The Meiji Constitution and the Western Challenge
A modern constitution was the bedrock upon which Japan could build its modern industrialized state. The document, named for the newly “restored” emperor served as the legal basis for a state which would rapidly evolve in the decades beyond its drafting in 1889 until American occupation nullified the old order in 1945. The Meiji constitution was similar to the other events of Meiji’s restoration because it copied elements of the western tradition while adapting to Japan’s uniquely Asian self-identity. This period of rapid transition from thousands of years of feudal tradition into a powerful state created profound new questions about what kind of power Japan would become. Meiji’s constitution reflects an identity crisis between the promising ideals of modernity and the familiar tone of an ancestral past. The Meiji period is called a “restoration” because of the constitutional language set forth by Ito Hirobumi, which reestablishes the Emperor as the ultimate authority in Japanese politics. The paradox of the Meiji constitution is that even though it contains the basic principle of a liberal constitution: that the government it creates is subject to laws consented by the people, the status of the emperor as the sovereign executor of this popular will leads to an authoritarian state. Therefore, the Meiji constitution represents a confounding synthesis of western constitutional theory and classical Japanese filial loyalty to a strong emperor, the father of the nation state. Similarly, the Meiji constitution’s strong centralization of authority with the emperor and the oligarchical political elite facilitated the growth of militaristic and nationalist ideals within the masses, aiding japan in its pursuit of militarism and imperialism in east Asia.
As restoration swept the nation, clamors for a constitution became deafening. The intellectual debates of the early 1880’s were characterized by the dueling tendencies towards authoritarian rule and pluralism. The emperor’s ultimate authority was never in question but the limitations placed on him by a legislature and constitution certainly divided the political elite. In October 1881 the democratic movement, bolstered by the property crisis in Hokkaido, succeeded in forcing the emperor to concede that a parliamentary constitutional government would be established in 18891. This decree led to the creation of political parties who would jockey for creative control over the new body of laws. The most liberal of these parties, the Jiyuto, had an ideology based on popular sovereignty and constitutional checks on the oligarchs. A network of rural support formed the foundation for the Jiyuto (Liberal party). A more moderate liberal faction emerged in 1882, the Rikken Kaishinto (constitutional reform party) and had the support of wealthy merchants and industrialists. The Kaishinto favored a more English model of governance where sovereignty was placed in the legislature. Lastly, the Kaishinto held that a national assembly as a symbolic gesture against authoritarianism should draft the constitution2. The conservative oligarchy quickly realized that a liberal coalition could gain serious momentum and they formed their own party, the Rikken Teiseito in March 1882.This period of pluralism was short lived however, as the oligarchs suppressed assembly and petition rights. They also consolidated their control over the Tokyo police forces in order to further stifle opposition in the years before 1889. Thus, the political atmosphere prior to ratifying the official constitution consisted of conservatism and authoritarian tendencies. It is significant that even though liberal minded reformers wanted to more closely align Japan’s government with western ideas the conservative oligarchy still had a stranglehold on power. A purely liberal system was incompatible with Japanese history, according to Ito...
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