From miracles to massacres – Japan’s tumultuous 20th century

As Japan moved away from isolation, it entered a period of rapid change and development.

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On the 8th of July 1853, an American naval vessel under the command of Admiral Matthew C. Perry arrived in Edo Bay, to demand access to Japanese ports and the opportunity to establish trade links with Japan. Perry threatened to use force should Japan refuse. The Japanese ruling elite was acutely aware of what had happened to China during the Opium Wars of 1840–42, so Perry’s threat was effective. The following year, the so-called Kanagawa Agreement was signed, initiating a process that would see Japan open up to the outside world after a long spell of self-imposed isolation. Other nations followed America’s lead, and the period leading up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 was characterised by a series of bilateral agreements that shook Japan to the core. This was not merely the opening of ports and the signing of treaties – the very cornerstones of Japanese society were beginning to be remodelled. It was obvious to Japan’s rulers that the self-imposed isolation that had begun in the first half of the 17th century had damaged the country and caused it to fall behind. If Japan was to avoid the same tragic fate that had befallen China, reform would be necessary in almost every sphere.

The visit of that American vessel was the starting point for the Meiji Restoration, culminating fifteen years later, in 1868. Military rule under a shogun was abolished and, for the first time since 1185, the emperor was once again able to assume the position of head of government. The capital city was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. A number of delegations were sent overseas and foreign experts were invited to Japan to share their knowledge. Japan hoped to learn what the West had to offer from the very best. Different models of society were sought, meaning the Chinese civilisation, so often a source of inspiration in the past, began to be seen as hopelessly conservative and underdeveloped. China, after all, had not succeeded in repelling Western demands, so if Japan was to survive in this tough new climate it would be necessary to build completely new foundations.

The construction of a new Japanese nation was not entirely dissimilar to the colonisation of a foreign land. The religion was to be changed, the national dress given a new style, new holidays and the Gregorian calendar were to be introduced, all with the purpose of creating a new and more effective centralised state. Compulsory schooling and military service was introduced in 1873 and reform after reform demanded changes in legislation. Ideologue Fukuzawa Yukichi described Japanese society as comprising ‘many millions of people separated by many million walls’. The shogunate had ruled the country with an iron fist, yet it had been divided into over 200 provinces, each with laws, routines and military forces of their own. Bringing Japan together as one nation under a united modern legislature presented a formidable challenge.

The new Japanese state emerged as authoritarian, but the desperate search for an appropriate societal model also meant that proposals advocating an open society could be tabled. In 1874, an association known as Meirokusha was founded, with the aim of stimulating free and open debate. The group published Meiroku zasshi [The Meiroku Periodical], which would come to play an important role in an increasingly lively social debate. Meirokusha remained active until 1900, but its influence was short-lived. By 1875, reactionary forces within the government began to initiate legislation restricting media freedom. Excessively liberal ideas could undermine the political project that aimed to make Japan at least as powerful as other colonial powers, and increasing numbers of people had begun to question the wisdom of abandoning all Japanese customs and traditions.

So, as Japan adapted to the values of Western civilisation, it did so with a considerable measure of necessary compromise. Adaptations were made to allow the old ways to survive. Limited change was accepted, to avoid the need for wholesale reform. At the same time, many quickly became accustomed to the Western-inspired new social order, and began questioning much of what was traditionally Japanese. The 20th century evolved into a sometimes confused struggle between those who wished to maintain the traditional – exploiting the inherent strength of their culture to become an expanding colonial power – and those who desired as much change as possible in a Western direction. Proposals for a complete return to the old ways were mixed with unrealistic suggestions for abolishing Japanese language and the Japanese religions. Establishing which proposals were plausible, and which were ludicrous, was done as each one confronted reality.

In the early 1900s, Japan moved from being a society full of hope and aspiration to being a nation burdened by frustration. Radical forces demanded extensive reforms while conservative ones were terrified that the new modern society was expunging all that was truly Japanese. ‘Electricity has been discovered, and the darkness has reached us,’ was a phrase often heard at the time.

The political ideologies of Europe found champions in Japan, and the span between left and right was broad, at least to begin with. In February 1906, socialists were given permission to organise themselves as the ‘Japan Socialist Party’ and to hold political meetings. The party survived only for a short time – what alarmed authorities was the successful campaign against an increase in the price of tram travel, led by the party in the summer of 1906. In February 1907, criticisms were raised that the military had been deployed to crush a rebellion at a copper mine in the Tochigi Prefecture, where 3600 miners and sympathisers had destroyed the complex. The party newspaper Heimin Shimbun [The Peoples’ Press] was blamed for having incited the workers and the party was forced to dissolve.

The socialist movement faced a new setback in 1911, when socialist leader Kōtuku Shusui and eleven other activists were hanged for plotting to murder the emperor. The event became known as taigyaku jiken, ‘The High Treason Incident’, and the years following the hangings were known as the socialist movement’s ‘winter period’, [ fuyu no jidai]Authorities were now so averse to anything connected to socialism they even banned the publication of a book called Insect Society, since the Japanese word for society, shakai, was the same one used in the expression ‘socialism’ – shakai-shugi.

When Emperor Meiji died in 1912 and Japan entered the Taisho period (1912–1925), the country faced increasing calls for democracy from the broad mass of the people, ‘Taisho-democracy’. However, the high esteem in which many held the Japanese state meant there was no threat to the Imperial family’s strong position or the state itself. The word ‘democracy’ was initially translated as minponshugi, ‘people based principle’, a term later replaced by minshushugi, ‘people rule principle’.

Ideologue Yoshino Sakuzo (1878–1933), argued for the defence of the rights of the individual, the division of power between the executive and the legislature, and a truly representative parliamentary assembly. He was careful to point out that none of this would in any way harm the notion of national unity, kokutai – ‘national essence/character’. Yoshino encountered strong resistance from conservative quarters, but had broad support in many political camps for his demands: a government that was accountable to a parliamentary assembly; a second chamber subordinate to the lower house; and suffrage extended to all men with a higher-level education.

There were more radical thinkers, those who found inspiration in Marxism who considered Yoshino’s more social democratic or liberal ideas insufficient. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the communist movement made it increasingly difficult for Japanese authorities to turn a blind eye even to those ideas that could be considered social democratic. In 1920, however, radical trade unionists went as far as to distance themselves from representative democracy and parliamentary debate, agitating instead for ‘direct action’. Furthermore, the trade union movement was infiltrated by relatively powerful anarcho-syndicalist forces, who rejected almost anything that could be considered support for the state and the Imperial family.

In 1922, the Communist Party of Japan was founded in secret, and its influence on Japanese trade unionism was substantial. The varying sources of ideological inspiration, combined with the increasing oppression by authorities, was, however, an unbeatable recipe for unleashing sectarian struggles within the leftist movements. Additionally, Moscow’s great influence upon the underground Communist Party meant that the effects of political putsches and campaigns in Russia were felt in Japan. As the death of Emperor Taisho in 1925 ushered in the Showa period, not only did Japan’s aspirations to conquer territories in Korea and China become clearer, the government also grew increasingly intolerant of political opposition.

In August 1931, the Japanese prime minister, Hamaguchi Osachi, was murdered by a nationalist extremist outside Tokyo’s main railway station. Hamaguchi had been a very active prime minister, who had, amongst other things, followed austere economic policies and signed a series of agreements with foreign powers regarding naval forces in the Pacific. This made him unpopular among expansionists. In February and March of 1932, the far-right Ketsumeidan [League of Blood] group staged a drawn-out attempted coup. The group were intent on punishing those responsible for the poverty and suffering affecting rural areas. Around two-dozen politicians and businessmen were singled out as being particularly responsible for Japan’s supposed weakness, and attempts were made to eliminate them through systematic political assassination. Two were successfully murdered: the boss of the Mitsui Company, Baron Takuma Dan, and the finance minister, Inoue Junnosuke, before most of the insurgents were rounded up. Some were given prison sentences of up to fifteen years, but were released long before they served their time. In May 1932, another attempted coup took place, in which Prime Minister Inukai Tsyoshi was murdered at his official residence by a group of young cadets. Inukai had advocated friendly relations with China. Those responsible were imprisoned, but like their predecessors they were released long before their sentences had expired.

One of the leading philosophers and representatives for the new thinking was Kita Ikki (1883–1937). In his 1906 book The Theory of Japan’s National Polity and Pure Socialism, Ikki argued for a form of national socialism in which the fundamental principles of traditional society were combined with socialist ideas. He often invoked kokutai, a vision in which the emperor and the people would be considered a single entity, where the emperor became a people’s monarch in an ideological structure interwoven with Shintoism, Japan’s traditional animist religion. According to Kita, the transformation of Japanese society was doomed to failure because of capitalism and the bureaucracy’s exploitation of the people. In 1919, he published his Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan, a book in which he expanded upon his ideas.

On the 26th of February 1936, another coup attempt took place in Tokyo. This time, the instigators came very close to succeeding. A group within the army, ‘The Imperial Way Faction,’ mutinied and attempted to seize power by exterminating the ruling political elite. Several members of the government were murdered, including finance minister Takahashi Korekiyo, and the general inspector of military training, General Watanabe Jotaro. Once the murders were carried out, the mutineers occupied Nagatacho, the Tokyo neighbourhood that then, as now, was home to most government buildings. After three days they finally gave up, on the direct orders of the emperor. Thirteen officers and four civilians, including Kita Ikki, were executed, while several leading officers were stripped of their positions. The coup attempt failed, but it was to inspire further drastic interventions from the fanatics, and ultimately lead to an increasingly totalitarian society. The violence left its mark and the military began to steer its own course.

Much to the surprise of the watching world, Japan had defeated China in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, as well as Russia in the Russo- Japanese War of 1904–1905. These conflicts were waged largely around the Korean Peninsula. As a consequence, Japan had assumed effective control of Korea, which was annexed in 1910. Japan began a brutal regime intended to expunge Korean culture and assimilate it completely.

The expansionist rush continued. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and successfully established the puppet Manchukuo regime. January 1932 saw the ‘Shanghai Incident’ take place. A number of Japanese Buddhist monks were attacked on the street in broad daylight by locals; several later died from their injuries.

Japanese marines landed with the intention of punishing those responsible, but were held off by Chinese resistance, which led to the dispatch of more Japanese forces. Fierce battles ensued between the Chinese 19th Route Army and Japanese troops, who were soon bolstered by reinforcements. The 19th Army were forced to retreat, but further Japanese attacks were averted thanks to a British-American initiative that lead to a peace agreement in May 1932. Japan’s conduct was criticised at The League of Nations, who demanded that Japan withdraw from China, particularly Manchuria. In February 1933, that criticism turned sharper still. Japan’s response was to leave the organisation altogether, in March of that year. Japan’s expansionist policies became increasingly unambiguous. From an economic perspective, the most important prize was the natural resources of northern China.

As Japanese troops consolidated their conquests in Northern Manchuria, they came into direct conflict with the Soviet Union. A war was avoided thanks to China’s Eastern Railway – controlled by the Soviet Union – being sold to Japan in 1935. The nationalist Chinese regime began to turn its attention towards Chinese communists, leaving Japan to rule its puppet state unimpeded.

In 1937, Japanese troops were sent into China. Battles broke out across the country, but the Japanese military leadership split into two camps – the expansionists and those favouring a more restrictive policy. The latter group advocated for Japan to concentrate its resources on establishing Manchukuo as a viable economy, something that could serve Japanese interests. If further forces were to be deployed into China, it would necessitate a full-scale mobilisation, in turn requiring an expanded and onerous war budget to be passed, they claimed. They also feared Japan was over-stretching and the battles would serve only to bolster Chinese resistance – a concern that would eventually be proved right. The expansionists maintained there was no cause for hesitation: the subjugation of China was essential. Japanese troops crushed all military resistance in Beijing and Tianjin. In central China, Japanese troops marched from Shanghai to Nanjing, which fell under brutal occupation in December 1937. During the so-called ‘Nanjing Massacre’, thousands of people, mostly civilians were murdered indiscriminately in a six-week period that stretched into January 1938.

In the period after 1936, up until the end of the Second World War in 1945, the ideological differences between adoration of the emperor and the militarists’ theories were erased. Whether or not he supported the move, the emperor became the symbol of Japanese expansionist desires, and most Japanese were probably convinced that the emperor would be executed by the Allies. According to traditional Japanese thinking, emperor and foot-soldier alike must take responsibility for their actions. The occupying Allied forces, however, had other ideas. They believed that Japan’s transformation to a democratic state would be best achieved if the emperor, with his historical ties and powerful symbolism, was allowed to remain. Japan was transformed into a democracy after the war, with the emperor becoming ceremonial head of state with no power.

The question of how Japan might have progressed if the emperor and Imperial household had not been allowed to remain will never be answered. As it was, the post-war development of the country turned out to be a formidable success. Under the new 1947 constitution, the emperor was simply a symbol of the nation. Political power was to emanate from the people. Japanese society became pluralist and its economy began to follow market principles. The progress made was such that as far back as the 1960s, the world began to speak of ‘The Japanese Miracle’. Japanese productivity went through the roof, and they proved themselves world-beaters in one industrial sector after another. Some economists used Japan’s success story to call into question certain economic orthodoxies. The Japanese way of leading and organising companies was held up as a shining example.

It was said that Japan had something special, something worth studying and emulating. The idea of Japan’s dominance as unassailable was at its most established at around the same time as the Berlin wall fell, and Emperor Showa died. It was that time that American author and polemicist, Francis Fukuyama himself of Japanese descent, declared ‘the end of history’ – with liberalism seen as the undisputed victor.

At the same time, however, many began to argue that Japan had gone too far, and that the country’s success had been facilitated by finding itself in a privileged position. Japan was accused of hampering access to its own market whilst simultaneously avoiding taking any responsibility for security by – for example – spending its resources on defence. A few American congressmen, claiming that Japan was competing on an uneven playing field, appeared before the media to symbolically take a sledge hammer to a Japanese radio on the Capitol steps. Another representative went as far as to say that the US should not have dropped two atom bombs on Japan, but four.

As the surrounding world’s frustrations grew, so too did Japan’s self-esteem. Several politicians succumbed to delusions of grandeur, explaining that Japan’s exports were so successful because Japan was simply better. America was said to need Japan’s ethnic homogeny. The pronouncements began to smack of racism.

This new Japanese hubris took a serious dent when the economic bubble burst at the end of the 1980s. It was becoming increasingly evident that the economy was built on false hopes rather than a solid base, or at least that it had much less substance than had been thought. The value of stocks on the Tokyo exchange began to plummet dramatically. The long-standing munificence of financial institutions was revealed, bad credits could no longer be hidden from view, the national debt had mushroomed, bankruptcies were increasing and unemployment was rising alarmingly. At the same time, the American economy entered a boom of its own. Talk of Japan being the solution to everything made way for the country being cited as an example of how badly wrong things can go if actors in the market are not given a free reign, or if bureaucrats and politicians are afforded too much power. Criticism was specifically levelled at what was described as the Japanese variety of capitalism – ‘Japan Inc’. The fate of the exceptional Japanese went from admired miracle to cautionary tale.

In the years that followed, Japan was struck by a series of further catastrophes. Religious doomsday sect Aum Shinrikyo, who, it turned out, had plans to kill everyone except their own members, had been allowed to develop undisturbed, with Japanese police in the dark about their plans. In 1995, sect members carried out a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metro. In Kobe, an earthquake not only claimed more than 6,000 lives, it also ruthlessly revealed the incompetence of the rescue effort services. Ten years earlier, in 1985, five-hundred-and-twenty people had died in an air crash on a Japanese mountainside, leading to accusations being thrown at Boeing, the aircraft operators, and the American work ethic. It transpired that the aircraft had been compromised by corner-cutting during maintenance in the USA.

After the earthquake in Kobe it emerged that Japanese workers had been just as likely to take shortcuts and that these probably caused the collapse of a large elevated motorway. In the rubble of the concrete pillars, tin cans and scrap iron was found in place of solid reinforcement rods. The motorway had been hurriedly constructed to be completed in time for the 1970 World Expo.

In the 1990s, Japan was regarded as a nation with almost insurmountable problems. It was not just the economy that was struggling. Government members resigned one after another after persistent and embarrassing corruption scandals, while decision-makers in the public and private sectors alike seemed to be struck by complete paralysis. To make matters worse, occasionally controversies with neighbouring countries flared up over their insistence that apologies were still owed for previous actions, or over some ill-informed Japanese politician speculating whether Japan really had conducted itself badly during the Second World War and the years leading up to it.

In 2011 Japan experienced one of its worst-ever disasters. A submarine earthquake northeast of the main Japanese island of Honshu gave rise to a devastating tsunami, which as well as killing more than 20,000 people, also sent several nuclear reactors in Fukushima into meltdown. If the rain and wind had travelled southwards, the 36 million residents of the world’s largest city – Tokyo – would have been forced to evacuate.

When Prime Minister Abe Shinzo assumed power in December 2012, the government tried a new approach. The economy was to be restored via a series of deregulations, structural reforms and stimulus packages. The ageing population was acknowledged as a major problem, and without significant growth and a guarantee that sufficient labour would be available, Japan’s prospects looked bleak. Abe’s economic policy came to be known as Abenomics and despite it not leading to any immediate or widespread change, the Japanese ship began gradually to change course.

Even if growth was less than dramatic, Abenomics was still felt to have had an impact. Corporations started to recover, unemployment all but disappeared, and the gloom of the 1990s began to dissipate.

The ageing population and the declining number of citizens remains a great challenge. The national debt is larger than ever, but pessimism now faces competition in the form of a new optimism. The government has begun to actively advocate increased migrant labour, and also wishes to see more women becoming active in the workforce. Once again, Japan is searching for new solutions. The transformation will not be as dramatic as during the latter half of the 19th century, and the country does not need to seek out a radical new form of society or face the temptation to invade its neighbours. Instead, Japan today can address its problems in partnership with the global community, by astutely applying the wide-ranging lessons learnt during the tumultuous 20th century.

This essay originally appeared under the title The Dramatic Changes of the Twentieth Century, in Japan’s Past and Present, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.


Lars Vargö