Reemergence of the Samurai: The New Wave of Political Violence in Post-World War I Japan

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 4:10 PM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
Danny Orbach, Harvard University

The Great War (1914-1918) had dramatic ramifications for numerous countries, all of which had experienced a sharp divide between the post-war and the antebellum periods. For citizens of the Japanese Empire, however, the "war experience" was not comprised of trenches, untold suffering or surge of pacifist ideology, but merely  a chain of easy victories over German colonies and concessions in eastern Asia and the Pacific. Culture and society did change in the 1920s, but for many, these changes seemed to be in direct continuity with antebellum developments, and were usually not related to the war itself.

                Still, there was an often overlooked post-war development with crucial ramifications over the later course of Japanese history: the reemergence of political violence. In the 1870s, during the first decade of the Meiji Regime, the country was rampant with Samurai rebellions, political assassinations and military mutinies of all sorts. However, since 1878, internal political violence in Japan seemed to die out. Certainly, there had been some violent demonstrations, such as the Hibiya Riots of 1904, but almost no military mutinies, and even political assassinations were very few and far between.

On April 11th of 1921, however, the Japanese Prime Minister, Hara Takashi, was assassinated by a railway switch-man at Tokyo Station. Gradually, from 1921 to 1936, political assassinations became the norm again, as business magnates, generals and politicians perished by the sword in increasing numbers. The following presentation will examine whether this phenomenon was related to Japan's experience in the Great War, and whether the reemergence of political assassins could be truly seen as a "post-war" development.