Depression and Rightist Patriots | Trouble in Manchuria | More Expansion and International Opposition | Encouraged Rightists and the End of Parliamentary Government | More Aggression against China | Emperor Hirohito Asserts Himself
Emperor Hirohito (reign: 1926-89)
Japan needed to sell goods abroad in order to buy food and to buy raw materials for manufacturing. Between 1929 and 1931, decline in sales to the United States brought decline to two of Japan's rural enterprises: its silk industry and rice growing. Japan's rice farmers and much of the nation suffered. The depression was deep in Japan. Children were begging in the streets. Distress in the countryside was moving people into sympathy with chauvinistic nationalists – patriotic societies – and many sought relief in Japan's nationalist religion: Shintoism. Disappointed farmers blamed big-city capitalism and favored government control over the economy. Rural people - nearly two-thirds of Japan's population – tended to look with disdain upon the ways of city people, including the popularity of democracy. They agreed with the call from patriotic societies for "national reconstruction," military strength and reverence for authority. They were inclined to favor benefits for Japan at the expense of international accommodations.
Most of Japan's young military officers and enlisted men came from rural areas. They too were displeased by conditions in rural Japan, and they too tended to dislike businessmen from the cities – a rival elite whom they saw as self-indulgent rather than as servants of the nation and the emperor. They tended to dislike foreigners, especially Westerners. And some among them dreamed of Japan creating a new order in all of Asia – an Asia free of Western influences, an Asia for Asians.
The rightists held a traditional view of their emperor, Hirohito. They believed he was a god, while Hirohito remained at odds with their attitudes about Japan's future. Emperor Hirohito – who had ascended the throne in 1926 at the age of twenty-five – favored peace and cooperation with foreign powers. Supporting the emperor in this was the political party in power, the Democratic (Minseito) Party. The prime minister, Osachi Hamaguchi, wanted to limit government spending for the military, and in January, 1930, representatives of his government met in London and agreed with Great Britain and the United States in new limitations in naval construction. Emperor Hirohito supported the agreements, while newspapers were divided and the navy high command grumbled and mentioned that it had a constitutional right to veto the plan.
A Rightist who was angry about the London agreements shot and severely wounded Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi, and by the end of the year the Prime Minister was dead. Succeeding Hamaguchi was Reijiro Wakatsuki, also of the Democratic Party, who feared more violence from the Right, especially violence aimed at him. And Wakatsuki chose to appease the rightists and to ignore their lawlessness.
Japan was facing increased defiance in Korea, but Japan's foremost foreign policy concern was a threat by the Chinese against Japan's position in southern Manchuria. In the summer of 1927, during Chiang Kai-shek's visit to Japan, Japan's government had reached an understanding with Chiang. Chiang had recognized Japan's "rights and interests" in Manchuria, and Japan in turn had recognized Chiang's Guomindang regime as the authority in China – with the proviso that the Guomindang disassociate itself from the Communists, which Chiang had done that spring. By 1931, however, in Manchuria the Chinese were annoying the Japanese by building rail lines parallel to Japanese rail lines. The Japanese saw this as overly aggressive competition in Manchuria, and the Japanese believed that the Chinese had designs on Manchuria. Manchuria was peopled to a great extent by Chinese, in addition to Manchu and Mongol peoples, and the Japanese were concerned about Chinese nationalism there. And among Japan's militarists and strategic thinkers was the belief that China responded only to threats of force or actual force.
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