By almost any metric you choose to measure it, modern Japan is a peaceful society. Its rigid adherence to law and order is one of the first things visitors notice. The low crime rates are the envy of many nations. While civil unrest swept the United States over the last year, the constant refrain I heard from Japanese people was, “That could never happen in Japan.” In this haze of peace and safety, it is easy to forget that things were not always this way. Very few people seem to remember that tumultuous time when Japan experienced some of the largest riots in recorded history. Let’s crank back the dial on the time machine and revisit that turbulent period known as “The Era of Popular Violence” or in Japanese “minshū sōjō ki”(民衆騒擾期).
The year was 1918, and Japan was in the throes of empire building and its first few forays into modern warfare. With the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War a decade earlier, and China in the First Sino-Japanese War ten years before that, Japan’s military momentum seemed unstoppable. Their annexation of Korea and Taiwan near the turn of the 20th century also put Japan on the map of colonial powers. Ostensibly, things seemed to be going exceedingly well, but the feeling on the home front told a different story.
Starting in January of that year, the Spanish Flu pandemic raged through the country and claimed an estimated 260,000 lives. Even though the mortality rate in Japan was much smaller than many other Asian nations, much of the workforce was incapacitated which severely affected many local economies. In addition, Japan’s involvement in Word War One and border skirmishes with Russia brought with them severe wartime inflation. The tipping point came when the price of rice doubled over the course of a few months, drawing the ire of the people against the government, rice merchants, and the nouveau riche (Japanese “narikin” 成金) who were blamed for the high prices. In July the people had had enough, and what started as a few small revolts in rural Toyama prefecture, soon embroiled the entire nation in what would later be called the Rice Riots, or kome sōdō (米騒動).
Even to this day, Toyama prefecture is a major rice growing region. In the coastal towns and villages, traditionally men worked as fisherman and women worked as stevedores, loading and unloading freight from trade ships. In response to the rising rice prices, these women organized boycotts of ships exporting grain. This led to other forms of protest such as sit-ins, marches, and labor strikes, nearly all organized by women. As these protests began to gain attention, soon sharecroppers began joining the fray. Unable to pay their landlords (typically paid in rice) tenant farmers began rioting and looting. Soon demonstrations escalated to firebombing of police stations, and even armed clashes with police. In total nearly 25,000 people were arrested in connection to these rice riots, but that was just the beginning.
The unrest quickly spread to the central Japanese city of Nagoya, where workers were disappointed with stagnant wages despite rampant inflation and rising expenses. On August 9th, a meeting in Tsurumai Park of around 500 people soon swelled to 30,000 the next day, and 50,000 a few days later. After police barricaded the park, protesters simply moved to nearby Osu Kannon temple. In total an estimated 130,000 people – nearly one quarter of the city’s population – were involved in the riots, attacking the shops of rice merchants with clubs, destroying police boxes, and setting fires to buildings. The fighting continued for 10 days with armed street fighting between police and the rioters. The violence finally died down some when rice prices were slashed in half through a citywide program, but not before the unrest spread to the rest of the country.
By August 12 there were similar incidents in Osaka, Kobe, Tokyo, Hiroshima and over 30 other cities throughout the country. In Kobe rioters set fire to police stations, grain importers, and even pro-government newspaper offices. Osaka had record breaking numbers of nearly 230,000 people. To put that into perspective, the Watts riots, perhaps the most well known civil unrest in American history had an estimated 35,000 people. Exacerbating the problem was that these riots took place during the Japanese holiday of Obon, a time when many city centers are already full of large crowds getting drunk and dancing in the streets. In many cases these crowds took to looting or destroying the shops of rice merchants, and clashing with any police who tried to defend them.
At the same time as these urban riots, an entirely separate movement was underfoot among laborers. Shipyards, factories and mines became the focal point of enormous labor strikes involving tens of thousands of workers protesting unfair wages, terrible working conditions, and draconian control over the worker’s daily lives. Especially in the case of the miner’s strikes, protests escalated to attacks on company buildings, industrial sabotage and dynamite attacks. Eventually the military was called in to quell the disturbance.
The summer of 1918 was a time of enormous civil unrest in Japan, but it was not unprecedented. In the preceding years Tokyo alone had experienced over 9 city-wide riots, the largest of which was the Hibiya Incendiary Incident in which over 30,000 rioters destroyed 350 buildings including 70% of all police boxes, as well as injuring nearly 500 police officers. Similar riots took place all over Japan, including one riot in Nagoya in 1914 that required the intervention of the military. All told, as many as 10 million people – nearly 20% of the population at that time – were involved in some form of civil unrest, with more than 400 incidents in 1918 alone.
Looking at Japan now, it is hard to imagine giant crowds overwhelming police and military troops in every major city. Although their demands were short-term and largely material, these were the inevitable growing pains of a country that modernized too rapidly. The stop-gap measure of slashing rice prices calmed the crowds a bit, but it was all too obvious that Japan’s rice production could no longer meet demand, causing some historians to speculate that this was a leading factor that pushed Japan into conquering neighboring countries throughout the following two decades. It certainly speaks to the rapid progress the country has made, and makes one curious just what it would take to bring about that sort of fervor again. As author Neil Gaiman once wrote, “Civilization is two meals and twenty-four hours away from barbarism.”