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The Shōwa period (Japanese: 昭和時代 Hepburn: Shōwa jidai), or Shōwa era, refers to the period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) from December 25, 1926 until his death on January 7, 1989.
The Shōwa period was longer than the reign of any previous Japanese emperor. During the pre-1945 period, Japan moved into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism and fascism culminating in Japan's invasion of China in 1937. This was part of an overall global period of social upheavals and conflicts such as the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Defeat in the Second World War brought about radical change to Japan. For the first and only time in its history, Japan was occupied by foreign powers; this occupation lasted seven years. Allied occupation brought forth sweeping democratic reforms. It led to the end of the emperor's status as a living god and the transformation of Japan into a democracy with a constitutional monarch. In 1952, with the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan became a sovereign nation once more. The post-war Shōwa period also led to the Japanese economic miracle.
In these ways, the pre-1945 and post-war periods regard completely different states: the pre-1945 Shōwa period (1926–1945) concerns the Empire of Japan, while post-1945 Shōwa period (1945–1989) was a part of the State of Japan.
It was succeeded by the Heisei period.
The two kanji characters in Shōwa (昭和) were from a passage of the Chinese Book of Documents: "百姓昭明，協和萬邦" (Translated: "[T]he people (of his domain), ... all became brightly intelligent. (Finally), he united and harmonized the myriad states.") From this same quotation, Japan also adopted the era name Meiwa (明和) during the Edo period in the late-18th century. There were two other candidates at the time - Dōwa (同和) and Genka (元化).
The term could be roughly understood as meaning "enlightened peace" or in some interpretations "radiant Japan".
End of "Taishō Democracy"
The election of Katō Takaaki as Prime Minister of Japan continued democratic reforms that had been advocated by influential individuals on the left. This culminated in the passage of universal manhood suffrage in May 1925. This bill gave all male subjects over the age of 25 the right to vote, provided they had lived in their electoral districts for at least one year and were not homeless. The electorate thereby greatly increased from 3.3 million to 12.5 million.
Pressure from the conservative right, however, forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 along with other anti-radical legislation, only ten days before the passage of universal manhood suffrage. The Peace Preservation Act curtailed individual freedom in Japan at the beginning to some degree, later to a large degree. It outlawed groups that sought to alter the system of government or to abolish private ownership. The leftist movements that had been galvanized by the Russian Revolution were subsequently crushed and scattered. This was in part due to the Peace Preservation Act, but also due to the general fragmentation of the left.
Conservatives forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law because the party leaders and politicians of the Taishō era had felt that, after World War I, the state was in danger from revolutionary movements. The Japanese state never clearly defined a boundary between private and public matters and, thus, demanded loyalty in all spheres of society. Subsequently, any ideological attack, such as a proposal for socialist reforms, was seen as an attack on the very existence of the state. The meaning of the law was gradually stretched to academic spheres.
After the passage of the Peace Preservation Law and related legislation, kokutai emerged as the symbol of the state. Kokutai was seen as the barrier against communist and socialist movements in Japan. With the challenge of the Great Depression on the horizon, this would be the death knell for parliamentary democracy in Japan.
Washington Conference to Mukden Incident
After World War I, the Western Powers, influenced by Wilsonian ideology, attempted an effort at general disarmament. At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, the Great Powers met to set limits on naval armament. The Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement worked out in Washington limited competition in battleships and aircraft carriers to a ratio of 5:5:3 for the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan respectively. Japanese ultra-nationalists viewed this as an attempt by Western powers to curb Japanese expansionism in an area of the globe over which they had no interest. But, those in power in Japan readily agreed to the disarmament, realizing that the global taste for war had been soured after the First World War and knowing that, the ratio was sufficient to maintain hegemony in the Pacific.
In 1924, however, friendly U.S.-Japanese relations were torpedoed by the Japanese Exclusion Act. The act closed off Japanese immigration to the United States and dropped Japanese immigrants to the level of other Asians (who were already excluded). The overwhelming reaction in Japan, both at the highest levels and in mass rallies that reflected angry public opinion, was hostile and sustained. Commentators suggested the opening guns of a race war and called for a new buildup of the Japanese armed forces.
From 1928 to 1932, domestic crisis could no longer be avoided. As the left was vigorously put down by the state, the economic collapse brought a new hardship to the people of Japan. Silk and rice prices plummeted and exports decreased 50%. Unemployment in both the cities and the countryside skyrocketed and social agitation came to a head.
Meanwhile, the London Naval Treaty was ratified in 1930. Its purpose was to extend the Washington Treaty System. The Japanese government had desired to raise their ratio to 10:10:7, but this proposal was swiftly countered by the United States. Thanks to back-room dealing and other intrigues, though, Japan walked away with a 5:4 advantage in heavy cruisers, but this small gesture would not satisfy the populace of Japan which was gradually falling under the spell of the various ultra-nationalist groups spawning throughout the country. As a result of his failings regarding the London Naval Treaty, Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was shot on November 14, 1930, by an ultranationalist and died in 1931.
By this time, the civilian government had lost control of the populace. A New York Times correspondent called Japan a country ruled by "government by assassination." The army, moving independently of the proper government of Japan, took the opportunity to invade Manchuria in the Summer of 1931.
Since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan had maintained a military presence in Manchuria. After a small explosion on the tracks of a Japanese railway, north of Mukden, the Japanese army mobilized the Kwantung Army and attacked Chinese troops. The Minseito government, headed by Hamaguchi's successor Wakatsuki Reijirō, was unable to curb the army's offensive. The Kwantung Army conquered all of Manchuria and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Diet, now dominated by army officials, voted to withdraw from the League of Nations. The first seeds of the coming conflict had been sown.
Rise of nationalism
Prior to 1868, most Japanese more readily identified with their feudal domain rather than the idea of "Japan" as a whole. When the Tokugawa bakufu was overthrown, the leaders of the revolt, Satsuma and Chōshū, were ideologically opposed to the house of Tokugawa since the Battle of Sekigahara. The Meiji period changed all of that. With the introduction of mass education, conscription, industrialization, centralization, and successful foreign wars, Japanese nationalism began to foment as a powerful force in society. Mass education and conscription served as a means to indoctrinate the coming generation with "the idea of Japan" as a nation instead of a series of daimyōs. In this way, loyalty to feudal domains was supplanted with loyalty to the state. Industrialization and centralization gave Japanese a strong sense that their country could once more rival & dominate Western powers technologically and socially. Moreover, successful foreign wars gave the populace a sense of martial pride in their nation.
The rise of Japanese nationalism paralleled the growth of nationalism within the West. Certain conservatives such as Gondō Seikei and Asahi Heigo saw the rapid industrialization of Japan as something that had to be tempered. It seemed, for a time, that Japan was becoming too multicultural & "Westernized" and that if left unimpeded, something intrinsically Japanese would be lost. During the Meiji period, such nationalists railed against the unequal treaties, but in the years following the First World War, Western criticism of Japanese imperial ambitions and restrictions on Japanese immigration changed the focus of the nationalist movement in Japan.
Japanese nationalism was buoyed by a romantic concept of Bushidō and driven by a modern concern for rapid industrial development and strategic dominance in East Asia. It saw the Triple Intervention of 1895 as a threat to Japanese survival in East Asia and warned that the "ABCD Powers" (Americans, British, Chinese and Dutch) were threatening the Empire of Japan. Their only solution was conquest and war.
During the first part of the Shōwa era, racial discrimination against other Asians was habitual in Imperial Japan, having begun with the start of Japanese colonialism. The Shōwa regime thus preached racial superiority and racialist theories, based on sacred nature of the Yamato-damashii. One of Emperor Shōwa's teachers, historian Kurakichi Shiratori, remarked, "Therefore nothing in the world compares to the divine nature (shinsei) of the imperial house and likewise the majesty of our national polity (kokutai). Here is one great reason for Japan's superiority."
The Anti-Comintern Pact brought Nazi ideologues to Japan who attempted but ultimately failed to inject Nazi-style anti-Semitic arguments into mainstream public discussion. Where the government presented the popular image of Jews, it was not so much to persecute but to strengthen domestic ideological uniformity.
The anti-Semitic policies of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany were refused when foreign minister of Japan Yōsuke Matsuoka stated that: "Nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world."
Imperial Japanese Army General Kiichiro Higuchi and Colonel Norihiro Yasue allowed 20,000 Jews to enter Manchukuo in 1938. Higuchi and Yasue were well regarded for their actions and were subsequently invited to the independence ceremonies of the State of Israel. Diplomat Chiune Sugihara wrote travel visas for over 6,000 Lithuanian Jews to flee the German occupation and travel to Japan. In 1985, Israel honored him as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions.
The withdrawal from the League of Nations meant that Japan was politically isolated. Japan had no strong allies and its actions had been internationally condemned, whilst internally popular nationalism was booming. Local leaders, such as mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited by the various movements to indoctrinate the populace with ultra-nationalist ideals. They had little time for the pragmatic ideas of the business elite and party politicians. Their loyalty lay to the Emperor and the military. In March 1932 the "League of Blood" assassination plot and the chaos surrounding the trial of its conspirators further eroded the rule of democratic law in Shōwa Japan. In May of the same year a group of right-wing Army and Navy officers succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. The plot fell short of staging a complete coup d'état, but it effectively ended rule by political parties in Japan.
From 1932 to 1936, the country was governed by admirals. Mounting nationalist sympathies led to chronic instability in government. Moderate policies were difficult to enforce. The crisis culminated on February 26, 1936. In what became known as the February 26 Incident, about 1,500 ultranationalist army troops marched on central Tokyo. Their mission was to assassinate the government and promote a "Shōwa Restoration". Prime Minister Okada survived the attempted coup by hiding in a storage shed in his house, but the coup only ended when the Emperor personally ordered an end to the bloodshed.
Within the state, the idea of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere began to foment. The nationalists believed that the "ABCD powers" (Americans, British, Chinese, Dutch) were a threat to all Asians and that Asia could only survive by following the Japanese example. Japan had been the only Asian and non-Western power to industrialize itself successfully and rival great Western empires. While largely described by contemporary Western observers as a front for the expansion of the Japanese army, the idea behind the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that Asia would be united against the Western powers and Western Imperialism under the auspices of the Japanese. The idea drew influence in the paternalistic aspects of Confucianism and Koshitsu Shinto. Thus, the main goal of the Sphere was the hakkō ichiu, the unification of the eight corners of the world under the rule (kōdō) of the Emperor.
The reality during this period differed from the propaganda. Some nationalities and ethnic groups were marginalized, and during rapid military expansion into foreign countries, the Imperial General Headquarters tolerated many atrocities against local populations, such as the experimentations of unit 731, the sankō sakusen, the use of chemical and biological weapons and civilian massacres such as those in Nanjing, Singapore and Manila.
Some of the atrocities were motivated by racism. For instance, Japanese soldiers were taught to think of captured Chinese as not worthy of mercy.
Second Sino-Japanese War
On July 7, 1937, at the Marco Polo Bridge, the Japanese Kwantung army stationed there used explosions heard on the Chinese side of Manchuria as a pretext for invasion. The invasion led to a large-scale war approved by the Emperor that was called a "holy war" (Seisen) in Imperial propaganda.
At the time, China was divided internally between the Communist Party of China (CPC), which was under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and the Nationalist government of China, the Kuomintang (KMT), which was under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.
The years of 1937–38 were a time of rapid and remarkable success by the Japanese, who had a number of advantages over the Chinese army. While the Japanese army possessed a smaller force of armour and artillery than many Western powers, it was far ahead of China in this respect, and was also in command of the world's third largest navy with 2,700 watercraft at its disposal.
By the end of July 1937, the Japanese had slaughtered the elite 29th Army at Kupeikou and soon captured Beijing. From there, the Japanese advanced down south through the major railway lines (Peiping-Suiyan, Peiping-Hankow, and Tientsin-Pukow). These were easily conquered by the superior Japanese army.
By October, Chiang Kai-shek's best armies had been defeated at Shanghai. By the end of the year, the Chinese capital at Nanjing had also been seized. The use of brutal scorched earth tactics by both sides, the Chinese as in 1938 Yellow River flood and later by the Japanese with the Three Alls Policy, "kill all, burn all, loot all", initiated in 1940, claimed millions of lives. The Chinese nationalists resorted to massive civilian guerrilla tactics, which fatigued and frustrated Japanese forces. Countless Chinese civilians were executed on the suspicion of being resistance fighters. Japanese war crimes at Nanking and other sites in China and Manchukuo have been well documented.
On December 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, following the capture of Nanjing, began the Nanjing Massacre (sometimes called the "Rape of Nanking"), which resulted in a massive number of civilian deaths including infants and elderly, and the large-scale rape of Chinese women. The exact number of casualties is an issue of fierce debate between Chinese and Japanese historians (refer to the Nanjing Massacre article for more details).
By 1939, the Japanese war effort had become a stalemate. The Japanese army had seized most of the vital cities in China, including Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, and Wuhan. The Nationalists and the Communists, however, fought on from Chongqing and Yenan, respectively.
Second World War
Negotiations for a German-Japanese alliance began in 1937 with the onset of hostilities between Japan and China. On September 27, 1940, the Tripartite Pact was signed, creating the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis. The quagmire in China did not stall imperial ambitions for the creation of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Indeed, the Second Sino-Japanese War fuelled the need for oil that could be found in the Dutch East Indies. After the Imperial General Headquarters refused to remove its troops from China (excluding Manchukuo) and French Indochina, Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced in July 1941 an oil embargo on Japan. Using that as a justification for war, Imperial General Headquarters launched the so-called Greater East Asia War which began with a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
For the next six months, the Japanese had the initiative and went on the offensive. Hong Kong was overrun on December 8, 1941. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered Burma, Siam, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. The decisive naval/aerial Battle of Midway that took place in early June 1942, however, changed the momentum of the war. Japan was put on the defensive as the Americans pursued their policy of island hopping at their leisure.
Tokyo was repeatedly firebombed in 1945 and in the early spring and summer of 1945, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were seized by the Americans. Finally, the death agony of the Empire of Japan came in August 1945. On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, instantly killing approximately 70,000 people when the attack took place (plus another estimated 130,000 by 1960 due to after-effects). On August 8, the Soviet Union invaded Manchukuo. The following day, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing approximately 40,000 people. The government of the Empire of Japan surrendered on August 14. The official surrender ceremony was held on September 2.
Total Japanese military fatalities between 1937 and 1945 were 2.1 million; most came in the last year of the war. Starvation or malnutrition-related illness accounted for roughly 80 percent of Japanese military deaths in the Philippines, and 50 percent of military fatalities in China. The aerial bombing of a total of 69 Japanese cities appears to have taken a minimum of 400,000 and possibly closer to 600,000 civilian lives (over 100,000 in Tokyo alone, over 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and 80,000–150,000 civilian deaths in the battle of Okinawa). Civilian death among settlers who died attempting to return to Japan from Manchuria in the winter of 1945 were probably around 100,000.
Japan launched multiple attacks in East Asia. In 1937, the Japanese Army invaded and captured most of the coastal Chinese cities such as Shanghai. Japan took over French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), British Malaya (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore) as well as the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Thailand managed to stay independent by becoming a satellite state of Japan. In December 1941 to May 1942, Japan sank major elements of the American, British and Dutch fleets, captured Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, and reached the borders of India and Australia. Japan suddenly had achieved its goal of ruling the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The ideology of Japan's colonial empire, as it expanded dramatically during the war, contained two somewhat contradictory impulses. On the one hand, it preached the unity of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a coalition of Asian races, directed by Japan, against the imperialism of Britain, France, the Netherlands, the United States, and European imperialism generally. This approach celebrated the spiritual values of the East in opposition to the crass materialism of the West. In practice, however, the Japanese installed organizationally-minded bureaucrats and engineers to run their new empire, and they believed in ideals of efficiency, modernization, and engineering solutions to social problems. It was fascism based on technology and rejected Western norms of democracy. After 1945, the engineers and bureaucrats took over and turned the wartime techno-fascism into entrepreneurial management skills.
Japan set up puppet regimes in Manchuria and China; they vanished at the end of the war. The Army operated ruthless governments in most of the conquered areas but paid more favorable attention to the Dutch East Indies. The main goal was to obtain oil. The Dutch destroyed their oil wells but the Japanese reopened them. However most of the tankers taking oil to Japan were sunk by American submarines, so Japan's oil shortage became increasingly acute. Japan sponsored an Indonesian nationalist movement under Sukarno. Sukarno finally came to power in the late 1940s after several years of battling the Dutch.
Defeat and Allied occupation
With the defeat of the Empire of Japan, the Allied Powers dissolved the Empire of Japan. The Soviet Union was made responsible for North Korea, and annexed the Kuril Islands and the southern portion of the island of Sakhalin. The United States took responsibility for the rest of Japan's possessions in Oceania. China, meanwhile, plunged into civil war, with the Communists in control by 1949. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the Allied Occupation of Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers; he and his staff exerted wide but indirect power, for the decisions were carried out by Japanese officials.
Japan's military was disarmed completely and the absoluteness of the emperor was repealed by the Post-war Constitution. Article 9 of the Post-war Constitution prevented Japan from ever waging war on a foreign nation.
A War Crimes Tribunal, similar to that at Nuremberg, was set up in Tokyo. Several prominent members of the Japanese cabinet were executed, most notably former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. But the Emperor was neither tried at the Tokyo trials nor dethroned, nor any members of the imperial family. Instead, under the Post-war Constitution, the Japanese Emperor was reduced to a figurehead nominal monarch without divine characteristics and is forbidden to play a role in politics.
MacArthur sought to break the power of the zaibatsu; Japan was democratized and liberalized along American "New Deal" liberal lines. Parliamentary party politics was restored. Old left-wing organizations such as the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party reasserted themselves. The first postwar elections were held in 1946, and for the first time, women were allowed to vote.
By the late 1940s there were two conservative parties (Japan Democratic Party and Liberal Party); they merged in 1955 as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). By 1955 the political system stabilized in what was called the 1955 System. The two chief parties were the conservative LDP and the leftist Social Democratic Party. Throughout the period 1955 to 2007, the LDP was dominant (with a brief interlude in 1993-94). The LDP was pro-business, pro-American, and had a strong rural base.
Shigeru Yoshida was elected as Prime Minister of Japan. His policy, known as the "Yoshida Doctrine", emphasized military reliance on the United States and promoted unrestrained economic growth. As Cold War tensions rose, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which came into force on April 28, 1952. Japan became a sovereign nation once more.
The "Japanese Miracle"
Japan's remarkable economic growth in the decades following 1950 has been called the "Japanese Miracle", as the economy grew three times faster than other major nations. It was achieved virtually[weasel words] without foreign capital. The miracle slackened off in 1973 in the face of an upsurge in oil prices and the destabilization of international trade. By the mid-1990s the economy entered an era of stagnation and low growth that still persists.
Saburō Ōkita (1914–93), an economist, realized by 1942 that the war was lost; he prepared a plan for Japan's post-war economic recovery that was published in 1945 as "The Fundamental Directions for the Reconstruction of the Japanese Economy". He became foreign minister in 1979 and endeavored to integrate Japan economically and politically with the world economy.
From 1950 onward, Japan rebuilt itself politically and economically. Sugita finds that "the 1950s was a decade during which Japan formulated a unique corporate capitalist system in which government, business, and labor implemented close and intricate cooperation".
Japan's newfound economic power soon gave it far more dominance than it ever had militarily. The Yoshida Doctrine and the Japanese government's economic intervention spurred on an economic miracle on par with the record of West Germany. The Japanese government strove to spur industrial development through a mix of protectionism and trade expansion. The establishment of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was instrumental in the Japanese post-war economic recovery. By 1954, the MITI system was in full effect. It coordinated industry and government action and fostered cooperative arrangements, and sponsored research to develop promising exports as well as imports for which substitutes would be sought (especially dyestuffs, iron and steel, and soda ash). Yoshida's successor, Hayato Ikeda, began implementing economic policies which removed much of Japan's anti-monopoly laws. Foreign companies were locked out of the Japanese market and strict protectionist laws were enacted.
Meanwhile, the United States under President Eisenhower saw Japan as the economic anchor for Western Cold War policy in Asia. Japan was completely demilitarized and did not contribute to military power, but did provide the economic power. The US and UN forces used Japan as their forward logistics base during the Korean War (1950–53), and orders for supplies flooded Japan. The close economic relationship strengthened the political and diplomatic ties, so that the two nations survived a political crisis in 1960 involving left-wing opposition to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The left failed to force the removal of large American military bases in Japan, especially on Okinawa. Shimizu argues that the American policy of creating "people of plenty" was a success in Japan and reached its goal of defusing anti-capitalist protest on the left.
- Shōwa financial crisis
- Shōwa Modan (昭和モダン), referring to the modernization of Japan during the Shōwa era.
- List of Japanese political figures in early Shōwa period
- Japanese resistance during the Shōwa period
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