Japanese Modern State Formation

Eric Allen Mayer


By 1865 Japan had accepted a new concept of political and commercial intercourse with the outside world and ended the long era of exclusion and seclusion.

As a country Japan was faced with an unfamiliar and what they assumed to be a hostile world.

Between 1854 and 1865 neither the efforts of the shogun or those of the western clans of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen had created an adequate defense against foreign encroachment.

As a result after the signing of the Harris treaty Kyoto became increasingly the center of internal politics.

Indeed after 1863 the prestige of the Bakafu had so declined that the shogun was attempting to form a council of diamyo which would determine matters of national interest.

This failed and the failure meant that the Western clans though divided among themselves had become strong enough to resist the shogun.

Within the Western han a vigorous younger leadership was appearing, able to control their daimyo, willing to oppose the shogun by force if necessary, and to rally around an emperor restored to power.

Throughout 1867 the power struggle continued.

Late in 1867 it seemed that a compromise solution was at hand.

The daimyo of Tosa worried about the increasing power of Satsuma and Choshu proposed that the emperor assume political power with the power of the shogun subordinate to the emperor.

The plan was promptly rejected by the younger leaders of the western clans.

This led to a civil war in which the Tokugawa forces were defeated.

At first in 1868 the restoration of Imperial rule could hardly be considered revolutionary and seemed more a retrenchment.

But it was the emperor who was the logical rallying point for those who were determined to end the Tokugawa dictatorship.

At the time the restoration leadership numbered slightly more than 100.

These men known as genro were to have great influence on Japanese politics well into the 20th century.

Most of them were samurai of the western clans raised and trained in lower and middle class samurai households.

In the 1850's most of them had been bitterly anti-foreign and prior to 1868 some of them had travelled to Britain.

The emperor now had his won army, but his power was dependent on the will of the western daimyo.

In April of 1868 the emperor proclaimed the Charter Oath.

The Charter Oath stated that government policy would rest on wide consultation, all persons were to be free to pursue their legitimate interests.

Absurd customs of the past were to abolished, and finally and most importantly new knowledge would be sought wherever it could be found.

In 1871 the han were abolished formally by imperial decree and replaced with prefectures under direct administration of the government.

The plan was to dismantle the feudal structure of Japan.

The Samurai were deprived of their special position in society.

The new government was strong enough to abolish the legal base of the four feudal social classes, making all subjects of the emperor equal before the law, including the eta or untouchables.

It was essential to reduce the samurai class in order for the creation of a national military service law in 1873 under a which a new army of commoners were trained.

The creation of the new military structure was one of the most revolutionary acts of the new government.

It is clear that the Meiji government did not want a social revolution, but almost everything that it did in the early years provoked a social revolution in Japanese society.

The samurai as a class did not like this drop in status, and their government stipends in rice had been cut by 50% and they were furious that the new army of Japan was made up of peasants.

Worst of all the Meji government directed them towards the business world.

Another victim of the abolition of feudalism was the old system of feudal land tenure, together with the traditional method of collecting taxes.

The government enacted laws providing for private ownership, for assessing its value and for structuring a tax rate.

Under the new order the peasants, became nominally at least, freeholders, paying not a tax on their production, but a tax on the value of their land.

It is difficult to say whether or not the peasantry was better off without the paternal system of the daimyo lords, but these reforms did open the way for the modernization of Japanese agriculture.

These reforms revealed both the strength and weakness of Japanese and Meji society.

The more rapidly the country moved into these reforms as a prelude to the building of a strong economy, the more evident became the need for the technological knowledge and skills of modern industry which only the West could provide.

By 1873 the major changes in the status of samurai and peasant precipitated violent protests by both these classes.

In 1877 there occurred in Satsuma, the Satsuma Rebellion which involved some 40,000 samurai, but they were defeated by the conscript army of peasants.

This proved that the age of the samurai was over.

An important priority of the thinking of the early Meji period leaders was the need to create a financial, commercial and industrial society that would be competitive with the outside world.

The was no financial or monetary standard.

The existing currency from the feudal days was a motley array of gold, silver and copper coins and rice certificates.

This monetary chaos had cost Japan because it enabled foreign merchants at the treaty ports to make huge profits by exchanging foreign silver for Japanese gold.

Foreign loans were not the answer for Japan's dilemma it was decided due to the high interest rates and because the Meji leaders were fearful of Western exploitation.

The Meji government realized that it would need to industrialize quickly.

In the later Tokugawa period the shogun and the western clans had made some limited beginnings in heavy industry in shipbuilding, munitions, and in light industries such as cotton and silk textiles.

These enterprises were taken over by the Meji government and were financed by the government's modern banking system.

The government also began investing in the infrastructure of Japan.

In 1872 Japan's first railroad from Tokyo to Yokohama was opened. A modern postal system was established and telegraph lines were created.

But by 1880 Japan's financial position was in crisis as everything was financed through deficit spending.

These troubles were met by the policies of Matsukata Masayoshi of Satsuma who became Minister of Finance in 1881.

He sold most of the government's plants in the non-strategic industries to private interests and applied rigid measures of fiscal orthodoxy.

These measures were successful and in ten years the crisis was over.

The Matsukata policies were a watershed in Japan's industrial development as despite state led development, private entrepreneurship would be relied upon for basic and rapid economic growth.

A small group of private investors bought the government industries at bargain prices.

Before the end of the century the success of Japan's industrialization was ensured.

However, the less favorable side of this strategy for development was that the growing sector of industry was becoming concentrated in the hands of a small group of entrepreneurs.

From this group the great financial and industrial combines or zaibatsus would emerge and dominate Japanese business into the 21st century.

The Meji leaders were convinced that only an educated Japan could become a strong Japan.

This conviction was voiced in both the Charter Oath of 1868 and the Education Laws of 1871-72.

The law created a department of education and that there would be universal public education.

The new educational policy was a two fold plan.

First it involved sending selected able students to study in Europe and America. Students of business and education were sent to America.

Those who wanted to study naval and maritime affairs went to Britain. Germany received those who wished to study science, medicine and military affairs.

Those who were to study political science, law and government were assigned to France.

The second aspect of the new educational policy was to build schools and universities in Japan and to staff them with trained teachers.

This was a huge and costly task, yet by the end of the century almost all Japanese children were enrolled.

The curriculum provided six years of compulsory elementary schooling, after which selection became more rigid for the five-year middle schools and very selective for the three year high schools.

By 1902 provision was made for higher education for women.

The design was to create a secular, state-controlled system to serve as an effective agent in promoting the whole spectrum of government policy.

As more and more Western diplomats and traders came to Japan the Japanese became fascinated by the Western world.

Also during this time selections from Western literature began to appear in Japanese translations and these entered Japan as easily as the most common imports.

This importation of ideas occurred at the same time as the Charter Oath proclaimed the creation of an assembly and was guaranteeing the rights of people.

The Meji leaders were attempting to determine that the nature of a more permanent political ideology and government structure would be.

A difficulty was that the West presented not one, but a variety of political models such as British or French liberalism or German authoritarianism.

The Meji leaders clearly wanted to create strong and stable political institutions.

Also Japan desired relief from the stigma of the conventional tariff and extraterritoriality in the commercial treaties.

It was thought that constitutionalism and representative institutions would contribute to the end of the treaties by convincing the Western powers of Japan's progress.

In 1874 Itakagaki Taisuke of Tosa and some councillors from Hizen were worried about the near monopoly of power and office held by councilors from Satsuma and Choshu.

As a way to express their discontent they formed a popular political society that called for the establishment of "peoples rights".

A power struggle then occurred in the government where the most traditionalistic members of the government were ousted.

At this point an imperial edict announced that a parliament would be convoked in 1890, however, the constitution establishing the parliament would be drafted in secret.

During 1881 and 1882 three political parties made their appearance: the Jiyuto or Liberal Party led by Itagaki: the Kaishinto or Progressive Party headed by Okuma, and the Rikken Teiseito or Imperialist Party supported by the government.

Within these parties, Japanese political thought tended to emphasize the political leader rather than the platform or ideology of the party.

From 1881, when the first party appeared until 1900 there seems to have been some genuine enthusiasm among the politicians forthe principles of responsible government.

But between 1900 and 1918 the power of the genro and the special groups that supported them--aristocrats, bureaucrats and militarists--was so entrenched that the party politicians gave up the struggle for liberal ideals.

They then sought the spoils of their office by selling their parliamentary support to the oligarchy. In turn the oligarchs such as Ito Hirobumi and the militarist Katsura Toro accepted the presidency of major parties.

Considering the character and beliefs of these types of leaders the parties could no longer stand for effective government.

The Jiyuto or Liberal Party of 1881 presented the interesting combination of liberalism being promoted by a class of rural landowners.

From this group of landed and rural manufacturers came the crusade for "Liberty and the People's Rights".

In this sense Japanese liberalism sprang from the countryside and not from the cities.

It nucleus was made up of Samurai from Hizen and Tosa who had been pushed out of the Imperial bureaucracy.

The second and rival political party, the Kaishinto led by Okuma included disgruntled bureaucrats who were out of office, some liberal intellectuals and those who favored the British parliamentary system.

Economically the Kaishinto represented the urban merchants, industrialists and the interests of Mitsubishi.

From 1880 to 1918 the oligarchy led by the genro was able to channel all movements of political liberalism, and thus uphold its authoritarian concepts on economics and social structure of society.

It neutralized parties. Freedom of press and speech were seriously hampered. The Press Law of 1875 and the Peace Preservation Ordinance of 1887 were justified to control the spread of dangerous thought.

By 1900 the Jiyuto was renamed the Seiyukai and it was the party of the great landlords and capitalists.

As the two parties lobbied for a popular and liberal constitution, the government set about the task of drafting a constitution that would preserve the power of the oligarchy.

It created a commission of constitutional investigation headed by Ito Hirobumi.

A cabinet was set up in 1885 modeled on the German cabinet and a penal code and a code of criminal procedure was also implemented.

The military played a large role in politics in Japan.

In 1885 when the cabinet was set up as a preliminary to constitutional government, only one of the three functions--military administration--was even placed under the partial control of the civil government

Under the constitution no provisions were made for a cabinet, but the cabinet created in 1885 continued to function as the ministry under the constitution.

From the beginning of the Meji period there was a conscious and organized effort to perpetuate old cultural values and also to give them new strength and Shintoism played a large role in this.

Shinto became an important part of modern Japanese nationalism.

This regeneration of Shintoism glorified early Japan before the coming of Buddhism or Confucianism.

An office of Shinto affairs became one of the highest organs of the new state and it stressed the divinity of the emperor, that Japan was the land of all the gods and most importantly, that Japan had a divine mission to extend its righteous sovereignty over less fortunate peoples.

In July of 1890 Japan held its first elections under the new constitution and it was a model performance.

Of the 450,000 eligible voters all but 27,000 cast their votes.

The result was a victory for both the Jiyuto and the Kaishinto parties.

The government had only 90 supporters in the House of Representatives, but it controlled the House of Peers through appointments and was able to block unwanted legislation.

Japan after 1890 had a growing and competent civil bureaucracy centered around thousands of University graduates.

A similar growth in authority was enjoyed by the army and navy.

By the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1894 the army had a strength of over 300,000 soldiers and the navy had 28 modern vessels.

Also great progress had been realized in creating military industries.

Japan's governing elite was further enlarged between 1889 to 1918 by the involvement of the great commercial and industrial combines, the zaibatsu.

Economic and political power were becoming increasingly intertwined.

From 1890 to 1895 Japanese politics was marked by antagonism and separation between the ruling oligarchy and the opposition parties.

Between 1895 to 1900 there was series of unstable understandings between the party and the oligarchy.

And from 1900 to 1918 political leadership rested in the hands of the oligarchy and parties were peacefully incorporated and parliamentary government became part of the political process.

By 1900 Japan had a sense of well-being, and later a sense of achievement due to rapid industrialization and modernization, its victory over China in 1894, its victory over Russia in 1905 and from the annexation of Korea in 1910.

The strongest political and social force in this period was nationalism.

While Japan emulated the West, Western values were not to replace fundamental Japanese values.

Education directed by the state played a great role in the rapid modernization of Japan.

Textbooks were written under the supervision of the educational bureaucracy and served to build national pride and self-less patriotism.

Japan was also experiencing economic growth and modernization.

The first major indicators of Japan's economic growth were in light industries such as silk and cotton.

By 1910 Japan had 2 million spindles of silk for export and was producing a half billion pounds of cotton yarn each year.

By 1900 the textile industries provided 50% of the jobs in factory employment.

Japan's rapid economic growth during these years was due to an abundant supply of cheap labor.

In the 50 years following the Meji restoration the population increased 100%

Well into the 20th century more than 50% of Japan's population remained rural and most of these were rice farmers.

The farmers had about 2.6 acres. At the time of restoration 30 percent of the farmers were tenants. By 1910 45% were tenants and 39% had no land.

Bust despite Japan's economic growth it did not keep pace with its financial obligations. The Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars imposed great burdens and the national budget.

In 1897 Japan adopted the gold standard, established credit abroad and became a heavy borrower of foreign capital.

It was World War I that created the great opportunity for Japan to industrialize and Japanese cloth exports increased 185% during this period.

However, it is important to stress that Meji constitutionalism was in favor of power and not the common man.

By the middle 1900's there were many labor protests by miners that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage and the arrest of more than 200 miners and labor leaders.