"Taisho Democracy" is the term given by historians to the period in Japanese History
extending roughly from the Hibiya Riot
that set off a wave of populist
movements through the Mukden Incident
that led to a takeover of the government by high ranking military officers. The Taisho Democracy was a time of idealism for the Japanese petty bourgeoisie
and working classes, who found themselves increasingly able to participate in national policy debate.
The Taisho Democracy began in earnest when Hara Kei assumed the premiership following the great rice riots of 1918. For the first time, a real party government existed in Japan, as Hara's Seiyukai party and the slightly more liberal Minseito party traded cabinets for a decade. Both parties courted the favor of the masses, repealing odious labor laws of the past, allowing the spread of unionization, passing the universal manhood sufferage bill of 1925, and even flirting with the idea of female sufferage.
The Taisho Democracy came crashing down in 1931-1932 when the Japanese Kwantung Army used the Mukden incident as an excuse to invade Manchuria. This precipitated a crisis when the world-wide community began imposing sanctions on Japan as punishment for this act of aggression. The crisis was further exacerbated by a series of plots hatched against the party government system by junior military officers that resulted in several high profile assassinations. Finally in 1932 a military junta disbanded the cabinet and replaced it with a cabinet of its own choosing, initiating the fascist regime that would preside over the escalation of the war in China, and eventually, Japan's role in World War II.
Historians have tended to view the Taisho Democracy as hollow, as more of an illusion than a fact. They point to the fact that the upper, non-elected house of the Japanese Diet - the House of Peers - repeatedly blocked legislation according to its own whims, and thus quietly maintained the power of the old Meiji oligarchs led by Prince Saionji, depite the appearence of increasing popular sovereignty. They also point to the brutal suppression of the left-wing fringe and strict police control of free speech as evidence that the Taisho Democracy was ideologically bankrupt.
However, the fact remains that although the Taisho Democracy was not actually very democratic by Anglo-American standards of the time, it was much more democratic than anything Japan had witnessed before, or would witness again for another 25 years. For a brief period, especially during the years of Minseito ascendency from 1924-1929, average Japanese citizens did experience a genuine increase in their ability to participate in their government. Though their actual power was less than they imagined, it was more than some historians give them credit for.