The Showa Era in Japan

This period was known as "the era of Japanese glory"

Emperor Hirohito And Family
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Showa era in Japan is the span from December 25, 1926, to January 7, 1989. The name Showa can be translated as "the era of enlightened peace," but it can also mean "the era of Japanese glory." This 62-year period corresponds with the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the country's longest-ruling emperor in history, whose posthumous name is the Showa Emperor. Over the course of the Showa Era, Japan and its neighbors underwent dramatic upheaval and almost unbelievable changes.​

An economic crisis began in 1928, with falling rice and silk prices, leading to bloody clashes between Japanese labor organizers and the police. The global economic meltdown leading up to the Great Depression worsened conditions in Japan, and the country's export sales collapsed. As unemployment grew, public discontent led to the increased radicalization of citizens on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Soon, economic chaos created political chaos. Japanese nationalism had been a key component in the country's rise to world power status, but during the 1930s it evolved into virulent, racist ultra-nationalist thought, which supported a totalitarian government at home, as well as expansion and exploitation of overseas colonies. Its growth paralleled the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party in Europe.

The Showa Era in Japan

In the early Showa Period, assassins shot or stabbed a number of Japan's top government officials, including three Prime Ministers, for perceived weakness in negotiations with the western powers over armaments and other matters. Ultra-nationalism was particularly strong in the Japanese Imperial Army and Japanese Imperial Navy, to the point that the Imperial Army in 1931 independently decided to invade Manchuria -- without orders from the Emperor or his government. With much of the populace and the armed forces radicalized, Emperor Hirohito and his government felt compelled to move toward authoritarian rule in order to maintain some control over Japan.

Motivated by militarism and ultra-nationalism, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1931. In 1937, it launched an invasion of China proper from its toe-hold in Manchuria, which it had remade into the puppet-empire of Manchukuo. The Second Sino-Japanese War would drag on until 1945; its heavy cost was one of Japan's main motivating factors in expanding the war effort to much of the rest of Asia, in the Asian Theater of World War II. Japan needed rice, oil, iron ore, and other commodities to continue its fight to conquer China, so it invaded the Philippines, French Indochina, Malaya (Malaysia), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), etc.

Showa era propaganda assured the people of Japan that they were destined to rule over the lesser peoples of Asia, meaning all non-Japanese. After all, the glorious Emperor Hirohito was descended in a direct line from the sun goddess herself, so he and his people were intrinsically superior to neighboring populations.

When Showa Japan was forced to surrender in August of 1945, it was a crushing blow. Some ultra-nationalists committed suicide rather than accept the loss of Japan's empire and the American occupation of the home islands.

American Occupation of Japan

Under the American occupation, Japan was liberalized and democratized, but the occupiers decided to leave Emperor Hirohito on the throne. Although many western commentators thought that he should be tried for war crimes, the American administration believed that the people of Japan would rise up in a bloody revolt if their emperor was dethroned. He became a figurehead ruler, with actual power devolving to the Diet (Parliament) and the Prime Minister.

Post-War Showa Era

Under Japan's new constitution, it was not allowed to maintain armed forces (although it could keep a small Self-Defense Force that was meant only to serve within the home islands). All of the money and energy that Japan had poured into its military efforts in the previous decade were now turned to building up its economy. Soon, Japan became a world manufacturing powerhouse, turning out automobiles, ships, high-tech equipment, and consumer electronics. It was the first of the Asian miracle economies, and by the end of Hirohito's reign in 1989, it would have the second-largest economy in the world, after the United States.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Showa Era in Japan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Showa Era in Japan. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Showa Era in Japan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).