Summary of Modern Japanese History: The Taisho Era

(Inaugural issue of the magazine Bluestockings (Seitō), 1911; Wiki Commons)

The Taisho Period from 1912 to 1926 was a time of increased urbanization and internationalization for Japan. By this time, Tokyo had become a completely modern city and was the center of political and cultural life. Moreover, these as well as economic changes resulted in an emerging and empowered middle class which soon began to issue calls for more basic rights and freedoms. Their efforts were fostered by increased rates of education and literacy, along with a boom in published materials and media including newspapers. One issue at the forefront of this was the quest for women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement. First-wave feminists such as Hiratsuka Raicho wrote about women’s issues in her magazine Seitō (Bluestockings) and published the works of other prominent women writers such as Yosano Akiko. In 1911, Yosano penned her famous poem, “The Day the Mountains Move”, in the same magazine. The work captured the awakened political consciousness of women around the country.

            The day the mountains move has come.
            I speak, but no one believes me.
            For a time the mountains have been asleep,
            But long ago, they danced with fire.
            It doesn’t matter if you believe this,
            My friends, as long as you believe:
            All the sleeping women
            Are now awake and moving (ctd. in Rasplica Rodd 1991: 180)

Throughout Meiji and Taisho, the Japanese government attempted to redefine the role of women in society. They found their ideal in the concept of ryōsai kenbo, which meant “good wife, wise mother.” This explicitly placed women in the home sphere, as the bearer/rearer of children, and as subservient to the husband (i.e. good wife). The concept also notably deprived women of their sexual roles as a woman, i.e. control over their sexuality. At the same time, the government actively worked to keep women out of the public sphere and specially to prevent them from engaging in politics. This was enforced through a series of laws from the late 1880s aimed to create the ideal “a-political” woman (Uno 1993; Garon 1997). Indeed, Meiji leaders’ disparagement of “dirty” politics seemingly had no bounds, and the majority of the average populace was discouraged from participating in the political realm.

However, government and male control over female sexuality and sexual mores did not go unchallenged. One form of social and cultural resistance was the idea of a “modern girl” (moga) who displayed certain affinities for food, drink, music, dress, and lifestyle (namely Western in origin) and flaunted her liberation from the home sphere. Other government controls were also challenged. Meiji leaders tended to maintain the view, prominent since at least the Kamakura Period, that state-regulated/sponsored prostitution was necessary to control male desires and thus protect the family (ie) system. Thus, throughout Taisho and early Shōwa, the government continued to maintain regulated prostitution in areas such as Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district (See Garon 1997 for more on this). Yet emerging female control over their own sexuality, resulted in some rejecting this model. Café culture, where young female waitresses chose whether to sell sexual services to their customers, emerged as one alternative.

(Tipsy by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi; Wiki Commons)

The government viewed women’s liberation, the moga, and especially the café waitresses as an extreme social ill in need of correction. Although a portion of the male population was granted the right to vote in 1925, the women’s suffrage movement was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its goals. Moreover, the government passed laws banning birth control in 1938, a clear attempt to limit women’s roles to the home sphere and child rearing. Meanwhile, the government and big business leaders adroitly manipulated women as a cheap source of labor.

Economic difficulties were not limited to women, but were symptomatic of the 1910s and 1920s in Japan. Furthermore, growing economic inequality was worsened by a series of disasters including an economic downturn after World War One, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and the Great Depression (sekai kyōkō) in 1929. It was the lowest classes in society at the time, the workers and the farmers especially, who were forced to bear the brunt of these disasters and growing economic inequality and disparity. At the same time, the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the emergence of communism as a viable alternative to a capitalist system which seemed increasingly brutal and exploitative aided the growth of socialist thought in Japan. Such ways of approaching labor and basic human rights had already found earlier precedent in the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement (jiyū minken undo) of the 1880s, the activism of Tanaka Shōzō who defended the pollution victims of the Ashio Copper Mine, and the writings of Saikai Toshihiko and Kōtoku Shūsui who formed the Heimin Shimbun (The Commoner’s News).

As a result, the working and lower classes were less inclined to take exploitation sitting down. Proletariat literature under notable writers such as Kobayashi Takiji and Tokunaga Sunao witnessed an explosion in popularity against a background of growing protest and unrest including the Rice Riots of 1918.

(Image of a pro-worker's-struggle poster; MIT Visualizing Cultures)

Nothing scared the elites in power, however, more than the emergence of left-wing thought, and they cringed at the idea of granting the lower classes – many of whom they still viewed as a lesser form of human being – basic human rights, let alone a say in politics and control over the course of the nation. Thus, through a series of carrot and stick policies it attempted to curb the populace’s flirtation with democratic and Socialist ideals. On the one hand, it used high profile incidents such as the High Treason Incident of 1910-11 (taigyaku jiken), a purported attempt on the Meiji Emperor’s life, as a pretext to crackdown on prominent leftists including Kōtoku Shūsui. Police arrested twenty-five individuals in “connection” with the case and tried them in a closed courtroom. Eventually, eleven of them, including Kōtoku were executed. This heightened a culture of repression against so-called "thought criminals." A similar instance occurred after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake. In the chaos that followed the quake, police again arrested supposed leftists while some resident vigilantes led a rampage against the local Korean population, massacring thousands.

On the other hand, the government attempted to pacify the calls for basic human rights on all fronts by granting a semblance of freedom: “universal” male suffrage in 1925. Although this raised the number of eligible voters to about twelve million, this still only amounted to one-fifth of the population. Moreover, it came with a number of restrictions, and it denied the right to vote to anyone who had declared bankruptcy, was receiving government aid, or who lacked a permanent place of residence. In essence, it explicitly kept the poorest in society disenfranchised from the voting process.

However, the government truly revealed its hand when it enacted the Peace Preservation Law (Chian iji-hō) the same year. This made it a crime to challenge the kokutai (essentially the emperor system) as well as the idea of private property – both things which many leftists, especially Communists and Socialists, aimed to change. Moreover, the vagueness of the term kokutai and of the law itself, made it possible for the thought police to arrest and punish nearly anyone whom they even suspected may be a so-called “thought-criminal.” In this atmosphere, police were able to arrest 1,600 suspected leftists and communists on March 15, 1928.

Peace Preservation Law Questions:
  1. Who or which groups would this law specifically target? Why do you think this?
  2. Why is there mention of private property in this law? What does this refer to?
  3. What is the significance of Article Six? How do you think Article Six might actually have been carried out?
  4. How do you think this law may have been implemented?
  5. What do you notice about this law that may have made it particularly insidious or aggressive?

The brutal suppression of left-wing thought in this period coincided with the ongoing project of empire building that Japanese elites had been pursuing since Meiji, and which they saw as a fundamental part of the nation’s “modernization” process. Initially, Japan’s colonial expansion continued alongside a period of brief internationalization in the diplomatic realm. Namely, the country joined the League of Nations in 1920 and signed the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922. In the broad sense, both of these were aimed at limiting future potential warfare. At the same time, Japan’s empire continued to expand and eventually included Taiwan (1895), Karafuto (1905), areas in Manchuria known as the Kwantung Leased Territory (1905-6), Korea (protectorate, 1910), and German possessions in China and the South Pacific (1915). In 1915, Japan also issued the infamous Twenty-one Demands to China, in which leaders attempted to negotiate and solidify Japanese economic dominance in the region. Then, between 1918 and 1922, Japan participated in a multi-national punitive expedition against Russian communism known as the Siberian Intervention.

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