Restore the Emperor Expel the Barbarians: The 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...
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