Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Japan’s Charter Oath abolished the country’s rigid system of social classes and the privileged military classes of shogun and samurai. In place of the traditional feudal system, the oath instituted a new centralized government heavily influenced by Western models. It promised individual freedoms for Japanese citizens to pursue any vocation they desired, as well as broad public discussions to achieve political consensus.

Summary of Event

The American commodore Matthew C. Perry Perry, Matthew C. Tokyo;harbor arrived in Edo Bay (later Tokyo) with four Navy Navy, U.S.;and Japan[Japan] ships on July 8, 1853, ending nearly two centuries of Japanese isolation. The superiority of Western military technology immediately impressed the Japanese, including the shogun (military dictator) and the figurehead emperor. The Americans had steamships, powerful cannons, guns, and advanced navigational equipment. The emperor of Japan lived in Kyōto, and his power was mostly symbolic and ceremonial. The powerful shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled in Edo since 1603, but they had failed to prevent the foreign intrusion. Perry’s arrival sparked the downfall of the shogun’s government, known as the shogunate, or bakufu. Japan;Charter Oath Japan;samurai Samurai Sakamoto Ryōma [kw]Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath (Apr. 6, 1868) [kw]Japan’s Charter Oath, Promulgation of (Apr. 6, 1868) [kw]Charter Oath, Promulgation of Japan’s (Apr. 6, 1868) [kw]Oath, Promulgation of Japan’s Charter (Apr. 6, 1868) Japan;Charter Oath Japan;samurai Samurai Sakamoto Ryōma [g]Japan;Apr. 6, 1868: Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath[4180] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 6, 1868: Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath[4180] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 6, 1868: Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath[4180] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 6, 1868: Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath[4180] Fukuoka Takachika Mutsuhito Kido Takayoshi

Less than fifteen years after Perry’s incursion, on January 3, 1868, forces from the province of Satsuma, supported by the provinces of Chōshū and Tosa, stormed the imperial palace in the Meiji Restoration. They declared that Emperor Mutsuhito Mutsuhito —who took the reign name Meiji—was once again the supreme power in Japan, superceding the shogun. The imperial capital moved from Kyōto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. The demise of the shogunate and the rise of the imperial government would not be officially achieved, however, until April 6, 1868, when the emperor promulgated the Charter Oath. In the intervening fifteen years between 1853 and 1868, Japanese citizens perceived the emperor as weak and the shogun as corrupt and ineffectual. People blamed the government for allowing foreign incursions from the West and perceived that Japan had fallen far behind Western nations in military technology, education, and political philosophy.

Sakamoto Ryōma, from the Tosa domain, was one of many political activists who organized secret plots, assassinations, and military coups against the Tokugawa shogun in the years following Perry’s surprise visit. The rebels argued that Japan should “revere the emperor and expel the barbarians” (sonnō jōi). The words of the slogan indicated that the shogun and samurais had failed to protect Japan.

For a while, Sakamoto worked on diplomatic missions to strengthen ties among feudal lords (daimyos) and samurais who wanted to eradicate the shogunate, concentrating on the provinces of Chōshū, Satsuma, and Tosa. Sakamoto softened from his earlier radicalism and believed that peaceful discussions could lead to the creation of a new government. He thought the shogun might still be involved in a new government, in a reduced role, but impatient samurais in Chōshū and Satsuma argued that the decadent Tokugawa dynasty needed to be abolished completely. Sakamoto’s study of European governments led him to formulate a detailed plan for the new government in 1867 based on the general opinion of Japanese citizens: Two legislative bodies and a new constitution would be created. Power would be balanced among elected committees, officials, and a restored emperor. Sakamoto’s blueprint for a new government would appear in the language of the Charter Oath.

Government leaders of the Meiji Restoration believed that Japan should restore itself from the “humiliation” of Perry’s uninvited mission. The Charter Oath was drawn up to inspire the Japanese to embrace common goals of unity, improvement, and the long-term ideal of “rich country, strong army” (fukoku kyōhei). The oath signed by Emperor Meiji (whose name literally meant “enlightened ruler”) assured citizens that the few warriors in Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa who had been behind the restoration would not dominate the new government. The Charter Oath was also known as the Imperial Covenant of Five Articles, indicating both its length and the fact that it was a compact between the emperor and his people.

Although the Charter Oath was written by men from the southwestern provinces, such as Tosa’s Fukuoka Fukuoka Takachika Takachika and Chōshū’s Kido Kido Takayoshi Takayoshi, it was designed to include all of Japan in the political process. In the future, the government would be based on common opinion and consensus, not the whims of a ruling shogun and samurais. The new constitution that followed on the heels of the Charter Oath established the emperor as the supreme head of state, who nevertheless ruled under the advisement of a Western-style government with judicial, executive, and legislative branches. Compulsory education, universal military service, and a merit system for achievement were also established in the new constitution.

The text of the Charter Oath is remarkable for its brevity and openness to new ideas. The five articles were given added importance by Emperor Meiji’s signature, and it is sometimes called the Meiji Charter Oath. While its language is abstract, the document is concise, and the oath emphasizes four major themes: Government would thenceforth be based solely upon consultation and public opinion; people were placed at liberty to pursue their own vocations; national interests were to be placed above those of the individual; and “evil customs” of history (meaning feudalism and the samurai class) would be supplanted by modern democratic institutions.

Given Japan’s long history of feudalism and aristocratic rule by shoguns, emperors, daimyos, and samurais, the Charter Oath sparked an amazing transformation. The Meiji Restoration came to stand for rapid modernization in government, military technology, industry, and scientific education. The Charter Oath underlined the shift from feudalism to freedom, democracy, and opportunity for everyone. However, beneath the progressive and egalitarian language, the Charter Oath obscured a complex political reality: The ideal of uplifting national interests and sacrificing individual will for the good of Japan was more important than freedom of occupation and improving technology. The “rich country, strong army” doctrine made clear that social equality was not the ultimate concern of the government.

The social revolution, then, would not be accomplished so easily. Sometimes, however, social liberalization happened as an indirect result of attempts to centralize authority. For example, abolishing the samurai class could be seen as a move toward egalitarianism, but it really represented a new way to professionalize the military and establish an army of Conscription;Japanese drafted men from all classes instead of an army of privileged elites. A new concentration of power in the emperor and centralization of government in Tokyo went against the tradition of regional and local fiefdoms. Also, the rule of the shogun did not end without bloodshed. Civil wars between loyalists to the shogun in the northeast and the new imperial armies from the southwest raged on for two years until the bakufu forces were finally defeated.

Although the Charter Oath reads as a document promoting modernization and consensus, it employs enough vagueness to serve as a model that can be adapted with changing times. The Charter Oath attempts to unite “all classes, high and low” and involve all citizens in “public discussions” about the nature of government. Many of the Meiji bureaucrats and military leaders had suffered under a corrupt shogunal regime based on family lineage rather than merit. In the era promised by the oath, opportunity would be provided for everyone; at the same time, the new government would “strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.”

Significance

The Charter Oath was the first step in Japan’s leap into the modern world. The oath balanced two contradictory goals of inventing a modern plan for government (including formerly disenfranchised groups) and maintaining continuity with the past and the traditional power of the elite classes. The overriding need was to gain legitimacy for the new government and to put aside loyalty to the old Tokugawa shogunate. The brief five-article text was followed by a lengthy new constitution, both of which announced to the world that Japan valued Western knowledge, a centralized government with a democratic political process, and a strong military as its highest priorities. The Charter Oath paved the way for Japan to renew its imperial honor and, with the greatest ambitions, to join European nations in the race toward the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allinson, Gary D. The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Extremely useful book divided into four major sections: a) historical narrative from 1850 to the present; b) topical compendium on a wide range of issues from politics, military, business, education, and noteworthy writers; c) resource guide with a list of printed and electronic sources on Japan; and d) an appendix with historical documents like the Charter Oath and lists of major political figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burma, Ian. Inventing Japan. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Focusing on the period 1853-1964, this book documents how Japan in barely more than one hundred years modernized through a process of cultural reinvention, borrowing, and imagining a shared mythology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duus, Peter. Modern Japan. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Effective survey of the rise of Japan to world power status and postwar emergence as an economic superpower.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jansen, Marius B., ed. The Nineteenth Century. Vol. 5 in The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. This authoritative work is the standard in the field of Japanese history. This volume expertly brings together the best scholars in nineteenth century history; other volumes cover Japan from its origins to the present.

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