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History of Japan



The Shōwa period (昭和時代 Shōwa jidai?, literally "period of enlightened peace"), or Shōwa era, is the period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito), from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989.

The Shōwa period was the longest reign of all the previous Japanese emperors. Early during this era, Japan descended into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism and fascism culminating in Japan's invasion of China in 1937. This was part of an overall global period of social upheavals and conflicts such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. Japan's entrance into the world-wide conflict in 1941 was the beginning of the end of the Japanese Empire.

Defeat in the Second World War brought about radical change to Japan. For the first and only time in its history, Japan was occupied by foreign powers; an occupation that lasted seven years. Allied occupation brought forth sweeping democratic reforms. It led to the end of the emperor's status as a living god and the transformation of Japan into a true democracy with a constitutional monarch. In 1952, with the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan became a sovereign nation once more. The post war period also led to Japanese economic miracle.



In his coronation address which was read to the people, the newly enthroned emperor referenced this Japanese era name or nengō "I have visited the battlefields of the Great War in France. In the presence of such devastation, I understand the blessing of peace and the necessity of concord among nations."[1] However, the early Shōwa period was to be anything but peaceful.

End of “Taishō Democracy”

The election of Katō Kōmei as Prime Minister of Japan continued democratic reforms that had been advocated by influential individuals on the left. This culminated in the passage of universal manhood suffrage in March 1925. This bill gave all male subjects over the age of 25 the right to vote, provided they had lived in their electoral districts for at least one year and were not homeless. The electorate thereby greatly increased from 3.3 million to 12.5 million.[2]

Pressure from the conservative right, however, forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 along with other anti-radical legislation, only ten days before the passage of universal manhood suffrage. The Peace Preservation Act severely curtailed individual freedom in Japan. It outlawed groups that sought to alter the system of government or to abolish private ownership. The leftist movements that had been galvanized by the Russian Revolution were subsequently crushed and scattered. This was in part to do with the Peace Preservation Act, but also due to the general fragmentation of the left.

Conservatives forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law because the party leaders and politicians of the Taishō era had felt that, after World War I, the state was in danger from revolutionary movements. The Japanese state never clearly defined a boundary between private and public matters and, thus, demanded loyalty in all spheres of society. Subsequently, any ideological attack, such as a proposal for socialist reforms, was seen as an attack on the very existence of the state.

After the passage of the Peace Preservation Law and related legislation, kokutai emerged as the symbol of the state. Kokutai was seen as the barrier against communist and anarchist movements in Japan. With the challenge of the Great Depression on the horizon, this would be the death knell for parliamentary democracy in Japan.

Rise of ultra-nationalism

The young Hirohito in his coronation robes 1928.

Prior to 1868, most Japanese more readily identified with their feudal domain rather than the idea of "Japan" as a whole. When the Tokugawa bakufu was overthrown, the leaders of the revolt, Satsuma and Chōshū were ideologically opposed to the house of Tokugawa since the Battle of Sekigahara. The Meiji period changed all of that. With the introduction of mass education, conscription, industrialization, centralization, and successful foreign wars, Japanese nationalism began to foment itself as a powerful force in society. Mass education and conscription served as a means to indoctrinate the coming generation with "the idea of Japan" as a nation instead of a series of daimyō. In this way, loyalty to feudal domains was supplanted with loyalty to the state. Industrialization and centralization gave Japanese a strong sense that their country could rival Western powers technologically and socially. Moreover, successful foreign wars gave the populace a sense of martial pride in their nation.

With the rise of Japanese nationalism, which seemed to parallel the growth of nationalism in the West, came the growth of ultra-nationalism. Certain conservatives such as Gondō Seikei and Asahi Heigo saw the rapid industrialization of Japan as something that had to be tempered. It seemed, for a time, that Japan was becoming too "Westernized" and that if left unimpeded, something intrinsically Japanese would be lost. During the Meiji period, such nationalists railed against the unequal treaties, but in the years following the First World War, Western criticism of Japanese imperial ambitions and restrictions on Japanese immigration changed the focus of the nationalist movement in Japan. The ultra-nationalist movement became virulently xenophobic, emperor-centered, and Asia-centric.

Japanese nationalism was buoyed by a romantic concept of Bushidō and driven by a modern concern for rapid industrial development and strategic dominance in East Asia. It saw the Triple Intervention of 1895 as a threat to Japanese survival in East Asia and warned that the "ABCD Powers" (America, British, Chinese, and Dutch) were threatening the Empire of Japan. Their only solution was conquest and war.

Washington Conference to Mukden Incident

After the Great War, the Western Powers, influenced by Wilsonian ideology, attempted an effort at general disarmament. At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, the Great Powers met to set limits on naval armament. The Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement worked out in Washington limited competition in battleships and aircraft carriers to a ratio of 5:5:3 for the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan respectively. Japanese ultra-nationalists viewed this as an attempt by Western powers to curb Japanese expansionism in an area of the globe over which they had no interest. But, those in power in Japan readily agreed to the disarmament, realizing that the global taste for war had been soured after the First World War and knowing that, the ratio was sufficient to maintain hegemony in the Pacific.

In 1924, however, U.S.-Japanese relations were soured by the passing of the Japanese Exclusion Act. The act, passed by Congress, in response to complaints from the Governor of California, closed off Japanese immigration to the United States and was symptomatic of the mutual misunderstanding that the two nations had for one another.

From 1928–1932, domestic crisis could no longer be avoided. As the left was vigorously put down by the state, the economic collapse brought a new hardship to the people of Japan. Silk and rice prices plummeted and exports decreased 50%. Unemployment in both the cities and the countryside skyrocketed and social agitation came to a head.[citation needed]

Meanwhile, the London Naval Conference was held in 1930. Its purpose was to extend the Washington Treaty System. The Japanese government had desired to raise their ratio to 10:10:7, but this proposal was swiftly countered by the United States. Thanks to back-room dealing and other intrigues, though, Japan walked away with a 5:4 advantage in heavy cruisers,[3] but this small gesture would not satisfy the populace of Japan which was gradually falling under the spell of the various ultra-nationalist groups spawning throughout the country. As a result of his failings regarding the London Naval Treaty, Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was shot on November 14, 1930 by an ultranationalist and died in 1931.

By this time, the civilian government had lost control of the populace. A New YorkTimes correspondent called Japan a country ruled by "government by assassination."[4] The army, moving independently of the proper government of Japan, took the opportunity to invade Manchuria in the Summer of 1931.

Since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan had had a military presence in Manchuria. After a small explosion on the tracks of a Japanese railway, north of Mukden, the Japanese army mobilized the Kwantung Army and attacked Chinese troops. The Minseito government, headed by Hamaguchi's successor, Wakatsuki Reijiro was unable to curb the army's offensive. The Kwantung Army conquered all of Manchuria and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Diet, now dominated by army officials, voted to withdraw from the League of Nations. The first seeds of the coming conflict had been sown.

Military state

Hirohito and imperial stallion Shirayuki.

The withdrawal from the League of Nations meant that Japan was 'going it alone.' Japan had no strong allies and its actions had been internationally condemned, whilst internally popular nationalism was booming. Local leaders, such as mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited by the various movements to indoctrinate the populace with ultra-nationalist ideals. They had little time for the pragmatic ideas of the business elite and party politicians. Their loyalty lay to the Emperor and the military. In March 1932 the "League of Blood" assassination plot and the chaos surrounding the trial of its conspirators further eroded the rule of law in Shōwa Japan. In May of the same year a group of right-wing Army and Navy officers succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister. The plot fell short of staging a complete coup d'état but it effectively ended rule by political parties in Japan.

From 1932–1936, the country was governed by admirals. Mounting ultra-nationalist sympathies led to chronic instability in government. Moderate policies were difficult to enforce. The crisis culminated on February 26, 1936. In what is known as the February 26 Incident, about 1,500 ultranationalist army troops marched upon central Tokyo. Their mission was to assassinate the government and promote a "Shōwa Restoration". Prime Minister Okada survived the attempted coup by hiding in a storage shed in his house, but the coup only ended when Emperor Hirohito personally ordered an end to the bloodshed.

Within the state, the idea of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere began to foment itself. The ultra-nationalist believed that the "ABCD powers" were a threat to all Asians and that Asia could only survive by following the Japanese example. Japan had been the only Asian and non-Western power to successfully industrialize itself and rival great Western empires. While largely described by contemporary Western observers as a front for the expansion of the Japanese army, the idea behind the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that Asia would be united against the Western powers and Western Imperialism under the auspices of the Japanese. The idea drew influence in the paternalistic aspects of Confucianism and Koshitsu Shinto. Thus, the main goal of the Sphere was the hakko ichiu, the unification of the eight corners of the world under the rule (kôdô) of Emperor Shōwa.

The reality during this period differed significantly from the propaganda. Some nationalities and ethnic groups were marginalized, and during rapid military expansion into foreign countries, the Imperial General Headquarters authorized, or at the very least tolerated, many atrocities against local populations, such as: the experimentations of unit 731, the sanko sakusen, the use of chemical and biological weapons and civilian massacres such as those in Nanjing, Singapore and Manila.

Racism and Anti-Semitism

Beth Israel Synagogue in Nagasaki, Japan

During the first part of the Shōwa era, racial discrimination against other Asians was habitual in Imperial Japan, having begun with the start of Japanese colonialism.[5]. The Shōwa regime thus preached racial superiority and racialist theories, based on sacred nature of the Yamato-damashii. One of emperor Shōwa's teachers, historian Kurakichi Shiratori, remarked :«Therefore nothing in the world compares to the divine nature (shinsei) of the imperial house and likewise the majesty of our national polity (kokutai). Here is one great reason for Japan's superiority.» [6]

Some of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army on countries like China, the Philippines and others, were motivated by racial prejudice. Japanese soldiers were taught to think of captured Chinese as not worthy of consideration [7] and the Imperial army established units like Unit 731, where biological weapons were researched and inmates and prisoners-of-war were regularly experimented upon, resulting in as many as 200,000 casualties.

The Anti-Comintern Pact brought in Japanese Nazi ideologues who gained many Japanese supporters and injected Nazi-style anti-Semitic arguments into mainstream public discussion where defamation of Jews was already widespread. Thereafter, the government manipulated the popular image of Jews, not so much to persecute them as to strengthen domestic ideological uniformity.[8].

In terms of anti-Semitic policies of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, foreign minister of Japan Yosuke Matsuoka at one point said on December 31, 1940 to a group of Jewish businessmen that he was

the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world.[9]

Imperial Japanese Army general Kiichiro Higuchi and colonel Norihiro Yasue allowed 20,000 Jews to enter Manchukuo in 1938. Higuchi and Yasue were well-regarded for their actions and were subsequently invited to the independence ceremonies of the State of Israel. Diplomat Chiune Sugihara wrote travel visas for over 6,000 Lithuanian Jews to flee the German occupation and travel to Japan. In 1985, Israel honored him as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions.

Second Sino-Japanese War

Emperor Shōwa riding Shirayuki during an Army inspection in August 1938

In July 1937, Imperial Japan drew its populace into war once more. On July 7, 1937, at the Marco Polo Bridge, the Japanese Kwantung army stationed there used explosions heard on the Chinese side of Manchuria as a pretext for invasion. The invasion led to a large scale war approved by Emperor Shōwa and called a "holy war" (Seisen) in Imperial propaganda.

At the time, though, China was divided internally between the Communist Party of China (CPC) which was under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Nationalist government of China, the Kuomintang (KMT) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.

The years of 1937–38 were a time of rapid and remarkable success by the Japanese. They did, after all, have a number of advantages over the Chinese army. While the Japanese army possessed a smaller force of armour and artillery than the west, it was far ahead of China in this respect of these aspects, and was also in command of the world's third largest navy with 2,700 aircraft at its disposal. At first, the Japanese slaughtered the elite 29th Army at Kupeikou and soon occupied Peiping in late July 1937. From there, the Japanese advanced down south through the major railway lines (Peiping-Suiyan, Peiping-Hankow, and Tientsin-Pukow). These were easily conquered by the superior Japanese army.

By October, Chiang Kai-shek's best armies had been defeated at Shanghai. By the end of the year, the capital, Nanjing had also been seized. The use of brutal scorched earth tactics by both sides, the Chinese as in 1938 Yellow River flood and later by the Japanese with the Three Alls Policy, "kill all, burn all, loot all", initiated in 1940, claimed millions of lives. The Chinese nationalists resorted to massive civilian guerrilla tactics, which fatigued and frustrated Japanese forces. Countless Chinese civilians were executed on the suspicion of being resistance fighters. Japanese atrocities at Nanking and other sites in China and Manchukuo have been well documented. (See: Nanking Massacre, Sanko sakusen, Unit 731, Japanese war crimes)

By 1939, the Japanese war effort had become a stalemate. The Japanese army had seized most of the vital cities in China, possessing Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, and Wuhan. The Nationalists and the Communists, however, fought on from Chongqing and Yenan respectively.

Second World War

Negotiations for a German-Japanese alliance began in 1937 with the onset of hostilities between Japan and China. On September 27, 1940 the Tripartite Pact was signed, creating the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis. The quagmire in China did not stall imperial ambitions for the creation of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Indeed, the Second Sino-Japanese War fuelled the need for oil that could be found in the Dutch East Indies. On December 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, captured Nanjing (Nanking), then the capital of China, starting the genocidal war crime, the Rape of Nanjing, resulting in the death of 300,000 civilians and the rape of 80,000 women, including infants and elderly. After Imperial General Headquarters refused to remove its troops from China (excluding Manchukuo) and French Indochina, Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced in July 1941 an oil embargo on Japan. Using that as a justification for war, Imperial General Headquarters launched the Greater East Asia War which began by a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

For the next six months, the Japanese had the initiative and went on the offensive. Hong Kong was overrun on December 8, 1941. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered Burma, Siam, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. The decisive naval/aerial Battle of Midway that took place in early June 1942, however, changed the momentum of the war. Japan was put on the defensive as the Americans pursued their policy of island hopping at their leisure.

Tokyo was repeatedly firebombed in 1945 and in the early spring and summer of 1945, Iwojima and Okinawa were seized by the Americans. Death came in August 1945. On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing approximately 200,000 people. On August 8, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria. On August 9, Nagasaki was the site of the second nuclear attack in the history of mankind. Japan declared its unconditional surrender on August 15.

Defeat and Allied occupation

With the defeat of Japan, the Allied Powers occupied the Japanese empire. The Soviet Union was responsible for North Korea as well as islands that she had ceded to Japan during the Russo-Japanese war. The United States took responsibility for the rest of Japan's possessions in Oceania. China, meanwhile, plunged into civil war. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the Allied Occupation of Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.

Japan's military was disarmed completely. Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution prevented Japan from ever waging war on a foreign nation. The Emperor also renounced all claims to divinity and was forbidden in playing a role in politics. To this day, the Emperor remains a mere figurehead in society. A War Crimes Tribunal, similar to those at Nuremberg were set up in Tokyo. Several prominent members of the Japanese cabinet were executed, most notably, former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. Hirohito was not tried at the Tokyo trials, nor any members of the imperial family such as Prince Chichibu, Prince Takeda, Prince Higashikuni and Prince Asaka, much to the ire of some Allies.

At the same time, the Allies also tried to break the power of the zaibatsu but were not entirely successful. Japan was democratized and liberalized along American lines. Parliamentary party politics were established. Old left wing organizations such as the Japan Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party reasserted themselves. The two dominant parties at the time were Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. The first post-war elections were held in 1946. In that election, women were given the franchise for the first time.

Yoshida Shigeru was elected as Prime Minister of Japan. His policy, known as the “Yoshida Doctrine” emphasized military reliance on the United States and promoted unrestrained economic growth. As Cold War tensions asserted themselves, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco which came into force on April 28, 1952. Japan became a sovereign nation once more.

“The Japanese Miracle”

The Yoshida Doctrine, combined with U.S. foreign investment and the Japanese government's economic intervention spurred on an economic miracle on par with the wirtschaftswunder of West Germany. The Japanese government strove to spur industrial development through a mix of protectionism and trade expansion. The establishment of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is widely thought to be instrumental in the Japanese post-war economic recovery.

By 1954, the MITI system was in full effect. Yoshida's successor, Ikeda Hayato began practicing economic policies which removed much of Japan's anti-monopoly laws. This led to the emergence of the keiretsu which were extremely similar to the pre-war zaibatsu. Foreign companies were locked out of the Japanese market and strict protectionist laws were enacted.

From 1954 and beyond the death of the Shōwa Emperor, Japan rebuilt itself politically and economically. Today, Japan's economy is second only to the United States and its economic power gives it far more dominance than it ever had militarily. But, it was not without its problems. Despite almost 40 years of continual economic growth, by 1993 (after the Shōwa period ended in 1989), the bubble economy had burst and Japan was thrown into a period of recession that lasted throughout the 1990s.

See also


  1. ^ Durschmied, Erik. (2002). Blood of Revolution: From the Reign of Terror to the Rise of Khomeini, p. 254.
  2. ^ Hane, Mikiso, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Oxford: Westview Press, 1992) 234.
  3. ^ Tohmatsu, Haruo and H.P. Willmott, A Gathering Darkness: The Coming of War to the Far East and the Pacific, 1921–1942, (Lanham, MD: SR Books, 2004) 26–27.
  4. ^ Pyle, Kenneth, The Rise of Modern Japan 189.
  5. ^ Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, 2001, p.280
  6. ^ Peter Wetzler, Hirohito and War, 1998, p.104
  7. ^ Barak Kushner, The Thought War, 2006, p.131
  8. ^ David G. Goodman, Masanori Miyazawa, Jews in the Japanese Mind :The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype , 1995, p.104-105, 106-134, Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, 2001, p.281
  9. ^ "The Jews of Japan" by Daniel Ari Kapner and Stephen Levine


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