In 1920, the country of Japan was beginning to show outward signs that it was embarking on a path towards political modernization and a model of relatively liberal democracy. Indeed, the previous decade had seen the nation's masses call for a 'constitutional government' and, by the beginning of the 1920's, elected politicians had come in from the peripheries to wield considerable, actual power. Rapid industrialization developed both a moneyed bourgeoisie and an urban proletariat, and trade unions and political organizations had begun to spring up at a greatly accelerated pace. The prime minister at the turn of the decade, Hara Takashi, was the first commoner to hold the position in Japan's history. Education had been universalized, and social mobility seemed to be on the increase. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and the Rice Riots of 1918 energized radical thought, and there were movements calling for universal male suffrage1, the social, economic and political liberation of women, and the end of the existing social order entirely.
Why then, by the end of the decade, had the tide of democratic process receded, and how had Japan's conservative and authoritarian elements reined back power from the hands of the people? This essay will attempt to answer these questions by looking at the respective movements trying to attain democratic rule, and on the opposite side, the forces of authority that were used to contain them, as well as considering the political institutions and people of Japan itself. Two of the key pieces of legislation passed during the 1920's will also be considered, the Universal Suffrage Bill and the Peace Preservation Law, both of 1925, as together they illustrate the cautious balance between progress and retreat that punctuated interwar Japanese politics.
The first focus of this essay will be on the official side to Japanese democracy – the elected legislature.