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Meiji Introduction

Note: When discussing the Meiji Era, often people use The Restoration as a continuing reference to the era, but there remains a difference. The Restoration, although debated to the actual period, remains somewhere around 1867 to 1869 depending on what circumstantial political and military view point one uses. The Meiji Era, on the other hand continues until the death of Emperor Meiji in 1911. Below is a very short and beret description of some of the major themes of the Meiji Restoration, which blending themes continued into the Meiji ear. The significance of the Political parties are referenced but, again, this a  short caption of a very complex set of circumstances that saw a period that fantastically created a world driven people that would soon become a world power to be reckoned with.

Carol Gluck, “Japan’s Modern Myths : Ideology in the Late Meiji Period” (Princeton: Princeton University, 1985).

1)         modern history breaks down boundaries

2)         It does so because 1) nations have modernity in common, the problem of what it means to be modern and 2) the historians are drawing from the same theoretical well, with methodology and concepts in common. For example, historians in Asia draw from Marx, despite his perhaps Eurocentric vision.

3)         the trials and tribulations of a global experience of the heavy toll of wars and totalitarianism, of capitalism and industrialization—has promoted a sort of unity in perspective.

Gluck interview, UCLA ( excerpts above, date unknown).

In 1868, after the samurai of the outlying and disfavored Satsuma and Choshu clans successfully displaced the Shogunate, using the Emperor in Kyoto as a talisman, their leaders became the de facto government of Japan. The leaders of the Japanese revolution, faced with what they perceived to be the colonial intentions of the western powers backed up by their technological superiority in armaments, sought to transform Japan’s feudal system of clans and an agrarian economy into a strong, modern state in order to maintain Japan’s independence. One of the triggers which had set off the military rebellion was samurai resentment against the weak Shogunate for negotiating so-called “unequal treaties” with the western powers,24 which provided for the economic exploitation of Japan and humiliating limitations on Japan’s sovereignty, such as extra-territoriality provisions for westerners. The legal system had to be quickly overhauled in order to renegotiate these treaties on an equal footing with the western powers. But such changes did not necessarily entail a written constitution and the Meiji oligarchs hesitated to draft one lest clarification of the structure of government open the way for others to share in political power.

The decline of the Shogunate and the revolution had, however, unleashed powerful forces in Japan.25 A number of people, both samurai and commoners, believed that the Meiji Restoration would entail a social revolution which would result in participation by the populace in public affairs. When the Satsuma and Choshu leaders set about to carve up the spoils of power among themselves, transforming themselves into the tight-knit group ruling Japan,26 there was a strong backlash. One manifestation was the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement (Jiyū Minken Undū), which swept the nation, agitating for parliamentary democracy and a constitution. The movement was not merely an urban phenomenon: one result of the movement was the formation of groups even in rural villages to study, discuss and draft a constitution for Japan.27

Only since 1968, have scholars realized the extent of the grassroots movement for a constitutional government.28 In that year, the Japanese historian, Irokawa Daikichi discovered, tucked away in a rural storehouse, a sophisticated draft constitution written by a farmers’ group named the Learning and Debating Society.29 Now, sixty-eight such private constitutions, called shigi kenp?, have been discovered.30 These draft constitutions were not mere copies of alien models, but rather were complex blends of a variety of Confucian and Western sources.31

The Freedom and Popular Rights Movement reached its apex in 1881. The Meiji oligarchs crushed this along with other allied and genuinely popular movements seeking democracy and a role for the populace in constitution making.32 The Meiji oligarchs, however, understood that the powerful forces pressing from below for social and political revolution could not be ignored. Under the leadership of Ito Hirobumi, they tried to devise a constitutional system which would limit and contain popular pressure for representative government, in essence creating an illiberal constitution which primarily imposed duties on Japanese citizens as imperial subjects. Nevertheless some provisions for individual rights had to be included in order to gain the international respect from the western powers for the Japanese legal system necessary for a renegotiation of the unequal treaties.

One reason for the long delay in producing the Meiji Constitution was the time needed to create the legal and social framework necessary to constrain the effect of even a limited grant of rights. After an internal power struggle, Ito Hirobumi emerged as the leader of the oligarchs and set out to design the new constitution. The composition of the Meiji Constitution was essentially a private action by Ito and his assistants, later given legitimacy by having the Emperor promulgate it.33 Ito’s solution to the danger of popular rule evolving from a written constitution was to attempt to mold the persons who would be covered by the Meiji Constitution by establishing a state-guided socialization through a tightly controlled, centralized system of compulsory education and a civil code which significantly restructured the Japanese family system. Thus, in rapid succession appeared the Meiji Constitution (1889), a set of education laws, most notably the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), which set obedience as the goal of education, and the Civil Code (1891), which regulated family life by imposing the samurai family structure on the rest of the populace for the first time in Japanese history.34

Specifically, the Meiji oligarchs tried to control the country by propagating two different theories of the Emperor, and consequentially two theories of the Meiji Constitution, in a two-track educational system. Education for the masses was to include an exoteric doctrine of the Emperor whereby the Emperor was promoted as an infallible, mystical being. Myths, such as the unbroken line of Emperors springing from the Sun Goddess,35 were invented from fragments of traditional folk beliefs, Shintō  religion and newly minted notions.36 An esoteric doctrine of the Emperor was taught at schools attended by the future ruling elite. Under this latter theory, best represented by the formulation of Tokyo Imperial University constitutional scholar Minobe Tatsukichi, the Emperor was merely an organ of the state, that is an element in a constitutional order run by humans.

The resistance to control was considerable from groups pressing from below for a more genuinely popular representative system as well as from ultraconservatives opposed to the esoteric doctrine. A battery of laws had to be devised and repeatedly revised to try to contain the resistance. For example, in 1890, the Cabinet promulgated the Public Meeting and Political Association Law, which banned outdoor political rallies. Later, national political organizations were banned. And, as a direct blow to the feminists who had been active in the Meiji Revolution and the now defunct Freedom and Popular Rights Movement, attendance at political meetings by women, as well as foreigners and minors, was made illegal.37

Even the intellectual leaders of the Meiji Enlightenment, the inner circle of the time, split over the proper nature of education in a modern Japan due to differing views of the capacity of ordinary people and the purpose of government. The opposing positions, which persist to the present day in Japan, have come to be characterized as “enlightenment from above” and “enlightenment from below.”38 The former, best exemplified by the first Minister of Education Mori Arinori, holds that an individual has no value in himself but rather exists only to serve the state, that is the Emperor, and that the interests of state are best served by obedience. Under this position, individuals were encouraged to mobilize themselves to serve the goals of the state, but those goals were to be set only from above. “Enlightenment from below,” on the other hand, usually identified with the nineteenth century intellectual and founder of Keio University, Fukuzawa Yukichi, claimed that the modernization of Japan would be best served by encouraging each individual to develop his or her own personal capabilities and an individualized vision of the ends of the State.39 Education, according to this alternate view, should foster pluralism and personal autonomy.

There was even a period of relative liberalism in government during the so-called Taisho Democracy,40 which experimented with various political innovations, such as jury trials.41 But as societal conflict concerning justice for the rural poor grew and ferment in the cities for social reform expanded, the government responded with a battery of repressive laws designed to maintain its power and to quell the new demands of Japanese citizens.42 Finally, the military gained control of the government in 1935. The theory of the Emperor as an organ of the state was officially suppressed, while its author, Minobe Tatsukichi, was forced out of public life and his publications banned. Political parties were forced into a government- controlled, grand coalition in support of the war effort, opposition groups were suppressed. Opposition leaders were either dead due to official executions or police assassinations, incarcerated, or, for those still at liberty, forced to choose between collaboration with the government or silence. This was not a culture of harmony or wa. The opposition to the authoritarian regime was silenced, but not destroyed entirely. Its remnants would wait out the war. The balance shifted when the conservatives in power lost the war. The next question was whether they and their program would lose in the ensuing peace.43


University of Pennsylvania Law School, ed. Marcus Hennecke, Ross Moore, Herb Swan, et al.,  I. THE MEIJI CONSTITUTION AND THE BACKGROUND OF THE BIRTH OF THE JAPANESE CONSTITUTION (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania, 2002) [ accessed online ] 2006.

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