Violence and Democracy in Imperial Japan

Violence and Democracy in Imperial Japan


            On February 11, 1889, the emperor stood before an audience of foreign and Japanese dignitaries adorned in formal western dress to promulgate the first constitution in the country’s history.  This ceremonial presentation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was carefully orchestrated to exhibit Japan’s emergence among the politically “civilized” nations of the late nineteenth-century world and to epitomize regal and gentlemanly politics.[1]  By this time, over two decades since the collapse of the early modern order, Meiji Japan (1868-1912) had witnessed the establishment of political parties, the writing of a constitution, and the promise of an election for the lower house of the newly created parliament.  The stately scene on this February day optimistically portended stability and order in a modern era of constitutional and parliamentary government.

            From this idealized portrait of one momentous occasion, we might imagine a Meiji political world inhabited only by dignified politicians and lofty intellectuals—exemplars of the “civilization and enlightenment” called for in their day—who debated the finer points of democratic politics.  Yet the constitution and parliamentary democracy were born of violence, and the expansion of democratic politics would prove to be destabilizing and disorderly as various people attempted to wrest political power from the strong hands of the oligarchs who were at the helm of the Meiji government.  Politics was punctuated by assassinations, of which we are well aware, and also ruffianism—brawls, fistfights, vandalism, threats, and intimidation.  Such ruffianism will be the focus of this essay because its embeddedness in the practice of politics demonstrates that violence was not an episodic phenomenon, but a systemic and deeply rooted element of political life in imperial Japan.

            The endurance of violence along with the development of democratic politics raises a number of questions.  Why did ruffianism and democracy coexist?  What does the persistence of a certain political roughness tell us about the nature of democracy in these years?  And how did this violence influence the fate of democracy in prewar Japan?


Ruffianism and the Birth of Parliamentary Politics

            Before the promulgation of the constitution in 1889, when there were more open questions about what politics in this new era might look like and who should be able to participate, young activists who were part of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement demonstrated their willingness to use physical force in the name of democracy and liberalism.  In one phase of the movement, spanning the early half of the 1880s, such activists turned to symbolic acts of assassination and small-scale revolts to destabilize the governing regime.  In the Kabasan Incident of 1884, for example, plans were hatched to assassinate key Meiji officials with bombs to pave the way for the establishment of a more democratic form of government.[2]  This phase of rebellious violence, or terrorism, depending on one’s perspective, gradually came to an end in the second half of the decade, mainly due to the arrest and punishment of its participants.

            What took its place was a ruffianism wielded largely by toughs known as sōshi.  While the term “sōshi” had been used to describe the violent activists of the early 1880s, it increasingly came to refer to ruffians, reflecting a shift in sōshi composition and violence.  While the sōshihad typically been a mixed lot of former samurai, merchants, industrialists, gamblers, students, and drifters, their ranks swelled in the later 1880s with a more “yakuza-like” (or mafia-like) type who was not so much political activist but violence specialist for hire, who was attracted less by political change than by the paycheck or even the excitement of violence.  By the late 1880s, these ruffians had become such a presence in political life that it became possible to define a prototypical sōshi.  As a newspaper article from May 1889 explained that a sōshicould be identified by their rough demeanor complete with dirty and torn clothes, long hair, loud voices, and woolen hats that were so old and shapeless that they conveniently drooped over the wearer’s face.  A sōshi would also bear weapons such as cane swords, swords, and pistols.  Variations on this prototype could indicate a sōshi’s regional and perhaps political affiliation as well.  Those from Kanazawa in central Japan were known by their short, pleated, culotte-like trousers and high wooden sandals.  They wrapped their unusually wide sashes low, carried especially fat sticks, and held their left shoulders high.  A specific subset of Kanazawa ruffian, known as Santama sōshi, were outfitted with headbands made out of white cloth, wore sashes, and carried cane swords, sticks, clubs, and pistols.  Another type of sōshi could be identified by the course blankets they wore when cold.  Length of clothes could also indicate political affiliation.

            Typically young men who were willing and able to use physical force in political contests, ruffians were actively cultivated by Freedom and People’s Rights Movement leaders who organized sōshi violence.  The Liberal Party (Jiyūtō) established in 1884 a school called the Yūitsukan that served as the training ground for party ruffians.  Other groups, clubs, and associations were more informally associated with a political party and proliferated in the later years of the decade.  The Osaka Sōshi Club, for example, was founded in April 1888, and in the spring of 1889, the Tokyo Sōshi Club ran a newspaper advertisement to recruit sōshi, specifically those who had criminal records.

            The ruffianism of these years typically consisted of sōshi storming and disturbing political gatherings, threatening and physically intimidating political opponents, protecting political allies from the violence of antagonistic toughs, and serving as bodyguards for individual politicians.  Ruffianism pervaded the first ever election for the House of Representatives in 1890, creating a tense political atmosphere assōshi disrupted campaign meetings, threatened opposition candidates and voters, and faced off against each other.  They were partly canvassers of sorts, as in a race in Osaka where a candidate hired ruffians to approach electors in groups of four or five to influence their vote.  Or in Yokohama, where they posted fliers at every intersection that threatened to kill anyone who voted for the opposition candidates.  Sōshiwere also providers of protection and their role as defenders of a certain candidate or political party led them to clash with other sōshi, as in Kumamoto prefecture where a fight broke out between the ruffians of two different factions.  In general, ruffianism was organized and purposeful and strategic, sometimes even routinized or ritualized.  Accounts of ruffians breaking up public meetings read so much alike thatsōshi come off as professionals performing a specific task—the meeting begins and the ruffians enter, storm the dais, attack the speaker and others, destroy some property, and exit.  And such violence was relatively widespread; in the 1890 election, reports of sōshi-related incidents came from the prefectures and cities of Kumamoto, Kōchi, Ishikawa, Toyama, Niigata, Hyōgo, Saitama, Tochigi, Gunma, Aichi, Mie, Yokohama, Osaka, and Tokyo.  Similar patterns of violence were seen in the 1892 election, which was far more violent than the first.  There were numerous instances when sōshi squared off against each other—in one village, there was a standoff between 1,300 ruffians on one side and 1,000 on the other; in another case, 800 toughs were brought in as reinforcements for an on-going fight to which 11 police officers and five military police had to be dispatched.  But there was a certain variety to the violence as well.  Sometimes sōshi just threw things at their opponents or symbols of their opponents, as when 2,000 sōshi threw rubble at a newspaper company sympathetic to the other side; sometimes there were murders; sometimes they set fire to private homes; sometimes they stormed polling places; and sometimes they stole ballot boxes which, as you might imagine, caused scuffles.

Once the new Diet was inaugurated, ruffianism spread from the streets to the halls of the parliament itself.  In one instance, on February 14, 1891, a Diet member named Inoue Kakugorō was headed toward the dining room during a midday recess when he was hit on the right side of his face with an iron stick.  He managed to pin the ruffian against the wall before receiving another blow and held him there until the police arrived.  The prevalence of sōshi attacks was described by parliamentarian Ozaki Yukio, who could list his many injured colleagues:

“It was not unusual to see members arriving at the Diet all bandaged up.  Inukai [Tsuyoshi] was wounded in the head.  Shimada Saburō was attacked a couple of times and badly hurt.  Takada Sanae was cut down with a sword from behind and the blade almost reached his lungs; he would have died on the spot had he not been obese.  Kawashima Atsushi, Ueki Emori, and Inoue Kakugorō were all attacked at different times and came wearing bandages.  Suematsu Kenchō was hit by horse manure thrown from the gallery.  Members often even got into fist fights on the floor of the House, which became a rather rough place to be.”[3]

In one of such incidents on the House floor, a politician named Nakamura Yaroku punched a fellow parliamentarian in the face for suggesting that he had received bribes to sit out a vote.

            The proliferation of sōshi ruffianism, and its eclipse of the tactics of assassination, have numerous explanations.  For one, sōshi of this time were seeking to influence political behavior, not fundamentally change the political order.  An undecided voter might be coerced by the fist, but it would not serve the sōshi’s interests to wield lethal violence that would eliminate a potential vote.  In addition, there were simply more opportunities to wield violence as politics became more popular and visible with its rallies, debates, and election campaigns.  As public political events became more ordinary and everyday occurrences, so too did the ruffianism that accompanied them.  Also, the expansion of political participation meant that extinguishing all of one’s political opponents was unfeasible; there was instead a larger body of candidates, aspiring politicians, party members, and prefectural and national parliamentarians to coerce rather than eliminate.  At the same time, sōshiviolence was also encouraged by the continuing limits on political participation.  Restrictions on who could run and vote in elections meant that the body of politicians and electors, though larger than in the past, was still small enough that sōshi influence could be potentially meaningful.  And once sōshi had established a foothold in political life, their presence became a self-perpetuating phenomenon as each side in a political contest would find itself needing its own muscle when faced with ruffians of the opposition.  Or to put this another way, the dynamism of political contention ensured the persistence of toughs as protection and ammunition against opponents.


The Institutionalization of Violence

            After the ink on the constitution had dried and the Diet had opened its doors, ruffianism did not abate but became a more organized and institutionalized element of political life.  In the 1880s, the Liberty Party had formed a pressure group that was a loose amalgamation of sōshiwho worked for particular politicians.  Over the course of the 1890s, these ruffians coalesced under the leadership of several sōshi bosses.  So when the Friends of Constitutional Government Party (Seiyūkai), a descendant of the Liberal Party, was founded in 1900, sōshi were consolidated under the new party’s umbrella.  On December 1, 1903, sōshi were officially incorporated into the party’s structure with the establishment of a Friends of Constitutional Government Party pressure group.

            This pressure group was similar in purpose to that of the Liberal Party, but it was more defined in structure and function.  The pressure group was given a dedicated office inside party headquarters, had a governing committee, and was nominally divided into two bodies: the intellectual and the violent.  It was the violent wing that consisted of sōshi and was known to function much like a “street gang”—its members hung about both outside and inside the Diet when it was in session, served as security for parliamentarians and as guards at public meetings, disrupted opposition parties’ public meetings, and campaigned and canvassed during elections.  As part of the institutionalization of sōshi into the party structure, financial rewards also became more clearly defined.  When they inflicted physical harm, they were paid according to whom they hit and where they hit them.  Assaulting a more prominent politician meant more pay, which also varied according to whether a blow landed on the face, the hands and feet, or the torso.  An understanding of the financial aspect of the job seemed to exist between sōshi of different parties’ pressure groups, for there was an unspoken code that if opposition ruffians attended one’s public meeting, they were to be allowed to disrupt the gathering at least briefly before being hauled off so that they would receive their pay.  This emphasis on financial compensation suggests that these ruffians viewed themselves primarily as professionals carrying out a particular job, likely motivated more by money than by political conviction.

            With this need for toughs who specialized in providing violence, it is not surprising that pressure groups recruited those who were accustomed to using physical force in their professional lives.  In the 1910s, the Friends of Constitutional Government Party established a youth division that it named the Iron Spirit Association, and made it a point to solicit yakuza (or mafia) as members.  The main opposition party at the time, the Constitutional Association (Kenseikai), also tapped yakuza for muscle.

            The embrace of ruffians and ruffianism by political institutions in these decades could be seen not just in the organization of sōshi and the recruitment of yakuza into their ranks, but also in the election of yakuza bosses to the House of Representatives.  One such man was Yoshida Isokichi, who was elected to the Diet in 1915 to represent a region of northern Kyushu.  During the 17 years that he served as a parliamentarian, Yoshida was involved in brawls on the House floor, recruited his yakuza henchmen to act like sōshi, and leveraged the threat of violence in labor disputes to help resolve them in the favor of management.

            One reason why voters and fellow politicians did not look askance at Yoshida was because there existed a culture of political violence that was not contained within the pressure groups, but permeated parliamentary politics.  Not only could sōshi be found wandering in the corridors and anterooms of the Diet building, but elected representatives too did not shun violence and were encouraged by party leaders to turn to force when speech was insufficient.  Many parliamentarians did not leave physical ruffianism to hired strongmen but flexed their own muscle when deemed necessary, even within the Diet chamber.  Indeed, brawling on the Diet floor was standard practice by the 1920s.  As described by historian Peter Duus, “The seats of the two major parties were separated on the floor of the House of Representatives by an aisle down the middle of the chamber.  It became customary for the largest and strongest members of each party to sit along the edge of this no-man’s land in the event tempers flared.  The nameplates of the Diet members, originally movable, were nailed to the desks, because they made handy and exceedingly damaging implements of offense.”[4]  The presence of men like Yoshida, along with the sōshi of pressure groups, both reflected and perpetuated a brand of politics in which violence laced political discourse even within the walls of the parliament itself.

            We can easily imagine how the institutionalization of ruffianism and the culture of political violence which accompanied it was harmful to democracy.  By its very nature, the ruffianism inside and outside the Diet was intended to intimidate, coerce, and shut down discussion.  Thesōshi of pressure groups could also exacerbate unevenness between parties, with wealthier parties able to hire more ruffians.  And the violence of pressure groups became less popular in character as the political parties themselves became less liberal voices of the people and more conservative, “established parties.”  Yet, the pressure groups could also serve as a check on the military, the bureaucracy, and the ruling clique.  And its violence occasionally overlapped with, even mobilized, popular movements for democratic ends such as that for universal manhood suffrage.  The very existence of ruffianism and the culture of political violence that surrounded it were thus not themselves fatal to democracy.


Fascist Violence and the Decline of the Political Parties

            The danger with the normalization of ruffianism in political practice and culture was that it helped legitimize the political violence of organizations that did not even purport to have democratic intentions or aims.  In the late 1910s and beyond, violence along with nationalist ideologies became connecting threads in an arguably fascist nexus that wove together party politicians, bureaucrats, military men, leaders of big business, and yakuza.

            One node in this nexus was a nationalist organization called the Greater Japan National Essence Association (Dai Nihon Kokusuikai).  At its very inception, the group married politics and violence.  On October 9, 1919, more than 30 yakuza bosses dressed in frock coats and crested, pleated pants piled into cars and proceeded to a meeting with the home minister, of the Friends of Constitutional Government Party, and a number of high-ranking government officials.  This laid the foundation for the establishment later that year of the Greater Japan National Essence Association which, at its height, reportedly consisted of 90 branches and 200,000 members.  The Association extolled ideas of chivalry, the veneration of the imperial house, and “the way of the warrior” to combat “the corruption of national morals and beautiful customs” and “to promote harmony between labor and capital.”  Wrapped in its romanticized version of a patriotic past, the group legitimized its violence by constructing the use of physical force as historically valued and necessary for the defense of the country.

            For nationalist groups like the Greater Japan National Essence Association, it was leftists that were threatening the nation, and labor unions, in particular, were viewed as part of the foreign corruption that was to be purged.  Because labor strikes were considered roadblocks to industrial production and thus national progress, the Greater Japan National Essence Association regularly stood behind management in labor conflicts and functioned primarily as strikebreakers, brought in to intimidate striking laborers.  The Association was involved in a number of labor disputes, including the Yahata Ironworks (1920), Singer Sewing Machine Company (1925), and Noda Shōyu (1927-1928) strikes, as well as the Tsurumi Incident (1925).  In these disputes, the Association’s violence differed from the ruffianism of sōshi and pressure groups in that it was intended to suppress political activity, not just threaten opponents or disturb gatherings.  Nationalist organizations such as the Association were not attempting to come out ahead of political rivals, but were seeking to snuff out certain ideas and ways of thinking.  There was, in short, nothing remotely democratic about this violence.

            The fascist violence of the Greater Japan National Essence Association was all the more oppressive because the organization was a hub of a nationalist nexus that drew in politicians, military figures, bureaucrats, and industrialists.  In 1929, the presidency of the Association was assumed by a man named Suzuki Kisaburō, a former minister of justice and home minister who would go on to be president of the Friends of Constitutional Government Party.  Working with Suzuki in the top ranks of the organization was a politician who had served as chief cabinet secretary.  Military men also featured prominently.  By the mid-1930s, the vice president of general headquarters was also a vice admiral in the navy, and the chief director a lieutenant general in the army.  The directors consisted of four army lieutenant generals, one navy vice admiral, and three navy major generals; the advisers included three navy vice admirals and one army lieutenant general.  There was also a marriage between the Association and the pressure group of the Friends of Constitutional Government Party, solidified by their shared anti-leftist ideologies and violent strategies of organized, purposeful ruffianism.  The second chairman in the Association’s history, named Murano Tsuneemon, had been a local sōshi organizer in the early Meiji decades, then assumed the reins of the Friends of Constitutional Government Party’s pressure group, and was eventually promoted to secretary-general of the party.  The cross-fertilization between the violent elements of the Association and the pressure group were further encouraged by Murano’s fellow party member Mori Kaku, who as head of the pressure group recruited more yakuza and members of nationalist groups into its ranks.  By the latter half of the 1920s, crossover between the pressure group and nationalist organizations like the Greater Japan National Essence Association had become commonplace.

            These intimate ties between politicians and nationalist organizations ultimately contributed to the decline of political parties and the rise of military men in the 1930s.  The relationship between the Friends of Constitutional Government Party and the Greater Japan National Essence Association, in particular, contributed to the negative image of the party as distant from the people.  Party politicians who led or were affiliated with the Association became emblematic of how far the political parties had strayed from liberalism.  Worse still, the party was criticized for not curbing the Association’s violence, and political parties as a whole came to be viewed as fundamentally incapable of ensuring order and security.  More generally, with the joint stewardship of organizations like the Greater Japan National Essence Association, politicians became even more accustomed to sharing political leadership with the military.  And this idea of party-military governance would erode the parties’ strength in the 1930s.

            It is more difficult to draw a direct line between the Greater Japan National Essence Association and the militarists and rightists who carried out the assassinations and coup d’état with which we are familiar.  But they did share a belief in the redemptive power of violence, which undermined the political parties.  The assassinations of financier Yasuda Zenjirō and Hara Kei by rightists in 1921 were worrisome enough on their own, but they were followed by a rapid succession of well-known, high-profile violent incidents in the 1930s: the attack on Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi in November 1930; the planned rightist and military coups of March and October 1931; the League of Blood Incident in February and March 1932; an attempted coup in May 1932 by young naval officers who assassinated Prime Minister and Friends of Constitutional Government Party President Inukai Tsuyoshi; and the February 26 Incident of 1936, a military rebellion led by junior army officers.  The replacement of Inukai Tsuyoshi by a navy admiral in May 1932 had marked the end of cabinets consisting mainly of party politicians rather than bureaucrats and military men.  This blow to the parties was the outcome of various high-level machinations, but the conviction that moderate military leaders needed to be placed in power to contain more radical, violent elements should not be understated.

            Concomitant with the decline of the political parties was the fading of their pressure groups from the political scene.  Their ruffianism had already begun to wane somewhat in the late 1920s when the electorate quadrupled with the enactment of universal manhood suffrage.  This expanded body of voters first went to the polls for a general election in February 1928, and they were courted more by (nonviolent) speech meetings and groups of campaigning youth than the physical coercion of ruffians.  The sheer size of the electorate also made it much more prudent for politicians to buy votes rather than violently intimidate voters on this large scale.  By the late 1930s, the Friends of Constitutional Government Party pressure group had been absorbed and replaced by violent nationalist groups like the Greater Japan National Essence Association.



            From the birth of Japan’s parliamentary politics to the eventual decline of political parties, ruffianism and democracy were drawn into a tenacious embrace that endangered each without destroying the other.  Violence did not single-handedly extinguish democratic politics, and democracy was far from being a panacea for violent politics.  Indeed, democratic politics attracted the very kind of violence that was often undemocratic in its consequences.  In the 1890s, the promulgation of a constitution, the establishment of a parliament, and national elections did not quell the sōshi violence of the previous decade but merely encouraged a change in its form, from rebellion and terrorism to ruffianism.  The heated political contests and disagreements of democratic politics in the decades that followed invited ruffianism to be wielded as a tool to influence political outcomes and forward agendas.  The expansion of political participation did not spell the end of violence but transformed it, taking what had been the violence of resistance against, and from outside of, an undemocratic political system and institutionalizing it into the practice of democratic politics.

            At the same time that democratic politics perpetuated ruffianism, this ruffianism had various undemocratic ramifications.  Sōshi violence was intended to threaten and intimidate, and it disturbed sites of democratic practice such as public meetings, parliamentary debates, and elections.  Ruffians could exacerbate unevenness in politics, functioning as an asset to those who had the money to hire them.  And their incorporation into the political system helped feed a culture of political violence in which the violent, and those associated with them, viewed their use of physical force as a necessary and acceptable political strategy.  In short, we can speak of democratic politics in imperial Japan—indeed, the contentious political debates and conflicts of these decades helped perpetuate ruffianism—but democracy was laced with a violence that was often, if not always, undemocratic in its consequences.

            Ultimately, the creation and perpetuation of a cultural of political violence shook Japan’s experience with democracy at its core.  I am not suggesting that the institutionalization of ruffianism and a culture of political violence led, inexorably and inevitably, to the rise of military rule in the 1930s.  This transition was obviously a complicated one.  But ruffianism did contribute to democracy’s dismal fate of the 1930s and early 1940s as party politicians could swallow the idea of sharing the responsibility of governing with military men, and the structural embeddedness of political violence bred doubts about the ability of the political parties to maintain order.

            This history of an uneasy, complicated, and tense relationship between ruffianism and democratic politics, of the entanglement of violence and democracy, suggests that we might understand and characterize imperial Japan as a violent democracy.[5]



[1] For a popular and likely romanticized depiction of the ceremony by an unknown artist, see:  For the text of the Constitution, see

[2] For a discussion of the Kabasan Incident as well as the Fukushima Incident of 1882 and the Chichibu Incident of 1884, see Roger W. Bowen, Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan: A Study of Commoners in the Popular Rights Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

[3] See Ozaki Yukio, The Autobiography of Ozaki Yukio: The Struggle For Constitutional Government in Japan, transl. Hara Fujiko (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Peter Duus, Party Rivalry and Political Change in Taisho Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), 18-19.

[5] This essay was adapted from Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan, 1860-1960(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).