Emperor Taisho, whose personal name was Yoshihito, was the emperor of Japan from 1912 to 1926, the 123rd ruler of the Japanese imperial line, and the son of the hero-emperor Meiji and an imperial lady-in-waiting, Yanagiwara Naruko. The Empress Shoken Haruko was appointed his official mother. In 1912, he became emperor and took the reign name Taisho.
Taisho's father, the emperor Meiji, was a hard act to follow. Meiji had brought Japan's economy into the modern world, and by the time of his death, Japan was an industrialized nation and a world power.
His charisma and achievements transformed Meiji into a persona that was difficult to separate from the institution of the imperial system. His blend of humanity and heroism bolstered the belief in the emperor as a living deity.
On the other hand, Taisho was a sickly man whom many considered not of the same caliber as Meiji. He was expected to have strength and intellectual acumen, to make quick, strong decisions, and to put Japan above all else. Advisers, intellectuals, and officers of the state felt that Taisho bore none of these traits and considered him indolent and impulsive. Taisho lacked knowledge of military strategy and negotiation skills.
Taisho's reign marked the attainment of universal male suffrage, the decrease of monarchical power, and greater freedoms. Historians mark the post–Russo-Japanese War period and the 1912 imperial change as the beginning of the Taisho democracy, meaning universal male suffrage, cabinet governments, and politics based on parties rather than the older fief-based political cliques.
After World War I, the Taisho democracy also came to mean the influx of Western lifestyles, individualism, and cultural products. This influx of Western culture challenged the idea that the state was responsible for defining and enforcing proper moral life.
As a child, Yoshihito had suffered from meningitis, said to have affected him throughout his entire life. When he was around 10 years old, his medical condition had worsened and his performance as a student had suffered miserably.
Court attendants who had recognized his limitations eventually devised a program consisting of three parts learning to seven parts physical education. He withdrew from the school so as not to damage the carefully constructed image of an institution that did not allow for human failure.
Despite these failings, there were high hopes upon his assumption of the throne. The reign name Taisho means "great rectification and reform," and he was pledged to correctness, rectification, and adjustments.
In 1919, Japan attended the peace conference at Versailles that ended World War I as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world. It participated in the proceedings as one of the Big Five powers. Japan also earned a seat on the council of the League of Nations.
In 1921, Japan, the United States, Britain, and France signed the Four Power Treaty on Insular Possessions. They agreed to recognize the status quo in the Pacific region. Japan and Britain also agreed to terminate their Treaty of Alliance.
It signed the Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922 that established an international ship ratio for the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. It also limited the size and armaments of capital ships already built or under construction. Although the ratio 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 allowed the U.S. and Britain larger fleets, it gave the Japanese navy superiority in the Pacific.
The original five countries, along with Belgium, China, the Netherlands, and Portugal, signed the 1922 Nine Power Treaty to prevent war in the Pacific by agreeing to respect China's independence and not to interfere with China domestically. Japan also agreed to withdraw its troops from Shandong (Shantung) in China and evacuated troops from Siberia.
The most noteworthy change during the Taisho democracy was the rise of the political parties and the growth of universal male suffrage. Despite the rise of the political parties, the Taisho democracy remained highly elitist and shallowly rooted, resulting in the eventual downfall of the idea of democratic institutions. Emperor Taisho's mental incapacity led to his oldest son, Hirohito, being appointed regent in 1921. Taisho died in 1926.