Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Echoes of a fourteen-year failed revolution

I have long been fascinated by Japanese history, but it has not been the tales of the daimyō battling to become shōgun in the Sengoku period, nor the flowering of Japanese Buddhism and aesthetic culture in the Heian period, embodied in works like The Tale of Genji that caught my particular attention. Rather it was the all-but unheralded Taishō era (大正時代 1912–26), wedged between the better-known rapid modernization of the Meiji era and the period of Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia, which ultimately led to WWII in the Pacific, the Shōwa.¹ I should also note that properly Taishō is when the stage was set for Shōwa’s belligerence.

I became interested in the era when I first lived in Tōkyō. In 1988, the Tōkyō Metropolitan Art Museum (東京都美術館) had an exhibition called simply “1920年代日本展” or in English, “The 1920’s in Japan” [sic]. The artifacts featured were interesting mainly because of the sheer variety appearing. I purchased, and still possess, the catalogue of the show, which resembles nothing so much as a telephone book in size. The foreword gives some idea of the scope:

Included in this show are more than 400 exhibits; paintings, sculptures, photographs, architectural and urban design plans, plans for stage sets, films, products of industrial and graphic design, and related works of reference.

More than 150 artists are represented here. Some were active in a number of fields; many influenced one another; they all in one form or another expressed some aspect of the spirit of the age.

And it’s additionally worth noting that not all of these artists were Japanese—the influence of Western art was at a zenith, and so pride of place in the book is given to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in particular the second Imperial Hotel. This Wright edifice was built 1919–1923 near the Imperial Palace grounds in Tōkyō.

So how did a period that only lasted 14 years under an emperor whose neurological conditions left him unable to carry out public functions produce such a wealth of art? The mental state of Emperor Taishō (大正天皇), whose personal name was Yoshihito (嘉仁), is perhaps best summed up in the last of his rare public appearances, where he famously rolled the speech he had prepared for the opening of the national legislature into a tube and peered through it at the assembled dignitaries it as if it were a telescope.

Although the culture mainly is what interests me it’s impossible to talk about it without discussing the intertwined political and economic histories of the period. The event that really defines it is WWI: Japan joined the Allied Powers near the close of the conflict in somewhat opportunistic fashion, and indeed the resulting economic boom was characterized by historian Jeffrey Hanes thus:²

[World War I] sent Europe to its knees and brought Japan to its feet.

Firstly, with Germany focused on the war in Europe, Japan swooped on their territories in East Asia as an occupying force. When they declared war on the side of the Allied Powers, their new friends were happy to legitimize these annexations. The collapse of Imperial Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution also removed a key rival from contention for hegemony over the Far East. Japan joined the League of Nations as one of the “Big Five” members of the new international order.

Towards the end of the conflict, and with the resources of the other allies greatly depleted, Japan was increasingly called upon to fulfill their needs for the wide variety of materials needed to continue to prosecute the war. This allowed Japanese industry to both diversify and expand rapidly. The Nishihara Loans (西原借款), of which there were eight totaling ¥145M, were made mainly to the Chinese government in 1917 and 1918. These moved Japan from debtor to creditor status for the first time. In return Japan’s claims to the formerly German Kiautschou Bay concession in Shandong were confirmed, control of the railways in Shandong Province was granted, and their rights in Manchuria were extended.

This meteoric rise left rural regions hollowed out as young men and women migrated into the urban centers where work in factories and offices was plentiful and high-paying. There was also runaway inflation that peaked immediately following the war and led to rice riots in 1918 (米騒動). Rice, a major staple in Japan then as now, had a government-fixed low buying price from farmers, but the selling price to consumers was allowed to spiral out of control. Though perhaps innocuous-sounding, these riots included strikes, looting, bombings of official buildings, and armed clashes between protesters and police. During the three months in which the riots took place, there were 417 separate incidents involving more than 66,000 dissidents, of which 25,000 were arrested, and 8200 convicted of crimes for which the punishments meted out ranged from minor fines to executions.

Meanwhile the newly citified class was able to achieve an unprecedented degree of financial independence regardless of their class or place of origin. Furthermore this included not only men, but also women. Although these new urbanites were a necessary ingredient in the nation’s economic growth, they also represented a source of great political tension.

The men were a problem because the group often leaned farther Left than the Taishō Democracy (大正デモクラシー) was willing to bend. Initially, their vote was limited based on taxation but after various groups, including students and laborers, united to demand liberalization of the vote, full suffrage for males beginning at age 25 was granted under the General Election Law (普通選挙法) of 1925. However, this was somewhat mitigated by the fact that these mobo (モボ, an abbreviation of モダンボーイ: “modern boys”) were likely to be under control of the institutions of the military or the workplace, which could therefore sway their votes. As for their female counterparts the moga (モガ, from モダンガール: “modern girl”), however, social conservatives found their fun-loving, financially and sexually independent Westernized brand of womanhood threatening even in spite of their ineligibility to vote.

The various coalition governments of the period turned the public’s focus toward the sentimentally emotional issue of the plight of the farmers both to attack opponents and to gain votes. Although the rhetoric of contrasting these “real Japanese” with degenerate urbanites was effective, it was pure lip service as no action was ever taken by the central government to actually aid impoverished farmers.

In our own time and place, nothing has changed: coastal elites is a dog-whistle term for an essentially similar group to the urban Japanese. Perhaps our version has an extra soupçon of racism and/or antisemitism absent among the largely homogenous populace of Japan. New York values, and cuck are some still newer, and more specific flavors of this disparagement. Sarah Palin expressed the opinion that many conservatives hold (or at least represent themselves as holding to their red-state constituents) about this rural-urban divide:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.

Returning to the mobo and moga, the terms referred to trendy, fashion-conscious city dwellers in the ’20s and early ’30s. They were portrayed as superficial, luxury-addicted, and corrupt, indeed besotted with the values of the West, and Westerners were similarly characterized. The modern lifestyle was painted as posing a threat of destruction of the “Japanese spirit”.

It is a matter of some irony given the above labels that the terms also eventually became associated with Marxism. This is a tipoff that the state was happy to tie whatever ethics it was hostile toward to this group.

Mobo was essentially an updating of the term haikara (ハイカラー: “high collar”), popularized in the previous era, Meiji. According to Jason G. Karlin,³ the term, originally referring to a specific kind of shirt,

[M]igrated to become a marker of novelty, fashion, and consumption in late Meiji discourse. In short, it came to exemplify the ephemeral and transitory qualities of modern culture.

The Western-inspired dandyism the term implies was an outward sign to the world of economic success and social status. This was what made the group represented by the term so easy for politicians to steer public wrath toward: they were easy to identify and objects of jealousy.

The moga were still more reviled. Many conservative social critics perceived them as a threat, not just because of the issues ascribed to moderns of both sexes, but in particular because of their independence, and the perception that they were eschewing traditional social and gender roles. Indeed, the overall feeling was that moga were becoming more masculine while dandified mobo were adopting feminine traits.

An opposing notion, bankara (蛮カラー: “barbarous-collar” was opposed to haikara, developed by social critics, particularly the satirical magazine, The Tokyo Puck (東京パック). Karlin describes it thus:

The bankara man was an anticonsumer who rejected materiality and the lures of Western culture. The term bankara carried associations with stoic sincerity and a conservative resistance to novelty expressed through an unadorned and rugged appearance […]. Just as the high-collared shirt was the defining emblem of the high-collar gentleman, the bankara man was identified by his tucked up sleeves, exposed forearms, and dark complexion.

Furthermore, he notes,

[T]he bankara man is portrayed as a vigilante who protects the weak and defenseless […].

In the Taishō era, this role in particular is continuously expanded and mythologized in various forms of fiction and nonfiction, extending to the idea of protecting the entire Far East against Western aggression. The rural Boy Scout movement came to embody these ideals, rapidly becoming highly militarized.

Ultimately Taishō was a failed revolution, since the result was increased authoritarianism and imperialism. The draconian Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 (治安維持法), put in place only two months after universal manhood suffrage, marked the biggest reversal of the Taishō Democracy. It was intended to suppress political dissent, specifically targeting socialism and communism. Under the law an Orwellian thought police was formed, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (特別高等警察: “Special Higher Police”, often shortened to Tokkō), whose mandate was the criminal investigation of political groups and ideologies representing a threat public order. They arrested over 70,000 people during the time the law was on the books, from 1925–1945.

But the close of the era of the moderns really came with the devastation wrought upon the Tōkyō-Yokohama metropolitan area by the Great Kantō earthquake (関東大震災) and subsequent firestorm in which roughly 100,000 people were killed in 1923. Junichiro Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎) who had been part of the Bohemian lifestyle of Taishō and whose home in the area was also destroyed, reacted:

I felt a surge of happiness which I could not keep down. ‘Tōkyō will be better for this!’ I said to myself.

His enthusiasm for the West was discarded, with his focus shifting instead toward Japanese aesthetics and culture. Religious leaders echo these sentiments still, declaring the destructions, specifically of urban centers, to be “God’s wrath” because of their debauchery. Pastor John Hagee named Hurricane Katrina such an event, citing the city’s level of sin, specifically homosexuality, as the reason:

What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God, in time if New Orleans recovers and becomes the pristine city it can become it may in time be called a blessing.

Regardless, the heyday of Taishō had passed. Such heady times were not to return to Japan until the asset price bubble of the ’80s (バブル景気, baburu keiki: “bubble condition”). The curators of the Tōkyō Met intended their show to inspire change, if not to gently warn against getting too carried away with superficialities in such economic high times:

[In the ’20s, Japan] underwent rapid processes of urbanization, industrialization and internationalization. The period was in some ways analogous to our own; and it was, in fact, then that the prototype of our contemporary environment was formed. “The 1920’s in Japan” tries to illuminate the age by looking at the art it produced. […]

We sincerely hope that visitors to “The 1920’s in Japan” will listen and respond to—in the spirit of this age—these young voices of around 60 years ago.

Sadly this wasn’t to be. Lacking moral direction and feeling complacent in their country’s economic dominance, the Japanese of the close of the Shōwa period spent their days as cog-in-a-prestigious-machine sararīman, their nights drinking mizuwari (水割り: whiskey mixed with water) and singing karaoke, and their weekends in nonstop shoppingu. And then the economic bubble burst and the chance was squandered for perhaps another 60 years; maybe forever.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan


  1. Lots of references in the first paragraph here, so I thought Id de-clutter it by moving them to a note: daimyō (大名), shōgun (将軍), Sengoku period (戦国時代, 1467–1600), Heian period (平安時代, 794–1185), The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), Meiji era (明治時代 1868–1912), Shōwa era (昭和時代 1926–89).
  2. In “Media Culture in Taisho Osaka”, Japan’s Competing Modernities
    Issues in Culture and Democracy, 1900–1930
    , Sharon A. Minichiello, ed., 1998.
  3. In “The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan”, The Journal of Japanese Studies, 2002.

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