Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Japanese History

Army Minister Hisaichi Terauchi lambastes a “defamatory” call by Rikken Seiyukai Diet member Kunimatsu Hamada for a purge against the Imperial Army in January 1937, leading to the resignation of the Koki Hirota cabinet and the crumbling of party government. ©Kyodo News Images

Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Japanese History

R-2021-026E

Does democratic government contain the seeds of its own destruction? Drawing on recent research, Ryota Murai offers a reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese democracy as it developed before and after World War II.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the competence, judgment, and agility of governments around the world. Responses have ranged widely, but they have all required political leaders to walk a tightrope, weighing the public-health benefits of full and partial lockdowns or other measures against the economic and political consequences. Amid the inevitable comparisons between the pandemic response of democratic systems that prioritize personal liberty and that of a tightly controlled authoritarian society like China’s, democracy has not exactly emerged triumphant.

Of course, worries about democracy predate the pandemic. Europe has witnessed the growth of populist parties championing a xenophobic nationalism that threatens the region’s liberal order. In the United States, the “America First” populism of former President Donald Trump fueled the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the results of the November 2020 election. In Japan, some see a worrying development in the growth of maverick parties like the Osaka-based Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party).

The international landscape has changed drastically in the three decades since Francis Fukuyama published his “end of history” thesis arguing that the end of the Cold War signaled the global triumph of Western liberal democracy over totalitarianism. Established democracies are seeing institutional norms erode, while weak democracies are toppling or being slowly strangled by autocratic leaders. Meanwhile, the forces of authoritarianism are gaining confidence.

Among scholars and critics, these trends have fueled a surge in interest in the historical factors contributing to the collapse of democratic government before World War II, with particular emphasis on the role of populism. In the context of prewar Japan, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe has been spotlighted as a leader embodying the intersection of populism and totalitarianism. Historian Kiyotada Tsutsui, taking a more sweeping view, argues in his 2018 book Senzen Nihon no popyurizumu (Populism in Prewar Japan, Chuokoronshinsha) that the rise of mass democracy after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 propelled Japan down the path to militarism and World War II.

A German perspective on the decline of democracy in the interwar period is presented in Weimarer Verhältnisse? Historische Lektionen für unsere Demokratie, translated into Japanese in 2019 as Nachizumu wa sairai suruka (Will Nazism Come Back? Keio University Press, translation supervised by Takumi Itabashi and Takuya Onodera), a compilation of studies by German historians and journalists spotlighting the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Why did the Weimar Republic, viewed at the time as the world’s most advanced democracy, collapse from within as Hitler rose to power? Does Western democracy face a similar threat today? How does the “Weimar situation” apply to modern-day Japan? To answer the last question, we need a sound understanding of democratic politics in prewar Japan and the forces leading to its collapse.

The term Taisho Democracy (a reference to the Taisho era, 1912–25), is widely used to refer to the flowering of Japanese parliamentary democracy in the period between World War I and World War II. Back in the 1950s, when the terms was coined, Taisho Democracy was generally presented as a deeply flawed and inherently weak system representing a brief and fruitless divergence from the main current of Japanese prewar history following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Since then, the Taisho era has undergone a reassessment, and its intellectual, cultural, and political accomplishments are widely applauded—albeit with an undertone of regret for the path Japan eventually took. With such historical reassessments and the problem of populism in mind, I would like to review the rise and fall of democratic party government in interwar Japan.

Liberal Democracy in Prewar Japan

A fundamental difference between Japan and Germany after World War I is that Japan was a victor nation with its empire intact. The democratization of Japan in the interwar era (unlike that which took place after World War II) was an organic, self-directed process occurring under a preexisting constitution. While it is true that party government was a Western system, and alien to Japanese culture in some respects (a point its opponents seized on), it developed from foundations laid early in the Meiji era (1868–1912), with the establishment of the national assembly (1890) under the 1889 Meiji Constitution.

Thus, the grafting of this Western system onto the Japanese cultural matrix occurred in the nineteenth century, not the 1920s. The flowering of parliamentary democracy based on party government represented a logical and organic development in Japanese history after the Meiji Restoration. The real discontinuity came in the second half of the 1930s, when democracy was crushed.

Nourished by the ideas of such liberal thinkers as Sakuzo Yoshino (1878–1933), the development of parliamentary democracy from the foundations of the Meiji Constitution involved three closely interconnected developments: the expansion of voting rights, the democratization of rules governing the transfer of executive power (with the Diet as the principal organ of the state), and the growth of political parties as the link between voters and their government. However, of these developments, only the expansion of voting rights was legally codified.

A national assembly, the Imperial Diet, was established in 1890, in accordance with the Meiji Constitution. Members of the House of Representatives were elected by popular vote (although the franchise was severely limited by a high tax requirement). However, under the Meiji Constitution, the Diet did not designate the prime minister. Rather, the prime minister derived his legitimacy from his appointment by the emperor (in whom sovereignty resided). To preserve the emperor’s inviolability, moreover, the actual decision was made by an inner circle of advisors, giving tremendous power to the extra-constitutional institution of the genro, or elder statesmen.

This system came under intense pressure from the political parties and the public following the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, when the First Movement to Protect Constitutional Government erupted with demands that the prime minister be chosen from the majority party in the House of Representatives in keeping with the “normal course of constitutional government.”

Shigenobu Okuma, who was appointed prime minister in 1914, acted like the head of a partisan cabinet, but he was soon forced to step down. With momentum growing for universal male suffrage, the genro fretted that populism was driving such potentially damaging foreign-policy decisions as the controversial Twenty-One Demands submitted to China.

The government formed by Prime Minister Takashi Hara in 1918, near the close of World War I, is generally considered Japan’s first full-fledged party cabinet, consisting mainly of elected legislators from the prime minister’s Rikken Seiyukai (Friends of Constitutional Government) party. With its moderate and measured policies, the Hara cabinet won the confidence even of the powerful genro Aritomo Yamagata. While resisting pressure to extend suffrage by lifting the minimum tax requirement, Hara relaxed Japan’s oppressive colonial rule in Korea in response to the March 1 Movement and embraced a rational foreign policy geared to preserving the empire while avoiding discord with the Western powers.

The parties of the time were not simply mirrors of popular sentiment. They were elite political groupings that shaped and led public opinion through dialogue and persuasion, and they were respected as such.

The end of World War I was pronounced a victory for democracy. The international groundswell of liberalism extended to Japan, where reformist forces led by Tsuyoshi Inukai formed the Kakushin Club, while the formerly conservative Kenseikai reversed itself and came out in favor of universal male suffrage. However, this era also saw the rise of extreme political ideologies, including the socialism championed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and ultranationalism.

Taisho Democracy

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Hara in 1921, the genro tapped Korekiyo Takahashi to form a new cabinet as head of the Rikken Seiyukai. Party government, backed by the will of the people, was gradually gaining confidence and autonomy. However, when in-fighting within the Seiyukai led to the collapse of the Takahashi cabinet after seven months, several short-lived nonparty cabinets followed. This precipitated the Second Movement to Protect Constitutional Government, a unified multiparty campaign to establish a permanent party cabinet system.

Keigo Kiyoura, another nonparty figure, was appointed prime minister in January 1924, but he stepped down the following June after a massive setback in the House of Representatives election. To keep the peace, the last surviving genro, Prince Kinmochi Saionji, had no choice but to replace Kiyoura with the leader of the Kenseikai, which had secured the largest number of seats in the lower house. Takaaki Kato formed a coalition cabinet out of the so-called “three pro-Constitution factions” (goken sanpa) led by himself, Inukai, and Takahashi (the latter having won a seat in the House of Representatives after self-resigning from the House of Peers). This amounted to a peaceful transfer of power between the conservative government, supported by the genro, and opposition forces supported by the voters. It inaugurated a period of successive party cabinets that continued until 1932.

The Kato cabinet introduced universal male suffrage in 1925. At the same time, it enacted the Peace Preservation Law, which clamped down on radical leftist and anti-imperial movements. In the past, most Japanese historians viewed the enactment of the Peace Preservation Law just before the end of the Taisho era as signaling the end of Taisho Democracy and the beginning of Japan’s descent into militarism. In fact, however, democracy and party politics flourished for another six years.

Prime Minister Kato’s formation of a new all-Kenseikai cabinet in August 1925 was an important step in this process, setting the stage for the alternation of power between competing political parties. In 1927, Giichi Tanaka formed a cabinet as head of the opposition party, Rikken Seiyukai, in accordance with the “normal course of constitutional government.” With the merger of several minority parties into the Rikken Minseito, the stage was set for a de facto two-party system, with power alternating between the Seiyukai and Minseito.

Too Little Democracy or Too Much?

In 1928, the first general election was held with universal male suffrage. The Seiyukai and Minseito competed fiercely for popular support for control of the government. Some proletarian parties also participated, and the young Emperor Showa followed the election with interest. The outcome was inconclusive, however, leaving Prime Minister Tanaka to preside over a fragile government. Tanaka came under criticism for his weak response to the June 1928 assassination of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin by the Japanese Kwantung Army. After a rebuke from the emperor himself, the cabinet was obliged to resign en masse in July 1929.

What were the underlying causes of Taisho Democracy’s collapse? Was democracy too weak? Or had it grown too strong?

In terms of its legal underpinnings and safeguards, Japan’s democratic system was unquestionably too weak. It is true that the flowering of party politics after World War I was an autonomous, organic development, but it is also true that it occurred within the framework of the 1889 Meiji Constitution. That framework made no formal provision for the democratic selection of the prime minister, and it permitted undemocratic institutions like the genro and the Privy Council to wield executive power. As long as party government enjoyed strong popular support, it flourished and developed rapidly, but when it lost that support, the forces of the old order were ready to reclaim the reins.

The Meiji Constitution and customary law provided for the “independence of the supreme command,” which also allowed the military to claim cabinet posts and effectively hold the government hostage. This flaw was particularly problematic in the 1930s, when the growth of liberal party politics inside Japan collided with the imperatives of ruling and maintaining an empire spanning Taiwan, Korea, and the South Pacific, as well as parts of northeast China. Perceiving the threat, segments of the army caused an incident, taking advantage of the constitution’s weaknesses and moving to strengthen their leverage over government policy, especially with regard to security matters.

At the same time, it can be argued that the downfall of prewar democracy was brought on by an “excess of democracy,” or, more accurately, the perception that democracy had become a runaway train that had to be stopped.

The Great Depression triggered by the crash of 1929 placed serious strains on party government, but democratization made further gains. In the spring of 1931, a bill to enfranchise women at the local level was introduced, failing only because of opposition from the House of Peers. With the Seiyukai and Minseito both championing women’s suffrage, it was considered a matter of time before women secured the right to participate in national elections. This would have created a vast new base of national support for the political parties.

The army and the navy were forced to adjust to these developments, aware that they needed to persuade the Diet if they wanted to prevent further budget cuts in the context of international disarmament. The bureaucracy, too, was growing increasingly partisan; local election officials were replaced each time the government changed hands. The emperor and his senior staff trusted Saionji to intervene if the parties went too far, but he was adhering to a hands-off approach, supporting the autonomous development of party government. When Giichi Tanaka retained his position as head of the Seiyukai after stepping down as prime minister, there were laments from within the palace that the emperor (whose rebuke had effectively forced Tanaka’s resignation) would have no choice but to reappoint Tanaka if his party won the next election. (Tanaka died shortly thereafter, and the Minseito won the next election.)

With so much at stake, the two major parties competed ever more fiercely for popular support, and their attacks on one another escalated. As these two parties amassed political power, they attracted unscrupulous politicians and supporters and were tainted by a series of corruption scandals, leading to mounting disaffection within the military.

In September 1931, officers of the Kwantung Army, a group of the Imperial Army, staged the Mukden Incident as a pretext for the broader occupation of Manchuria. In Japan, a series of terrorist incidents climaxed with the May 1932 assassination of Prime Minister Inukai by junior navy officers in an attempted coup d’état. Fearing the consequences of a full-scale confrontation between the parties and the military, Saionji selected Makoto Saito—a former admiral, navy minister, and governor-general of Korea—to form a “national unity cabinet” acceptable to the military.

This time, a Third Movement to Protect Constitutional Government did not emerge. It was because Saionji himself envisioned a return to party government once a few Diet and electoral reforms had been implemented. But Saito’s national unity cabinet continued until 1934 and was followed by another unity cabinet under Keisuke Okada.

On February 26, 1936, shortly after the general election, a group of young army officers staged another violent coup attempt, killing and injuring several cabinet ministers. In the aftermath, the army and navy were able to overcome their internal divisions and emerge even stronger. They tightened their grip over the government, determined to prevent a return to party government and the internationalist policies that they viewed as a mortal threat. In this way, party government crumbled slowly in the face of violent attacks—not as a result of democratic decay. The wave of popular support for Fumimaro Konoe’s New Order occurred after the party system was already dead. Under the second Konoe cabinet (1940–41), political parties were dissolved and the non-democratic government advanced a massive program of spiritual mobilization to inculcate traditional Japanese values with a focus on patriotism, rejecting liberalism as a Western import.

The Postwar Democratic Revival

The Potsdam Declaration, which defined the terms for Japan’s surrender, called for the “revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people.” This is an apt characterization of the postwar democratization process on which historians can agree. Postwar Japanese democracy was not created out of whole cloth. It was built through the revival of Japanese systems, institutions, and practices, strengthened with past mistakes in mind. The draft for a new postwar constitution, drawn up by a committee headed by legal scholar Joji Matsumoto in the early days of the US Occupation, was dismissed by General Douglas Macarthur and his Government Section as far too conservative, but it called for measures to strengthen the powers of the Diet as the foundation of party government. The dismantling of the Japanese empire was accepted relatively smoothly by the Japanese elite and the masses.

Japanese democracy has continued ever since. But is it strong enough to survive the trials ahead? Or is it in danger of going the way of Taisho Democracy?

Notwithstanding some turbulent chapters, Japan’s postwar democratic systems, norms, and practices have functioned relatively smoothly and effectively on a day-to-day basis. The failings of the Meiji Constitution and other prewar systems have been corrected. The selection of a prime minister has been clearly codified and placed in the hands of the House of Representatives. With the help of education at the new National Defense Academy, the nation’s armed forces have been rebuilt into a force consistent with and committed to democratic government. A military coup has become unthinkable.

At the local level, governors and mayors are elected directly in separate elections on a largely nonpartisan basis. Although this leads to problems at times, it makes sense from the standpoint of applying the lessons of the 1920s and keeping partisan politics within reasonable bounds. Democracy, having been securely established, has also undergone adjustments geared to preventing excess.

Japanese democracy is a part of Japanese culture, reflecting traditional Japanese values alongside Western liberalism. This is seen most clearly in the behavior of our leaders. In the midst of intense controversy, Japanese prime ministers (from Taro Katsura in the 1910s to Nobusuke Kishi, Takeo Fukuda, and Takeo Miki in the 1960s and 1970s) have repeatedly chosen to step down to defuse escalating tensions rather than use their executive powers to push through their agenda. Moreover, however intensely Japanese political parties may argue over the expansion of voting rights, they have never stooped to such tactics as closing or moving polling places in order to suppress the vote, as was alleged in the United States. Social and cultural norms may be as important as institutional constraints. Compromise and submission in the interests of social harmony can seem wise or foolish depending on the circumstances, but history has tended to treat such behavior favorably on the whole.

Japanese Democracy in a Changing World

On the other hand, Japanese democracy today faces new challenges. With the rise of populism and the decline of leadership by the elite, democracy can engender anti-intellectualism and political polarization. These are prominent among the democratic excesses that can lead to democracy’s downfall. To be sure, it is not always easy to define excess, but surely the use of such ideologically charged language as “fascist” to describe parties or policies with which one disagrees is unproductive. The example of prewar Japan shows how immoderate attacks on elected officials can undermine democracy.

With democracy in global decline, meanwhile, there is growing pressure from some quarters for democratic nations to form a united front against the advance of authoritarianism. There is certainly something to be said for technical cooperation to prevent interference in elections or to counter the spread of misinformation. But one worries about alliances that lump all authoritarian governed countries together as hypothetical enemies. The “us versus them” dichotomy can be drawn in any number of ways. After all, in the early 1990s, Japan’s political and economic systems were frequently attacked as not being proper democracy and capitalism. Fundamentally, a country’s political system is its own internal affair, and Tokyo’s basic policy toward China since the Tiananmen Incident reflects this perception, along with an emphasis on regional stability and harmony. The Japanese government believed there was no other good way to improve the situation. That said, the world is changing, and Japan must continue to adjust its strategies with a view to its own survival.

Our democratic society does not exist in isolation. Japan is part of a democratic community that includes such close neighbors as South Korea and Taiwan. Moreover, the rapid globalization of Japanese society has raised questions about what it means to be Japanese. In my opinion, people who have spent their formative years in Japan, apart from their age, nationality, and voting rights, can be thought of as being essentially “Japanese” and are members of the Japanese democratic community. Such questions must be addressed seriously and thoughtfully, in the light of our own history and that of the wider region.

Notwithstanding China’s success in managing the economy and the pandemic, few citizens of Japan would care to exchange their basic freedoms for efficiency. Their common hope, rather, is that the blessings of a liberal and open democratic society will eventually spread throughout East Asia. With this in mind, I would hope that we will give fuller support to our democratic systems, particularly the multi-party political system of Japan.

Ryota Murai

  • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review

    Professor, Faculty of Law, Komazawa University