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5. Development Of Constitutional Government



The first clause of the Emperor's Charter Oath declared that : -

The practice of discussion and debate shall be universally adopted and all measures shall be decided by public opinion.

This clause is the foundation stone of the edifice of constitutional Government in Japan. The full extent of the Emperor's promise was at the time far from being realised by its framers. All the leaders of the Restoration were still imbued with the principles of feudalism and its class distinctions when the oath was taken, and there was no idea of extending the privileges which it foreshadowed beyond the class of samurai, the only class in the nation who had then any consciousness of political rights, or who were by their circumstances and education capable of exercising them. This was clearly evidenced in the first attempt that was made to carry out the promise. A national council, to which the title of " Shugiin " or " Assembly of Legislative Discussion " was given, was convened at Tokio in 1869, almost exactly a year subsequent to the date of the oath. It consisted of 276 representatives of the feudal clans, which had not yet been mediatised, all samurai nominated by their compeers in each clan. It was vested with no legislative authority and was in fe-ct nothing more than a debating club, whose discussions might take the foi-m of advice, but had no likelihood of influencing legislation, and its whole spirit testified the strong conservatism which was natural in its members. The assembly met both in 1869 and in 1870, and then died a natural death.

The Government was during the two ensuing decades an arbitrary bureaucracy, the most prominent factors of which were members of the Satsuma and Choshiu fiefs, whose services at the Restoration entitled them to claim the majority of the most important executive and legislative offices. Umbrage was naturally taken at their favoured position by the clansmen of Tosa and Hizen, who considered their own services no less deserving of recognition than those of their Satsuma and Choshiu compeers, and who felt that that recognition would have been given to them if the nation had been enabled to make its voice heard. Their discontent found a mouthpiece in Itagaki, a Tosa samurai who had been prominent throughout all the incidents of the Restoration and had filled one of the cabinet ojfices in the new Government. Along with other members he resigned his office in 1873, on the question of declaring war against Korea, which is described in a subsequent chapter, and thenceforward he used his freedom from all official trammels to foment an agitation, which was especially vigorous in his own province of Tosa, in favour of a parliamentary system, and was recognised as the leader of national radicalism.

In 1873 the spirit of the people was already greatly changed from what it had been in 1869 and political knowledge had begun to make its appearance among certain sections of the commonei*s. The press had grown in ability and influence, and, as yet unfettered by any legal restrictions on its utterances, was outspoken in favour of constitutional monarchical government and in condemnation of a tyrannical oligarchy such, as it was alleged, the Government of the Satsuma and Choshiu combination had become. Many students, who had been sent to England and the United States, were at this tune returning to Japan on the completion of their studiea While abroad they had seen the prosperity and strength of the great countries of the West, and they ascribed both to the constitutional forms of government enjoyed in those countries, entirely failing to see that constitutional Government was the consequence and not the cause of what had aroused their admiration and wonder. Both in press and on platform they assailed the Government in writings and speeches of incendiary violence for its failure to carry out the pledge given by the Emperor, which they construed to mean a deliberative assembly, vested with full legislative powei*s, freely elected by and from the people. A situation was created which, in more recent times, has found its parallel in India and in Egypt. On the one side was a large and numerous party, principally composed of hot-headed and undisciplined young men, with exaggerated ideas of their own knowledge and experience but strong in the leadership of a respected statesman, clamouring for a great political reform - on the other, the established Government, which, if autocratic in its methods, had earned the gratitude of the nation for steering it safely through the stress of revolution and for successfully initiating a new era of progress and improvement, one of whose most marked features was the extension of individual liberty without which the agitator's methods would have been impossible.

The Government, conscious of the utter unfitness of the people, only recently emancipated from the fetters of feudalism, for the intelligent exercise of the rights that were claimed for them, endeavoured to stem the agitation by issuing drastic laws for the control of the press and public meetings, but the laws were openly defied. The agitators, cheerfully and proudly, went to prison for long terms in scores, and their places were immediately filled by new men who continued their methods. Assassination was not only advocated but practised, and several distinguished members of the Government became its victims, while their surviving colleagues, guarded by fully-armed policemen both night and day, in the council chamber as well as in the public streets and in their own homes, led lives that were suflficient to shatter the most iron nerves. This condition of affairs continued until a temporary lull was occasioned by the gi-eat domestic crisis of the Satsuma rebellion in 1877, the last efibrt made by the champions of aristocratic conservatism to stem by force of arms the tide of democratic progress on which the Government was fully launched, notwithstanding its uncompromising opposition to the national agitation for a parliamentary system. The rebellion tested the strength of the Government to the utmost, but, while it lasted, political agitation ceased in face of the danger which threatened both to overthrow the Government and to restore some of the worst features of feudalism and of the dual executive of the Shogunate.

When the rebellion was quelled, after a campaign that was costly both in life and treasure, the agitation that had been temporarily stilled broke out afresh and with intensified defiance of law and contempt of both life and liberty. Okubo, the ablest and most influential minister in the Government, fell by assassins' hands in 1878. Then a sop was given by the creation of elective local assemblies vested with some powers of administrative finance, but, welcomed though it was as the first step towards popular enfranchisement, it was for from satisfying the agitators. They not only continued to increase in numbers and in the violence of their methods, but received a new leader, equal in ability, in the distinguished service he had rendered at the Restoration, in the respect in which he was held by his countrymen, and tar superior in his experience as a statesman and in administrative ability to Itagaki, in the person of Okuma, a samurai of Hizen, who seceded from the Government in 1881 and enrolled himself and his personal followers among the advocates of " Constitutional Government " in the widest sense of the term.

The Government at last yielded and shortly after Okuma's secession an Imperial rescript appeared, in which the promise was given in the Emperor's name and under his sign manual that a national parliament should be convened in 1 890 " in order that the Imperial purpose of gradually establishing a constitutional form of Government might be carried out." All reason for further agitation was now gone. No one dared doubt the fulfilment of the Emperor's promise, but the hatred of the bureaucratic oligarchy whose power was still unlimited was not appeased. Outcries against it continued and had to be stifled with the same means of imprisonment, police suppression of public meetings, arbitrary suspension of newspapers, and expulsion of dangerous characters from the capital under drastic Peace Preservation Acts. A large number of the most prominent agitators suffered imprisonment or expulsion, but the Government, undisturbed by all the uproar around it, calmly continued on its way. The reforms, initiated in 1871, for the material and social improvement of the nation were steadily advanced and the national finances, which seemed at one time to presage inevitable bankruptcy, were rehabilitated and placed on a sound basis. Ito, who, after Okubo's death and Okuma's secession, was by far the ablest member of the Government, was sent to Europe to investigate the constitutional models which it afforded and soon after his return the whole administrative system of the Government was changed and recast 80 as to resemble in some degree that of Great Britain. A cabinet was created consisting of ten ministers of state, nine of whom were chiefs of the principal executive departments with a Minister President or Prime Minister, who held no portfolio, at their head. All held their appointments solely at the will of the Emperor, were nominated by and directly responsible to him. The change was made so as to render the form of government more suitable to a country which was shortly to have parliamentary institutions, and, to prepare still further for these institutions, another step was taken which made a great change in social life. Ito had learned in Europe that a House of Peers was a necessary part of any parliamentary system and a peerage was created from which the House could be formed.

Prince Ito

The old nobility of Japan has been described in a previous chapter. None in any country in the world exceeds it either in the long, unbroken genealogy of its members or in the distinguished position they occupied in their country, whether as the retinue of the Imperial court or as great feudal lords who were quasi-sovereigns in their o\vn domains. When the mediatisation of the fiefs was completed in 1871, the old individual titles of both court and feudal nobles were taken away and, as no new ones were given, they had no longer names or titles to distinguish them from their fellow subjects. This continued until the year 1884, when the Emperor established the "Five orders of Nobility," the titles of which were taken from China, and are translated as Prince, Marquis, Count, Viscount and Baron. All the heads of the old noble houses were included in one or other of these ranks according to their former degrees, but with them were associated many who, bom simple samurai, merited the Emperor's recognition by their services to the state at or since the Restoration. Since its first creation, less than thirty years ago, the peerage has largely increased in numbers. The first list comprised 504 names. The present contains 923, all the new creations being those of men who have distinguished themselves in the military or civil service of the Government, or as scientists, bankers or merchants, and no bar of birth or descent has been permitted to interfere with the social advancement of those who eminently merited it. Many commoners of plebeian descent, whose fathers were little better than abject serfe, are now peers.

It was in 1884 that Ito returned from Europe. He w^as created a Count in the new peerage and nominated by the Emperor as the first Minister President under the new regime. Recurring complications with Korea and China were added to the domestic burthens of his office, but they did not prevent him from personally presiding over a commission which for the next five years was engaged in the framing of the new constitution. This task was completed and the constitution was promulgated in 1889 with impressive ceremonial and amidst universal national rejoicing, and in the following year the first Parliament that was ever seen in any Oriental state was duly elected and met.

Tlie Parliament, or, to use its proper title, The Imperial Diet, consists of two Houses, a House of Peers of 300 members, who are partly hereditary, partly elective and partly nominated by the Emperor, and a House of Representatives, at first of 300 members but since increased to 379 members, elected for a maximum of four years on a high franchise. The House of Peers has always discharged with dignity its function of acting as a barrier against hasty or drastic reform and has never allowed any licence to tarnish its own proceedings, but it soon became evident that the lower House was to be made the instrument of a new and more persistent and violent agitation against the Government than that which had characterized the preceding two decades. The constitution was from the first a disappointment to those who had so strenuously fought for it. They had hoped to receive as their reward one founded on that of Great Britain. Instead of that they received one based on the model of Germany by which the cabinet is rendered independent of the Parliament and is responsible to and holds its office at the will of the Emperor alone. Considerable powers were at the same time conferred on the Parliament and great privileges secured to the people, but the predominant feature in the constitution is the precise reservation of Imperial prerogatives that can be used at any time to delay or nullify the legislation of the Parliament

Numerous political parties had been founded during the antecedent decades of agitation, and when the House of Representatives first met no less than seven were represented among its members, all more or less antagonistic to each other, but all united in one common bond of opposition to the Government. Their object was to establish party government, with a ministry that must take its mandate from and owe its existence to their House, and the methods which they adopted to that end were those of rendering bureaucratic government impossible, of obstructing by every device that could be taken without distinct violation of the rules of the House all measures whether of finance or legislation that were brought before it by the Government.

The Government, on its part, showed no disposition to bend before either vituperation or obstruction. It, too, availed itself to the utmost of the principles of the constitution that were in its favour. Suspensions and dissolutions of the House were frequent. There were no less than three dissolutions in less than four years. One occurred after a single session lasting only eighteen days, but when bitterness was at its very worst and it almost seemed as if the government could not be carried on, war broke out with China. In a moment, everything was changed. Patriotism united the people, high and low, when they had to face a foreign foe. All domestic differences were forgotten and, while the war lasted, supplies were cheerfully voted and not a murmur of opposition was heard, even from the most violent agitators, against any measure that was taken by the Government in the national interests. Nor did this spirit entirely die after the war was over. Some of the parties no longer invariably ranged themselves alongside the extremists and the Government was, in some of its most important measures, supported by a majority of the House, while purely factious opposition was confined to a steadily decreasing minority. But by none of the parties was the old aim, though its vigorous expression was suppressed in some, ever abandoned and the story of the long struggle which they maintained is in many of its aspects not a pleasant one. Throughout it has been one rather of persons than of principles. It has at times been tainted with open and shameless corruption and votes were, it was known, freely sold and bought, while the Government on its side rewarded those who supported it with subordinate appointments or with honours.

It was not till 1900, after the House had been in existence for ten years, that a marked change occurred. Then Ito, who had been advanced to the dignity of a Marquis after the China war, the great Prime Minister, the creator of the constitution and of the Parliament, was induced to enter into the ranks of politicians and to become the head of a newly formed party which assumed the title of "Rikken Seiyukai," "Association of Friends of Constitutional Goveniment," and the great influence and personal magnetism of its head soon enabled this party to obtain a commanding majority in the House. Its guiding principle is avowed to be not that of party government, for which the majority of its members had been strenuously fighting for ten years, but the conservation of the Imperial prerogative of nominating the ministry regardless of party while at the same time giving due consideration to the expressed will of the people. Some of its members entered the cabinet and from this time a political party became a distinct power in the executive. Its members gi-adually acquired a greater sense of their responsibility to the nation and sounder judgment in the exercise oftheir rights, and as they did so they gained more and more the confidence of the people whom they represented.

Among all parties the Seiyukai has retained the predominance which it acquired at its inception. Its founder and great leader has passed away, and has been succeeded by Marquis Saionji, the head of an old family of the Court nobility, a cadet branch of the Fujiwara, and as such the natural inheritor of the most ultra-conservative and aristocratic instincts. He had a comparatively long tenure of the Premiership, during the whole of which the Seiyukai was naturally the Government party, in close alliance with the elder statesmen (Genro) as they are called, the sui-vivors of the great constructive statesmen and soldiers who took an active part in the Restoration and who created New Japan, as distinct from those who rose to eminence in later years. He again accepted the Premiership in 1912 when his party held a commanding majority in the House. But this time his tenure of office was short. The avowed policy of himself and his party was that of national economy and retrenchment in the public services. He was at once met with a demand by his own Minister of War for two additional divisions of the Army (a mobilised division consists of about 18,000 men) for service in Korea, and when this demand was rejected, with the full approval of the leading representatives of business and finance, the Minister resigned and no one could be found to take his place. The terms of the Constitution require that both the Ministers of War and of the Navy shall be members of the services, and the Government was in fact boycotted by all the senior officers of the army. The Premier, though at the head of an overwhelming majority in the House and confident of the approval of the country, was helpless and had no choice but to resign.

He was succeeded by Prince Katsura, who had previously held the Premiership during some of the most eventful years in Japan's modern history, the years which witnessed the conclusion of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, the triumphant war with Russia, and an immense development of trade and industry, but which also witnessed an equally immense increase of national debt and taxation. Prince Katsura is a distinguished soldier as well as a statesman and an ex-samurai of the Choshiu clan, the members of which have held a supremacy in the army ever since its formation. He is also one of the elder statesmen, and as such a champion of bureaucracy and an inflexible opponent of any concession to party government. It seemed therefore as if his return to political leadership had secured a double triumph, one for the old system of bureaucracy as against political parties, and the other for the militarists, consisting almost exclusively of men of Choshiu origin, as against both their colleagues in the executive and the nation in general.

But Prince Katsura's tenure of the Premiership on this occasion was even shorter than that of his immediate predecessor and might be numbered by days rather than by months. A stomi of opposition was aroused not only in the House but throughout the country. The Constitutionalists (Seiyukai) were firm and united and uncompromising in their determination to refuse all sanction to the proposals of the military party. They were not only of themselves in an overwhelming majority in the House, quite sufficiently so to be able to wreck any budget of which they disapproved, but were supported both by the sympathy and the active co-opei*ation of members of other parties, and repeated suspensions of the session entirely failed to modify their attitude. Political mass meetings, held all over the country and attended by crowds, whose interest in politics had hitherto been dormant, enthusiastically endorsed what they had done and in not a few cases the meetings were followed by serious riots and by the mobbing of the few members of the House who were supporters of the Government. The bureaucratic Premier had to yield to the voice of the nation, and Prince Katsura resigned.

He has been succeeded by Admiral Yamamoto, who has had a long official career as Minister of the Navy in many cabinets. He is not himself a member of the Seiyiikai nor has he ever committed himself to any party in politics. But the members of his new cabinet are almost exclusively also members of the Seiyukai, and the cabinet may therefore be said to represent the principles of that party and its formation to herald the nearer approach of the. time when the constitution will be interpreted or amended as they claim it should be. The Emperor will continue to be paramount but he must exercise his authority in accordance with the will of the nation as expressed by its chosen representatives and not solely by the advice of a small ring of statesmen of conservative prejudices, no matter how great their experience or how distinguished their past services. Prophecies are dangerous in any country, more so perhaps in Japan, where the unexpected has always happened, than in others, and they would be especially so if made as to the immediate future of domestic politics. Members of the Seiyukai were prominent in Ito's cabinet of 1900 and the party had then also a majority in the House. Then also it seemed as if the attainment of party government was within measurable view, but failure was the result and bureaucracy had a new lease of life. The political education of the people has, however, since made great progress, and the national apathy with which the first failure was received has changed into a vivid and almost universal excitement, which causes the problem of the future government of Japan to be one that is full of interest.