Under the 1889 Meiji constitution, a small oligarchy (genro), in the name of the Emperor Meiji, dominates a weak Imperial Diet consisting of an elected House of Representatives and an appointed House of Peers. Parties gain power over time, but key decisions are made by the genro. The Meiji period ends with the emperor's death in 1912; the constitution remains in effect until 1947.
The Taisho period (1912-26) begins with the ascension of weak Crown Prince Yoshihito and a political crisis: A military attempt to influence the cabinet leads to public frustration with genro politics. Japan takes advantage of war in Europe to expand its influence in China. Japan's military role in politics and expansion in Asia will be primary in Japanese politics until the end of World War II.
A two-party system of the conservative Rikken Doshikai and the pro-democracy Seiyokai strengthens under "Taisho democracy," and voting rights increase. But Takashi Hara, the first commoner prime minister, is assassinated in 1921, and later coalitions govern ineffectively. Fears of communist influence provoke a Communist Party ban in 1923, and a law forbids change to the political system.
The shaky experiment in democracy begins to fade as Emperor Hirohito ascends the throne, initiating the Showa period. Nationalists help revive emperor-centered neo-Shintoism, which glorifies the emperor, traditional Japanese values, and self-sacrifice and persists through the '30s and '40s. The two major parties, the conservative Rikken Doshikai and the pro-democracy Seiyokai, alternate power.
Killings and coups create an increasingly militarized state. The army uses a 1931 explosion, the Manchurian Incident, to occupy Manchuria. Military officers assassinate Prime Minister Inukai in 1932, and the army now influences decisions on cabinets, prime ministers, and foreign affairs. The left is repressed, and nationalists advocate nationalization of assets and military expansion.
Political parties are dissolved, and Army Minister Hideki Tojo becomes prime minister. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Tojo remains in power for much of the war, governing an economy and a state dominated by military objectives.
Some war criminals are tried and hanged, but the government remains largely intact after the 1945 surrender, albeit with General MacArthur's Occupation Force firmly in control. A new constitution creates a constitutional monarchy with a National Diet composed of a House of Representatives and a House of Councillors. Article 9 renounces war and bans a regular military. Women get the vote in 1946.
Independence returns to Japan on April 28, 1952. Splits within the conservative parties lead to a series of minority governments and a temporary rise in socialist popularity.
Major parties dominate as leftist groups form the Japan Socialist Party, while the Liberal and Democratic Parties merge to begin a 38-year run in power. Not strongly ideological, the conservative LDP has clear goals: export-driven growth and cooperation with U.S. foreign and defense policy. Factional divisions based on patronage and personal loyalty later emerge within the LDP.
Hayato Ikeda moves from the Ministry of Trade and Industry to become prime minister after the unpopular U.S./Japan Security Treaty causes Nobusuke Kishi to resign. Ikeda had played a key role in implementing Dodge Plan reforms in place of increased planning; as prime minister, he continues to emphasize economic progress.
Prime Minister Eisaku Sato expands Japan's international role while promoting peace and nonproliferation. He will win 1974's Nobel Peace Prize. The Clean Government Party (Komeito), founded in 1964, joins the Socialist Party in opposing the Japan-U.S. security pact. Supported by urban migrants, workers, and women, Komeito becomes the third largest party. The 1968-69 student protests reach Japan.
Prime Minister Tanaka increases defense spending and reduces trade frictions with the United States. He holds talks with Soviet and Chinese leaders, but his trips to Indonesia and Thailand cause riots there because of still-fragile relations in Asia. Tanaka resigns in response to charges of corruption and is later jailed briefly; his influence, however, remains intact.
The opposition increasingly accepts the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and even small increases in defense spending, but conflicts and splinter groups within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) weaken consensus. After the 1980 elections, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki steps down following fiscal weaknesses and controversy over a textbook's version of wartime aggression.
Conservative internationalist Yasuhiro Nakasone tries to improve ties with the U.S. through summits and a stronger defense role, even urging revisions to the constitution's antiwar Article 9. But because of a rising trade surplus, America demands that Japan open markets and allow the yen to rise. Nakasone tries to address these pressures and still change industrial policy as little as possible.
The conservative Noboru Takeshita resigns in a bribery scandal in 1989 after two years as prime minister. Like many prime ministers before him, he remains influential in the LDP. Emperor Akihito succeeds his father to the throne, pledging to observe the constitution. The Gulf War renews controversy over Japan's defense role; in the end a law allowing troops to be sent abroad is defeated.
After 38 years, opposition parties to the LDP form a government that resigns in less than a year. The Social Democratic Party forms a coalition with the LDP in 1994 and ends opposition to security ties to the U.S. Also in '94, nine opposition and LDP splinter parties form the New Frontier Party, pledging "ceaseless reform." A weak economy and shifting alliances produce seven prime ministers in as many years.
Junichiro Koizumi takes office in April, vowing recovery through reforms, not public spending, to reduce bad debts, promote competition, and tighten fiscal policies. But the obstacles prove great, and he soon backs away, losing popularity amid Cabinet squabbles. His stature improves in 2002 thanks to a diplomatic initiative to engage North Korea. But the economy seems intractable.
back to top