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BRIA 9 2 b Ruling in the Name of the Emperor: How Japan Became a World Power

Bill of Right in Action

Spring 1993 (9:2)
Updated June 2001

The Executive Branch

BRIA 9:2 Home |   Policing the Police  |  Ruling in the Name of the Emperor: How Japan Became a World Power 
A Hero Betrayed: The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant  

Ruling in the Name of the Emperor: How Japan Became a World Power

In most countries, it is obvious who holds executive power. There is a president or a prime minister () who rules. In some countries, however, it is much harder to tell who is in charge. For example, there may be a king, a president, and a ruling council. They may all act as if they have power, but usually one or the other will be stronger.

In the middle of the 1800s, Japan was a perfect example of this divided executive power. There was an emperor who lived in the city of Kyoto but the authority of the royal family had been declining for centuries. Real power was held by a powerful warlord called a shogun. The shogun lived in the city of Edo, which was later renamed Tokyo.

Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world in the 1600s. Foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan or trade with Japan. On July 3, 1853, an American commodore, Matthew C. Perry , forced his way into Edo Bay with a small fleet of American warships. This opened up Japan to outside influences and set off a tremendous struggle for executive power and for change inside Japan.

Japan Responds to Foreign Power

The Japan that Commodore Perry visited in 1853 was still a feudal society, like Europe 500 years earlier. Feudal lords lived in castles and controlled most of the land. They also virtually owned the peasants who farmed the land. A warrior class of samurai knights were famous for their swordsmanship. The ruling shogun in Edo was the head of a powerful family and the leading warlord. He told the emperor what to do. The Japanese people believed the emperor was descended from the sun goddess, but by 1853 the emperor had become little more than an honored royal hermit.

Perry's arrival deeply shocked Japan. The Japanese saw immediately that they could not fight the powerful American ships. Perry's first step was to demand that some Japanese ports be opened for supplying American ships with water and coal. The shogun gave in and agreed.

Other Western powers sent their ships, too, and the shogun gave them similar agreements. Then, in 1858, American diplomat Townsend Harris negotiated a treaty that gave the United States the right to trade freely at several Japanese ports. This treaty greatly favored of the United States. For example, the duties on American imports to Japan were set low. Also, the treaty said that Japanese courts could not try Americans. If they committed offenses against the Japanese, they were to be tried in a special American court under U.S. law.

The shock of foreign demands set off a power struggle in Japan. The Japanese felt humiliated by what they called the unequal treaties. Some of Japan's most powerful families set up an opposition movement and called on the emperor to resist change. Emperor Komei refused to support the Townsend Treaty. The shogun ignored him, however, and went ahead and signed similar treaties with Holland, Russia, Britain, and France. The shogun was afraid of the Western powers. He had seen the British grab Hong Kong from China, and he hoped the treaties would avoid direct takeover by western powers.

"Honor the emperor, expel the barbarians!" the opposition cried in angry rallies.

Foreigners were attacked. A band of samurai assaulted the British trade consulate. The combined warships of Britain, France, Holland, and the United States bombarded Japanese shore defenses, and open resistance had to stop for the moment.

Japan remained deeply divided. A group of feudal lords from western Japan still opposed the shogun. They supported the emperor and hoped he would throw out the "foreign barbarians."

Then Emperor Komei died of smallpox. He was replaced on February 13, 1867, by his 15-year-old son, Matsuhito. The rebels at Kyoto used this moment to denounce the shogun and to proclaim the emperor once again the sole ruler of Japan.

The shogun marched an army to Kyoto to remove the boy emperor's counselors. Armed mainly with swords and crossbows, the shogun's army was defeated by a much smaller army loyal to the emperor and armed with modern firearms. This defeat marked the end of the era of the shogun.

The Restoration

Many of the boy emperor's supporters thought he would restore feudal Japan and throw out the foreigners. Just the opposite happened. His counselors realized that Japan had to enter the modern world. They drafted a statement of principles called the Charter Oath and had Emperor Matsuhito proclaim it on April 6, 1868.

The Charter Oath was a remarkable document that guided Japan from feudalism into the modern world. It called for the creation of a representative assembly and encouraged all classes of people "to fulfill their aspirations." It abandoned feudalism, which it called the "base customs of former times" and called for a Western model of law. Finally, the Charter Oath said that Japan would send people all over the world to learn the path to modernization.

Like the shogun's men before them, the new leaders recognized Japan's military and economic weakness. They started a massive national effort to win equal status with the European nations and the United States. Their slogan was, "Wealthy country and strong arms." They set up a nationwide school system and encouraged the growth of industry. The new leaders still wanted to cancel the unequal treaties, but they realized they would have to become strong first. This was the only way to prevent retaliation by the Western powers.

The teenaged emperor took the title Meiji, which meant enlightened peace. He also moved his capital from Kyoto to Edo and renamed the city Tokyo. The real power was held by a small group of men. These men surrounding the emperor represented Japan's most important families, and they took Japan from a feudal country to equality with the West in a single generation.


The new leaders of Japan believed that the fastest way to achieve equality with the West was to adopt Western ways. The Emperor Meiji supported this view.

Japan sent special study groups to America and Europe to learn the ways of the West. The most famous of these was the Iwakura Mission, which toured the United States and Europe from 1871 to 1873. The mission was made up of 50 senior leaders, government specialists, and even young students. They met heads of state such as President Grant and Queen Victoria, and they looked at everything from factories to a fox hunt. The Iwakura Mission concluded that Japan needed long-range planning, organization, and hard work to become a modern nation.

Change came fast. The 200-year-old feudal system was quickly replaced by a central state. The emperor issued proclamations that created the new state institutions. These proclamations were actually written by the inner ruling circle of the new leaders.

Over the next three decades, Japan followed the mission's plan. They brought in foreign engineers and experts called yatoi, which means "live machines." The British helped to build factories, railroads, and the navy. The French contributed the basis for Japan's new legal code. The Germans trained the army. The Americans helped design Japanese public education. Over a thousand American teachers came to teach in schools that were open to the children of all social classes.

The Meiji Constitution

The Iwakura Mission also studied Western democracy. After 1873, many Japanese began to speak out for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Japan's first national political parties were formed, and some of them opposed the government that was still run by the handful of men who had thrown out the shogun. Others demanded a popularly elected parliament, as promised in the emperor's Charter Oath of 1868.

The inner circle of leaders suppressed the pro-democracy movement. They passed new laws to limit freedom of speech, press, and assembly. A newly formed national police arrested hundreds of dissenters. By 1884, the new political parties had been destroyed.

Japan's leaders did realize, however, that they would have to set up some kind of constitutional system. The West would never accept Japan as an equal without a constitution.

A leader named Ito Hirobumi became the father of Japan's first constitution. After traveling throughout Europe and America, he decided he was most impressed with the constitution in the part of Germany called Prussia. In Prussia, the German Kaiser, or emperor, and his appointed cabinet were superior to the elected parliament. Back in Japan, Ito headed a group that worked in secret for over six years to draft a constitution.

On February 11, 1889, Emperor Meiji offered Japan's first constitution as his personal gift to the people. The Meiji Constitution was based on the Prussian model. The emperor was considered divine and he was the head of state. He ruled through a cabinet of ministers. In fact, however, the ministers were the same leaders of Japan's powerful families who had overthrown the shogun and run Japan for more than 20 years.

Under the Meiji Constitution, there would be a parliament, called the Diet. Only 2 percent of the population, however, were eligible to vote. In addition, the emperor's cabinet could veto any laws passed by the Diet. A bill of rights listed many freedoms, but all of them could be restricted by the cabinet. Most of the real power, as before, rested in the hands of the men surrounding the emperor.

A World Power

When Emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan had accomplished its goals. It had made one of the most remarkable transitions in history. In the 45 years of his reign, Japan became a modern industrial nation. In many ways, it was now equal to the Western powers. Japan had built a modern army and navy that had won two brief wars. It had beaten China in 1894-1895 and Russia in 1904-1905. It had made Korea into a virtual colony. It had done away with the hated unequal treaties. And it had adopted a written constitution, though real democracy was still a long way away.

Japan's next step was to try to become a world power and dominate the Pacific. This ambition would lead inevitably to the attack on Pearl Harbor and war with the United States.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Sometimes an event in history sets off a whole series of unexpected consequences. What were the consequences resulting from Commodore Perry's visit to Japan in 1853?

2. If there are competing claims to executive power -- such as a king, prime minister, and cabinet -- how can you tell who holds the real power?

3. Can you think of any other cases of rapid transformation in other countries? Do they usually involve a strong ruler? Why or why not?

For Further Information

Japan: A brief history of Japan from the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Leadership in a Changing Japan

Prepare brief role plays on the meetings described below. Each incident illustrates an event during the period of rapid change in Japan from 1853 to 1912. In reality, many of these meetings only took place through representatives. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume in this activity that Perry, for example, actually met directly with the shogun.

After each role play, discuss whether or not the Japanese leader or leaders did the right thing for Japan.

1. Commodore Perry meets the shogun in 1853 and demands a trade treaty in favor of the United States.

2. The shogun and Emperor Komei disagree whether or not to sign the "unequal treaties" in 1858.

3. After the shogun is overthrown, the rebel leaders meet with Emperor Meiji in 1868 to debate whether Japan should remain a feudal society or change to a modern Westernized nation.

4. In 1882 Ito Hirobumi asks an American and a Prussian to help him decide what type of constitutional government would be best for Japan.

5. At the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, Japanese government leaders meet with representatives of the Western powers to argue that Japan is now equal to them.