Hara Takashi (1856
), also known as Hara Kei
, was the first prime minister
to achieve his post via party politics.
A native of Iwate Prefecture, Hara was born into a high-ranking samurai family on March 15, 1856. After graduating from Tokyo University, he took up a career in journalism. In 1882, Hara entered the foreign service and soon found powerful patrons among the Meiji oligarchs, including Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru. In 1900, with Ito's aid, Hara was one of the principal founders of Japan's first major political party, the Rikken Seiyukai ("Friends of Constitutional Government Party"), serving as the party secretary-general from its founding and as party president from 1914 on.
Elected to the Diet in 1900 for the first of eight consecutive terms, Hara made use of his numerous connections and quickly rose through the ranks to serve three separate stints as Home Minister from 1906–1908, 1911–1912, and 1913–1914. Meanwhile, Hara forged the Seiyukai Party into a powerful political force of nationwide reach through the time-honored techniques of controlling patronage distribution and pork barrel regional development projects. In the turmoil following the great Rice Riots of the summer of 1918, Hara swept into power (with the tacit approval of genro chieftan Yamagata Aritomo), becoming the first prime minister not drawn from the ranks of the oligarchy. Hara's accession marked the beginning of Japan's 13-year experiment with popular party rule, known as "Taisho Democracy," and initiated a decade of Seiyukai dominance of Japanese Politics.
As Prime Minister, Hara was immediately faced with several serious domestic and foreign policy issues. On the home front, Hara faced a populace disillusioned with the slow pace of democratic reform and increasingly willing to flex its muscles in the form of protests, rallies, and riots. In addition, organized labor was beginning to form, and communists and socialists were agitating for extreme left wing reforms. Meanwhile, the Japanese Intervention in Siberia, which had been only authorized to undertake a limited action, was rapidly getting out of hand as willful Japanese military officers independently pursued their own agendas (in a sign of things to come). For his part, Hara seems to have devoted special attention to making sure that his party would stay in power, passing new voting laws and redrawing electorial districts in ways that would favor the Seiyukai in future contests.
In response to increasing popular pressure for universal suffrage, Hara granted a limited suffrage expansion, but refused to use the absolute Seiyukai majority in the Diet to institute universal manhood suffrage. Meanwhile, Hara took steps to supress organized labor and communism. At first Hara treaded carefully in dealing with the increasingly insubbordinate military, but when it appeared he might take steps to withdraw troops from Siberia, Hara was assassinated by a right-wing youth as he met dignitaries on a railway platform, and passed away on November 4, 1921.
As the first and foremost of the Taisho Democrats, Hara set the tone for the next decade, establishing the networks of party patronage and welding the alliance of business and agrarian interests that would sustain Seiyukai majorities for the next several years. But in the eyes of many historians, Hara's death marked the begininng of the end of the short-lived Japanese experiment with mass democracy during Taisho. Unbeknownst to contemporary observers, the path was already being laid toward fascism and militarism - the Hara assassination was but the first sign of the deepening fissures between military and civilian authority and the increasingly intolerant right-wing nationalism that would eventually lead Japan into war.
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