaucracy in which positions were filled based on meritocratic educational performance. The bureaucratic functions of promoting public order and stability continued as well as the task of economic development within the framework of state supervision and freedom for private companies and entrepreneurs to operate. The Tokugawa political system had been authoritarian with an individual, the shogun, having disproportionate but certainly not exclusive power. Japanese governments during the imperial period were oligarchies in which a small group of powerful leaders made decisions. However, by the latter part of the 19th century, the adoption of the 1889 Constitution and the rise of party politics meant that even more consultation and negotiations between key political actors and representatives of special public and private interests occurred. The short- and long-term political objectives of the Tokugawa years were modified but certainly did not disappear.

Meiji political leaders were confronted with both foreign demands and the physical presence of Americans and Europeans. The biggest threat to the Japanese was complete loss of their national sovereignty since Japan’s military capability was much weaker than the more technologically advanced foreigners. Even before the Meiji years, Japan had suffered national humiliations at the hands of foreigners. In the 1850s, Japan was forced to open ports for trade and lost the right to try European or American nationals accused of crimes while in Japan. In 1866 tariff negotiations, foreigners imposed a forced uniform tariff ceiling of 5 percent of the declared value of imported foreign products on Japan. The Japanese even lost the right to charge foreign ships for entering and leaving Japanese ports.

The Meiji leaders realized that the only ways to prevent foreign control in an age of imperialism was to build a strong economy and a strong military. As discussed in more detail in the history chapter, the new government in the 1860s and 1870s sent missions to scour the developed world for practical information that could speed economic, military, and political modernization. Between 1868 and 1902, more than 11,000 passports were issued for foreign study. The 1871–1873 Iwakura mission visited 12 countries and met with high officials. Japan was opened to foreign teachers, ideas, and visiting leaders. In the summer of 1879, former U.S. President Grant visited Japan for several weeks and provided extensive advice to the attentive political leadership. Japan’s ruling oligarchs, armed with the latest technology but focusing on dominant political values of the past, used a combination of political leadership and the power of market incentives to make rapid progress toward a manufacturing economy. They also relied heavily on British and German knowledge to build an increasingly strong navy and army.

In order to achieve economic and military modernization, Meiji leaders instigated a wide variety of administrative, economic, and social changes as soon as possible. The domains were abolished, and prefectures, which are roughly similar to American states or British counties, were established with efficient taxation systems. Japan’s Neo-Confucian class system was abolished although former samurai, because of their educations, continued to dominate bureaucratic and political leadership positions for several decades.

Before the Meiji years, common Japanese had no particular sense of patriotism and nationalism. The Japanese political leadership realized the importance of inculcating these beliefs in the general population and used religion and education to promote these values. The government organized the nation’s Shinto shrines, accentuated the beliefs of one particular cult that linked the emperor to legendary Japanese gods, and gave Shintoism special favor relative to Buddhism. A national public school system with elite and common tracks was created and compulsory elementary education made mandatory. The government used the schools to promote nationalistic ideology. Education Minister Mori Arinori, who believed in physical as well as mental training, also linked the army to Japanese schools by involving noncommissioned officers in physical training. By 1890, political leaders had forged an ideology that combined Western modernization with Japanese nationalism.

The 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, Japan’s seminal educational document until 1945, promoted the pursuit of learning and loyalty to parents, both Confucian traditions, while associating these behaviors with Japanese beliefs. The same document also specifically encouraged absolute loyalty to the emperor. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Meiji leaders exhibited impressive political pragmatism in the face of a broad influx of foreign ideas. Nascent political parties emerged whose proponents advocated Western-style rights and political representation for various constituencies. Ito Hirobumi and others who were responsible for Asia’s first Western-style constitution managed to partially co-opt several of these movements yet maintain oligarchic control by creating a plan of government. The 1889 Constitution, while allowing limited suffrage in the case of the lower house of the bicameral imperial legislature, or Diet, affirmed the notion of the monarchy as the apex of the political system. Ito and other Meiji oligarchs were essentially conservatives and monarchists, but they were also pragmatic. The Constitution they designed allowed affluent male taxpayers to vote for the lower House of Representatives. This provision was included in part to placate a growing people’s rights movement in Japan.

When Japan’s leaders were studying constitutions, the American and British versions were rejected as too liberal and prone to promoting societal disorder. The German Constitution instead was used as a model. Ito had studied in Germany and was influenced by that country’s recent unification and by the role of the German emperor in relationship to the national government. Although, as discussed in the history chapter, the Diet had powers, the Meiji oligarchs constituted the cabinet, and they were responsible to the emperor and not the legislature. Eventually, during the imperial period, party governments became the norm as the Meiji leaders died, but cabinets were still theoretically responsible to the throne and not to the Diet. The 1889 Constitution was advantageous to the political leadership in three ways: It was partially the result of negotiation and compromise, it achieved the oligarchs’ goal of order, and it increased Japan’s reputation among European and Western nations.

Meiji leaders gained even more international respect in a time of social Darwinism and colonialism through the accomplishments of their military forces, first by establishing Japan as the dominant East Asian power through victory over China in the 1894–1895 Sino-Japanese War and then astounding the world by defeating imperial Russia in 1905. By the emperor’s death in 1912 and the end of the Meiji period, Japan was an imperial power with Taiwan and Korea as colonies, had achieved success at economic modernization, successfully reestablished national sovereignty by peacefully negotiating an end to Western-imposed treaties, and created a more intellectually diverse society than existed during the Tokugawa years. In less than 50 years, Japan’s political leadership had shown remarkable adaptability and flexibility in the face of a changing world.

However, new problems emerged and, coupled with intended and unintended consequences of the 1889 Constitution, they eventually caused the political system to break down. These constitutionally unresolved questions included who was responsible for executive decision making, the role of the emperor in actual governance, and the ambiguity about the separation of military and civil authority. Also, by the beginning of the 20th century Japanese leaders had a resources problem that is still a major political and economic issue today; the nation is not self-sufficient in either food or energy. Although Western countries respected the Japanese, they were wary of the emergence of a new Asian power.

The Taisho emperor’s reign was short (1912–1926), and he had, unlike his predecessor, no influence on government. Japan economically benefited from World War I, and the 1920s were a time of urban economic growth and an apparently diverse political and intellectual environment characterized by rival political parties, socialists, Marxists, a women’s movement, and an ultimately successful drive for universal male suffrage. However, Japanese political leaders were sharply divided into internationalist pro-Western and more conservative and traditional factions. Rural areas experienced hard times, and flaws in the political system that was crafted between the late 1860s and 1890 made the situation worse.

As described in the previous chapter, internationalists lost the important political battles to traditionalists partially because of European and American discrimination toward Japan and Japanese. Elements of the public—particularly hard-pressed rural residents, whose income declined on average by more than half between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, and an increasingly aggressive military—were scornful of corrupt politicians. The 1889 Constitution had not effectively separated military from civilian leadership since the former could serve in the cabinet. Theoretically, the emperor was the final source of authority, but in practice this was rarely the case. Also, partially because of Japan’s group-oriented culture and partially due to the 1889 Constitution, executive responsibility was not clearly assigned. Between 1885 and 1934, there were 43 different cabinets headed by 30 different prime ministers, of whom more than half were military figures (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet n.d.). The 1920s witnessed several high-profile assassinations of civilian politicians, and the military increasingly gained support from the Japanese people by tightening domestic controls on dissidents. The new Showa emperor, who ascended the throne in 1926, probably had almost as little power over political leaders as his predecessor, although his level of influence is a subject of some scholarly dispute. Most historians believe that the emperor was, for the most part, a figurehead. However, 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner Herbert P. Bix made a strong case that while the emperor did not rule, his support of or opposition to certain factions could influence public policy decisions.

In 1931, military leaders who desired increased energy and food resources as well as a buffer zone against communist Russia took over Manchuria and established a puppet government while civilian politicians and the emperor stood by helplessly. In 1937, the Japanese army provoked a war with China. By this time, European powers and the United States, already concerned about Japanese aggression, condemned Japan for the China war and for its 1940 Axis power treaty formulated with Nazi Germany and Italy. In 1941, the Japanese military entered Indochina to secure needed vital resources, and the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands ceased exporting oil to Japan. The Japanese retaliated by bombing Pearl Harbor, made the China war part of a world war, and suffered in 1945 a calamitous defeat at the hands of the Allies that devastated the country.

Despite unprecedented government repression of dissidents relative to earlier times in the Imperial period, and even during World War II and immediately afterward, some elements of the political system that began in the Tokugawa period remained or were strengthened. Japan never had a totalitarian government such as was the case in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Political parties were dissolved in 1940, and then Prime Minister Konoe created a new organization for national unity, the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA). However, in the 1942 Diet elections, IRAA candidates could manage to win only two-thirds of the seats. As had been the case since the Tokugawa years, some latitude was allowed for negotiations and differing opinions. Also, due to wartime mobilization, bureaucrats gained even more power to manage important portions of the economy during World War II than they exercised during earlier periods. Much of this power would be retained for many years after the war’s end, and economic bureaucrats, although weakened relative to the 20th century, still remain an important part of Japanese politics today. The imperial system also survived the war and the democratic transformation of Japan.