Rice riots in 1918 (1918年米騒動)

The rice riots in 1918 were riots due to a sharp rise in rice prices in which lasted in prewar Japan from the Edo period.

The sharp rise in rice prices

A rice price which tumbled down just after the First World War had begun in 1914 was about the same for three and a half years although prices of other things gradually rose, however, from mid-1918, it started sharply rising. According to the record of Dojima rice exchange in Dojima, Osaka Prefecture, the rice price that had been 15 yen per 1 koku (about 180 liter; an old unit showing volume) in January, 1918 rose above 20 yen in June and then 30 yen on July 17, which was an abnormal circumstance.
(Monthly income of the general public at that time was 18 yen to 25 yen.)
The retail price of polished rice soared to 50 sen (One sen is 1/100 of one yen) per 1 sho (1.8 liter) on August 7 since sessions on exchanges in various places were cancelled from the end of July to the beginning of August and the rice supply from the countryside was reduced.

It is pointed out that it was caused by the rapid development of capitalism. The booming economy affected by the First World War (War economy) caused not only population growth of urban areas and an increase of industrial laborers but also a change of a diet that farmers whose income was increased by sericultural industry and so on started to eat rice, not barley or barnyard millet that they had used to have. Thus, the sharp rise in rice prices was caused by decreased amount of imported rice due to the influence of the War in addition to the loss of personnel from the farming industry and the increase in consumption of rice.

Measurements taken by the government

As the rice price soared, landlords and merchants started to speculate in rice and gradually withholding of rice and the buyout occurred. Ren NAKASHOJI, the minister of Agriculture and Commerce, who took the matter seriously, issued the 'Bori (Excessive profits) act' against cornering and speculative stocking of rice, iron, coal, cotton, paper, dye and medicines on September 1, 1917 but it was not successful. The colloquial verbs 'boru (rip off)' and 'borareru (ripped off)' expressing the extraordinary commercially-minded behavior derive from the 'bori' of this Bori act (From Kojien dictionary).

In April, 1918, the 'Foreign Rice Regulations Ordinance' was issued and mass of foreign rice was imported by the seven designated companies including Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Suzuki & Co., however, the rice price did not drop.

Social anxiety

The sharp rise in rice prices made ordinary citizens' lives hard and grew the social anxiety since the newspapers reported the rise in rice prices daily and fueled it. Although Prime minister Masatake TERAUCHI had mentioned the hard living of citizens at the provincial governor meeting held in 1918, the grant-in-aid for the relief work in budgeting of that year was only 35,000 yen and his worry was not particularly reflected to the budgeting.

As a result, the policy to quell fears of the social situation by increasing the number of police officers was adopted and 3,000 patrol officers were added to the 5,300 officers already existing.

In times like that when there were not even basic labor rights in Japan, the common people who struggled against hard suppression and living directed their anger to high-income people, especially rice marketers and merchants gradually.

Dispatch of troops to Siberia

As the rice price was gradually rising, the Terauchi Cabinet announced the dispatch of troops to Siberia as the foreign policy on August 2, 1918. This announcement caused the situation which distributors and merchants sought steep price rise of goods by war-time special procurements and further accelerated the withholding. In fact, in the market price at Kobe City rice exchange, the price which had been 34 sen 3 rin (one-hundredth) per 1 sho on July 2 soared to 40 sen 5 rin on August 1 and to 60 sen 8 rin on August 9. Also, since a riot occurred in Toyama Prefecture coincidentally, some pointed out the direct consequence between the dispatch of troops to Siberia and the rice riot.

Occurrence of the rice riot

At night on July 22, 1918, 'Ibukimaru' ship made a port call at Uozu Port in Uozu town, Shimoniikawa County, Toyama Prefecture to transport rice to Hokkaido. More than a dozen housewives and others who lived in Uozu town gathered in front of a warehouse of Juni Bank where Ibukimaru had been loaded, and they pleaded to cancel the loading of rice and sell it to people.

They had been broken up by patrolling officers at that time, but people started to have meetings and the number of people who demanded to sell rice increased further, and moreover, nearly 200 residents gathered in Mizuhashi-machi town, Nakaniikawa County on August 3 to ask rice marketers and wealthy people to stop transporting rice and sell it.

On August 6, the movement increasingly escalated and over 1,000 people including residents in Mizuhashi-machi town and Namerikawa City joined it. They prevented the rice transportation by force and forced a sale of rice, which had been from 40 sen to 50 sen per 1 sho at that time, for 35 sen.

This movement was reported as 'Uprising of women in Ecchu Province' in nationwide newspaper via local paper. This was the beginning of the rice riots.

Spread of the riots

The sharp rise in rice prices never stopped and it rose above 35 yen per 1 koku on August 1, 1918, 40 yen on August 5 and to over 50 yen on August 9. On August 10, rice riots broke out in major cities, starting with Kyoto City and Nagoya City. Initially, the rice riots started to ask to cancel the transportation of rice and to sell it cheap, but gradually led to the enforcement of donation and grew into Uchikowashi (it refers to an act where people destroyed residences of privileged merchants or officials who were involved in misgovernment). As it was rumored that a citizens' rally about a rice price issue was held in Tsuruma Park of Nagoya City on the night of the 10th, approximately 20,000 people gathered there. At the same time, a riot started in Yanagihara, Kyoto City, which destroyed rice warehouse merchants and forced a sale of rice for 30 sen per 1 sho.

Thus this achievement which was 'if we enforce price reduction, we can get rice at a low price' spread from city to city immediately, and from around August 17, riots spread from urban areas to town or agricultural community and then reached almost everywhere in the country by August 20. The riots gradually moved from rice warehouse merchants to coal mines and it took 50 days until the riot in Mitsui Miike coal mine ended on September 12.

Spillover to coal mines

After August 17, the rice riots spilled over to coal mines riots in Yamaguchi Prefecture and Kitakyushu region. Demands for higher wages by coal miners in Okinoyama coal mine of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Minechi coal mine of Fukuoka Prefecture and so on changed into riots. While the riot in Okinoyama coal mine developed into a riot of several thousand people including local residents, Uchikowashi of rice warehouse merchants and residences and arsons to brothels took place. It became a disaster which killed over 13 people since they countered the armies who were called out with dynamite.

Area where riots occurred, participants and call-out of armies and treatment of people under arrest

A series of riots for about 50 days called 'Rice riot' or 'Rice civil disorder' eventually occurred in 369 places of 41 prefectures in total, for which millions of participants were counted, the armies were called out to 26 prefectures in total and more than 100,000 soldiers were put.
It was reported that at least 2 people were killed by a bayonet in Kure City while Naval Landing Forces were called out and facing the people,
The number of people who had been arrested were over 25,000 and 8,253 people of them faced punishment by the prosecutor. Moreover, among 7,786 people who were charged, 12 people were sentenced to life in prison in the first instance and 59 people were sentenced to imprisonment for more than 10 years. Although there was no unified leader in rice riots, 2 people got a death penalty in Wakayama Prefecture for encouraging some people.

Involvement with discriminated communities called buraku

The number of people who faced punishment by a prosecutor were 8,185 in rice riots and more than 10 percent of them were from the discriminated communities called buraku. The 10 percent was large in particular against the population ratio. This is because people from discriminated communities called buraku were the heaviest sufferers by speculative buying of rice merchants. The punishment was harsh and included a death penalty. In 1920, the Takashi HARA Cabinet budgeted 50,000 yen for buraku (hamlet) improvement cost and did first treasury payment to improve the buraku. In the same year, Ministry of Interior established Department of Social Affairs in the ministry and also Division of Social Affairs in intendance.

Participation of military men and support in riots by police officers

In Kure City, sailors were arrested since they participated in the riots. Also, in some regions, police officers who should have stopped riots tolerated the riots.

Governmental response

On August 13, the government announced that they would spend the national treasury of 10 million yen as money for rice price and ordered each local government to sell rice at a cheap price, but took the order back and stopped the discount on August 28 since they judged that the rice price seemed to drop as a result of riots. As only about 40 percent of the announced budget were eventually spent, the rice price did not drop but rose to the price during the rice riots in the end of 1918, but riots never occurred any more since people's actual income had increased.

Cancellation of National junior-high school baseball tournament

The riot also affected the national high school baseball tournament. Triggered by the riot which had started in Kobe City on August 11, a torching incident occurred at Suzuki & Co. which was very close to Naruo stadium which was the venue of the tournament at that time. As public security in the area significantly deteriorated, the national junior-high school baseball tournament scheduled for August 14 was put off once. Cancellation of the tournament was determined on August 16 since it was uncertain when the public security could be improved.

Cities where riots occurred

Cities where riots occurred are listed by date as below based on "A study of rice riots" edited by Kiyoshi INOUE and Toru WATANABE.

On August 11, Osaka City and Kobe City
On August 13, Tokyo City, Fukushima City, Toyohashi City, Gifu City, Otsu City, Toyama City, Takaoka City, Kanazawa City, Fukui City, Wakayama City, Sakai City, Amagasaki City, Himeji City, Okayama City, Onomichi City, Kure City, Hiroshima City, Tottori City, Takamatsu City, Marugame City and Kochi City
On August 14, Hamamatsu City, Okazaki City, Nara City and Fukuyama City
On August 15, Sendai City, Wakamatsu City, Yokohama City, Yokosuka City, Kofu City, Tsu City, Matsuyama City and Moji City
On August 16, Shimonoseki City and Kokura City
On August 17, Niigata City, Nagaoka City and Nagano City
On August 20, Sasebo City, Kumamoto City, Matsue City and Ogaki City

Suppression of free speech

Regarding press report of rice riots, each newspaper reported the people's behavior positively and also that the underlying cause was the government since they had continued to ignore people's demands. In contrast, the government insisted that the movements were spread since newspaper had reported them exaggeratedly, so they shut down "Takaoka Shinpo" (newspaper) on August 7 and issued an injunction against articles about the rice riots to media organizations on August 14.

Tokyo Shunju Kai (a combination made up of various newspaper companies) demanded a retraction of this punishment by the government, as a result, Rentaro MIZUNO, prewar Minister of Home Affairs, relaxed the ban that 'only official information announced by prewar Ministry of Home Affairs could be published'. However, the information announced by the government was quite far from the truth, therefore, Tokyo Shunju Kai continued to lodge a protest and finally succeeded in abolishment of the injunction.

Newspaper companies made a vigorous protest against a series of suppression of free speech by the Terauchi Cabinet and it gradually developed into the movement about freedom of press.

The advent of Commoner Prime Minister

Public opinion demanded resignation of the Terauchi Cabinet under the influence of rice riots. TERAUCHI offered his resignation to Aritomo YAMAGATA on August 31 and submitted his letter of resignation officially on September 21. YAMAGATA ordered Kinmochi SAIONJI to form a government but SAIONJI refused it firmly and recommended Takashi HARA. HARA was ordered to form a government on September 27 and the Hara Cabinet which was the first full-scale party cabinet in Japan was launched. He was called 'Commoner Prime Minister' and welcomed by the people since it was the first cabinet whose prime minister was a member of the House of Representatives who did not have the peerage.