From Meiji to Taisho
 

The Taisho Emperor: 1912-1926 
  
Acting in the name of the emperor, a small inner circle dominated the government during the 1870s and 1880s, but not without opposition....[One source of opposition was the] disoriented and embittered samurai who felt betrayed by the Meiji leaders....The Satsuma Rebellion [led by Saigo Takamori] was the last stand of the samurai. When the military situation became hopeless, Saigo committed ritual suicide. His was a martyrs death for a lost cause....More important in the long run, however, was the formation of nonviolent political opposition, animated not only by objections to one or another aspect of government policy but also by protest against the political domination exercised by a few men from Choshu and Satsuma who had exclusive control over the centers of power. Basing their position on the first article of the 1868 Charter Oath, early in 1874 opposition leaders demanded the creation of an elected legislature....The men in power were not averse to some kind of constitution as a necessary and even desirable component of modernization...[and in 1881] the government announced that the emperor would grant a constitution, to take effect in 1890. [BHJC, 194-5]
 
 
In 1889, after work on the constitution was completed, it was promulgated as a “gift” from the emperor to his people. The Meiji constitution remained in force until 1945. The emperor, “sacred and inviolable” father of the family state, was supreme. He was the locus and source of sovereignty: the land and people belonged to him. He had the power to declare war, conclude treaties, and command the army. He also had the right to open, recess, and dissolve the legislature; the power to veto its decisions, and the right to issue his own ordinances. The ministers were responsible not to the legislature but to the emperor. The legislature, called the Diet (derived from dieta, Late Latin for public assembly), consisted of two houses, the House of Peers [composed of the old court nobility, ex-daimyo, and some members of the oligarchy] and the House of Representatives. The latter was elected by a constituency of tax-paying property owners amounting to about 450,000 men or 1.1 percent of the total population. The most consequential power of the Diet was the power of the purse, but following the example of the Prussian constitution, the Meiji constitution provided for automatic renewal of the previous year’s budget whenever the Diet failed to pass a new budget.

Only the emperor could take the initiative to revise the constitution. The emperor was the final authority but he was also above politics, and the actual exercise of imperial authority was divided between the Privy Council [the highest government advisory board], the Cabinet [headed by the prime minister], the Diet, and the general staff. Because the constitution failed to provide for coordination among these bodies, this was done by the men who had been governing in the emperor’s name all along. Gradually, the practice developed of deciding on the selection of prime ministers and other major questions by consulting the genro—elder statesmen and leaders of the Meiji Restoration, such as Ito and Yamagata, who talked things out in private. Obviously, this could work only as long as there were genro to consult. [BHJC, 197-8]
  • Is this form of government a “democracy”? Why...or why not?
  • To what extent did this new form of government impinge on the power of the Meiji Oligarchs?
  • Why would the Meiji Oligarchs have consented to a form of government that diminished their authority?

 
The Taisho Period began with a political crisis, when financial conditions forced a cutback in government spending that made it impossible to fund both the Seiyukais domestic program and two new divisions for the army. Although the Seiyukai won support at the polls, Prime Minister Saionji was forced out of office in December 1912 when the army ordered the minister of the army to resign....
 
As stipulated by the constitution, the chief of the general staff reported directly to the emperor concerning command matters, thus bypassing the minister of war and the Cabinet. In 1900 the military’s power was further strengthened when Yamagata obtained imperial ordinances specifying that only officers on active duty could serve as minster of the army or minster of the navy. In effect, this gave the military veto power over any Cabinet, because it could break a Cabinet simply by ordering the army or navy minister to resign. Still, control over funds for army expansion remained in the hands of the lower house. [BHJC, 222]
 
Ironically, it was the ability of the military to withhold appointment of Army or Navy ministers that was the greatest achilles heel of the Meiji Constitution, and it was this power, more than any single other issue, which led to military domination over civilian government in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
 
Although the genro deliberated about a successor to Saionji, a number of politicians, journalists, and businessmen organized a movement “to protect constitutional government.” The ensuing mass demonstrations were reminiscent of those protesting the Portsmouth Treaty in 1905.
       Called on to form a government once more, Katsura [Taro], no longer willing to compromise with the Seiyukai, attempted to organize a party strong enough to defeat it but failed. When the Seiyukai threatened a vote of no confidence, Katsura tried to save the situation by obtaining an imperial order forcing the Seiyukai to give up its planned no-confidence motion. This was a stratagem employed previously by embattled prime ministers, but this time it did not work: the Seiyukai turned down the order. The crisis ended with Katsura’s resignation. Such use of an imperial order was discredited and never tried again. [BHJC, 227-8]
  • Why was this “crisis” such a significant event in the evolution of Japanese democracy?
In attempting to articulate the nature of democracy for Taisho Japan, Yoshino Sakuzo (1878-1933) had to face the problem of seemingly irreconcilable concepts of the sovereignty of the emperor, as enunciated in the Meiji constitution, and the sovereignty of the people. Yoshino resolved this problem by stating that democracy in the sense of sovereignty residing in the people (minshu shugi) could not apply to Japan. On the other hand, whether a country be a monarchy or a democracy, that country should have a government organized for the people, serving their welfare, and decisions reached by it should reflect the will of the people. This he called minpon shugi, which means an ideology having people as the base, or loosely translated, “democracy” in a more narrow and confined sense.
 
The development of political parties, especially the emergence of strong parties such as the Seiyukai, was an occasion for hope that the government would have to recognize the power of the people and be influenced by it in determining changes in government.  It was felt that the power of the political parties could not be ignored. Before long, however, party executives began entering into secret deals with the government and started conferring or accepting political power in a manner lacking fairness....This is not the way constitutional rule should develop or function. We must somehow destroy this political secrecy.
To destroy it, there is no other recourse but to rely on the power of the people. When there is a blatant abuse of power, and normal means cannot destroy it, one is forced to resort to demonstration. If demonstrations become more prevalent, they can revitalize the stale undercurrent in the political world and deepen the understanding of politics by the people. In this sense, demonstrations can contribute toward the development of a constitutional government....
       However, several rebuttals are put forward against this view. The first one states that the view just expressed is not consistent with the national polity [kokutai] of Japan and is contrary to the Japanese constitution....The national polity of Japan does not permit the will of the people to become the final arbitrator. However, we must consider this: When the Emperor exercises his power, he invariably consults someone. He does not exercise his power alone and has an option of consulting a small number of people or a large number of people. The fact that the Emperor consults the opinion of the people in exercising his power does not go counter to the national polity. If one maintains that democracy is contrary to the national polity, then oligarchy is also contrary to the national polity. As we have indicated, the difference lies merely in the number of people the Emperor consults....The Charter Oath of Emperor Meiji states that “a deliberative assembly shall be convoked on a broad basis, and all matters of state shall be decided by open discussion.” If anyone denies that democracy is consistent with the national polity of Japan, it must be remembered that this thought comes from an archaic notion that the nobility must be placed between the Emperor and the people to defend the former from the latter. [JDH, 377-379]
  • What was the “national polity” (kokutai) of Japan?
  • Is this so-called “national polity” consistent with our conception of “democracy”? Why or why not?
  • How did arguments such as this contribute to the establishment of democracy?
 

The main accomplishments of party government came while Kato [Takaaki] was prime minister (1924-1926). Foremost among them was passage of a “universal” suffrage act, which gave the vote to all males twenty-five and older....Kato also tried to reform the House of Peers (changing its composition and reducing its powers) but succeeded in making only minor changes. His government was more successful in introducing moderate social reforms, including legalizing labor unions, establishing standards for factory conditions, setting up procedures for mediating labor disputes, and provisioning health insurance for workers. There was, however, no similar program to alleviate the problems of the rural poor. [BHJC, 231]
 
 
The Growth of Militarism
The Russo-Japanese War: 1904-1905
[The conflicting imperialist ambitions of Russia and Japan] led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, fought both on land (mostly in Manchuria, which was Chinese territory) and at sea. For both belligerents the cost was heavy, but victory went to Japan. Despite some hard fighting, Russian troops were driven back on land, and in two separate naval actions the Japanese destroyed virtually the entire Russian navy....In the resulting Portsmouth treatyJapan gained recognition of its supremacy in Korea, the transfer of Russian interests in Manchuria (railways and leaseholds on the Liaodong Peninsula), and cession of the southern half of Sakhalin Island (north of Hokkaido). Japan had demanded all of Sakhalin and a war indemnity, but Russia successfully resisted these demands. This aroused the anger of the Japanese public, which, drunk on victory and uninformed of their countrys inability to continue the war, had expected more. In Tokyo the treaty was greeted by three days of rioting. [BHJC, 219-20]
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As stipulated by the constitution, the chief of the general staff reported directly to the emperor concerning command matters, thus bypassing the minister of war and the Cabinet. In 1900 the military’s power was further strengthened when Yamagata obtained imperial ordinances specifying that only officers on active duty could serve as minster of the army or minster of the navy. In effect, this gave the military veto power over any Cabinet, because it could break a Cabinet simply by ordering the army or navy minister to resign. Still, control over funds for army expansion remained in the hands of the lower house. [BHJC, 222]