The Road to the Sun – The Japanese interwar period

By Isadore H

A bright future was expected for Japan after the First World War: significant economic growth pushed forwards liberalisation and an opening to the outside world. Japanese modernism captured the spirit of Japan in these transitional years: bold, flowing and exciting. Yet, by 1938, Japan had descended towards a totalitarian military dictatorship ruled by the principles of Ludendorff’s ‘Total War’. 

The Taisho Period of the 1920s was governed by a constitutional democracy modelled after the successful British system, with strongly pacifist parties. Japanese society welcomed tourists from around the world; urban centres became hubs for the Asian world, leading to an inflow of liberal political ideas. ‘Chōkanzu’ (a graphic type of map) pointed out key sites in foreign languages that tourists would then converge on en-masse. Japanese cities were filled with nightclubs as the style of Japanese Modernism evolved. Japanese Modernism mirrored the great strides Japanese society was taking towards a more liberal country with a strong self-image. This society was one in which women were far more prominent than in the restrictive pre-war era, and to which people from around the world flocked to see the vibrant nature of the country.

The rapid change in Japanese culture in the 1930s did not come from the citizens of the nation, but rather from the army. The officer class of the army were born from the samurai cast of the 1800s that had fought so strongly against the modernisation brought from America by the Perry Expedition of the 1850s. Upon losing a civil war in the 1860s, the samurai were forced to accept the liberalisation of Japan against their will. Their defeat also signalled the end of the feudalistic age that they had depended upon for survival. As cities grew, they outstripped the countryside, becoming cultural and economic hubs. This dropped the previously decedent samurai class into poverty. The samurai blamed modernisation and the West for this aggressive change in fortune. These opinions were not widely shared, but they festered in the small circles as resentment grew. The samurai sent their children to military academies, believing it to be the only correct career path left; consequently, raising a generation of officers jaded by modernisation. Ideals of racial supremacy, military primacy and religious fervour spread amongst the cadets. The spread had no uniting ideology  instead there were factions: proponents of a Buddhist holy war and soldiers who believed that all of Asia should be united by Japan just to name a few. They were united solely by a hatred of the Tokyo government and of democracy. 

Thus, the army become more hostile towards Tokyo, acting out its own plans. Many of its officers were expansionists; believing that, after Korea in 1905, Japan was fated to conquer all of Southeast Asia. These officers set out to pursue Erich Ludendorff’s ‘Total War’, which became a key pillar of most of their ideologies. Ludendorff was a prominent German general in WWI, who dominated German politics after becoming Quartermaster-General of the General Staff. In interwar Germany he was a key political thinker and was behind much of the rise of the Nazi party which he supported openly. ‘Total War’ involves a state that serves the army, with mass mobilisation and the military success being the most important goals. 

On the 18th September 1931, a bomb explosion at the Mukden Railway in Manchuria sparked a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The Japanese government ordered the army to halt the invasion and withdraw, but Tokyo no longer had control of the military, and so the invasion continued. The success of the operation led to a spike in popularity of the army within Japan as mass celebrations were carried out in the streets, and the Tokyo government teetered on the edge of collapse. Attempting to capitalise on the army’s popularity and the rampant nationalism within Japan, a few young officers stormed the Premier’s residence and murdered him on the 15th May 1932. The trial of the assassins turned into a show trial, a phony stage which they used to share their extremist views. Only with the support of the Emperor did Japanese democracy survive and even then it was deeply damaged, with violence towards pacifists mounting and the struggle between the two camps characterising the following years. In the aftermath a power-sharing agreement between the moderates and militarists was established, led by Siato Makoto the moderate Prime Minister with Araki Sadao as his ultranationalist counterpart.

On the 26th February 1936, a coup was attempted by young officers, emboldened by the success in Manchuria and wanting an end to the democratic, pacifist government in Tokyo. Storming the parliament, they attempted to take control of the government; however, an intense siege by loyalist troops saw the coup fail. Hideki Tōjō, head of the Japanese secret police, seized the initiative. He arrested all officers related to the coup and gained the trust of key Japanese figures. The coup also united the fractured militarist factions, and they slowly took power within the parliament. Tōjo, meanwhile, climbed the Japanese political system becoming Prime Minister in 1941. The National Mobilisation Law of 1938 finally ended any hopes of Japanese democracy as key industries, media and unions were nationalised and other austerity measures were introduced whilst an unlimited budget was given to the army. In 1940, the Japanese parliament voted to dissolve itself and to reform as the Imperial Rule Assistance Committee, and an autocratic military state was created. The state served the army as ‘Total War’ laid out and rejected all liberalisation and democracy.

With this, Japan’s brief flirtation with democracy and a liberal society had been drowned under militaristic fervour brought on through a manipulation of society by the army. Japan now embarked on a period of empire building in China and Southeast Asia; such expansionism brought them into direct conflict with the Allied powers and, as a result, Japan joined WW2 on the side of the Axis, sealing their fate.

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