Causes of the Showa Restoration



Sonno joi, "Restore the Emperor and expel the Barbarians,"

was the battle cry that ushered in the Showa Restoration in Japan

during the 1930's.Footnote1 The Showa Restoration was a combination of

Japanese nationalism, Japanese expansionism, and Japanese militarism

all carried out in the name of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito. Unlike the

Meiji Restoration, the Showa Restoration was not a resurrection of the

Emperor's powerFootnote2, instead it was aimed at restoring Japan's

prestige. During the 1920's, Japan appeared to be developing a

democratic and peaceful government. It had a quasi-democratic

governmental body, the Diet,Footnote3 and voting rights were extended

to all male citizens.Footnote4 Yet, underneath this seemingly placid

surface, lurked momentous problems that lead to the Showa Restoration.

The transition that Japan made from its parliamentary government of

the 1920's to the Showa Restoration and military dictatorship of the

late 1930s was not a sudden transformation. Liberal forces were not

toppled by a coup overnight. Instead, it was gradual, feed by

a complex combination of internal and external factors.

The history that links the constitutional settlement of 1889

to the Showa Restoration in the 1930s is not an easy story to relate.

The transformation in Japan's governmental structure involved; the

historical period between 1868 and 1912 that preceded the Showa

Restoration. This period of democratic reforms was an underlying cause

of the militarist reaction that lead to the Showa Restoration. The

transformation was also feed by several immediate causes; such as, the

downturn in the global economy in 1929Footnote5 and the invasion of

Manchuria in 1931.Footnote6 It was the convergence of these external,

internal, underlying and immediate causes that lead to the military

dictatorship in the 1930's.

The historical period before the Showa Restoration,

1868-1912, shaped the political climate in which Japan could transform

itself from a democracy to a militaristic state. This period is known

as the Meiji Restoration.Footnote7 The Meiji Restoration of 1868

completely dismantled the Tokugawa political order and replaced it

with a centralized system of government headed by the Emperor who

served as a figure head.Footnote8 However, the Emperor instead of

being a source of power for the Meiji Government, became its undoing.

The Emperor was placed in the mystic position of demi-god by the

leaders of the Meiji Restoration. Parliamentarians justified the new

quasi-democratic government of Japan, as being the "Emperor's Will."

The ultra-nationalist and militaristic groups took advantage of the

Emperor's status and claimed to speak for the Emperor.Footnote9 These

then groups turned the tables on the parliamentarians by claiming that

they, not the civil government, represented the "Imperial Will." The

parliamentarians, confronted with this perversion of their own policy,

failed to unite against the militarists and nationalists. Instead, the

parliamentarians compromised with the nationalists and militarists

groups and the general populace took the nationalists' claims of

devotion to the Emperor at face value, further bolstering the

popularity of the nationalists.Footnote10 The theory of "Imperial

Will" in Japan's quasi-democratic government became an underlying flaw

in the government's democratic composition.

It was also during the Meiji Restoration that the Japanese

economy began to build up its industrial base. It retooled, basing

itself on the western model. The Japanese government sent out

investigators to learn the ways of European and American

industries.Footnote11 In 1889, the Japanese government adopted a

constitution based on the British and German models of parliamentary

democracy. During this same period, railroads were constructed, a

banking system was started and the samurai system was

disbanded.Footnote12 Indeed, it seemed as if Japan had successfully

made the transition to a western style industrialized state. Almost

every other non-western state failed to make this leap forward from

pre-industrial nation to industrialized power. For example, China

failed to make this leap. It collapsed during the 1840s and the

European powers followed by Japan, sought to control China by

expropriating its raw materials and exploiting its markets.

By 1889, when the Japanese ConstitutionFootnote13 was

adopted, Japan, with a few minor setbacks, had been able to make the

transition to a world power through its expansion of colonial

holdings.Footnote14 During the first World War, Japan's economy and

colonial holdings continued to expand as the western powers were

forced to focus on the war raging in Europe. During the period

1912-1926, the government continued on its democratic course. In 1925,

Japan extended voting rights to all men and the growth of the merchant

class continued.Footnote15 But these democratic trends, hid the fact

that it