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Industrialization and Democracy, Two-Party System

Hara Takashi, Kellogg-Briand Pact, public drive, conservative forces, Washington Conference

In 1918 an outbreak of nationwide rioting over inflated rice prices, along with calls for political reform, forced the sitting cabinet to resign, and for the first time a commoner and political party leader, Hara Takashi, became prime minister. An astute former official, Hara built political power by catering to local economic interests. For the next decade and a half, except for the years from 1922 to 1924, political parties based in the lower house of the Imperial Diet dominated the political scene. Just as it did in Britain, power in Japan passed back and forth between two major political parties, the Seiyukai (Liberal Party) and the Rikken Minseito (Constitutional Democratic Party). Many observers concluded that an era of “normal constitutional government” based on parliamentary control had arrived in Japan.

Public demands for democratic reforms became increasingly vocal at the end of World War I. The outbreak of democratic revolutions in Germany and Russia signaled a change in world trends. At first the public drive for democratization in Japan centered on expanding the right to vote to include all adult males. In 1925, after several years of debate, a universal manhood suffrage law finally passed the Imperial Diet, and the electorate expanded from 3 million to nearly 14 million.

But radical political elements in Japan, including an emerging Marxist left, demanded more sweeping social reforms, including protection for labor unions, laws guaranteeing improved working conditions, public health insurance, and other social welfare laws. By the late 1920s representatives from a small group of left-wing parties had been elected to the Diet. The demand for more social legislation had support from liberal-minded government bureaucrats and from moderate party politicians, but conservative forces blocked passage of such sweeping social reforms.

Japan’s foreign policy became less expansionist after World War I, also in response to trends among the Western powers. Japan joined the League of Nations (an international alliance for the preservation of peace) at its founding in 1920 as one of the “big five” most powerful nations. At the Washington Conference of 1922, Japan agreed with other major naval powers in the Pacific to respect one another’s colonial territories and to limit naval development at a fixed ratio of ships. Nine countries, including Japan, also agreed to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of China, ruled since 1911 by a republican government. Finally, in 1928 Japan, along with 14 other countries, signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which denounced war as a means of solving international disputes.

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