|Japan Table of Contents
After the bitter political rivalries between the inception of the Diet in 1890 and 1894, when the nation was unified for the war effort against China, there followed five years of unity, unusual cooperation, and coalition cabinets. From 1900 to 1912, the Diet and the cabinet cooperated even more directly, with political parties playing larger roles. Throughout the entire period, the old Meiji oligarchy retained ultimate control but steadily yielded power to the opposition parties. The two major figures of the period were Yamagata Aritomo, whose long tenure (1868-1922) as a military and civil leader, including two terms as prime minister, was characterized by his intimidation of rivals and resistance to democratic procedures, and It , who was a compromiser and, although overruled by the genro, wanted to establish a government party to control the House during his first term. When Ito returned as prime minister in 1898, he again pushed for a government party, but when Yamagata and others refused, Ito resigned. With no willing successor among the genro, the Kenseito (Constitutional Party) was invited to form a cabinet under the leadership of Okuma and Itagaki, a major achievement in the opposition parties' competition with the genro. This success was short-lived: the Kenseito split into two parties, the Kenseito led by Itagaki and the Kensei Honto (Real Constitutional Party) led by Okuma, and the cabinet ended after only four months. Yamagata then returned as prime minister with the backing of the military and the bureaucracy. Despite broad support of his views on limiting constitutional government, Yamagata formed an alliance with Kenseito. Reforms of electoral laws, an expansion of the House to 369 members, and provisions for secret ballots won Diet support for Yamagata's budgets and tax increases. He continued to use imperial ordinances, however, to keep the parties from fully participating in the bureaucracy and to strengthen the already independent position of the military. When Yamagata failed to offer more compromises to the Kenseito, the alliance ended in 1900, beginning a new phase of political development.
Ito and a protégé, Saionji Kimmochi (1849-1940), finally succeeded in forming a progovernment party--the Seiyokai (Association of Friends of Constitutional Government)--in September 1900, and a month later Ito became prime minister of the first Seiyokai cabinet. The Seiyokai held the majority of seats in the House, but Yamagata's conservative allies had the greatest influence in the House of Peers, forcing Ito to seek imperial intervention. Tiring of political infighting, Ito resigned in 1901. Thereafter, the prime ministership alternated between Yamagata's protégé, Katsura Taro (1847-1913; prime minister 1901-5 and 1908- 11), and Saionji (prime minister 1905-8 and 1911-12). The alternating of political power was an indication of the two sides' ability to cooperate and share power and helped foster the continued development of party politics.
The Meiji era ended with the death of the emperor in 1912 and the accession of Crown Prince Yoshihito as emperor of the Taish period (Great Righteousness, 1912-26). The end of the Meiji era was marked by huge government domestic and overseas investments and defense programs, nearly exhausted credit, and a lack of foreign exchange to pay debts. The beginning of the Taisho era was marked by a political crisis that interrupted the earlier politics of compromise. When Saionji tried to cut the military budget, the army minister resigned, bringing down the Seiyokai cabinet. Both Yamagata and Saionji refused to resume office, and the genro were unable to find a solution. Public outrage over the military manipulation of the cabinet and the recall of Katsura for a third term led to still more demands for an end to genro politics. Despite old guard opposition, the conservative forces formed a party of their own in 1913, the Rikken Doshikai (Constitutional Association of Friends), a party that won a majority in the House over the Seiyokai in late 1914.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress