Japan’s way into the wars of the 1930s and 1940s against China and the Western powers is a well documented and researched part of modern Japanese history. Scholars generally agree upon the view that it was the military, especially the Imperial Army, which was the major force in bringing Japan on the road to aggression and war. The military had a privileged status in Japanese politics and could pursue its policies as an autonomous actor in the political arena. Though disagreement exists over the question of where to locate the roots of this development. Mostly, this development is seen to have originated in the legislation of the Meiji era such as, for instance, the establishment of an independent General Staff in 1878 or the provision that defined the military ministers as officers on active duty (gunbu daijin gen’eki bukan-sei) in 1900.
This narrow interpretation leads, however, to a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) eras, as well as to a misinterpretation of the Japanese case within the context of international research on militarism. Japan’s imperialist wars against Ch’ing China and tsarist Russia did not trigger a deeper involvement of the military in politics, as it can be usually observed in states involved in armed conflict or foreign crisis. Apparently, the accord between the political and the military elites was still intact during the Meiji era. Although the military did have the means to interfere in politics, it obviously did not have the will nor did it see any necessity to do so.
The situation changed fundamentally during the Taishō era, as this paper is going to show. Contrary to the usual perception of the Taishō period as a particular liberal era in Japanese prewar history or as a truly democratic one (Taishō-demokurashii), it will be shown that it was precisely during this period, in which the Imperial Army consolidated itself as a political factor and created precedence for interfering in politics. The army not only succeeded in gaining more control over domestic politics and foreign policy, but also over the spheres of economy and education.
It was the fundamental weakness of Japan’s political parties inherent in the construction of the constitutional system that allowed the Imperial Army during the Taishō period to establish itself as an autonomous political factor, a major conservative force and the leading player to promote foreign expansion. As a consequence, the accord between the political and military elites of Japan, which had characterized Meiji politics, broke down. This led to a rivalry between military and civil institutions, which was to define Japan’s politics of the 1930s and 1940s.