During the Taisho era in Japan, how was the Prime Minister selected?

Were they appointed by the Emperor? elected by the Diet? chosen by the Privy Council?

I'm finding lots of information on how Prime Ministers left office (usually resigning due to some kind of problem) but very little information on how they were chosen for that office in the first place.

  • 1
    @Semaphore, your answer was great. Thanks for the reminder.
    – Joe
    Nov 20, 2017 at 21:31

2 Answers 2


Under the Meiji Constitution of Imperial Japan, the Prime Minister - like all Ministers of State - were technically appointed by the Emperor solely on his own discretion.

In practice, appointments were always made on the recommendations of the genrō, a clique of prominent elder statesmen who had orchestrated the Meiji Revolution. Whenever a vacancy arose, the genrō would meet and name a replacement. If the nominee accepted, the Emperor would then formally appoint him as the next Prime Minister. In the last years of the Meiji Era, the Genro typically accepted the recommendations of the outgoing Prime Minister.

The Meiji founders bequeathed a system in which a group of Elder Statesmen or Genro advised the throne regarding the appointment of the Prime Ministers ... the Emperor (who had no personal say in the matter) formally appointed the new Prime Minister.

- Kasza, Gregory James. The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918-1945. University of California Press, 1988.

Up until the late Meiji and sporadically into the early Taishō period, there existed in Japanese politics a concept that the government should be "above" party politics. This doctrine, known as chōzen shugi, facilitated the appointment of bureaucrats or nobles to the premiership by the elders, without due regard to the balance of power within the Diet. An example is the genrō Yamagata Aritomo, the 3rd and 9th Prime Minister of Japan.

Yamagata's Cabinet represented a continuity with precious Cabinets in philosophy as well as personnel. He fully subscribed to the concept of choen shugi (the principle of aloofness), which meant in practice that the governmnet should remain above and aloof from political parties.

- Hackett, Roger F. Yamagata Aritomo in the rise of modern Japan, 1838-1922. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Such appointments were already increasingly unpopular towards the end of Meiji, and went into crisis in the first year of Taishō (1912). When the genrō nominated Katsura Taro as the next Prime Minister, they provoked a massive backlash in the Diet that forced Katsura to resign. Despite this, the genrō retained control of the Prime Ministerial appointment process and continued to allow their personal distaste for party politics or specific politicians continued to factor into their decision making process. At the same time, however, The elders became more sensitive to the need for support within the Diet.

The Diet then cast a no-confidence vote against [Katsura], who could have dissolved the House of Representatives and called for new elections. He chose to resign instead. This series of events marked a turning point in Taisho politics. The political parties in the Diet and the people had demonstrated that no prime minister or cabinet could be selected without regard for public sentiment. No longer could the genro ignore the political makeup of the Diet when choosing cabinets.

- Menton, Linda K. The Rise of Modern Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

One major milestone was reached on 1924, when the electoral landslide of the Constitutionalist parties caused the elders to nominate Katō Takaaki. This established a customary rule the leader of the biggest party in the Diet to be appointed Prime Minister. However the genrō continued to formally choose the a candidate, even though the death of Matsukata Masayoshi later that year left Saionji the sole remaining elder.

[Hara Kei] and his supporters were not claiming that the emperor could not continue to appoint cabinets and prime ministers populated by the genro; what they were asserting is that the emperor had the option of not relying upon a genro oligarchy, rather choosing to appoint party cabinets along British lines if he so chose.

- Mosk, Carl. Japanese Economic Development: Markets, Norms, Structures. Routledge, 2007.

Though the system had largely fallen apart with the death of most of the genrō, it nonetheless it lasted until the rise of militarism in early Shōwa. In 1937 the last genrō resigned his powers and saw them replaced by a similar but less antiquated group of elder statesmen. Thereafter the premiership became dominated by the military.

The formation of the Hayashi Cabinet in January 1937 was the last time that the Genro took responsibility for answering the throne on a cabinet change ... Saionji was persuaded to retain the title of Genro but insisted that a new procedure be drawn up transferring to the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal the responsibility for recommending cabinets hitherto held by the Genro ... The new system [was] finalised in May 1937.

Connors, Lesley. The Emperor's Adviser: Saionji Kinmochi and Pre-war Japanese Politics. Routledge, 2010.


The Taisho era saw a limited "democratization" of the selection of Prime Minister. For instance, there was the 1918 appointment of Hara Takashi, the first "commoner" Prime Minister, because of the pressures on the nobility caused by the "rice riots." Hara was a "meritocrat" who had served at various levels of the bureaucracy, as well as in the legislature. At the time of his election, he was the President of the most powerful political party in the Diet, which was the basis of his selection.

After he left office in 1921, the Japanese society became more fragmented, and it was hard for any single party to get a parliamentary majority, so the result was a series of coalition governments. This led to a scramble for power, which opened up opportunities to some men of rather different backgrounds than the old Establishment (genro). Basically, the Taisho era was the first in which common people exerted a voice in government.

After the establishment of the Japanese Diet (only) in 1890, laws were established by the common consent of the Emperor and the Diet; each had a veto power over the other. This was true even though the Emperor technically had the right to appoint the Prime Minister. But the Emperor Taisho was a sickly and weak-willed man, who tended to yield to the Diet after he became Emperor in 1912. His predecessor, the Emperor Meiji, was a much more forceful ruler who could control the Diet, in part because he was the "founding father" (e.g. the George Washington) of modern Japan.

Taisho's successor, Hirohito (1926), was an "intermediate" case who "took back" and exercised some of the power earlier yielded to the Diet by Taisho, but did so in a more moderate fashion than Meiji, because he was not as strong a ruler.

  • But who appointed Hara Takashi? That's what I'm asking about.
    – Joe
    May 7, 2016 at 19:04
  • @Joe: Hara was the President of the (then) most powerful political party. Just as Hitler was with the Nazis in Germany. So they "had" to appoint him, even though they would rather not. Because no one else would be able to form a government.
    – Tom Au
    May 7, 2016 at 19:05
  • 1
    In a more democratic system, I'd understand that. But many of the PMs of the Taisho era weren't even from a party at all, so I don't think being the head of the top party is what led someone to become PM.
    – Joe
    May 7, 2016 at 19:07
  • @Joe: To use the Hitler example, when the Nazis accumulated 37% of the seats in the Reichstag, no one else could run the country without making a deal with him. Earlier, the top two parties only at 20%-25% each (and balanced each other out). In Hara's case, he was seen as the only person who could control the rice riots.
    – Tom Au
    May 7, 2016 at 19:10
  • If seats in the Diet were what mattered (like they did in the Reichstag), how were non-partisan Taisho PMs selected?
    – Joe
    May 7, 2016 at 19:12

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