Meiji Restoration in Japan – 4

The New Constitution (1889)

It may be that Japan’s great response to the onslaught of western civilisation came in the form of a new constitution. The new constitution combined the best elements of Japanese tradition and western modernity. The divine origin of the kingship continued but was based on a democratic framework. It was product of intensive of the working of western democracies with particular reference to the Prussian monarchy. The burden of framing a new constitution fell on the shoulders of the Meiji leaders. Meiji leaders decided on the two important points.

  • They decided to legitimise their own power on the basis of popular consent.
  • They formulated into the new constitution ideals of western liberalism and philosophy in tune with the Japanese way of life.

The Emperor’s Charter of Oath broke new ground. This Oath proclaimed by the Emperor included an assembly for the debate of the people and a pledge to respect the rights of people. Therefore there was no place for rebellion or revolt, and hence the suppression of the Sastuma rebellion in 1877. The Meiji leaders who strengthened the monarchy also created strong and stable political institutions.

Political Parties

In the 1890s Japan witnessed the emergence of tree political parties namely Jiyuto (Liberal Party), Kaishinto (Progressive Party) and Rikken Teiseioto (Imperialist Party) the leaders being Itagaki, Okuma and the government respectively. Regarding their policies and programmes, there was nothing clear cut expect that they advocated constitutional and other reforms. The leaders supported the demand for some kinds of responsible government which the Genro (Emperor’s council of Elders) was not willing to concede. Hence many politicians succumbed to the temptations of offered by the Genro. The first national election to the Japanese Diet (Parliament) took place in July 1890. The Diet was hardly in a position to make a mark as a debating forum level alone influence or formulate policies for the government. The formulation of polices and the influences to bear on them were carried out by the ruling oligarchy and the Privy Council. Although a political party may win a majority of seats in the Diet, it still did not enjoy the authority of choosing the Prime minister. The Prime minister and his cabinet colleagues were appointed by the Emperor and therefore, remained responsible to him and not the Parliament. The elite in Japanese government was constituted by the imperial family, the Genro (elder statesman) and the Peer of the Upper House of Legislature. This House included important members of the Kuge, the daimyo and selected professional classes. It was most unfortunate that the successive Japanese government experienced political uncertainty and instability, proving the point that the transition was going to be difficult.