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    Meiji Restoration and Constitution


    The history of modern Japan, most historians agree, began in 1868 when the reign of the obsolete and decaying regime of the Tokugawa Shoguns was overthrown and a new form of centralized, bureaucratic government was put in place.  The new era, which marked the end of feudalism in Japan and the beginnings of democracy and capitalism, is known as the Meiji Restoration, named after the Emperor Meiji who ruled Japan from 1868 until 1912.

    Return to theMeiji Restoration Chronology

    The Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912) resulted in several changes in Japan.  In addition to bringing an end to the country's feudal society, it opened Japan up to the technology, culture, art and political and economic systems of the rest of the civilized world. As historian Kenneth G. Henshall noted in his book, A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower, "in a mere half-century Japan had gone from a backward country being virtually dismissed by the West as an obscure and rather backward to being recognized as a major world power. It was arguably the most remarkable achievement of any nation in world history." (Henshall; 102)

      Just as the United States did with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the Meiji leaders of the new Japan codified the reforms initiated during the Restoration period in two major documents. The first document was the Charter Oath of 1868, which was followed by a seventy-five-article constitution written in 1889.

      The Charter Oath, which one can describe as a declaration of independence from the old feudal system, was designed to boost the morale of the Japanese people and win their support for the new Meiji government. It consisted of five provisions, including a call for the establishment of legislative bodies to rule the country and a mandate that all classes of people in Japan be involved in state affairs. It also granted all Japanese citizens the freedom to move from one social class to another within Japanese society and to take on any occupation for which they were qualified. In addition it declared illegal all of the old "evil customs" that existed under the feudal system of the Shoguns and stipulated that those customs were to be replaced with the more humane and reasonable "just laws of nature."  Finally, it urged the Japanese people to end centuries of isolation and to seek out knowledge by looking outside of Japan to other countries.  The last provision was, perhaps, the most important, because it officially opened Japan to the world. It encouraged the Japanese people to study Western political, military, technological, and economic and social systems and, where appropriate, to borrow or adopt those systems for use within Japan.

      The Meiji Constitution set up the apparatus for implementing the Charter Oath.  It established the emperor as the head of state, it set up two legislative bodies (the House of Peers, made up of Japanese nobles, and the House of Representatives (made up individuals elected by the people); and it established an executive branch of government, including a prime minister and heads of various government departments whose main job was to advise the emperor. The constitution also set up a judicial branch of the government that included courts of law to deal with criminals and to settle civil disputes. In addition, it set up a system of taxation designed to raise money to support the activities of the government.  Much like the U.S. Constitution, the Meiji Constitution gave Japanese citizens the right to vote (at least it gave Japanese males that right) and granted them freedom of religion, free speech, and freedom of assembly.

      The Meiji Constitution placed most of the power in Japan in the hands of the emperor, the nobles and those appointed by the emperor to act in his name.  It also placed more limits on the powers of the House of Peers and the House of Representatives than any other constitution in the Western world in the late 1800's did on its legislative bodies. Nevertheless, the document did make Japan much more democratic and more open to the rest of the world than the country had ever been in its history up until the late 1800's.

      Without question, the Meiji Constitution and the Meiji Restoration period that made the constitution possible thrust Japan into the modern world and, eventually, made Japan a superpower like the United States, Great Britain, and France.  As historian John Whitney Hall pointed out in his book, Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times, the Meiji period definitely marked "Japan's transition to modernity" and "proved to be one of the pivotal events in Japanese history."  (Hall; 266).


    Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, "Meiji Constitution," (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003)

    Hall, John Whitney, Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times (New York: Delacore Press, 1970) pp. 265-307.


    Henshall, Kenneth G., A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower (New York; St. Martin's Press, 1999) pp. 70-102.

    Mikiso, Hane, Japan: A Historical Survey (New York; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972) pp. 267-390.
    Oxford University Press, "Constitution of the Empire of Japan, 1889" 
    Storry, Richard, "A New Era," Introducing Japan (New York; St. Martin's Press, 1977) pp. 10-12.
    U.S. Library of Congress, "Emergence of Modern Japan" in Country Studies
    Wray, Harry and Conroy, Hilary, Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History (Honolulu; University of Hawaii Press, 1983) pp. 55-78.

    Researched and Written
    Adam W. Ziemba
    HIST 2240: History of the Modern World
    Sept. 13, 2003

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