- Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918–1922: “A Great Disobedience against the People.”
In this meticulously researched volume, Paul E. Dunscomb reveals how integral Japan’s Siberian Intervention between 1918 and 1922 was to the trajectory of not simply the Japanese empire but domestic political development in the early twentieth century. He reminds us that the expansion of Japan’s overseas possessions went hand in hand with the growth of participatory government at home, due mainly to the financial realities of imperial defense. After the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese military leaders were increasingly forced to haggle with party politicians and a whole host of other political actors to obtain their desired budgets. Because budgets were funded through higher taxation, Japanese subjects in turn clamored for a greater say in politics, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s. Despite the contentiousness of the domestic political process, however, there was a pervasive acceptance of the empire among Meiji and Taisho Japanese, since empire was the “ultimate proof of Japanese modernity” (p. 2).
Dunscomb agrees that this belief was seriously interrogated in Japan only during the momentary rise of Wilsonianism in global affairs toward the end of World War I and in its immediate aftermath. It was at this point that the apparent ascent of democracy and cooperative diplomacy challenged a traditional Japanese reliance on militarism and empire. Understanding the Siberian Intervention is vital here because Japanese at the time saw it as the decisive test of how well the new paradigm might accommodate the “popular will” in domestic and foreign affairs. But the failure of the intervention discredited civilian politicians and the military alike and helps explain why Japanese, like many of their European contemporaries, swiftly dropped their initial embrace of democracy. In the end, the militarists, who proved better able to meet the needs of the empire, won over the public, which set “the groundwork for imperialist and authoritarian voices to claim center stage in the 1930s” (p. 6).
The analytical framework in which Dunscomb situates the Siberian Intervention will be familiar to students of modern Japanese history. This is because he skillfully ties his study to the most innovative recent works in Imperial Japanese politics and diplomacy, particularly those of Andrew Gordon and Frederick Dickinson.1 Indeed, a major strength of the book is [End Page 403] the precise delineation in chapter 1 of the cutting-edge historiography over the last two decades of Japanese modernity and empire. A glaring omission, however, is the study by Mark Metzler of Imperial Japan and the international gold standard, which proves that monetary politics were central to Japanese pursuits of power at home and abroad. Among other matters, Metz ler exposes the ephemerality of the Japanese economic growth generated by World War I and Japan’s reliance on British and to a lesser extent U.S. capital to back its imperial ambitions.2 Outlining how financial constraints intensified the persistently contentious struggles for political power in Meiji and Taisho Japan would have deepened Dunscomb’s analysis.
Still, Dunscomb does more than add an underappreciated episode to the equation. His original focus on popular media commentaries at the national and local levels illuminates how the debate over the Siberian Intervention was not just a matter of high politics but reflected the “extraordinarily vigorous public sphere” that existed in the Taisho era (p. 31). The eight content chapters of the book are filled with contemporary critiques of how closely the political players of the day were adhering to the perceived “trends of the times,” and these critiques are particularly illustrative of the plurality of Japanese opinions in regard to democracy and empire. Moreover, Dunscomb’s creative use of local editions of newspapers sold in communities directly affected by events in Siberia, such as Tsuruga, allows him to monitor popular views of the intervention long after national media attention had turned elsewhere. As important, his close chronicling of the deliberations of the Diet and key decision makers over...