What Was the Taisho Era (Period) in Japan? – A Complete Overview

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author Limarc Ambalina
  • Published August 20, 2023
  • Word count 1,391

When it comes to Japanese history, the Taisho Era sometimes gets overlooked.

For one thing, the Taisho Era is not as long as the Meiji Era which came before it, or the Showa Era which followed.

However, the period is worth knowing about — and not just because of a certain anime series about a demon slayer and his sister.

Keep reading if you want to know more about the short, but interesting Taisho Era.

Note: History doesn’t have neat boundaries, so this will include late Meiji and early Showa as well as Taisho stuff.

Table of Contents

Taisho Era Summary

Taisho Culture

Taisho Inherits an Empire

Japan and the United States

Taisho Technology

The Great Kanto Earthquake

Conclusion

Taisho Era Summary

Historical photo of Marunouchi street in 1920, public domain - originally from Japanese National Research and Development Agency - found at Wikimedia Commons

The Taisho Era ran from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926. It followed the tumultuous and revolutionary Meiji Era, when Japan started to modernize after two centuries of isolation. It also came before the Showa Era — i.e., the Great Depression, World War II, and Japan’s postwar “Economic Miracle.”

The Taisho Era is named for the emperor who reigned during the period. Emperor Taisho, a.k.a. Yoshihito, was a relatively young ruler. He was 33 years old when he became emperor in 1912. Unfortunately, he was only 47 when he died.

When it comes to Japanese culture and domestic policy, the Taisho Era is remembered as a brief period of liberal democracy. During Taisho, political parties held sway over the government, rather than oligarchs or the military. This was a new concept for Japan, and the era is known for its “Taisho Democracy.”

Taisho Democracy affected politics, but the period also featured changes in the economy, education, culture, and literature.

In international events, the Taisho years were dominated by World War I. The Taisho Era also coincided with the beginning of the economic boom known as the “Roaring ‘20s.” However, this boom was not as strong in Japan as it was in the United States.

Closer to Japan, the Taisho Era also saw chaos in China, as Nationalists, Communists, and warlords struggled to control the former empire.

Taisho Culture

Historic photo, modern "Moga" women in Ginza, Tokyo, 1928 - public domain photo, by Kageyama Kyoyo, published in Japan Times - found at Wikimedia Commons

Was it exposure to Western influence, economic modernization, or the overall liberalization of society? Either way, the Taisho Era saw Japanese culture grow and change in many ways.

For example, Natsume Soseki wrote his classic novel Kokoro during this period. Ryunosuke Akutagawa and other writers also expanded Japanese literature in liberal, modern, and even radical directions.

Authors were helped by new literary magazines, but also by an increase in overall literacy. While some of these changes began in the Meiji Era, they really took off during Taisho.

The Taisho Period was also the era of the Moga. “Moga,” a Japanese abbreviation for “modern girls,” were seen as fashionable, Western-influenced, and independent women.

But more conservative and nationalist people criticized the Moga as decadent, hedonistic, selfish, and even unnatural.

In many ways, the urban Moga were the Japanese equivalent of flappers — modern, trendy, and pushing forward women’s liberation.

And speaking of modern women, the Taisho Era also saw the first performance of the Takarazuka Revue. This famous all-female theater group was founded in 1913.

Taisho Inherits an Empire

Emperor Taisho, public domain image from Imperial Household Agency, found at Wikimedia Commons

Under Taisho’s father, Emperor Meiji, Japan had already colonized Taiwan (1895), and southern Manchuria (1905). Meiji Japan also annexed Korea (1910).

(We can criticize Japan’s imperial growth. But Britain still owned India, France had Indochina, and many nations controlled pieces of China.)

Although Imperial Japan continued to expand during the Taisho years, it did not grow as much as it would during the aggressive military expansion of the Showa Era.

However, Taisho Japan was actively involved in World War I (1914-1918).

Although it may sound strange to anyone familiar with World War II, Japan fought in “the Great War” as one of the Allies. This alliance included Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and (eventually) the United States. Their enemies were the Central Powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.

During the war, Japan attacked and took over German territory in China. And in the aftermath of the war, Japan would gain some German “Mandate Islands” in the South Pacific.

How did Japan end up with the Allies? Japan had been partners with Great Britain since the Meiji Era. As a result, the nation entered World War I as part of Britain’s alliance against Germany. The British helped Japan take Germany’s port of Tsingtao in China. Japan even sent navy ships to patrol the Mediterranean.

Japan’s involvement in the war meant that it could benefit from the peace treaties. Japan was also a founding member of the League of Nations.

Japan and the United States

Historic photo of "White Man's Neighborhood" sign from 1920s, from National Japanese American Historical Society collection, found at PBS website, in the public domain.

Japan’s relationship with the United States was more complicated. Ever since Commodore Perry’s Black Ships “opened up” Japan, the two nations tried to maintain a friendly relationship. For example, Japan sent the famous flowering cherry trees to Washington, D.C. in 1912. (This was just prior to the start of Taisho.)

However, the issue of immigration often got in the way. When a lot of Japanese and Chinese people immigrated to the U.S., anti-Asian racism grew in response. People discriminated against Japanese immigrants. (And the worst was yet to come during World War II.)

Racist attitudes and anti-immigrant laws — such as a California state law which prevented Asian “aliens” from owning land — angered the Japanese government. This diplomatic breakdown would continue in the Showa Era.

Taisho Technology

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba on Crunchyroll - Koyoharu Gotoge / Shueisha, Aniplex, ufotable

The Taisho Era continued the modernization process which began during the Meiji Era. The old, feudal ways of doing things started to give way to a more modern way of life.

Japan was also changing from rural to a more urban and industrialized nation. Examples of Taisho Japan tech included:

A large network of electric trams and streetcars grew in Tokyo and elsewhere. Japan’s first electric tram line was built in 1895. By the 1920s, Tokyo had a lot of streetcars.

Inspired by London’s Underground, a Tokyo company started to build its first subway line in the 1920s. It would open in 1927.

Japanese movie studio Nikkatsu was formed in 1912 with the merger of several movie studios and theater chains. Kabuki company Shochiku moved into making motion pictures in 1920. Shochiku would eventually become one of Japan’s “Big Four” studios.

The Tokyo Broadcasting Station aired Japan’s first radio broadcast in 1925. The station would merge to form the first version of the NHK in 1926.

As I noted in my chocolate article, a couple of well-known Japanese chocolate companies also originated in this time period. (Ironically, “Meiji” chocolate is actually Taisho.)

The Great Kanto Earthquake

Nihonbashi and Kanda after the Great Kanto Earthquake - historical public domain photo, originally by Osaka Mainichi newspaper - from Wikimedia Commons

Japan sits on the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean, and earthquakes are not uncommon. But the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was one of the worst in Japanese history. It killed more than 100,000, and reduced much of Tokyo to rubble.

To make matters worse, the quake was followed by civil unrest, racist rumors, lynch mobs, and the murder of Koreans.

But the aftermath of the quake also allowed a more modern city to rise up. Japan still remembers the quake on Disaster Prevention Day, a holiday dedicated to such events.

Conclusion

And so, that is the Taisho, for better or for worse. It was an era of technological and cultural advancements. But it also set the stage for Japan’s Showa Era imperial expansion.

OK, but what about Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba?

The anime series actually does a decent job of depicting Taisho times. I would recommend the Asakusa, Mugen Train, and Entertainment District arcs for good examples of demon slayers reacting to “modern” marvels.

I hope this article helps you to better understand the Taisho Era.

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