The dominant political party in Japan from 1955 to 1993 was the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It began in 1955 with the merging of Shigeru Yoshida’s Liberal Party and Ichiro Hatoyama’s Japan Democratic Party, because both shared a common opposition to the Japan Socialist Party. However the roots of the LDP date to the late 19th–20th century. Two Japanese political figures, Itagaki Taisuke and Saigo Takamori, played roles in the emergence of the modern LDP.
Japanese political development before the occupation by the United States after World War II can best be viewed in broad cycles. Modern Japanese history begins with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Facing a continued challenge from the West to modernize and change their isolationist policies, Japanese feudal lords, samurai, and others overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled from 1603 to 1867. The result was a complete alteration of the Japanese system in order to compete with the West. Japan then changed many of its old political, economic, and social institutions to conform with Western-style examples. From the Meiji Restoration came a series of cycles in Japanese political history that would continue until after World War II.
First came the Freedom and People’s Rights Era, with its associated demands for more liberalization, which lasted from 1878 to 1889. Japan then underwent a militarist period from 1894 to 1905 that was characterized by wars with both China and Russia. Afterward, a cycle of liberalization known as the Taisho Democracy dominated the politics from 1912 to 1915 and again from 1918 to 1930. An age of militarism, again marked by international aggression, dominated the politics of Japan from 1931 to 1945. The beginnings of the Liberal Democratic Party can be traced to the Freedom and People’s Rights Era.
Itagaki Taisuke claimed a powerful role in late 19thcentury Japan. He used his position to advocate peace instead of rebellion in order for the Japanese people to gain a voice in government. In 1874 Itagaki and his supporters penned the Tosa Memorial, a criticism of the seemingly unchecked power of the oligarchy and a call for representative government. By 1878 Itagaki had become impatient at the lack of reform and moved to create the Aikokusha, the Society of Patriots, in order to achieve representative government. In 1877 the Satsuma rebellion pitted the samurai led by Saigo Takamori against the citizen-based Meiji army. The Meiji victory solidified its position over the samurai. By 1881 Itagaki founded the Jiyuto, the Liberal Party, which favored the adoption of French styles of political representation.
At the same time, Okuma Shigenobu emerged as a voice in favor of the British model of representative government. Okuma founded the Rikken Kaishinto, the Constitutional Progressive Party, in 1882. The two opposition parties led to a pro-government party called the Rikken Teiseito, or the Imperial Rule Party, in 1882. A number of violent and nonviolent demonstrations among the political parties soon led to government suppression and restrictions on political activism. Restrictions on the political parties led to fighting within the parties as well as with others. The Jiyuto, which had fought against the Kaishinto, fell apart in 1884. Okuma also resigned his leadership of the Kaishinto party. A call for more democratic governance, through the movement for Freedom and People’s Rights, added to growing demands for a more politically liberal Japanese system of governance.
By 1889 popular demand led to the enactment of the Meiji constitution. Modeled after that of Prussia, the constitution resulted in a limited democracy. A representative body, the Diet, of directly elected members came into being. Ultimately, the government was run by bureaucrats much like its Prussian example.
By 1890 the call for more direct representation resulted in the first national election. Both the Jiyuto and Kaishinto reorganized for the elections and combined to win over half of the seats in the House of Representatives. The first two decades of the 20th century brought the transformation of the Freedom and People’s Rights into the Liberal Party and later the Seiyukai. The era of political parties, however, gave way to the militarist period of 1931 to 1945. After the war the modern Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) emerged as the result of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. The LDP reflected a broad coalition of those calling for military protection by the United States and the economic rebuilding of the war-torn infrastructure under a capitalist system. The first postwar government was LDP-created, and the party would dominate until the 1990s.