In 1906-08, a ‘Japanese’ party/group composed of seven members appeared in the Greek parliament with ideas of modernizing Greece. Each had an assigned area of responsibility in parliament with Stefanos Dragoumis (1842-1923) looking after foreign affairs; Andreas Panayiotopoulos (1851-1936) with education; Petros Protopapadakis (1860-1922) with education; Charalambos Vozikis (1862-1937) covering the Ministry of Justice; Emmaouil Repoulis (1863-1924) handling the Ministry of Interior; Dimitrios Gounaris (1867-1922) with economic policy; and Apostolos Alexandris (1879-1961) with agriculture and education. Most of them were lawyers except for Protopapadakis, who had an engineering background.
On March 26, 1906, Giorgios Theotokis won the election as Prime Minister of the New Party, with 112 seats in the Greek parliament. The ‘Japanese’ weren’t interested in seizing power but rather looked to reform the existing political system from within and their actions were intended to be supervisory in parliament. Every bill presented to parliament was to be judged on its merits. Greece had suffered a humiliating military defeat to the Ottoman Empire in 1897, shattering the confidence of the Greek public in their political and military leaders. The politicians were myopic and bereft of ideas to move Greece forward evidenced by 11 governments holding office between 1897-1905. It was time for the restoration of Greece.
The Greek-American academic Thomas W. Gallant thought the ‘Japanese’ were “reminiscent of what the Meiji dynasty had recently accomplished in Japan.” The ‘Japanese’ acted like a third party in parliament, refusing secret political bargaining and backroom deals. They criticized the government at every opportunity and pointed out its mistakes. They were brave, fierce, and unyielding in holding the Theotokis government to account. It was journalist Vlassis Gavriilidis in an article published in Akropolis newspaper 10/23 February 1907 who described them as the ‘Japanese’ party.
The idea of a ‘Japanese’ group was previously unknown in Greece, which might be compared stood in contrast to Japan and its victory over Russia in their 1904-05 war. Gounaris was compared to a Japanese warrior in parliament. The Greek people were impressed with the Japanese victory and considered Russia untrustworthy since she supported Bulgaria in Macedonia. The Greek press kept its daily readers informed on the Russo-Japanese conflict.
The ‘Japanese’ party focused on the civil service, tariff policy, taxation, and emigration. On emigration, Gounaris argued that something needed to be done to arrest the outflow of population. In June 1906, a committee presented its findings to parliament that the emigration to the United States was attracting many young Greeks who sought economic opportunities in the new world. Greeks in the United States wrote letters to their relatives in the old homeland encouraging them to try their luck in America. Addressing parliament in April 1907, Gounaris contended that legislation needed to be passed to curb the activities of dishonest brokers of emigration. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of this. Lacking a sound economic policy, successive Greek governments neglected their citizens, which contributed to the emigration problem.
In taxation, the government relied heavily on indirect taxes for its revenue, which fell heavily on the poor classes. This made the necessities of life very expensive. The ‘Japanese’ argued for greater emphasis on direct taxation which was a fairer system that would help in the redistribution of income. Such a policy change could reduce emigration and help to keep men aged 15-40 in Greece. Without tax reform, Greece would face labor shortages that would be detrimental to its economy. However, Greeks continued to emigrate to the United States.
The group argued for much-needed reform in the civil service. In particular, the accounts department in the Ministry of Finance was singled out for its inefficiency and regarding the submission of documents for discussion in parliament. In December 1906, Gounaris questioned two documents – from the Naval Fund of 1907 and the Ministry of Finance – which showed two different sets of figures that should have been identical. The Finance Minister, Anargyros Simopoulos, dismissed Gounaris’s criticism by pointing out that the national budget couldn’t be changed. These budgetary errors needed to be corrected and the government had to take responsibility for them. Such mistakes should never happen. It also meant that the civil service needed reform, with employees appointed on merit who were offered permanent employment.
On tariff policy, the government should have conducted preliminary research into the state of Greek domestic industry and formulate policies that would provide tariff protection. Such a policy could encourage the expansion of domestic production. Gounaris suggested that a committee be established to investigate tariff policy. However, his suggestion was rejected by the government.
A major achievement by the Japanese group was the resettlement of Greek refugees from Bulgaria in Thessaly. Dragoumis and Alexandris were instrumental in the creation of a Thessalian Agricultural Fund (Law 3202) that would assist the settlement and distribution of land for these refugees. During the summer of 1906, there was a strong anti-Greek movement in Bulgaria whereby Bulgarian mobs attacked Greeks in Anchialos, Bourgas, and Plovdiv, which compelled large numbers of them to seek refuge in Greece.
In April 1907, Dragoumis’ efforts were rewarded with the enacting of Law 3205 which allowed the government to finalize the loan from the National, Ionian, and Anatolian Banks thus giving the state the ability to purchase ‘chiflik’ plots in the Almiros area for land distribution.
In June 1908, Gounaris accepted Theotokis’ offer to become finance minister in his government. Protopapadakis joined Theotokis as well. Gounaris proposed a series of economic reforms but never had the support of the premier. There were vested interests who opposed his measures and Gounaris hoped that parliament would adopt his proposals without modification. Gounaris was disillusioned and resigned from his position in February 1909.
In an open letter to Estia on June 29, 1908, Repoulis reflected on the efforts of the ‘Japanese’ group in its two years in parliament. He was disappointed with Gounaris and Protopapadakis leaving the group and not sticking to the group’s agenda. One interesting thing is that Repoulis, Gounaris, and Protopapadakis were affiliated with the government party in 1906. Despite their criticisms of the government, the three of them never had the fortitude to leave Theotokis’s party. Their whole mission was to reform the political system and break the deadlock situation through the existing government party.
Ultimately, the ‘Japanese’ failed to create a political base and articulate a reform agenda to become a major force in Greek politics. Major political changes would be achieved later, however, under future Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos.