The Taisho Era took place between July 30, 1912 and December 25, 1926. Sandwiched between the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912), and the long-running, militaristic and prosperous Showa Era (1926-1989), the Taisho Era can be mistaken for a quiet interlude.
But make no mistake–the political and cultural changes made between 1912 and 1926 served as major foundations for Japan’s framework today. While Emperor Meiji’s power was reclaimed from the shogunate, Emperor Taisho’s power shifted to the Parliament–the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy.
On top of that, this was the only time in modern Japan where the concept of democracy and progressive thought was popularized. Granted, this was not peaceful–we’ll explore moments of civil unrest later in the piece. Nevertheless, the power shift from the genro, or elder statesmen who played a huge role in the Meiji Restoration; to democracy is still very much notable.
But before anything, it’s important to discuss the major motivation behind the development of the Taisho Democracy.
1. Emperor Taisho Was Chronically Ill
As you can see from the dates, Emperor Taisho, born Yoshihito, only reigned for 14 years. And before the likes of Emperor Emeritus Akihito, one remained on the throne until death. So why was the era in itself so short?
A lot of it had to do with his poor health.
Three weeks after he was born on August 31, 1879, Yoshihito contracted cerebral meningitis, which is the inflammation of the brain’s membrane. While he survived his bout with the disease, it left him adverse effects, mainly brain damage and frequent fevers. This would affect him throughout the remainder of his life.
When he ascended the Imperial throne in 1912 at the age of 33, Emperor Taisho’s maladies became more conspicuous. They had even begun to affect his mental health. This gave rise to the unverified but pervasive legend of the Spyglass Incident in 1913. In this alleged incident, Taisho, while meeting with the Diet, peered through a rolled-up document like a spyglass, which bewildered the other attendees.
Even though the validity of the Spyglass Incident cannot be verified to this day, the fact that this legend persists well over a century later–and in many biographies nonetheless–shows the deep public concern surrounding Emperor Taisho’s ability to rule, especially during World War I. Unfortunately, after the war ended in 1918…
2. Rice Riots Occurred in 1918
As a result of Japanese troops being sent off to Siberia, rice merchants and land owners invested heavily in rice, which caused prices of the cherished crop to skyrocket. It didn’t help that, at the same time, there was still a smattering of rural poverty, thanks to economic inflation. So, on July 23, 1918, the first rice riot broke out in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture.
Women played a huge role in the riots, as they were the main organizers of the protests. They led boycotts, sit-ins, and even attempted to stop the export of grain, as many of them worked as dockworkers. These protests lasted for days, and involved as many as 2,000 participants.
Eventually, as news of the riots in Toyama spread throughout the country, so did the riots themselves. By the time they reached Nagoya on August 12th, 50,000 protesters gathered at Tsurumi Park, then marched to Komeya-Cho, where the rice merchants were headquartered. On the way there, they smashed shop windows and police boxes. The police–without permission from their superiors–engaged in street fights with the protestors, which escalated the violence.
By the end of the summer, 22,000 people nationwide had been arrested for their participation in the riots.
3. The Imperial Diet Was Strengthened
This was when the aforementioned “Taisho Democracy” was on the rise. That phrase originated from Dr. Yoshino Sakuzo, a professor of law and politics. After returning from his academic travels in Germany, England and the United States in 1910, Dr. Yoshino wrote many articles about social democracy. His main focus was how said democracy was important to instutive in Japan, for the sake of a more collective government:
Think of the situation in our own country [Japan]. We instituted constitutional government before the people were prepared for it….Still, it is impossible to reverse course and return to the old absolutism, so there is nothing for us to do but cheerfully take the road of reform and progress.”On The Meaning of Constitutional Government”, Dr. Yoshino Sakuzo, 1916
Consequently, it is extremely important not to rely on politicians alone but to use the cooperative efforts of educators, religious leaders, and thinkers in all areas of society.
Two years later, Hara Takashi was elected as Prime Minister, making him the first commoner PM and first person to establish a political party in Japan (known as the Rikken Seiyukai). This is especially ironic considering he came from a samurai family who resisted the previous Meiji government.
Under his administration, universal male suffrage was instituted, and he lowered the property qualifications for voting, which allowed small landowners to have a say in the new progressive government.
4. Western Popular Culture Took Hold in Japan
Merely 60 years earlier, Japanese society was still very Confucian and samurai-centric. However, after its forced opening up to the West, Japan had essentially entered its own Jazz Age. While the Meiji Era brought Western-style infrastructure such as education and banking systems, the Taisho Era brought “modern” clothing and cafés, especially in the Ginza neighborhood.
On top of this, it was not uncommon for young patrons of these cafés to engage in intense philosophical discussion. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was especially popular, no doubt buoyed by the Taisho Democracy that was well underway.
A notable literary work of the time is Tanizaki Junichiro’s Naomi (also known as Chijin no Ai, “A Fool’s Love”). Set in the then-present day, it follows a salaryman who falls in love with an “exotic”, modern girl named Naomi, and initially marries her in hopes of making her a respectable, Westernized woman. Yet, as their relationship continues, she becomes more liberated, and he–for better or worse–continues to chase after her. This book is an astute critique of Japanese tradition trying to keep up with modernity.
Unfortunately, however, that collective progress would come to a screeching halt.
5. The Great Kanto Earthquake occurred in 1923.
On September 1, 1923, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Kanto region, mainly affecting the cities of Yokohama, Kamakura and Tokyo*. While collateral damage from the quake and subsequent tsunami was substantial, it was the fires that caused the most casualties. East Tokyo–which includes the neighborhoods Asakusa, Nihonbashi and Ginza–were swept up in firestorms. One survivor, Kawatake Shigetoshi, described it as a “burning Hell”. 120,000 people died in total.
But the destruction didn’t stop there. Panic and unfounded rumors triggered the Kanto Massacre, which was a mass murder event perpetrated against Korean residents and Japanese socialists. In the wake of the earthquake, the Ministry of Home Affairs falsely claimed that “Socialists and Korean were setting the fires” and that Koreans were planning to loot. In response, vigilantes and police officers alike attacked the targeted groups, resulting in over 6,000 deaths.
The combination of natural disasters and civil unrest put an end to the progressive movements that were taking hold during the Taisho Era.
On December 25, 1926, Emperor Taisho, who had been largely absent for the later years of the Era, passed away from pneumonia. Crown Prince Regent Hirohito became Emperor that same day.
*The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo Metropolis was known as Tokyo City from 1889-1943.