Organized Panel Session
In 1912, after the death of the Meiji Emperor, Japan was rocked by a major political crisis. Incensed by a budgetary dispute, the Imperial Army used a constitutional loophole to overthrow the cabinet of Prime Minister Saionji Kinmochi. The army minister resigned, and as no active duty general agreed to fill the post, the cabinet had to submit a collective resignation. Then, the Imperial Navy tried to overthrow Saionji’s successor, Katsura Tarō, in the same way. Katsura parried the Navy’s assault with an imperial edict, and by doing so triggered a mass protest movement that consumed his cabinet. He was replaced by a former admiral, Yamamoto Gonnohyōe, who was determined to reform Japan’s military system in order to prevent the army and the navy from ever engaging again in such disruptive political maneuvers.
In this paper, I will offer an interpretation of the Taishō political crisis as an existential challenge to the Meiji State. Reviewing the three acts of the crisis, under prime ministers Saionji, Katsura and Yamamoto, I will argue that the crisis was caused by a structural problem of miscommunication between different branches of the Japanese elite. Furthermore, its dynamics opened highly dangerous possibilities for the Meiji Regime, as they exposed the contradictions, lies and illusions behind the imperial institution, the very heart of the system. The reforms launched in the wake of the crisis strengthened the civilian elites on the expense of the army and navy, but their limited scope made this triumph temporary and brittle in nature.