Japan Between the Wars

From: http://library.thinkquest.org/27629/themes/society/japan.html

Shortly before noon on 1st September 1923, a massive earthquake struck Japan. (7.9 on the Richter scale, epicentre was some 50 miles from Tokyo, the nation’s capital. Over 100,000 deaths were reported there and in nearby Yokohama. Fires ignited by overturned cooking stoves spread rapidly through the many wooden buildings in both cities.) Well over half of all the buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama were destroyed, and six prefectures in the Kanto plain and surrounding areas, home to almost 20 percent of the total population of Japan at that time, were declared disaster areas. The economy reeled form the loss of, virtually overnight, of some one-eighth of Japan’s total wealth. Millions were left homeless.

The greatest natural disaster to date in modern Japanese history, the Great Kanto Earthquake also became a symbol of the decade or so following the First World War to Japanese scholars. Just as the land mass of Japan was thrown into violent upheaval, so too was Japanese society in turmoil, strained by conflict on an unprecedented scale.

Migration and Urbanisation

In 1920, the year of the first modern census, the population of Japan had grown to 55 million, an increase of 20 million since 1872. Although a few hundred thousand Japanese had migrated to the United States and Brazil and perhaps 2 million others had migrated to other parts of Asia, the great bulk of this population had to be accommodated at home, in urban or urbanising areas. By the mid- 1930s, just over half of the population lived in rural areas, compared with 87 percent half a century before. In 1925, close to 13 million people, or 21 percent of the total population lived in cities, of which there were 101 nation-wide. By 1935, over 22.5 million people, some 32 percent of the population, lived in 127 cities.

It was the surplus natural increase of the countryside that left the rural farms for residence and employment in the cities. These younger sons of farm families for whom there was no secure place in agriculture, because most farms were already too small to be subdivided further, and the teenage daughters of farm families who could earn useful cash of their fathers in the years before they married into other families were actually aided, in many cases, by their parents in their relocation. These "surplus" children were raised with the expectation that they would leave home eventually and the fathers were supposed to take steps to secure places for them.

Daughters were much sought after by recruiters for the burgeoning raw silk industry and there was work for non-inheriting sons on construction crews or as employees in shops and small workshops. More affluent rural families could provide their younger sons with higher education to qualify them for careers in business, teaching or government service.


By 1920, approximately one-fifth of the labour force was employed in non-agricultural work. Well over half of those employed in modern factories (factories with western-style machines and some form of inanimate power) were women and young girls. The first strike in modern Japanese history was by female silk reelers in 1886, and from then on working women were thereafter far from passive in the face of workplace issues that concerned them. Despite this, many female workers were more inclined to endure rather than change since many of them intended to leave factory employment for marriage after a few years.

However, when the demand for male labour mushroomed during the early 1900s, and especially during the boom years of the First World War, there was an upsurge in labour unrest. These men had to perform more highly skilled or physically demanding labour, had a longer-term commitment to working for a living and in many cases formed the sole breadwinner of the household. Therefore they had a stronger interest and more motivation to improve their working conditions.

Empowering the People: Education and Military Service

Of key importance in engendering the desire and the ability to challenge the status quo among both industrial workers and tenant farmers were basic education and military service. With every passing year, the population of Japan became not only proportionately younger than in the past, but also better educated.

Military service intensified the impact of basic education on many young Japanese males. Not only did the army introduce conscripts to trousers, jackets and boots as well as to biscuits, beer and beef, it also trained them in discipline and co-ordinated action. Most importantly, it provided an environment in which social origins counted for nothing. What mattered was what the conscripts themselves could do, not the status of their families, and they were rewarded or punished according to their own achievements. This differed from the civilian world that sons of tenant farmers and factory workers had known, where one was expected to bow before those of superior wealth and social station and use humble speech in addressing them. Many of them found army life a liberating experience and for this very reason, and the memory of it influenced their aspirations and behaviour in later years.

Riots and Rights

At least seven large scale riots occurred in Tokyo between 1905 and 1917, triggered by public opposition to such diverse issues as increases in tram fares, political corruption and national policy towards China. By 1920 many Japanese were in one way or another expressing their discontent against the status quo. The Rice Riots of 1918 marked a watershed in the annals of popular discontent, not only in their eventual scale but also in their place of origin, deep within Japan’s hinterland. Reacting to the quadrupling of rice prices during the wartime boom years and to evidence of hoarding by rice dealers, fishermen’s wives in Toyama Prefecture launched the first in a series of demonstrations which spread over the next eight weeks to forty-two of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures and may have brought as many as two million people onto the streets in one form of protest or another.

Soon thereafter, the number of unions formed by workers in factories and by tenant farmers in the countryside began to multiply, and strike action by both factory workers and tenant farmers increased.

Responses to Unrest

As noted earlier, the Japanese state was in a position to monitor trends in popular thought and behaviour down to the rice-roots level of Japanese society and, given its inclination to protect Japan for the "evils" of development, it was willing to act on its findings. While there were some among bureaucrats and politicians in the early 1920s who accepted social conflict of the sort they were witnessing as a pathway to progress, they were ultimately outnumbered and out manoeuvred by those who did not.

To prevent the spread the spread of revolutionary ideology from a coterie of intellectuals to the putatively healthy and innocent masses, left-wing activists were removed – first by harassment and eventually by arrest and detention – from contact with tenant farmers and factory workers; newspapers were discouraged from reported details of tenancy disputes and industrial strikes, so as to prevent knowledge of the avenues of protest that others had pioneered from spreading to those as yet untainted by "dangerous ideas".

The state then took steps to articulate some of the grievances of tenant farmers and industrial workers as its own and to provide a controlled degree of rectification. While avoiding formal recognition of their right to organise and bargain collectively (a step to which most landlords and industrialists objected strongly) the state established machinery for the mediation of disputes. Not unimportantly, it promulgated universal adult male suffrage in 1925, a measure which enabled tenant farmers in particular to gain a direct voice in the village and prefectural assemblies long dominated by local men of property.

Last but not least, the state lobbied landlords and industrialists to consider the needs of those who depended on them for their livelihoods and to prevent disputes by timely concessions. This was part of a broader campaign the state had initiated not long before to "revitalise" the virtues of harmony and consensus that were said to distinguish Japan from the harsher societies of the West. Consisting mostly of exhortation and slogans, this campaign emphasised that must work together to build a strong and prosperous country. Conflict was not only unnecessary and wasteful; it was alien to the culture.

These official efforts did not lead to the immediate cessation of protest from below, but they did serve to check its uninhibited growth and to put those who engaged in it on the defensive. Dissent and assertiveness, as well as conflict itself, were deprived of legitimacy. If reforms were needed, the state would provide it. It was not until after the Second World War that this increasingly strict orthodoxy would be challenged, at least for a time, by large numbers of ordinary Japanese.

Some Key Moments: