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Jōyu (上諭) - "The Emperor's words" (1)

The Template:Nihongo, more commonly known as the Imperial or Meiji Constitution, was the fundamental law of the Empire of Japan from 29 November 1889 until 2 May 1947. Enacted after the Meiji Renewal, it provided for a form of constitutional monarchy based on the Prussian model, in which the Emperor of Japan was an active ruler and wielded considerable political power, but shared this with an elected diet. Following Japan's defeat and occupation at the end of the Second World War, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by a new document, the present 'Constitution of Japan', which replaces the imperial system with a form of Western-style liberal democracy.

Drafting and enactment[edit | edit source]

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Jōyu (上諭) - "The Emperor's words" (2)

Prior to the adoption of the Meiji Constitution, Japan had no written constitution and was theoretically an absolute monarchy. However, in practice, this was not the case, as very early in Japanese history, the Emperor had been de-powered and set aside as a symbolic figure who ‘reigned, but did not rule’ (on the theory that the living god should not have to defile himself with matters of earthly government). Actual power was wielded by the court nobility in the Heian period, and by a succession of military dictators/shogun from the Kamakura period onwards.

After the Meiji Restoration, which restored direct political power to the emperor for the first time over a millennium, Japan underwent a period of sweeping political and social reform and westernization aimed at strengthening Japan, to the level of the nations of the Western world.

The idea of a written constitution had been a subject of heated debate within and without the government since the beginnings of the Meiji government. The conservative Meiji oligarchy viewed anything resembling democracy or republicanism with suspicion and trepidation, and favored a gradualist approach. The Freedom and People's Rights Movement demanded the immediate establishment of an elected national assembly, and the promulgation of a constitution.

On 21 October 1881, Ito Hirobumi was appointed to chair a government bureau to research various forms of constitutional government, and in 1882, Ito led an overseas mission to observe and study various systems first-hand. The United States Constitution was rejected as "too liberal" and the British system as being too unwieldy and granting too much power to Parliament. The French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. The legal structures of Imperial Germany, particularly of Prussia proved to be of the most interest to the Constitutional Study Mission.

The Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as Prime Minister. The positions of Chancellor, Minister of the Left, and Minister of the Right, which had existed since the seventh century, were abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution, and to advise the Emperor.

The draft committee included Inoue Kowashi, Kaneko Kentaro, Ito Miyoji and Iwakura Tomomi, along with a number of foreign advisors, in particular the German legal scholars Rudolf von Gneist and Lorenz von Stein. The central issue was the balance between sovereignty vested in the person of the Emperor, and an elected representative legislature with powers that would limit or restrict the power of the sovereign. After numerous drafts from 1886-1888, the final version was submitted to the Emperor in April 1888. The Meiji Constitution was drafted in secret by the committee, without public debate, and was adopted with a referendum.

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Gyomei Gyoji (御名御璽) - "The Emperor's words" (3): Imperial Signature and Seal

The new constitution was promulgated by Emperor Meiji on 11 February, 1889 but came into effect on 29 November, 1890. The first Imperial Diet, a new representative assembly, convened on the day the Meiji Constitution came into force. The structure of the Diet showed both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Peers (which resembled the Prussian Herrenhaus and the British House of Lords), and of the Speech from the Throne. The second chapter of the constitution, detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day.

The Meiji Constitution established clear limits to the power of the executive branch and the absolutism of the Emperor. It also created an independent judiciary. However, it was ambiguous in wording, and in many places self-contradictory. The leaders of the government and the political parties were left with the task of interpretation as to whether the Meiji Constitution could be used to justify authoritarian or liberal-democratic rule. It was the struggle between these tendencies that dominated the government of the Empire of Japan.

Main provisions[edit | edit source]

Structure[edit | edit source]

The Meiji Constitution consists of 76 articles in seven chapters, together amounting to around 2,500 words. It is also usually reproduced with its Preamble, the Imperial Oath Sworn in the Sanctuary in the Imperial Palace, and the Imperial Rescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution, which together come to nearly another 1,000 words. The seven chapters are:

  • I. The Emperor (1-17)
  • II. Rights and Duties of Subjects (18-32)
  • III. The Imperial Diet (33-54)
  • IV. The Ministers of State and the Privy Council (55-56)
  • V. The Judicature (57-61)
  • VI. Finance (62-72)
  • VII. Supplementary Rules (73-76)

Emperor sovereignty[edit | edit source]

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Honbun (本文) - text

Unlike its modern successor, the Meiji Constitution was founded on the principle that sovereignty resided in person of the Emperor, by virtue of his divine ancestry "unbroken for ages eternal", rather than the people. Article 4 states that the "Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty". The Emperor, nominally at least, united within himself all three branches (executive and legislative and judiciary) of government, albeit subject to the "consent of the Imperial Diet". Laws were issued and justice administered by the courts "in the name of the Emperor".

Separate provisions of the Constitution are contradictory as to whether the Constitution or the Emperor is supreme. While Article 4 binds the Emperor to exercise his powers "according to the provisions of the present Constitution", Article 3 declares him to be "sacred and inviolable", a formula which was construed by hard-line monarchists to mean that he retained the right to withdraw the constitution, or to ignore its provisions. Article 55, however, confirmed that the Emperor’s commands (including Imperial Ordinance, Edicts, Rescripts, etc) had no legal force within themselves, but required the signature of a “Minister of State”. On the other hand, these “Ministers of State” were appointed by, (and could be dismissed by) the Emperor alone, and not by the Prime Minister or the Diet.

Rights and Duties of Subjects[edit | edit source]

  • Duties: The constitution asserts the duty of Japanese subjects to uphold the constitution (preamble), pay taxes (Article 21) and serve in the armed forces if conscripted (Article 20).
  • Qualified rights: The constitution provides for a number of rights that subjects may enjoy only where the law does not provide otherwise. These included the right to:
  • Less conditional rights
    • Right to "be appointed to civil or military or any other public offices equally" (Article 19).
    • 'Procedural' due process (Article 23).
    • Right to trial before a judge (Article 24).
    • Freedom of religion (Guaranteed by Article 28 "within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects").
    • Right to petition government (Article 30).

Organs of government[edit | edit source]

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Memorial in Yokohama

The Emperor of Japan had the right to exercise executive authority, and to appoint and dismiss all government officials. The Emperor also had the sole rights to make war, make peace, conclude treaties, dissolve the lower house of Diet, and issue Imperial ordinances in place of laws when the Diet was not in session. Most importantly, command over the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy was directly held by the Emperor, and not the Diet. The Meiji Constitution provided for a cabinet consisting of Ministers of State who answered to the Emperor rather than the Diet, and to the establishment of the Privy Council. Not mentioned in the Constitution were the genro, an inner circle of advisors to the Emperor, who wielded considerable influence.

Under the Meiji Constitution, a legislature was established with two Houses. The Upper House, or House of Peers consisted of members of the Imperial Family, hereditary peerage and members appointed by the Emperor. The Lower House, or House of Representatives was elected by direct male suffrage (with property qualifications). Legislative authority was shared with the Diet, and both the Emperor and the Diet had to agree in order for a measure to become law. On the other hand, the Diet was given the authority to initiate legislation, approve all laws, and approve the budget.

Amendments[edit | edit source]

Amendments to the constitution were provided for by Article 73. This stipulated that to become law a proposed amendment had first to be submitted to the Diet by the Emperor, by means of an imperial order or rescript. To be approved by the Diet an amendment had to be adopted in both chambers by a two-thirds majority of the total number of members of each (rather than merely two-thirds of the total number of votes cast). Once it had been approved by the Diet an amendment was then promulgated into law by the Emperor, who had an absolute right of veto. No amendment to the constitution was permitted during the time of a regency. Despite these provisions, no amendments were made to the imperial constitution from the time it was adopted until its demise in 1947. When the Meiji Constitution was replaced, in order to ensure legal continuity, its successor was adopted in the form of a constitutional amendment, in full compliance with the terms of Article 73.

Reference and further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Akamatsu, Paul. Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan. Trans. Miriam Kochan. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
  • Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.
  • Beasley, W. G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change Since 1850. St. Martin's Press, New York 1995.
  • Craig, Albert M. Chōshū in the Meiji Restoration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
  • Jansen, Marius B. and Gilbert Rozman, eds. Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

External links[edit | edit source]

The Constitution of 1899-1947

de:Meiji-Verfassung id:Konstitusi Meiji ja:大日本帝国憲法 no:Meiji-forfatningen zh:明治宪法

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