For more than two decades, the Emperor of Japan had instituted sweeping changes to the culture of his country, diminishing the influence of the shoguns in order to bring the nation into the 19th century politically. On February 11, 1889, a new Meiji Constitution established a European-style monarchy hinted at by the Restoration of 1868. In creating the new system, leaders created a formal legal code for the first time in Japanese history.
Much of what passed for law in Japan amounted to little more than tradition for better than a thousand years. Sometime in the 500s, a ritsuryo copied from the Chinese gave the Emperor power over a labyrinthine system of bureaucrats and local rulers. Periodically revised to provide explanations or streamline statutes for two centuries, the final document along these lines, the Yoro Code, was produced in 757.
From then on, however, the imperial government devolved into a series of shogunates. These military-focused dictatorships operated much like their European counterparts of the same era: a shogun exercised control over a wide swath of territory with a number of loyal shugos (governors) ruling smaller sections which were, in turn, divided up amongst gokenin. When the call went out to raise an army for the shogun, each level of government gathered those below it.
The imperial court, for its part, was forced to compete against the different shogunates in order to curry favor amongst the warrior class, leaving Japan with central authority defined by a group’s ability to exert military force and reward the soldiers who secured victory more than anything. In the middle of the 1800s, the most powerful faction of the Japanese ruling elite was the Tokugawa Shogunate, based in central Japan at Edo (modern Tokyo).
Sakamoto Ryoma, a young samurai working in the Tokugawa Shogunate, became enamored with the ideas for modernization espoused by his boss, Katsu Kaishu. Believing imperial control would provide the best opportunity for Japan to rise to the level of the British, Russian and American militaries increasingly exerting influence in — and bringing trade to — Asia, Ryoma guided a negotiation for an alliance amongst the Satsuma and Choshu provinces to exert pressure on the Tokugawa. By the end of 1867, Emperor Meiji regained the position as head of state for the country thanks to this cooperation. (Ryoma did not live to see the fruits of his efforts, had been assassinated on December 10th.)
The 16-month Boshin War followed, consolidating political power in Emperor Meiji’s Imperial Court as the remaining shoguns and samurai were slowly decimated. For the most part, the government quickly focused on the development of a more modern economy and a military capable of defending the homeland against the steel warships floating through the Sea of Japan.
Some citizens wished for more. By the early 1880s, the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement voiced frustration with the lack of an elected representative body in the new system. Eager to see European ideals instituted beyond the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, the group clamored for civil rights and decreased taxes — the Emperor and the small group of people surrounding him with direct control was no longer good enough.
In response, Emperor Meiji directed Ito Hirobumi to travel the world studying the constitutional systems of the United States, Britain, France, Spain and Germany. Upon his return in 1885, Ito took over as Prime Minister and established a Privy Council to advise the Emperor in affairs of state. The last remnants of the classic Japanese government — a Chancellor and Ministers of the Right and Left — were gone.
Following two years of discussion, evaluation and revision, the constitutional committee presented a draft to the Emperor in April 1888. Satisfied with its provisions and the protection of his role as the supreme figure in government, Emperor Meiji announced the new legal system to the public on February 11, 1889. The document would not come into force until late November 1890 but, in some ways, it hardly provided more for the Japanese public. (The only people allowed to vote, for example, were those men with enough land to pay large sums in property taxes.)
Over the next 70 years, however, the full effects of the constitution would be seen by the world: Imperial power would be central to two wars with China, one with Russia and the involvement of the United States in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Following the Japanese surrender, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by a parliamentary system on May 3, 1947.
Also On This Day:
1531 – King Henry VIII of England is recognized as the head of the Church of England
1826 – Swaminarayan composes Shikshapatri, a central text in the Swaminarayan Faith sect of Hinduism
1971 – The Seabed Treaty bans nuclear weapons testing in international waters
1979 – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes control of Iran after the Islamic Revolution
1990 – Nelson Mandela is released from Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town, South Africa after 27 years behind bars
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