Japan's New Privy Council
Rumours of impending further changes in the fabric of Japan's Government, which had been rife for some time, were verified on the 30th ultimo.
The Official Gazette of that date notified the creation of a consultative body called the Sumitsu In, a title to which Privy Council is the nearest English equivalent.
With this intimation was coupled the startling announcement that Count Ito had voluntarily retired from the office of Minister President of State, which he has held for more than two years past, and had accepted the Presidency of the new Council, retaining, however, a seat in the Cabinet by express Imperial command.
His post at the head of the Executive is succeeded to by General Count Kuroda, a statesman whose entry into the Cabinet in September last was shortly afterwards commented on in The Times.
It will be remembered that since the reorganization which took place at the close of 1885, the structure of the Government has consisted of the Emperor, the Minister President of State, the Cabinet, and the Senate, together with a Court Council, which, however, has no political functions.
These remain essentially unaltered by the late decree.
The Privy Council is an addition only, involving no radical change.
Its prescribed components proper are a President, a Vice-President, and 12 members, all chosen from the ranks of public men distinguished by experience or signal service to the State.
Of its members as appointed, eight are counts and three viscounts, the 12th only being a commoner.
All of them bear names that are conspicuous in Japan's modern annals.
Not a few of them have served formerly in the Ministerial ranks; and in the persons of two at least the popular element is well represented.
Count Ito, as has been said, is the President, but the Vice-President has not yet been appointed.
Besides the above, the 10 Cabinet Ministers have ex-officio seats in the Council, with the right of voting.
The introduction of this new element may be regarded as a not unimportant feature in the pictureque series of changes which have taken place in Japan's State machinery during the last two decades.
Of the influence which it is likely to exercise upon national affairs no exact definition can at present be attempted.
Probably, however, this is meant to be somewhat greater than that which usually falls to the lot of Privy Councils.
Not only is its office that of chief adviser to the Crown - or, in the words of the ordinance, "the Emperor's highest resort of counsel" - but the subjects on which it is to render its advice spread over a very wide range.
This embraces questions that refer to the interpretation or amendment of the consitution and laws appertaining thereto, or to the budgets and the financial matters, or to drafts for creating or abolishing the laws of various kinds, or to treaty relations with foreign Powers - as well as a variety of questions bearing on administrative organization.
It is further implied that no important ordinances will be issued until the opinion of the Council has been taken regarding them.
Apparently, then, the Sumitsu In, though destitute of executive functions, is designed to be no mere figure-head in the councils of the nation.
The metier of its members, and the appointment to its Presidency of a statesman of Count Ito's high calibre, lend strength to this belief, though, on the other hand, the right accorded to the Cabinet Ministers of taking part in its deliberations vetoes the supposition that the latter body is to be in any way overshadowed.
But, whatever the powers of the Privy Council may prove to be, there can be little doubt as to the main purposes of its creation.
Japan's rulers are now passing through a period of extraordinary difficulty.
In a country where multifarious changes and reforms are taking place with a rapidity unknown elsewhere, the everyday routine of government is, as it has been at any time for these 20 years, by itself more than ordinarily severe upon the Ministry, who besides are at presnt laden with the knotty task of bringing to completion the new codes of laws.
Further than this, they are in the throes of the gravest and most ambitious political problem with which the statesmen of the empire have yet had to grapple-namely, the framing of the constiution under which, a little more than two years hence, Japan is to enjoy a considerable measure of popular representation.
Never, then, has the labour of the Government been as heavy as at this epoch; never has the legislative part of that labour demanded as great a degree of care, circumspection, and foresight.
To ease the burden of legislative work and critical scrutiny, leaving the Cabinet freer to carry on its executive duties, is plainly the chief motive that led to the formation of the Sumitsu In.
A further motive may be ditected in the contingencies of the near future.
The existence in immediate proximity to the Throne of the shelter of a select and sober consultative body, such as the Privy Council, will be well calculated to mitigate the difficulties likely to arise from time to time in the days of Japan's Parliamentary infancy.
Count Ito's withdrawal from the commanding position of Minister President of State was, as already remarked, voluntary.
This is pointedly affirmed by the language of the Imperial message, declaring that he is relieved from his past office at his own request.
Not less pointed is the mark of undiminished Imperial confidence implied in the mandate that he shall remain in the Cabinet.
Into the precise nature of all the considerations which impelled him to abdicate the leadership of the Executive it would be fruitless to pry.
That his position has been materially weakened since his illustrious friend and life-long associate, Count Inouye, was led to retire from the Cabinet, a few months ago, by untoward circumstances, already fully described in The Times, there can be little doubt.
If that retirement was a misfortune to Japan, it was also a severe blow to the Choshiu party in the Government, while to the Minister President it must have been as the loss of his right hand.
But it is not necessary to cast about for other substantial reasons which have probally influenced Count Ito to recede from his late post.
Foremost among these may well have been anxiety in behalf of the new constitution, the whole scheme of which originated with himself.
The guidance of this measure and the steps preparatory to its initiation are the toils of statecraft to which he has for the last six years given a large share of his time and study.
It can be well understood, therefre, that, even at a cerain sacrifice of position, he should have been willing to abandon his arduous executive post for the direction of the new hierarchy, which is understood to be specially charged with the duty of perfecting the details of a constitutional scheme of his own creation, and of the utmost import to his country.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to help regretting the retirement of this distinguished statesman from the prominent standing he has so long held in the Mikado's Administration.
On his dramatic career, his great services and achievements, and his high qualities as a ruler, it is unnecessary to dwell.
They are well known to the world, and they are stamped in bright letters on Japan's modern history.
Count Kuroda, though only a few months in the present Cabinet, was the retiring Premier's obvious successor, and there is every reason to believe that the mantle has fallen on shoulders worthy to wear it.
With clear-headed ability and a well-ballasted political temperament, he brings to his new post the advantages of a powerful backing in the provinces, commanding influence with his colleagues, and extraordinary popularity with the bulk of the Japanese people.
He has had nine years' previous experience as a Minister.
He has travelled much and studied more, and possesses qualities well calculated to foster prudent domestic legislation, and to guide with as strong but gentle hand the somewhat impetuous forward tendencies of new Japan.
It is not to be inferred, however, from this that there is likely to be any material change in the present political programme.
Whatever considerations of general expediency may have dictated Count Ito's retirement, there is sufficient evidence that it was not brought about by difference of principle or policy, and that such important problems as treaty rivision and constitutional reform will be proceeded with on the lines which he has indicated.
The Times - Jun.23th
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