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10-08-2015, 16:48

Experiment in Democracy

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Japanese political system appeared to evolve significantly toward the Western democratic model. Political parties expanded their popular following and became increasingly competitive, while individual pressure groups such as labor unions began to appear in Japanese society, along with an independent press and a bill of rights. The influence of the old ruling oligarchy, the genro, had not yet been significantly challenged, however, nor had that of its ideological foundation, the kokutai. The fragile flower of democratic institutions was able to survive throughout the 1920s. During that period, the military budget was reduced, and a suffrage bill enacted in 1925 granted the vote to all Japanese adult males. Women remained disenfranchised, but women’s associations gained increased visibility during the 1920s, and women became active in the labor movement and in campaigns for various social reforms. But the era was also marked by growing social turmoil, and two opposing forces within the system were gearing up to challenge the prevailing wisdom. On the left, a Marxist labor movement, which reflected the tensions within the working class and the increasing radicalism among the rural poor, began to take shape in the early 1920s in response to growing economic difficulties. Attempts to suppress labor disturbances led to further radicalization. On the right, ultranationalist groups called for a rejection of Western models of development and a more militant approach to realizing national objectives. In 1919, radical nationalist Kita Ikki called for a military takeover and the establishment of a new system bearing a strong resemblance to what would later be called fascism in Europe (see Chapter 6). This cultural conflict between old and new, native and foreign, was reflected in the world of literature. Japanese self-confidence had been somewhat restored after victories over China and Russia, and this resurgence sparked a great age of creativity in the early twentieth century. Japanese writers blended Western psychology with Japanese sensibility in exquisite novels reeking with nostalgia for the old Japan. A well-known example is Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles, published in 1928, which delicately juxtaposes the positive aspects of both traditional and modern Japan. By the 1930s, however, military censorship increasingly inhibited free literary expression. Many authors continued to write privately, producing works that reflected the gloom of the era. This attitude is perhaps best exemplified by Shiga Naoya’s novel A Dark Night’s Journey, written during the early 1930s and capturing a sense of the approaching global catastrophe. It is regarded as the masterpiece of modern Japanese literature.