Japan Adopts a New Constitution

Japan’s 1889 constitution was a major departure for the empire. It not only spelled out the responsibilities of the new Meiji government—largely patterned after European parliaments—but also placed substantial limitations on imperial power and granted many unprecedented civil liberties to common subjects.

Summary of Event

Japan began its history as a modern nation with the fall of the Tokugawa government in 1868. While the emperor was the nominal sovereign, real political power lay with the shoguns, military dictators who supposedly ruled in the emperor’s name. The family of Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan in peace and isolation for some two and one-half centuries. However, during the 1850’s, Americans and Europeans opened the island country to the outside world, demanding economic concessions and one-sided treaty agreements. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was unable to prevent either these incursions by foreigners or the growing dissent of disgruntled samurai who wanted to restore real political power to the imperial throne. Yoshinobu Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned in a relatively bloodless coup, and the young Mutsuhito Mutsuhito became the Meiji Emperor, taking as his dynasty’s name the term Meiji, or “enlightened rule.” Japan;constitutions
Japan;Meiji era
Itō Hirobumi
[kw]Japan Adopts a New Constitution (Feb. 11, 1889)
[kw]Adopts a New Constitution, Japan (Feb. 11, 1889)
[kw]New Constitution, Japan Adopts a (Feb. 11, 1889)
[kw]Constitution, Japan Adopts a New (Feb. 11, 1889)
Japan;Meiji era
Itō Hirobumi
[g]Japan;Feb. 11, 1889: Japan Adopts a New Constitution[5620]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 11, 1889: Japan Adopts a New Constitution[5620]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 11, 1889: Japan Adopts a New Constitution[5620]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 11, 1889: Japan Adopts a New Constitution[5620]
Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Kido Takayoshi
Roesler, Hermann

The new Meiji government’s first goal was to fend off growing encroachment by Westerners. To do so, it decided to modernize all aspects of the Japanese economy, politics, and social life. While the Meiji Meiji Restoration (1868) Restoration eliminated many of the social inequalities and institutional impediments that limited progress, much work still needed to be done. After decades of improvisation and ad hoc governance, many political leaders and influential private citizens became convinced of the need for a representative government and a formal constitution. The question remained, however, as to precisely what kind of government it should be. There were two schools of thought.

The position advocated by the genro (the “original elder statesmen,” or oligarchs of the Meiji revolution) was one of gradualism. They saw the need for changes, but believed those changes should occur slowly. Kido Takayoshi, Kido Takayoshi who traveled to the United States and Europe as a member of the Meiji government’s first goodwill mission in 1871, concluded that the West had become so powerful not only because of advances in science and technology but also because of its constitutionalism and parliamentary systems. He believed that Japan would not be accepted as an equal player on the world’s stage until it demonstrated that it, too, was a country of rational laws, led by rational men. The Japanese people would also rise to the coming challenge of rapid industrialization—and be prepared for the sacrifices many would be required to make—if they felt they had a vested interest in their government. Representative government would provide them with that interest.

Members of the various factions of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement (Jiyu Minken Undo) could not have agreed more. They demanded suffrage for the common people and the immediate election of a national assembly. In contrast to the slow deliberations of the genro, some even drafted their own constitutions, which were far more liberal than anything suggested by the Meiji leadership. However, internal strife, theoretical disagreements, fluctuations in the economy, and preemptive political moves and police tactics by the government stifled radical attempts at reform. Nonetheless, public pressure mounted nationwide and from many quarters of Japanese society. In 1881, the emperor issued a rescript saying that Japan would have a constitution and parliament by 1890. He sent one of his most trusted confidants, Interior Minister Itō Hirobumi, to Germany and Austria to study constitutional law.

One of the major hindrances in writing a constitution for Japan was the conflict between representative democracy and the kokutai (the “national polity” or “national essence” of Japan). The notion of the kokutai entailed a belief in the divinity of the Japanese emperor and his natural position as leader of the state and head priest of the Shinto Shintoism religion. All Japanese people were thought to be literal children of the imperial line, with the current emperor being directly descended from the original Sun Goddess. This so-called family concept of the state was as much a moral statement about filial piety, obedience, and loyalty to the government as anything else. As a result, it was unclear what the emperor’s role would be in a constitutional government.

Emperor Mutsuhito opening the first session of Japan’s new parliament.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Itō returned in 1884 and became the primary writer of the new constitution. Starting in 1885, he secretly led a small group of colleagues—including the influential German law professor Hermann Roesler Roesler, Hermann —in drafting a constitution, which they presented to the emperor three years later, in 1888. Itō was affected by what he saw in Germany—a country that, like Japan, was trying to forge a state from a group of semiautonomous regions. Germany’s solution was to place authority in a strong executive branch led by Emperor William I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In Itō’s constitution, known as the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was given sole authority to declare war, make peace, or establish treaties with foreign countries. He was the commander in chief of the armed forces, determined when the Diet—the new Japanese bicameral parliament—would meet, and could dissolve its lower house. The constitution reified the notion of the kokutai, explicitly saying that the empire of Japan would be reigned over by a line of emperors “unbroken for ages eternal.” The constitution was even promulgated on an auspicious day—February 11, 1889, a national holiday celebrating the moment when the quasi-historical Emperor Jimmu supposedly declared Japan a country twenty-five hundred years earlier.

For all the powers assigned to the emperor by the new constitution, there were significant restrictions placed upon him as well. These restrictions and safeguards were simply unheard-of in Japanese society, although in actual practice, all of them could sometimes fail. The emperor could do nothing without the advice and consent of the cabinet ministers. Only the Diet was empowered to initiate and approve legislation. In theory, it also controlled the budget. An independent judiciary was established, with judges holding lifetime appointments. Japanese citizens were—again, in theory—granted all the civil liberties of Western nations, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in Japan[Japan] , and due process of law. None of these rights had existed in Tokugawa times.


It is often said that in spite of all its advances, the Meiji Constitution was the legal basis of the emperor system that ultimately led to Japan’s defeat in World War II. By placing ultimate political authority and cultural legitimacy in the imperial court, the document prevented the Diet and the judiciary from providing effective checks and balances upon the emperor. Such a system was ripe for manipulation by powerful political elites or outside forces, such as the Japanese Imperial Army. Regardless of the validity of these assertions, it is certainly true that in the 1930’s the internal contradictions between the idea of the kokutai and the idea of democracy became all too apparent.

The Meiji Constitution remained in effect until its replacement by a new constitution on May 3, 1947. Although this new constitution was, in essence, written by Japan’s post-World War II American occupiers, in many ways it was actually an extension of the Meiji Constitution—a clarification of its principles and a completion of its undertaking. The status of the emperor was settled, powers were cleanly separated, and protections were added to guarantee in practice the individual civil liberties that had already been granted in theory. It could thus be argued that the almost immediate success of the post-World War II government was due in large part to the traditions established by the Meiji Constitution during the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Beckman, George. The Making of the Meiji Constitution: The Oligarchs and the Constitutional Development of Japan, 1868-1891. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975. Classic study in English of Japan’s constitution; includes the complete text of the document.
  • Beer, Lawrence, and John Maki. From Imperial Myth to Democracy: Japan’s Two Constitutions, 1889-2002. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002. A comparison of the strengths, weaknesses, and controversies surrounding both the Meiji Constitution and the current constitution adopted after World War II.
  • Gluck, Carol. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. An examination of Meiji period symbols and discourse; chapter 2 gives an enlightening and detailed description of the constitutional ceremony held in February, 1889.
  • Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Excellent single-volume history of Japan’s evolution into a modern nation, by one of America’s most eminent Japanese historians. Jansen gives a very good discussion of the imperial restoration and the debate over the adoption of the constitution.
  • Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. An exhaustive biography of Mutsuhito by an American authority on Japanese literature; the role of Itō Hirobumi and his relationship with the emperor shows, on a personal level, some of the issues that were confronting the new leaders of the Meiji state.

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