"Restore the Emperor Expel the Barbarians": The 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 was only
the urban elite's who were benefiting from the growing industrialization. The
peasants, who outnumbered the urban population were touched little by the
momentous changes this lead to discontent in