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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #24: April 7, 2003


Jung-Sun N. Han (University of Washington)

Use and Abuse of History
Promoting the notion of "preemptive war," the United States has invaded Iraq and another military conflict has begun in the Middle East. In pondering the meaning and significance of the chain of events that led to the war and the war itself, strategists, scholars, and commentaries around the world also have begun to analyze the possible repercussions of the Middle Eastern conflict upon growing uncertainties in Northeast Asia.

Although history hardly repeats itself exactly, historical analogies can sometimes provide lessons in charting the uncertainties by articulating some of the missed opportunities in the past. Perhaps this is why policy-makers and commentaries are evoking the experience of World War II in analyzing the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Yet, the use of history by the U.S. administration and the Japanese conservative camp is alarmingly off the mark.

In identifying Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as a major threat to the international community, U.S. president George W. Bush made a historical analogy to the World War II Axis Powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan by using the term "axis of evil." The usage, however, is gravely out of context since the World War II axis powers did engage in war of aggression while Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are not. In early October, 2002 it was reported that the Bush administration was developing a plan for postwar Iraq modeled after the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War II. Since the absurdity of the historical analogy made by the U.S administration has already been critically pointed out elsewhere#1 it will not be repeated here.

A Japanese Use of History
On the other side of the Pacific, the Japanese prewar experience is used to defend the conservative's position within Japan. Uncomfortable with the negative use of Japan's past, Okazaki Hisahiko, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand, published an article entitled "U.S must learn lessons from occupation of Japan."#2 Making it clear that Japan's past is no model for the anticipated U.S. reconstruction of "postwar Iraq," Okazaki further argued that the American occupation policy in Japan was in fact a series of "mistakes."

According to Okazaki, the first mistake was the imposing of values that did not reflect the Japanese traditions by letting "New Deal leftists," who were hardly "friends" of Japan, to hold influential positions in the occupation's decision-making process. In relation to the first, the second "mistake" was the postwar Constitution that renounced war as a sovereign right. It was simply "impractical." Consequently, the American occupation created "lingering evils," namely, the progressive forces nurtured through the education system and embodied in the "media" and "public opinion" that firmly resist any form of Japan's military engagement in international affairs.

The article went on to advise the U.S. to learn from these "mistakes" and to send "friends of Iraq" should it rebuild "postwar Iraq." In making his points, Okazaki referred to "Taisho Democracy," suggesting that postwar democracy in Japan was less made by the U.S. occupation than by the natural outgrowth of Japan's own experience of democracy in the prewar period. By arguing that prewar Japan already experienced democracy and making postwar democracy as the product of this indigenous experience, Okazaki is implicitly suggesting that Japan can and should become a so-called "normal country." A "normal country" in this context is close to Ozawa Ichiro's notion of "normal country," which called for Japan's active military involvement in the U.S.-led international initiatives.#3

Here we will not discuss the article's assessment of the U.S. occupation policy nor the relevance of its advice to the U.S. Rather, by focusing on the history of Taisho democracy, we will attempt to redirect the use of past away from justifying the position of Japanese conservatives to making the past a guide for building a constructive consensus for Japan's positive role in the international community. For this purpose, it is critical to ask why the so-called "Taisho democracy" failed in preventing the rise of militarism in prewar Japan, instead of conveniently assuming that Japan once had the experience of it.

A Short History of "Taisho Democracy"
In the narrowest sense, Taisho Democracy refers to the relatively liberal period that overlapped with the reign of Emperor Yoshihito, which began in 1912 and lasted until 1926. But most historians generally agree that the period could be extended, going further back to 1905 and up to 1932. The Hibiya Riots of 1905, a mass protest meeting that expressed nationwide resentment at the terms of the Portsmouth Treaty, ushered in the period of growing participation of people in national politics. The year 1932 marked the end of party government with the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi.

The most noteworthy change in this period was the rise of political parties and the broadening of male suffrage. Despite the extremely hostile conditions to the development of party cabinets set by the Meiji Constitution, political parties gradually gained power and they attained a position of quasi supremacy from 1918 to 1932 (with the exception of a short period 1922 between 1924 when there were three non-party cabinets).

The way the parties gained power, however, was not through expanding their political basis in the populace, but through infiltrating or compromising with the other elites: at first with the oligarchy, then the bureaucracy, and finally the military. In other words, the Taisho political system remained very elitist and hardly rooted in popular sovereignty.

Corollary to the development of political parties was the growing currency of new liberal ideas in Japanese society. One of the representative thinkers was Yoshino Sakuzo (1878-1933), who popularized the notion of minponshugi (literally, people-centrism). Mediated through one of the most prestigious journals, Chūo koron, Yoshino's idea of minponshugi enjoyed great publicity from 1916, and still is celebrated as the indigenous liberal idea of prewar Japan. Yoshino's notion of minponshugi called for the redistribution of power and wealth in Japanese society (1) by institutionalizing the political system of popular representation; and, (2) by employing various social policies to protect the weak and poor.

However, Yoshino's notion of minponshugi did not call for "government by the people," which was premised upon the principle of popular sovereignty, but called only for "government for the people." The notion of imperial sovereignty that was stipulated in the Meiji Constitution was never challenged by Yoshino's minponshugi.

While the period witnessed growing calls for the system of popular representation domestically, the period overlapped with the expansion of the Japanese empire. Japan annexed Korea in 1911, penetrated into Manchuria and hinterland China by taking advantage of power vacuum in East Asia created by World War I, and expanded into the "southern sea."

Empire and "Taisho Democracy"
Formulated in this context of expanding empire, it is my argument that minponshugi was less the political theory of democracy than the comprehensive re-conceptualization of national purpose for the post-World War I order. For example, in a speech directed toward an audience of university students in 1917, Yoshino asserted that "if one wishes to discuss the right and wrong and the advantages and shortcomings of minponshugi in political terms, it becomes central to ask whether the politics of minponshugi are suitable to current world trends. That is, is minponshugi appropriate in a world where international competition is extreme?"#4

Forecasting that the Anglo-American powers would win over Germany, Yoshino believed that these powers would restore the prewar order of "free-trade" imperialism, originally created by the British and then supported by the U.S. As a consequence, the resort to militarist expansion would be increasingly unacceptable. For Japan, this meant that Japan should respect the territorial integrity of China and Japanese interests should be promoted through peaceful competition. In short, the Japanese government should not engage in any form of unilateral military operation to gain privileged access to markets and resources in China.

Reading the postwar order in this way, it was apparent to Yoshino that the Japanese imperial project, which was so far carried out in a militarist fashion, needed to be liberalized and rationalized. Minponshugi precisely reflected this concern. The assumption was such that the military's influence in the imperial project would be reduced through democratizing and liberalizing the domestic political system. It must be pointed out that Yoshino never explicitly argued for the abandonment of colonies.

In this respect, Taisho Democracy as represented by Yoshino was embedded in the imperialist world order in the sense that it hardly challenged colonialism. It was not whether or not Japan should engage in the imperial project but how.

The inability to critique the colonial and imperial project, along with the highly elitist element of Taisho Democracy were the internal factors that contributed to its fall. Since it rarely questioned the necessity of the imperial project for promoting national interests, the Taisho liberals were highly susceptible to the military's claim that in order to protect national interests Japan could not but expand its empire.

On the other hand, the external factor that contributed to the fall of Taisho Democracy was the failure of international powers in East Asia in co-operating with one another against the growing tension in Sino-Japanese relations. Crippled by the worldwide depression and destabilized by anti-colonial movements, major powers in China failed in coordinating their own national interests and resorted to protectionist policies respectively. This in turn heightened a sense of total national crisis in Japan. Japan, already suffering from severe rural poverty and urban unemployment caused by depression, increasingly perceived itself unfairly deprived of strategic access to markets and resources by being denied additional colonies. Accusing the Anglo-American powers as "have" nations trying to freeze Japan as a second-rate "have-not" nation by imposing the norms of "free-trade" imperialism, many in Japan challenged the international order as unjust and decided to go alone when the U.S. resorted to economic sanctions in response to Japan's acts of aggression in China and Southeast Asia.

To summarize, the fall of democracy and the rise of militarism in the 1930s were facilitated by the inherent constraint within Taisho Democracy. Many liberals were susceptible to the military's call for isolationist and unilateral foreign policy to expand the Japanese Empire because they never doubted the value of colonies. External conditions in which the powers failed to cooperate and ultimately resorted to a hard-line policy narrowed the range of choices for the moderate forces and contributed to the rise of the military in Japan. These conditions also led to the tragic war for the Japanese people as well as other Asians.

Lessons from the Fall of "Taisho Democracy"
What are the lessons that we can learn from the history of the fall of Taisho democracy, particularly in this time of escalating confusion and uncertainty in Northeast Asia? The chain of events in which Japan was outlawed from the international community and waged a war suggests that when a desperate country with an acute sense of insecurity is pushed to a corner, it tends to take risks rather than turn back. The Japanese leaders on the eve of the Pacific War did precisely this. Many decided to wage an un-winnable war against the U.S. when the U.S. carried out economic sanctions. The words of General Tojo Hideki on the eve of the war capture this mentality: "sometimes people have to shut their eyes and take the plunge."#5

Japan is uniquely positioned to diffuse the present tension in Northeast Asia caused by the North Korean nuclear stalemate. Japan was once outlawed as an axis power but successfully re-entered the international community with the lofty ideal of building a peaceful international order as envisioned in Article 9 of the postwar constitution. Based on this experience, Japan can play a central role in building a consensus that the prevention of war in the region is a common interest. Using its close relation with the U.S., Japan could try to persuade the U.S. to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea. In the meantime, Japan could coordinate economic assistance to North Korea to end the international isolation of that country, and could coordinate political meetings that guarantee U.S. assurances of non-aggression toward North Korea in exchange for immediate and verifiable suspension of nuclear weapons development in North Korea.

If carried out constructively, the Northeast Asia crisis can turn into an opportunity for Japan in becoming a responsible "normal" and "mature" country without inducing suspicion from its neighbors that is deeply rooted in Japan's past crimes against Asian peoples. Furthermore, Japan's positive leadership in diffusing nuclear tension in the region will validate the high ideal that most Japanese people treasure since the atomic tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


#1 Chalmers Johnson, "Rebuilding Iraq: Japan is No Model," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 2002; John Dower, "Lessons from Japan about War's Aftermath," New York Times, Oct. 27, 2002.

#2 Hisahiko Okazaki, The Daily Yomiuri, Jan. 19, 2003. The article can be also read at http://www.glocom.org/debates/20030227_okazaki_us/

#3 Ozawa Ichiro, Blueprint for a new Japan : the rethinking of a nation (New York : Kodansha International, 1994)

#4 Yoshino Sakuzo, "Minponshugi and the Problem of National Polity (Minponshugi to Kokutai mondai)," Daigaku hyoron (Nov. 1917/T6), reprinted in Ōta Masao ed., Shiryo taisho demokurasii ronsoshū, Vol. 1 (Tokyo: Shinsensha, 1971), p.53.

#5 Quoted in Kenneth B. Pyle, The Making of Modern Japan (Lexington: D.C. Heath & Company, 1996), pp.201-2.

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