Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The extension of suffrage to all males over the age of twenty-five was a significant aspect of democratic development during the Taisho period in Japan.

Summary of Event

Universal male suffrage was established in Japan in 1925, at the end of the Taisho period (1912-1926). It stands as one of the high points of an expansion of freedoms often called the Taisho democracy. Taisho democracy Democratic government in Japan began under the Meiji constitution of 1889, which created an elected House of Representatives. Initially, only males over the age of twenty-five who paid annual national taxes of fifteen yen or more could vote for their representatives, but this meant that voting rights were held by only approximately 1 percent of the population. Over time, the tax qualification was gradually lowered—to ten yen in 1900 and to three yen in 1919—so that in 1919 the number of eligible voters had risen to include slightly more than 5 percent of the national population. [kw]Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men (May 5, 1925) [kw]Suffrage for Men, Japan Introduces (May 5, 1925) [kw]Men, Japan Introduces Suffrage for (May 5, 1925) Suffrage;men Suffrage;Japan Universal Manhood Suffrage Act (1925) Japan;suffrage [g]East Asia;May 5, 1925: Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men[06430] [g]Japan;May 5, 1925: Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men[06430] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 5, 1925: Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men[06430] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 5, 1925: Japan Introduces Suffrage for Men[06430] Kiyoura Keigo Yamamoto Gonnohyōe Katō Tomosaburō Hara Takashi Katō Takaaki Takahashi Korekiyo

The idea of extending voting rights to all male voters was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1902, and a bill to accomplish this was actually passed in that body in 1911, only to be unanimously defeated the same year in the House of Peers, the upper, nonelected legislative body. The issue was temporarily set aside in the often volatile political climate of the period that followed, and the major parties during those years made the question a matter of party loyalty: Members were prohibited from voting for any bill that was not officially sanctioned by the party.

The topic did not surface again until 1919, when legislators began to debate lowering the tax qualification. The Seiyukai Party, the majority party led by the country’s prime minister, Hara Takashi, supported the bill (requiring that voters pay at least three yen in taxes) that was eventually enacted. The Seiyukai were opposed by the Kenseikai, who supported lowering the requirement to two yen. In response to public demonstrations arguing for the complete elimination of the tax qualification, some members of the Kenseikai and some independent members reintroduced the question of universal male suffrage. Among this group of Kenseikai was Kurosu Ryutaro, who introduced a proposal to this end in October of 1918. He was joined by Imai Yoshiyuki, who was not affiliated with either party but was sometimes called “Mister Universal Suffrage” because he published a magazine article supporting the idea in January of 1919. Some members of the Seiyukai Party also argued for the policy change, most notably Saito Takao, who sought ways to extend the vote beyond the official position taken by his party even though he did not support full male suffrage.

Following passage of the 1919 bill, the debate over universal male suffrage continued, particularly within the Kenseikai Party. The issue carried a great deal of political risk. On the positive side, support for the motion would strengthen the party’s position among urban voters, who had benefited less from the 1919 bill than had their rural counterparts. Politicians also believed that passage might mitigate growing political unrest in the country. On the negative side, however, was the fear that universal suffrage might alienate conservative interests both inside and outside the party and could even lead to a split within the party.

After some initial uncertainty, Katō Takaaki, the Kenseikai leader, eventually gave his support to the idea, and the party gave formal approval to a proposal favoring universal male suffrage at a meeting held in December of 1919. In the meantime, the party in power, the Seikukai, stuck with the newly enacted three-yen tax-qualification bill; Hara saw universal male suffrage as a matter for later consideration. Things remained in this state until Hara’s assassination by a student with right-wing ties in November, 1921.

Following Hara’s assassination, his successor, Takahashi Korekiyo, lost control of the party (although he continued as its leader until 1925). A series of nonparty governments were appointed by the genro, the powerful behind-the-scenes group that advised the emperor. These included the governments of Admiral Katō Tomosaburō, Admiral Yamamoto Gonnohyōe, and Viscount Kiyoura Keigo. The first two took some modest steps toward suffrage. Admiral Katō established a committee to study the question, and in June of 1923 the committee issued a report in favor of further lowering of the tax qualification. After Katō’s death in August of that year, his successor, Admiral Yamamoto, came out in support of universal male suffrage. Unfortunately, Yamamoto’s January, 1924, resignation created another hurdle in the move toward suffrage. Ironically, it was the third of the nonparty governments that contributed the most—albeit unintentionally—to the growth of the suffrage movement.

The Kiyoura government offered the strongest support of any of the nonparty cabinets for expanding voting rights. In fact, a bill supporting universal male suffrage was approved by cabinet members in January of 1924. From its inception, however, the government encountered strong opposition from the parties of the lower house. The administration’s close connections to the nonelected House of Peers caused it to be viewed by many as a throwback to an earlier era of privilege and hereditary control. As a result, a united, anti-Kiyoura movement began to emerge, and it eventually included both the Seiyukai and the Kenseikai.

The question of universal male suffrage presented the greatest stumbling block as the two parties formed a united front, but in the end, opposition to the Kiyoura government overrode differences over suffrage. In an election held on May 10, 1924, the Kiyoura cabinet was defeated by an alliance of the Seiyukai, the Kenseikai, and a group known as the Reform Club. A coalition government was formed with Kenseikai leader Katō Takaaki as its head, and universal male suffrage became one of the new movement’s primary goals.

With both of the major parties now supporting the issue, acceptance by the House of Peers and the Privy Council (the more formal advisory group to the emperor) remained the final steps to enactment. The inclusion of an independent-living clause in the bill became a sticking point: This idea, which would give the vote only to males over the age of twenty-five who were financially self-sufficient, actually dated back to the bill approved by the Kenseikai in December of 1919. The provision had been removed from later Kenseikai versions of the bill, but it was now reinserted, with slightly different wording, by both the upper house and the Privy Council.

The matter was hotly debated, but in the end a compromise led to the bill’s acceptance with some rewording of the independent-living clause. The bill passed both houses at the end of March, was approved by the Privy Council a month later, and was officially promulgated in the name of the emperor on May 5, 1925. On May 7, the Katō government took steps to ensure that local officials would interpret the law in such a way that much of the independent-living requirement was lost. For all practical purposes, universal male suffrage had been fully implemented in Japan.


Both the establishment of universal male suffrage and the active roles political parties played in its passage offer clear evidence of a growth of democracy in Japan. Unfortunately, 1925 also saw the passage of the Peace Preservation Law, Peace Preservation Law (1925) which gave the government power to limit political dissent and helped set the stage for the militarism of the 1930’s. This period undercut the development of democracy and led Japan along the road to territorial expansion and war. Nevertheless, from a long-term perspective, the democratic developments of the Taisho period provided a foundation for Japan’s postwar move toward democracy and led to the establishment of suffrage for Japanese women in 1945. Suffrage;men Suffrage;Japan Universal Manhood Suffrage Act (1925) Japan;suffrage

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duus, Peter. Party Rivalry and Political Change in Taisho Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. A good source of information about the movement relationship to the larger Taisho political background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffith, Edward G. “The Universal Suffrage Issue in Japanese Politics, 1918-25.” Journal of Asian Studies 31, no. 2 (February, 1972): 275-290. The most detailed treatment of the subject in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sims, Richard. Japanese Political History Since the Meiji Renovation, 1868-2000. New York: Palgrave, 2001. For the broader historical and political context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wray, Harry, and Hilary Conroy, eds. Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983. Scholarly essays by Stephen S. Large, David A. Titus, and Henry D. Smith II on the subject of Taisho democracy.

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Categories: History