Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Fall of Freedom

Not long before this blog post, Amazon loaded the final season of its adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dieselpunk classic The Man in the High Castle. The novella, unlike the series, takes place almost exclusively on the West Coast of America, which is occupied by the Japanese Empire. A brief amount of time of the novella is spent in the Neutral Zone, which stretched from Mexico, through the Rocky Mountains, through parts of the Midwest and up to Canada.

The Man in the High Castle isn’t the only example of counterfactual history. Other writers have speculated less on occupied America and more on how Japan might have won the war. For example, Peter G. Tsouras edited Rising Sun Victorious, which is a collection of terrifying scenarios describing how Japan could have won the war. 

Certainly, these alternative histories are interesting. However, I believe that they all miss something much more important and pressing for the affairs of our time. What we need to be studying is not so much how Japan might have won the war or what occupied America would be like. What's needed is understanding how Japan slipped into totalitarianism.

Emperor Taisho

Many in the West are not aware that Japan had once been a democratic nation during the early part of the 20th century. Known as the Taisho Democracy this period ran from 1912-1926. With the death of Emperor Menji in 1912 his son Yoshihito took the throne and took on the Imperial name of Taisho. According to the Web Site,

The young Taisho emperor was born in 1879 and at an early age contracted cerebral meningitis. The ill effects of the disease, including physical weakness and episodes of mental instability, plagued him throughout his reign. Because of his sickness there was a shift in the structure of political power from the old oligarchic advisors under Meiji to the members of the Diet of Japan—the elected representative officials increasingly gaining influence and power. By 1919 Emperor Taisho’s illness prevented him from performing any official duties altogether. By 1921 Hirohito, his first son, was named ses-ho, or prince regent of Japan. From this point forward, Emperor Taisho no longer appeared in public.

Despite the lack of political stability, modernization efforts during Taisho continued. A greater openness and desire for representative democracy took hold. Literary societies, mass-audience magazines, and new publications flourished. University cities like Tokyo witnessed a burgeoning culture of European-style cafés, with young people donning Western clothing. A thriving music, film, and theater culture grew, with some calling this period “Japan’s roaring '20s.”

For these reasons, the Taisho era has also been called Taisho democracy as Japan enjoyed a climate of political liberalism unforeseen after decades of Meiji authoritarianism.

So what went wrong? How did a military government succeed at replacing the democratically elected government of Japan in 1926? Recently NHK, the official Japanese government television station, broadcasted a documentary titled The Fall of Freedom. This extraordinary documentary chronicles the events that led to the fall of the Taisho Democracy in 1926. This is a must-see documentary for everyone.

More than ever with the rise of anti-democratic forces reappearing in the US and Europe we need to do what dieselpunks do best. We need to look to the past to understand the present and to build a better future.

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