The façade of constitutional democracy in Japan

Text and Web-site by James Bowen, Convener, Pacific War Historical Society. Web-site established May 2002 and last updated 14 May 2010.

Resistance to democracy

Although conscious of the need for rapid industrialisation and development of a strong navy and army, the imperial government, led by Ito Hirobumi, stubbornly resisted demands for a constitution and a popularly elected national parliament along Western lines.An impetus for constitutional change was finally produced in 1873 when, following the return of the Iwakura mission to Western countries, Emperor Meiji's executive council split into peace and war factions. The peace faction was led by members of the Iwakura mission who had been impressed by the strength of Western countries that they had visited. The peace faction viewed industrialisation and domestic reform as priorities for Japan, and it opposed foreign military adventures. The war faction, led by hawkish former samurai from the western Tosa and Saga clans, wanted Japan to undertake an aggressive foreign policy.

Ito Hirobumi was Japan's first Prime Minister under a constitution which he drafted.

In 1875, the war faction demanded a military response to Korea firing on a Japanese gunboat engaged in marine surveys off the Korean coast. When military action by Japan against Korea was rejected by the executive council, the hard-line militarists from Tosa and Saga, led by Itagaki Taisuke, withdrew from the executive council to form an embryonic nationalistic opposition political party. Although frustrated on this occasion, these samurai militarists would bide their time until a more favourable opportunity came to interfere in Korea's internal affairs. The peace faction, later headed by government leader, Ito Hirobumi, would maintain its ascendancy over militarists in the government until 1894.

The disgruntled militarists who had withdrawn from the imperial government saw a popularly elected national parliament as a means for them to regain political influence, particularly over foreign policy, and together with other disgruntled former samurai, they agitated strongly for one. In the course of this agitation, an attempt was made to assassinate Iwakura Tomomi who was one of the leaders of the peace faction in the imperial government.

Japan's first Constitution of 1889

Allegations of corruption involving senior members of the imperial government, and continuing political assassinations of government leaders, finally compelled the Meiji government to promise a constitution and an elected parliament by 1889. In 1881 and 1882, the first political parties were formed in Japan, and these new political parties called for a constitution providing for a popularly elected national parliament and protection of individual rights. Emperor Meiji's select group of advisers, led by Ito Hirobumi, had no intention of producing a constitution of this kind. They drafted a constitution based on the Prussian-influenced German model of the time that would give the emperor wide powers to govern Japan by imperial decrees, and these decrees would be largely beyond the control of the proposed popularly elected national parliament or Diet.

Even before the new constitution was presented to the people of Japan, steps were taken to ensure that real power would remain in the hands of Emperor Meiji's select group of advisers. In 1884, a Western-style nobility was created to form the basis of a House of Peers that would provide a conservative check on a popularly elected lower house. Senior imperial government advisers, former daimyo, and high-ranking military officers were given titles that would make them eligible to sit in the House of Peers. In 1885, a cabinet of ministers of state was set up based on the German model of that time. At the head of this cabinet would be a prime minister selected by Emperor Meiji and his advisers. The prime minister would be permitted to choose the members of the cabinet. The cabinet would be primarily responsible to the emperor, and only secondarily responsible to the proposed parliament.

In 1888, a Privy Council was created to be the highest advisory body under the new constitution to Emperor Meiji on domestic and foreign affairs. The Privy Council would not be responsible to the proposed national parliament for advice given to the emperor, and its members would be selected by the emperor and his advisers.

The national parliament would have an elected people's house, called the House of Representatives, which would be able to do little more than debate legislation introduced by the imperial government. There would be an upper house, called the House of Peers, which would be stacked with conservative nobility likely to oppose the will of the people's house unless they happened to agree with it. Since legislation passed by the people's representatives had to be approved by the unelected House of Peers to become law, and could be vetoed by Emperor Meiji even if passed by both houses, the 1889 constitution would produce only a semblance of genuine democratic government.

In 1889, Emperor Meiji presented the new constitution to the people of Japan as a royal gift. Strict censorship ensured that the constitution was received by the people without apparent dissent. It was a constitution that would give the vast mass of Japanese people no real say in their government. It would give Japan some appearance of being a democracy but still preserve the authoritarian rule of Emperor Meiji and his select group of advisers. It was a constitution that would give the elected people's house of the Japanese parliament no significant control over government finances, or domestic and foreign policy. This denial of genuine democracy would continue until the end of World War II in 1945.

The new power elite behind the façade of constitutional democracy

Behind the façade of democratic government created by the 1889 constitution, the real power in Japan's government was exercised by an elite group comprising the Imperial Family, an advisory body of elder statesmen called genro, the Privy Council, the army and navy ministers, the military high command, and the unelected upper house of the parliament called the House of Peers. This select and ultra-conservative group included members of the nobility, former great feudal lords (daimyo), former western clan samurai who engineered restoration of power to the emperor, high-ranking military officers, and the great merchant families (zaibatsu) which had financed the imperial restoration.

Emperor Meiji's powers under the new constitution were very broad, and were required to be exercised only on the advice of his advisers. The effect of this constitutional arrangement was to produce an appearance that Emperor Meiji was the supreme ruler of Japan, but in reality, it would permit individual advisers or factions within the power elite to rule Japan through the emperor.

The most powerful group within the power elite were the elder statesmen or genro. They were statesmen who had played prominent roles in creating modern Japan. Many of the genro came from the western clans which had engineered the restoration of the emperor in 1868. Although not mentioned in the 1889 constitution, the genro became Emperor Meiji's most influential advisory group. The genro made and implemented all important government decisions, including advising the emperor on his appointment of Japan's prime minister. The prime minister would have direct access to the emperor and be permitted to select the members of his cabinet.

These executive arrangements effectively denied the people's elected representatives in the national parliament a significant role in the formulation and implementation of Japan's domestic and foreign policy.

The influence of the military on Imperial Japanese governments

As in nineteenth century Prussia, the military in post-restoration imperial Japan played a very influential role in government. After 1900, both the army and navy ministers in the cabinet were required to be high-ranking serving officers. The army and navy ministers and the military high command had direct access to the emperor. The serving military officers appointed to cabinet were selected as ministers by the prime minister, but only after their appointment to cabinet had been approved by the army and navy chiefs of staff. This arrangement gave the military enormous power in the cabinet because they could destroy a cabinet by forcing the resignation of the army and/or navy ministers, and then refusing to approve replacements. This undue military influence on Japanese governments would continue until the end of World War II.

The Samurai spirit lives on in post-restoration Imperial Japan

This brief history of Japan's emergence from isolation and development as a modern industrial power in the nineteenth century is intended to demonstrate that seven centuries of military rule by shoguns had ingrained deeply in the Japanese mind respect for and obedience to authority, and that this mind-set could not be easily changed by the processes of modernisation set in train by Commodore Perry's arrival at Yedo Bay in 1853. The values and attitudes incorporated in bushido, the samurai warrior code, did not die with the abolition of the samurai class. After the restoration of the emperor in 1868, bushido was adapted as an ethical code for the whole population with the emperor replacing the feudal lord or daimyo as the object of loyalty, obedience and sacrifice. Samurai attitudes strongly influenced Japanese thinking until Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, and were particularly influential in the military and the imperial government.

It is necessary to appreciate this persistence of militaristic attitudes after 1889, especially in government, in order to understand the belligerence of Japanese foreign policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Disturbing parallels between post-restoration Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany

As Japan entered the twentieth century, we can see the following disturbing features of its government: Japan possessed only the appearance of being a democracy; ordinary Japanese people had no significant control over the actions of their government; advisers to the emperor within the power elite were able to rule Japan through the emperor; imperial governments were heavily influenced by militarists eager to pursue aggressive foreign policies; and censorship of the media ensured that most Japanese were only exposed to the imperial government's views on domestic and foreign issues.

This pattern of government was superimposed on a society conditioned over centuries to militarism, authoritarian rule, and obedience to authority. The national religion Shinto held that the emperor was divine, that Japan was blessed by the gods, and that Japan had a divine mission to extend its rule and enlightenment to less fortunate races. The education system was designed to condition students to blind loyalty to the emperor, obedience to his will, extreme patriotism, and support for Japan's military aggression. It was also a society which included extreme nationalists who resented what they saw as a defiling of the purity of Japanese culture by Westernisation. This anti-foreign element of Japanese society would combine with militarists in the 1930s to destabilise Japanese politics and launch Japan on the path of aggression in East Asia.

This was not a climate in which the fragile flowers of democracy and peace were likely to flourish. While the comparison is not exact, the disturbing parallels between post-restoration imperial Japan and Nazi Germany should now be apparent.

This history of Japan continues at the chapter: