Taisho Seihen (Political disturbances in the Taisho Period) (大正政変)

Taisho Seihen' refers to the collapse of the third Katsura Cabinet in February 1913, which resulted from the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitution (the first) that started at the end of the year before. In a broader sense, it refers to the political trend starting with the collapse of the second Saionji Cabinet to the first Yamamoto Cabinet through the third Katsura Cabinet.


From the end of the Meiji period, in the Japanese government a conventional power rotation system was implemented under the agreement called 'Joi Togo' (the agreement to take power alternately) between Taro KATSURA (from the former Choshu Domain), who was closely related to the Japanese Army and a representative figure of the domain-based forces, and Kinmochi SAIONJI (from the former court noble), who belonged to the Rikken Seiyukai (a political party organized by Hirobumi ITO, hereinafter referred to Seiyukai) (called Kei-En era after the initial characters of their names).

Right after the demise of Emperor Meiji in December 1912, the second Saionji Cabinet adopted a policy of austerity because of financial difficulties after the Russo-Japanese War, and rejected the demand from the Japanese Army to increase two army divisions. In response, Minister of Army Yusaku UEHARA directly handed in his resignation to Emperor Taisho who had just ascended to the throne, utilizing its authority called "Iaku Joso-ken" (the power granted to the Japanese Forces to directly submit a proposal of military affairs to the emperor without any control of the Diet and the Cabinet). Since the Japanese Army refused to recommend a successor to Uehara, the Saijo Cabinet was forced to resign en masse.

The conference of elder statesmen appointed Taro KATSURA as the next prime minister, but he had already assumed both Minister of Palace and Grand Chamberlain just half a year before, and his nomination became a target for criticism as a violation of the principle of separation between the Imperial Family and the Japanese government organization.
In addition, Japanese business community, which was deeply concerned about the national finance, began to criticize the despotism of the military clique
Moreover, the people's indignation over the unconstitutional politics of the Japanese Army (by Aritomo YAMAGATA's faction) to overthrow the Cabinet and the repeated running for election of the domain-based politicians triggered the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitutionalism (the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitution). On December 13, Kensei Shinsakukai Party a political party organized by journalists and lawyers in Tokyo, adopted a resolution against the increase of two army divisions, and the next day, some supporters of Kojun-sha (the first social club of businessmen in Japan) called for a meeting to discuss the state of affairs and named the meeting 'Kensei Yogokai' (Meeting for Defending Constitutionalism).
In the first rally of the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitutionalism held at Kabuki-za Theater on December 19, many people took part, such as the Diet members of the Seiyukai and the Rikken Kokuminto (Constitutional National Party, hereinafter referred to the Kokuminto), journalists, businessmen, students and about 3,000 audiences, and they adopted a resolution that 'cliques should be overthrown and that constitutionalism should be defended.'
Nevertheless, on December 21, the whole Saionji Cabinet resigned formally, and the third Cabinet of Taro KATSURA started. On the other hand, the Diet members of the opposition parties, journalists, scholars and others had a rally on December 27 and decided to extend the campaign for defending the constitution to other provinces.

In January the next year, rallies calling for 'the defense of the constitutionalism' were held in various places, in which many people participated, including the people working in the commercial and industrial sectors and the urban residents who were suffering from heavy tax after the Russo-Japanese War. Seeing this, the Katsura Cabinet postponed the opening of the Diet, which was scheduled to be held on January 21, during 15 days, however, this measure resulted in only pouring oil on the flames, and after the second rally of the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitutionalism held in Tokyo on January 24, the campaign grew into a nationwide public movement. Against this movement, Prime Minister Katsura frequently abused "Shochoku" (imperial edict) of Emperor Taisho, which was originally issued by the Emperor to stop the political disputes, respecting the period for mourning of former Emperor Meiji (Imperial Edict Tactics), and tried to silence the people's criticism of the government.

Meanwhile, the Seiyukai and the Kokuminto formed an alliance thanks to the great efforts of a member of the Seiyukai, YUKIO OZAKI, and the Kokuminto leader, Tsuyoshi INUKAI. On February 5, at the reconvened Diet, opposition parties, including the Seiyukai and the Kokuminto, put forward a non-confidence motion against the Cabinet, and the Diet adjourned immediately.
On this occasion, Yukio OZAKI made a well-known address calling for the impeachment of Prime Minister Katsura, saying, 'when he and his fellows open their mouths, they speak about loyalty to the Emperor and patriotism as if they had a monopoly on these qualities,... but I suspect they use the imperial throne as a bulwark to defend themselves from attack by their political opponents, and use imperial edicts (Shochoku) as political bullets with which to topple their opponents.'

On February 9, about 20,000 people gathered at the third rally of the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitutionalism, and on the next day, tens of thousands besieged the Diet Building to support the opposition parties, and Katsura had to convene the Imperial Diet amid a mass demonstration. Katsura, who at first planned to dissolve the Diet, finally decided the Cabinet resignation en masse following the advise of Ikuzo OOKA, chairman of the House of Representatives, who said to Katsura not to do so lest it should induce a civil war. Katsura ordered the Cabinet ministers to write their resignation letters and adjourned the Diet again. The adjournment of the Diet enraged the masses, and they attacked facilities such as police stations, neighborhood police boxes, including a newspaper company Kokumin Shimbun, which was a government organ. Subsequently, similar disturbances spread to such cities such as Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Kyoto.

On February 20, the Katsura Cabinet was forced to resign en masse in just a brief period of 53 days from its start, so it was called '50 days' Cabinet.'
The post of the prime minister was taken over by Gonbei YAMAMOTO, who was the navy general and a pillar of the Satsuma clique (the clique formed by the politicians from the former Satsuma Domain).

End of Kei-En era

The typical image of the Taisho Seihen is the public movement that toppled the 'clique-ruling Cabinet' formed by the Japanese Army and the former Choshu Domain clique, led by Aritomo YAMAGATA and Taro KATSURA respectively, because the public took objection to the Cabinet which, after overthrowing of the second Saionji Cabinet, tried to silence the public voices by fiddling measures such as the party politics and the Imperial Edict Tactics. However, it should be noted that the 'Katsura Shinto' (Katsura New Party) established after the period of Taisho Seihen was the forerunner of the Rikken Minseito (Party of Democratic Constitutionalism), which would lead party politics along with the Seiyukai (later, Katsura Shinto was developed into the Rikken Doshikai [Party of Comrades of Constitutionalism] and then into the Kenseikai [Party of Constitutionalism]). Meanwhile, Yamagata continued to be hostile to political parties. Therefore, we cannot lump the policies of Katsura and Yamagata together when discussing the Taisho Seihen.

Taro KATSURA, who led the Japanese government twice and won the strong trust of Emperor Meiji, sought to establish a new party 'Katsura Shinto' and reform the clique of bureaucrats connected with Yamagata. Katsura contemplated establishing his new administration based on the party of his own, and thereby freeing himself from the dependence on the Seiyukai and on Yamagata. Swiftly detecting Katsura's attempt, Yamagata forced Katsura to hold the two honorary posts, the minister of palace and the grand chamberlain in August 1912, right after the demise of Emperor Meiji, trying to deprive Katsura of real political power. On the other hand, Saionji was intensifying feud with Takashi HARA, who was practically controlling the affaires of the Seiyukai and pursuing local interests.

In the first place, the Japanese Army and the Seiyukai were seeking a compromise on the increase of two army divisions. However, Katsura, who regarded the situation as an opportunity for him to return to the government, and the Satsuma clique, which had been swept away from power during the Kei-En era, set out to take advantage of this situation and obliged Uehara (the minister of army) to take the hard line, provoking serious repercussions. Seeing a sudden turn of the political situation, Yamagata prepared a draft of an imperial edict to mediate an accord between the Saionji Cabinet and the Japanese Army, but Katsura crushed the draft. The then Prime Minister Saionji, who had already lost his zeal to keep his administration, suffering from not only his poor physical condition but also from the conflict with Hara, and Hara, who misunderstood that Yamagata's real intention was to topple the Saionji Cabinet in the meeting held with Katsura, decided the Cabinet resignation en masse, and in this way, the 'Cabinet turnover by Yamagata's maneuver' was achieved.

Selection of the successor to the prime minister was complicated due to the successive declines to assume the post; Masayoshi MATSUKATA, recommended by the Satsuma clique, declined it for his old age, and Gonbei YAMAMOTO of the Satsuma clique and Tosuke HIRATA of the Yamagata faction declined it for the anticipated difficulties to manage the administration, and in the end the Imperial command was issued to Katsura to form a Cabinet. Katsura organized his Cabinet in his own way by making Makoto SAITO, the minister of the Navy in the former Cabinet, stay in office with the help of an Imperial edict, and inviting some bureaucrats of his influence, such as Reijiro WAKATSUKI and Shinpei GOTO, as well as the espouser of British politics, Takaaki KATO (Japanese Ambassador to Britain). Although Katsura implemented new policies in earnest, a series of blunders in his politics, such as the failure in his Imperial Edict Tactics and countermeasures against the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitution, fierce conflict with the Seiyukai, failure in political maneuvering of the House of Peers, and a growing distrust of him among the people of the Japanese Army including Aritomo YAMAGATA and Masatake TERAUCHI, drove him into a corner.

Taisho Seihen not only gave a huge blow to the domain-based cliques, but also caused a stagnation in the development of an alternative to the party in power.

Saionji announced his resignation from the presidency of the Seiyukai with the pretext that 'he violated the edict' (it was his fault that he was not able to stop political disputes following the imperial edict). Although it was a forced announcement by Katsura, Saionji, who believed that former court nobles should be 'hanpei' (protectors of the emperor) even after the Meiji Restoration, insisted that he himself was responsible and unforgivable as the leader of the party for the Seiyukai's neglect of the edict. Senior members of the RSP were puzzled with this logic of 'violation of the edict,' but Saionji's decision was firm. Although Saionji firstly appointed Masahisa MATSUDA as his successor, Matsuda died suddenly, and the RSP presidency was assumed by Takashi HARA and the party stepped forward to a new stage.

Historical significance

A popular movement, the power of which was once exercised in the Hibiya riots of 1905, eventually toppled the government in the Taisho Seihen. It was for the first time in Japanese history that a direct action by the public overthrew the administration. Taisho Seihen that caused the dead end of the clique politics and the growth of democracy generated a momentum for Taisho Democracy including the approval of the Universal Manhood Suffrage. Takayoshi MATSUO (a Japanese historian) argues that Taisho Democracy, starting with the Taisho Seihen, was not a vulnerable foreign idea superficially scooped by some urban intellectuals but a widespread popular movement that had some characteristic directly reflected in the Japanese democracy after World War Ⅱ.


In January 1913, amid the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitution, Katsura established his own party (Katsura Shinto) to compete with the Seiyukai. In February, the Katsura Cabinet fell, and in October, Katsura died, but his party was reorganized as the Rikken Doshikai, which was further developed into the Kenseikai.

The first Yamamoto Cabinet, established immediately after Katsura's resignation, invited some influential members of the Seiyukai to be the ministers of his administration, such as Takashi HARA (as the minister for home affairs) and Korekiyo TAKAHASHI (as the minister of finance). Afraid of public sentiment, Yamamoto tried to avoid making the same mistake as Katsura by working to stabilize the political situation; he attempted to do this by taking his appeasement policy to the public—which included principles such as the relaxation of the requirement that ministers of the army and navy should be active duty officers by allowing first reservists or second reservists to hold the positions—and seeking to reach compromising deals with the other political parties.

On the other hand, the Seiyukai was benefited by gaining the ministerial posts in the first Yamamoto Cabinet, which enraged not only the general public but also the Rikken Kokuminto members, and even some of the Seiyukai members including Yukio OZAKI, who resented it and left the Seiyukai together with Kunisuke OKAZAKI (although Okazaki returned to the Seiyukai later, Ozaki established a new party 'Chuseikai' [Centrist Justice Party]). And this internal unrest drove the Seiyukai into a state of emergency, in which the party had to suffer the isolation in the Diet and the lack of its leader.

Taisho Seihen in a broad sense

As is pointed out initially, the period of 'Taisho Seihen' is defined in two senses, a broad sense and a narrow sense.

By including the era of the first Yamamoto Cabinet into the Taisho Seihen, we can see another side of Taisho Democracy; since the out set of the Campaign for the Defense of the Constitutionalism, the public in this period retained the anti-clique sentiment, however on the other hand, they easily agreed on dispatching troops to China in the name of supporting the revolutionary group in the turmoil of the Republican Revolution when it broke out in China in July 1913.
Takayoshi MATSUO explains such two-sidedness of Taisho Democracy with the phrase, 'inward constitutionalism, and outward imperialism.'

After the Siemens Incident (1914) blew off the first Yamamoto Cabinet, a popular politician Shigenobu OKUMA formed his second Cabinet counting on a coalition of such parties as the Rikken Doshikai, the Supporters' Association of Count Okuma, and the Chuseikai. The Okuma Administration drove out the German Empire forces from the Shandong Peninsula to secure Japanese interests in China, which consequently lead the defeat of the Seiyukai and the Kokuminto in the election. The bill to increase two army divisions passed the Diet, and the '21 Demands' made by Japan to China, which would later stir up the Chinese nationalism, won the approval of the Japanese people.