There were troubles on the right and on the left. The centralizing policy was distasteful both to the Conservatives and to the Radicals.
Continuing The New Japan,
with a selection from New Japan and Her Constitution (in Contempory Review, Vol. LXXIV) by Tokiwo Yokio published in 1898. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 3 installments for 5 minute daily reading each.
Previously in The New Japan.
Time: October, 1882
The mercantile class, too, had attained by this time to a social grade of much importance. According to the popular classification of orders, they stood, indeed, at the bottom of the list; first came the samurais, standing next to the nobility; then came the farmers, then the mechanics, and last of all the merchants. But this current formula represented merely the ideas of bygone days. In real social estimation the merchant stood next to the samurai. At that time one great question with every daimio was the question of finance. The progress of civilization and the increase of habits of luxury had made the revenues of these daimios sadly insufficient. Financial embarrassment became greater when Western merchants brought rifles, cannons, and gunboats for sale, and the impending revolution made the necessity for armament absolutely imperative. The rich merchants of great cities, as creditors of the daimios, grew rapidly in wealth and at the same time also in social influence. When, therefore, the Restoration Government, in 1868, as their most pressing measure, is sued paper money, they could secure sufficient credit for these notes only through the support of the rich merchants of Kioto and Osaka.
Moreover, this uprising was not confined to the mercantile class. Signs of improvement were visible among other classes also. Education, which had formerly been monopolized by the samurais, now became prevalent among the rest of the people. Novels and romances, dramas and theatricals, story-tellings and recitations had become powerful organs of popular education. A considerable percentage of mechanics and farmers could read and write. In short, three centuries of profound peace had produced great improvement in the social condition of the masses. As a result, a class of what may be called a representative commonalty, composed of men recruited mainly from the samurai class, but also with important additions from other classes, had come into existence. Only one touch of modern thought was needed to set this class of men — and through them the whole nation, like well-dried fuel — on fire with the new life of freedom.
The steady growth of popular influence under the new regime bears out the statement I have made above. In the famous oath of the present Mikado, in which, at the beginning of his reign, he set forth, for the guidance of the nation, the principle of the new administration, occurs a phrase that expresses significantly the spirit of the new era just dawning. That phrase is Koji-Yoron, which, rendered in English, reads, “public opinion and general deliberation.” Why should the Emperor refer to his most earnest intention of following public opinion then, as also afterward at critical epochs, as the ground of his claim to be obeyed by the nation at large, if not for the reason that even at that early stage the most potent factor in politics was a class of men who, as students of current politics, constituted, informally but really, a representative commonalty? These men gave expression to the intelligent public opinion of the time, or, rather, through their agitation, created it, so that nothing was dreaded by the authorities so much as their opposition. On the other hand, with their approval and support all things were possible. The Emperor’s oath was thus but a frank recognition on his part of the existing state of things. The new reign, therefore, began not as the autocratic imperial administration of the days of yore, depending solely upon the divine right of kingship, but with a solemn pledge that it aimed at the inauguration of constitutional government. Indeed, a year after the restoration an assembly was organized for the discussion of legislative and administrative measures. But the attempt was premature, and the Assembly soon ceased to exist. The laborious stages of preparation had to be gone through before the country was fit for a parliamentary regime.
The first great task of the new Government was administrative centralization. Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century was in a condition very similar to that of France in the seventeenth. The country was divided into three hundred princedoms, large and small, most of them virtually independent states. Laws, customs, traditions, dialects were distinct in each of these. Frontiers were guarded with great strictness, and commerce was hampered with a hundred artificial restrictions. With no uniform mode of taxation and no legal security for life and property, the rich were in constant dread of money requisitions, and the peasantry were weighed down with the sole burden of taxation and frequent calls for statute-labor. The work of centralization, accomplished in France by Sully, Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert in the course of a century, had to be accomplished in Japan in the course of a generation. Thanks to the patriotism of the Mikado and of his great Ministers — men like Kido, Okubo, and Ito — as well as to the lessons of modern Europe, the work was accomplished in some respects even more satisfactorily than in France, and a parliamentary regime was ushered in without a bloody revolution.
In this world of centralization the Mikado’s Government did not sail always in calm waters. There were troubles on the right and on the left. The centralizing policy was distasteful both to the Conservatives and to the Radicals. The former did not like it because they were not yet weaned from their old feudal notions; the latter, because they thought the Government did not march fast enough. Several rebellions occurred, culminating in the great Satsuma Rebellion, which almost assumed the proportions of a civil war. But when it became clear that all these attempts failed to shake the authority of the central Government, the Radicals, led by Count Itagaki, instigated a series of political agitations, which, beginning in 1878, grew year after year in scope and volume. Pamphlets were issued, newspapers were established, lectures were given, great mass-meetings were held, memorials with long lists of signatures were presented to the Government, and political parties — Radical, Progressive, and Conservative — sprang up as spontaneously as mushrooms. The years 1881 and 1882 were very noisy. Foreign observers of the time might have noticed in these occurrences a parallel to events in England when the “Chartist” movement and the repeal agitations were going on under Daniel O’Connell. The Japanese agitations, however, were finally successful. In October, 1882, the Emperor issued a rescript promising to inaugurate a constitutional regime eight years later.
From these observations it is clear that the social condition of the country was ripe for the introduction of representative institutions, and that without some such solution of the problem the best interests of the nation in all probability would have been seriously imperiled. It will be seen, also, that the Government did all they could, taking the circumstances of the case into account, in making the necessary preparations. From these reasons, it may, perhaps, be, a priori, concluded that the future of constitutional regime in Japan is of bright promise. But a-priori arguments are not much in vogue in these days of experimental science. A glance at the history of the Imperial Diet may throw some light on the situation after eight years of experiment.
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