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How did Meiji Japan Change Politically?

Updated on April 2, 2018
The Meiji constitution is presented, quite literally as a gift from the emperor.
The Meiji constitution is presented, quite literally as a gift from the emperor.

The Meiji Constitution and Meiji system of government in general is simultaneously an excellent example of elite attempts to control power structures and governance within society upon lines which are conducive to their interests, and the way in which popular opposition, political reality, and structural mutation can cause changes to produce very different outcomes. Formed initially as the minimal concessions necessary to the establishment of constitutional government with minor popular participation - - barely of 1% of the population composed of a small group of property tax-paying male citizens - - in but one organ of government, the Diet (lower parliamentary house), the Meiji government ultimately evolved into the Taisho democracy. There, universal male suffrage and party control of government gave Japan a decade of liberalism, peace, and civilian rule. How did such a transformation happen, what was the structure of the Meiji government, how did it work in governing Japan, and what led to its demise?


Before the Meiji political structure itself is examined, we should first look at the environment and conflicts which preceded it, starting with the Meiji Restoration, and the succeeding interregnum before the creation of the Meiji Constitution. The Meiji Restoration was not a revolution from below, but rather from above, as a relatively small group of new leaders, limited both socially to privileged classes (such as the samurai) and geographically to the Satsuma and Choshu domains of the previous Tokugawa Shogunate, overthrew the old order and with awe-inspiring speed brought about a rapid change in the structure of Japanese society. They oversaw an end to the old feudal order which had divided Japan up into the 280 domains of the Daimyo rulers, replacing them with a national political organization of 72 prefectures and returning the domain's lands to the emperor, ie. the state. The genius was, as elsewhere in the new Meiji society, that they ensured that the previous factions were not excessively hurt by this transformation, in this case by distributing appropriate pensions from the state. Therefore, the problem of discontented old elites which has caused so much trouble throughout history was avoided. The samurai, left isolated and powerless, could be appropriately crushed in the Satsuma rebellion. Accompanying this came ministries which had modern functions, if labeled on ancient Chinese terms of the Heian period, such as finance, foreign affairs, public works, and home affairs, created from from 1871 onwards. A modern cabinet arrived in 1885, with a prime minister leading it, which was then codified in 1889 by the Meiji constitution. Civil servant examinations established in 1887 helped to produce efficient bureaucrats to staff these bodies. Politically, it had been a revolution which transformed the feudalistic political structure of the Tokugawa Shogunate into a modern state, and although it did not yet count deliberative popular bodies among its institutions (the abortive Kagisho of 1868 and a second one later, both having lasted a year, not succeeding), it had laid precedents towards their formation, followed throughout the decades that followed by the formation of advisory councils.

Samurai were both a military and political class, and were crushed by the Meiji restoration.
Samurai were both a military and political class, and were crushed by the Meiji restoration.

Throughout all of this period Japan did not have a constitution. Despite the Charter Oath of 1868 at the founding of Meiji calling for the framing of a constitution and laws, a permanent constitution would not arrive until 1889. There were both internal and external reasons for the development of a Japanese constitution. Externally, Japan needed a constitution to be able to be accepted as being a “modern” state and hence not discriminated against by the Western powers. Western powers had constitutions and were strong, and this strength was assigned to their constitutions which unified them and directed profitably the national energies. If Japan wished to be strong she too thus needed a constitution. Internally, there was pressure for a constitution which was applied onto the Meiji governing elite of the oligarchs through institutions like a newly founded popular press (such as the first newspaper, Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun, published in 1871) and organizations such as the loosely constituted “movement for freedom and people’s rights.” Under the banner of patriotism they called for representative assemblies which would make the nation strong through popular representation. Even before such movements were founded, already cries for an assembly to represent the people and to have control over the budget had been proclaimed by Itagaki Taisuke in 1873 : “The people whose duty it is to pay taxes to the government have the right of sharing in their government’s affairs and of approving or condemning. Since this is a universally acknowledged principle, it is not necessary to waste words in discussing it….”

Itagaki Taisuke around 1880 : he had a quite magnificent beard later on.
Itagaki Taisuke around 1880 : he had a quite magnificent beard later on.

The first “movement for freedom and people’s rights”, in 1874, declared that “The object which our government ought therefore to promote is by the establishment of a council-chamber chosen by the people to arouse in them a spirit of enterprise, and to enable them to comprehend the duty of participating in the burdens of the empire and sharing in the direction of its affairs, and then the people of the whole country will be of one mind.” While this soon collapsed and its leader Itagaki Taisuke abandoned it, others popped up to take its place. By 1880-1881 over 250,000 signatures had been collected in petitions by such groups, helping to lead in October 1881 for the Emperor to declare that a constitution would be promulgated by 1890. This was to attempt to produce one friendly to the government before more radical versions took its place.

The political structure laid out by the Meiji constitution : note the extremely limited role of the public in its formal workings.
The political structure laid out by the Meiji constitution : note the extremely limited role of the public in its formal workings.

The Meiji Constitution which fulfilled these ambitions was a rather conservative document, looking particularly to Germany (the Prussian constitution of 1854) and to an extent Britain (this was more developed later on) as a model for a conservative constitutional monarchy. It was written secretly in 1886 and 1887 and discussed by the Privy Council, with European legal advisors assisting in its drafting. When presented, it was done as a gift from the emperor himself to the people, its method of creation once again seeking to ensure the power and dominance of the state, despite the fact that it was also a response to popular pressure. The sacred and sovereign emperor stood at the center of this new political organization, and yet also above the system as a unifying force for instilling legitimacy. Despite his theoretically immense powers, in practice he would stand outside of the political squabbles. Furthermore, a preamble to the constitution stated that the emperor would act in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and the cabinet ministers would cosign all imperial orders. In fact, the actual power and independence of the emperor was heavily circumscribed : his opposition to war at a time when Japan engaged in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1804 is a clear example of the divide existing between him and his advisers. When inquired to by the Imperial Household Minister Hijikata Hisamoto, about what envoys to send to the tomb of Emperor Komei upon the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, the emperor’s response was : ”Don’t send anybody. I have not been in favor of this war from the start. It was only because cabinet ministers informed me that war was inevitable that I permitted it.” But regardless, the emperor still formed the heart of the kokutai, a family-based national body politic.

The Emperor Meiji.
The Emperor Meiji.

Some organizations lay outside of the formal control of government. The military general staff had a special independence with the “right to supreme command,” being responsible directly to the emperor. Serving military members (later expanded to retired as well) and not civilians would bedeck the cabinet’s positions for the army and navy, giving the military a foothold in politics. If left unsatisfied by the actions of the government, they could refuse to supply a minister. For example, in 1912 when Prime Minister Saionji refused to expand the army, the army minister resigned and the army refused to supply a replacement, meaning a cabinet could not be formed and the Prime Minister resigned. There were other important institutions not responsible to parliament like the Privy Council, formed to approve the constitution and which continued to meet afterwards in secret sessions, which stood outside of any oversight save that of the emperor's, and yet was vital to the functioning of the state. Its members, the Meiji oligarchs, dominated the bureaucracy and the state during much of early Meiji. These bureaucrats were responsible to the emperor, and not to parliament, although the requirement for their budgets to come from parliament did place them somewhat under the constraint of the parliamentarians (and parties could influence them indirectly as well). Meiji oligarchs and later senior statesmen meanwhile, served as key unofficial yet influential figures who kept party leaders in check. Even during periods when there were civilian party leaders as prime ministers, the minority party’s leader could be appointed to leadership, undermining the principle of majority rule - - even if resultant elections resulted in a victory for the appointed minority party. Thus Meiji Japan was neither fully democratic, nor fully elite-ruled : it incorporated a popular element in its government, but one which was controlled and circumscribed by elite interests : in this regards the Meiji constitution, despite its political mutations in practice, proved remarkably effective at keeping Japan as a conservative and top-directed society, despite the intense political turmoil and agitation from below.

The Privy Council : one of the most important institutions of early Meiji Japan, although later on its influence shrunk.
The Privy Council : one of the most important institutions of early Meiji Japan, although later on its influence shrunk.

It was in regards to formal popular participation in government that the constitution was limited in its provisions. A bicameral legislature was established, consisting of a House of Lords with appointed (by the emperor) nobility, imperial family members, the wealthiest taxpayers, and the Diet which was popularly elected - - although only by around 1% of the population, a number which would slowly expand over the following decades until universal (male) suffrage was passed in 1925. Both were conservative in their objective, with mostly landlords being initially elected for the Diet while the House of Lords was even more conservative and linked to former daimyo, bureaucrats, and the wealthiest people in the nation. The legislature voted on legislation which could either be introduced by government ministers or by themselves as representatives, voted budgets, and debated various other issues. It was the hope of the founders of the Meiji government to keep a compliant Diet, free of party politics, backed by a land-owning elite which would provide a conservative pillar of support. If this parliament was muzzled in its powers, then the body politic had further controls, with extensive police powers (especially after the 1925 Peace Preservation Law) and repression of radical (leftist primarily) views of socialism, unionism, and feminism. In the preferred model on the oligarchs of Meiji, the public was very much a vessel into which was poured the national spirit of Japan, instead of being the agents of change within it : it would be the people who would be changed, not the state changed for the people. This of course, with the exception of the promotion of the ideology of “Japanism” which claimed the Japanese people to be inherently deferential and obedient to authority, and thus suited to an authoritarian system, and enjoyed the support of conservative political thought.

But, given the number of protests launched by the public on a wide variety of issues ranging from suffrage, to taxes, to labor strikes, to foreign policy issues, despite their formally limited powers, they seem to have done much to counter their assigned role. This was not always however, a positive and “progressive” one, as the experience of “government by assassination” demonstrated. Even during the calm, peaceful, and democratic 1920s prime ministers faced a risk of assassination by radicals, such as that of Prime Minister Takashi. These radical assassins enjoyed a legitimacy stemming from their ideological purity, and helped influence the government by weakening parliamentary rule. Behind them during the 1920s and onward were a host of far right political movements stressing an emperor-centric conception of Japan. The far left was equally ambivalent or hostile in this period.

Takashi was killed in 1923 : there would be quite a few more Japanese prime ministers who died in a government by assassination regime, where the assassins were viewed as martyrs and their victims as corrupt and empty men who deserved it.
Takashi was killed in 1923 : there would be quite a few more Japanese prime ministers who died in a government by assassination regime, where the assassins were viewed as martyrs and their victims as corrupt and empty men who deserved it.

If the Diet had formally relatively little power, primarily passing budgets for the government, this power was a vital one. In a rapidly expanding economy like that of Meiji Japan, and in one where the government needed constantly increasing budgets to be able to meet the demands of national development and even more of national defense, securing funds for the state was a constant need. There was one tool in the government’s arsenal against the Diet, that if the Diet failed to pass a new budget, then the budget of the previous year would be utilized. However, this was of little solace to the government in light of the aforementioned need for constantly more revenue. The Diet also rapidly and inevitably became a haven for party politics and extremely combative and argumentative against the government during the early Meiji period, although later on it became much more conciliatory. This was especially the case in regards to the military, where the military was able to portray itself as the defender of Japan and to cover itself with the mantle of patriotism and the national spirit, requiring funding in the name of patriotism. But nevertheless, politics being politics, when the government went to the Diet for requests for support and for budgetary increases, it naturally would have to make concessions. Before the Russo-Japanese war the Seiyukai political party supported the war budget, in exchange for their leader becoming the next prime minister, and the Seiyukai was able to place members on every cabinet up to 1912. It would continue to influence and cooperate with bureaucrats, securing important indirect power. Thus, from an institution with seemingly little power, the Diet was able to quickly leverage itself to a capable and important part of the national political system in of its own right. Utilizing such tools, it was able to gradually transform the cabinets, the government of the nation, from hand-picked tools of the oligarchs or senior statesmen, to party cabinets which reflected party desires.

Emperor Taisho, who led over the most democratic and liberal period of pre-Great Depression Japan's government.
Emperor Taisho, who led over the most democratic and liberal period of pre-Great Depression Japan's government.

Such a liberalization reached its height during the so-called “Taisho Democracy”, which brought civilian, party-based cabinets to the forefront and saw the establishment of universal male suffrage in 1925. 1918 saw the first stable and effective party cabinet formed, with only the army, navy, and foreign ministry posts being controlled by non-party men. Although this government lasted until 1922, and received the confidence of those who had previously thought that party cabinets would be too weak to govern, oligarchs would go back to appointing non-party prime ministers following its collapse. But the precedent was set and would continue to expand, and attempts to roll it back were met with opposition from the Diet, such as when the Diet stood against attempts to form another non-cabinet and won the following 1925 elections. In fighting this sort of battle, party politicians were at their best - - it was a limited engagement in defense of their own privileges, without the need for mass popular mobilization. In the stable political atmosphere of the 1920s, this was sufficient to preserve civilian rule and democracy, even if it was balanced by the continued influence of senior statesmen and the privy council, and the Diet continued to enjoy a fundamentally limited role in the political sphere.


Such an imperfect system however, folded under its greatest stress in the Great Depression. It was fundamentally handicapped by the fact that the party leaders were reliant upon influence and compromise with the bureaucrats and the military, instead of being able to control them. Thus, when the military began independent operations which led to the conquest of Manchuria, and ultimately to war with China, there was little that party leaders could do to assert their authority, even if they had desired. Military individuals had forced the issue of expansion onto the continent, decisively influencing Japanese policy henceforth. Party leaders by contrast lacked internal support, and even they were not convinced of the benefits of democracy, viewing it as a means to an end. Their unprincipled maneuverings for “pork barrel” support, temporary advantages, and the inevitable system of compromise present in any democratic system, meant that they were vulnerable to radicals in the military or in society, ideologically pure, disciplined, and aggressive, who cut a striking picture next to the isolated and corrupt party elites. Party politics was weakened by assassinations against leaders, including constant assassination of prime ministers. Its coffin was sealed by military coups such as the February 26th Incident, which even if it failed catapulted the military into decisive control over the state. Without the popular legitimacy to respond, the top-heavy party politics of the Meiji era were fragile and vulnerable to such blows : popular participation and action in government had been enshrined and developed, but the principles and legitimacy of democracy had not. Thus collapsed the Taisho democracy. The constitution which had given birth to it had always concealed inherent contradictions which had kept the government neither fully democratic, nor fully authoritarian, and when the winds of change blew, it crumbled.

Japanese soldiers taking over Manchuria in 1931 : military indiscipline was prominent in any colonial army, but the Japanese one took it to extremes with deleterious effects upon democratic control.
Japanese soldiers taking over Manchuria in 1931 : military indiscipline was prominent in any colonial army, but the Japanese one took it to extremes with deleterious effects upon democratic control.

Technically the Meiji constitution continued onwards until its replacement after WW2, but by the middle of the 1930s, it had been so dramatically transformed that the topic of this political evolution is a story properly fitting another document. Regardless of its ultimate failure, it had been a remarkable story of conservative constraint, popular opposition, political mutation, and the concrete realities of politics which had marked such dramatic changes in the Japanese government in the years between 1889 and 1930. It shows that although elites can constrain change, no political institution can hope to hold a society in stasis, and that even in the most conservative political system, gradual political mutation can transform it into a nigh-unrecognizable structure.

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