A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

10
Democracy and Empire between the
World Wars

The Taishō emperor, Yoshihito, took the throne in 1912 upon the death of his father, the Meiji emperor, at the age of thirty-three. He had suffered a childhood bout with meningitis. Although he recovered well enough to make numerous official tours around the country as Crown Prince, his health began to fail in 1918. By 1919 he was unable to perform his official duties. This was a time when European monarchs were falling from power one after another: the Russian czar in 1917 and the kings and emperors of Germany, Austria, and Turkey as well. This was also a time of political turbulence in Japan. Fearful palace officials felt a desperate need for a presentable imperial figure. They arranged, in essence, a forced retirement for Yoshihito. They elevated his son, the Crown Prince Hirohito, to the office of regent in 1921, and the Crown Prince presided at imperial functions in his father's place until the Taishō emperor died in 1926.

The era of rule by the Taishō emperor was thus briefer than the preceding Meiji reign, and the manner of Yoshihito's retirement spread a belief that the Taishō emperor had always been sickly and mentally disturbed. The brilliant intellectual historian Maruyama Masao recalled that he and his elementary schoolmates in 1921 would whisper about rumors of strange behavior. The emperor, it was said, had once rolled up the text of his proclamation to open a session of the Diet, and used it like a telescope to peer at the assembled dignitaries. 1 True or not, this story and the image of Taishō as a feeble monarch has persisted.

Despite these facts, his name has ironically come to refer to a spirit of liberalism associated with his reign. Historians conventionally speak of the years from 1905 through 1932 as the time of “Taishō democracy.” The period begins with the political agitation of 1905 protesting the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War and ends with the fall of the Seiyūkai party cabinet in 1932. This era can also be described with a term that appears contradictory at first glance: “imperial democracy.” Political rule by elected politicians who formed cabinets run by party members began to take hold in the Taishō era. This was a dramatic change in the direction of democracy. But one finds continuity as well in the fact that all prominent advocates of parliamentary rule, like the Meiji era oligarchs and their supporters in the military and the bureaucracy, were vociferous imperial loyalists. They were equally vociferous in their support for empire. In prewar Japan as in Britain or Holland, supporters of a more democratic

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