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The impact of World War 1 on Japanese development in the early 20th century

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‘Assess the impact of World War 1 on Japanese development in the early 20th century.'”World War 1 and its’ aftermath, together with the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, brought profound changes in social, intellectual, and urban consciousness.” (Jansen 496)World War 1 caused many changes in the nation of Japan, both positive and negative. The whole infrastructure of the country altered immensely during the early 20th century, even when compared to the drastic modernisation of the Meiji Restoration.

In the first quarter of the 20th century Japan had no less than 3 different emperors, and subsequently experienced 3 different historical eras. July 1912 saw the death of the much exulted Emperor Meiji, his successor (called the Taisho Emperor) was succeeded in turn by his son Hirohito (Showa Emperor) after only 10 years. This was largely due to mental illness. Despite the Taisho era lasting only 14 years in total (Hirohito was only acting as regent from 1922 until his father’s death in 1926), due to the First World War a tremendous number of changes came in to place during this time. Not least the impact of the First World War on the Japanese Economy.

Before the war broke out in 1914 Japan was already miles ahead of any of the other Asian nations in the process of modernisation. Between 1900 and 1913 Japan’s share of total world manufacturing output grew from 2.0 to 2.7%. (Brown 99) This was a substantial amount considering that the exports were still largely traditional products. This was possible mainly due to trade agreements with the United States and Great Britain. These agreements meant that Japan had more options on how to import the raw materials required for heavy industry. When the war began in 1914 Japanese industry suffered greatly as it’s financial and commercial matters (many of which had been settled via London) were sent into disarray. The foreign trade slumped up until early 1915. Soon after this had taken effect it became apparent that the war-forced severance of the trade links could be a blessing in disguise. European and American goods manufactured in modern factories were now difficult to come by in the Asian and African Markets. Japan, with its’ modernised industrial processes, was able to step into the breach.

“A spate of new firms appeared in rapid succession; stock prices soared; and the whole country rang with the sound of hammers at work on new factory construction.” (Nakamura 47) Much of the iron, steel and coal imported was absorbed by the flourishing ship building industry. As the national merchant fleet expanded over the war years up to 87 percent of Japan’s exports and imports could be carried by her own ships. This increased invisible income, shipping services to other countries contributed to this. Enhanced profits were ploughed back into development, this meant that overall industrial investment increased 17 fold during the war years. The percentage increase in heavy industry output during the period spanning the war years and beyond is shown in table 1.

Japanese Economic Development, London, Routledge, p.55Despite the decline in industrial output after World War 1 the industrial expansion during the war years had a long term effect on the main areas of manufacture in Japan. The slump in manufacturing output after the war although predicted was greater than expected. The re-opening of trading routes and inter-continental trade between the US and Europe caused near devastation to the previously dominant Japanese trade. The changes in manufacturing that took place during the First World War (factories vs. traditional methods) lended themselves to larger industrial organisation.

Many large firms were emerging as leaders in their fields, of these the Zaibatsu (large family controlled conglomerates consisting of a holding company, a wholly-owned banking subsidiary providing finance, and several industrial subsidiaries) rose in dominance. Of the big four (Mitsui, Sumitomo, Mitsubishi and Yasuda) the first three concentrated on heavy industry such as ship-building. This proved a lucrative move considering the demand for ships during the war, for military and trade purposes. Of course none of these changes would have taken place had the government not agreed to the trade agreements and industrial tutoring of Europe and the United States.

World War 1 also ushered in changes in the government of Japan. These changes were less visible differences and more a change in the ideas of how a government should be structured. Political party government took a long time to take hold.

“The Meiji Constitution was deliberately vague on the subject of executive responsibility. Sovereignty and final authority in all matters rested with the throne, but at the same time the ruler had to be protected from active participation lest he be found fallible.” (Jansen 496)Up until 1921, considered the dawn of party politics in Japan, the government system was set up of four main parts. A powerful Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister, was in control of local government and national police. (The Emperor was theoretically head of the armed services, but generals and admirals were selected by the staff of the armed services to protect the Emperor from participation) A Privy Council made of imperial appointees had to approve of important decisions on national policy or the constitution. A House of Peers, similar to the British concept of a House of Lords yielded much power.

It was made up of Imperial appointees and hereditary seats held by aristocrats, after each successful war the number of members grew by the addition of members who had been granted titles for their participation in the conflict. The House of Representatives was made up of members elected by qualified (by direct tax) voters. It held little power except that it had to approve the budget, this meant that co-operation was required more and more during the First World War and beyond. 1900 saw Katsura Taro take up the position of Prime Minister. Over the next 13 years he held the position 3 times forming the alliance with Britain and making the decision to stand up to the Russians, when he was encouraged out of office he nominated Saionji Kinmochi who in turn nominated him to return. They relied on each other’s support and were never politically free to act independently because of this.

Katsura’s last cabinet ended in 1913 and he was followed by Admiral Yamamoto, but due to the discovery of corruption his cabinet did not last even a year. The genro of the Privy Council then chose Okuma Shigenobu who was almost senile but expected much support from the Houses as many members had links to his political career. 1914 brought the First World War and a need for strong leadership in Japan. Though he held the position of Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki yielded much power in the Okuma cabinet. Kato was referred to by some as ‘Our Englishman’ as he was a known Anglophile. Considering the alliance with Britain during the war and his position of Foreign Minister it is not surprising that the question of Party Politcal Government was raised and in turn rejected. Okuma dissolved the Diet and called for new elections as soon as he came into office and the Seiyukai party which had enjoyed majority since 1990 was replaced by a coalition government of the Doshikai and Seiyukai parties.

Though he was a more popular Prime Minister than some of his predecessors he was replaced in 1917 by General Terauchi. The downfall of Terauchi with his orthodox leadership requiring no support from the House of Representatives came when the rice riots broke out in 1918. Hara Takashi who was a prominent figure in Saionji’s cabinet and an advocate of Party Politics created his own cabinet in 1918. His cabinet seemed to be the only way forward after the rice riots and the political and economical problems brought by the close of the First World War. Party Political government had finally come to Japan. Universal suffrage for adult men in Japan only came to exist in 1925, though tax qualifications for suffrage had been lowered in 1900 and again in 1919. Alongside the universal suffrage law came some government legislation stating that anyone creating or knowingly joining an organisation set up with views to alter the set-up of the government or deny the system of private property if found guilty would be liable to imprisonment of up to 10 years.

This was to protect the fledgling party democracy from extremist political groups. A precaution taken with note to the conflict in Europe beginning with too much power allocated to one side of a political field. The fight for suffrage for women began in 1878 with Kita Kusunose requesting to vote for her prefectural government. This request (though rejected) attracted other women to the cause and an equal rights for women movement gained some momentum. In 1889 the Meiji Constitution was finalised and women’s political activities were banned under Article 5 of the Peace Preservation Law. In 1905 a movement was set up to amend the Public Order and Police Law it failed. During the First World War the need for labour in the production of munitions lead to male workers being absorbed from other industries such as the textile industry. This in turn lead to a rise in women working in their place.

The wages were lower and the rights of the female workers were by no means equal, but the hard work of the women earned a new grudging respect for the capabilities of women from the government. This in turn would be a contributing factor to arguments used by the movement for women’s suffrage. The activities of the Japanese movement were not dissimilar to those of the women of Britain. One of Japan’s closest and most politically influential First World War allies. In 1922 after much campaigning women were granted the right to take part in political rallies and debates. In 1924 the Women’s Suffrage League of Japan was created and was active until it disbanded in 1940 due to the demands of the Second World War. In December 1945, 25 years after universal male suffrage was brought in, the women of Japan were granted the right to vote. Though the movements for suffrage on both sides male and female caused many difficulties to the government before during and after the First World War, the changes occurring in the agricultural sectors due to the war had more serious implications for the whole country.

In 1913 Clive Holland observed:”Although modern Japan is so changed from what it was even twenty-five or thirty years ago, and although ‘modernity’ and all that the word may be held to imply, has so great and apparently irresistible an attraction for the more highly educated and official classes, the workaday life of the countryside, of the shops, fields and factories has little to do with…Western civilisation.” (Holland 144)This may have been true of the time but the First World War, which was a product of ‘western civilisation’, had a very large impact on the countryside as well as the urban areas of Japan. The population of Japan rose from 44 million in 1900 to 56 million in 1920. A large amount of this growth was in the urban areas surrounding the port cities along the Pacific coast. The growth in these areas was not solely due to birth numbers or foreign traders, a large number of younger sons of farming families moved to the ports in search of work. The war had created a great number of jobs both in the munitions industry and in the heavy industries for goods export.

The countryside had been adequately populated since the 18th Century and it was the tradition that eldest sons would be afforded the opportunity to take over the family farming business. Restrictions on movement in the countryside put in place meant that tiny rice paddies were often created on hillsides or any other available lands to cope with overcrowding. The area of land in Japan suitable for cultivation is relatively small compared with other countries of a comparable size (12%) due to the mountainous nature of the islands. The rice yield before the population expansions of the 20th Century had been sufficient that Japan had been an exporter of food.

Despite modernisation of rice cultivation techniques it was impossible for the rice yield to keep up with the population growth. The industry boom during the war years brought two problems for the supply of rice. The first was increased demand for rice in the port cities and the second inflation. More and more rice was leaving the country to feed mouths in port cities and the people who produced it, not directly benefiting from the industrial boom, were able to afford less and less to feed their families.

By 1914 Japan was importing food from Korea and Taiwan. This helped the supply issue but was still expensive. In July 1918 fisherman’s wives in Toyama Prefecture gathered to protest shipment of rice to the port city of Osaka. The protest spread quickly through 42 of the 47 Japanese prefectures in 180 cities or towns. Involving as many as 2 million people it took 92,000 troops three weeks to subdue the masses and restore order. Many casualties occurred and the Prime Minister General Terauchi was forced to abdicate. The war-induced inflation had indirectly changed the set-up of Japan’s government.

It is clear to see that the First World War had a great impact on the direction of the development of Japan in the early 20th Century. The war contributed to the industrial boom which in the short term was beneficial then detrimental to the country’s economy. However it allowed for the exploration of ideas in organisation that have proved essential industrial development of Japan since that time. The impact the war had on Japan required party politics to finally become accepted as part of modern democracy. The agrarian distress caused much hardship at the time. The protests which were a result were a wake-up call to the government of Japan who realised that the cries of the ordinary Japanese people would not be easily ignored. The First World War, as with many large-scale conflicts, ushered in a new era for Japan and it’s people.


Gelb J. ed. & Palley M. L. ed. , 1994. Women of Japan and Korea. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

•Kubo K. & Gelb J, 1994. Obstacles and Opportunities: Women and Political Participation in Japan. Page 122.

Irokawa D, 1995. The Age of Hirohito: In Search of Modern Japan. The Free Press, New York. Page 5.

Jansen M. B, 2000. The Making of Modern Japan. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pages 495-505, 555-557Large S. S. ed. , 1998. Showa Japan: Political, economic and social history 1926-1989. Volume 1. Routledge, London.

•Nakamura T, 1988. Depression, Recovery, and War, 1920-1945. Pages 47-55•Wilson S, 1995. Women, the State and the Media in Japan in the Early 1930’s. Page 261.

Wrigley C. ed. , 2000. The First World War and the International Economy. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham.

•Brown K. D. The impact of the First World War on Japan. Pages 99-102, 108-113.

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