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