The Birthday of a Constitution
Tokyo, February 12th, 1889
Twenty-one years ago the young Emperor of Japan, restored to temporal power from the seclusion, well nigh amounting to entombment, which had been endured for some eight centuries by his ancient dynasty, swore solemnly before the nobles and territorial princes of this Empire that, as one of the leading principles of his future sway, the "government should be conducted in accordance with public opinion and popular representation."
Of the earnestness of this assurance ample proof was afforded by the measures of the succeeding decade.
One Parliament, indeed, formed of some 276 members from the samurai of the feudal clans, was actually convened in 1869, though it soon proved a failure, as also did a second and modified Assembly attempted shortly afterwards.
A slight leaven of the principle and practice of popular representation was nevertheless introduced, gradually and circumspectly, by such later steps as the creation, first, of a Council of Provincial Authorities, and then of the existing system of City and Provincial Assemblies, and of a Senate, a consultative body of officials without any power to initiate laws.
At length in 1881 the Emperor affirmed his original assurance by a rescript proclaiming that a complete parliamentary system should be carried into effect in the year 1890.
During the interval that has passed since that declaration, as in the period preceding it, the whole course of Japan's polity and method of government has been directed to the new order of things that is destined to arise next year under the terms of the Sovereign's promise.
In every step, every change, and every novelty that has been adopted from time to time as occasion required, the pilots of the Japanese ark of State have kept steadily before them as their goal the sound establishment of a constitutional Monarchy as understood in Europe.
That the task was no easy one none can doubt.
It was, indeed, surrounded with grave difficulties and perils, amid which rashness might be irreparable and error fatal.
Only by vigilance and foresight of the highest order could the knotty problem of enfranchising a people that had emerged but yesterday, as it were, from the shadow of feudalism be approached with any hope of success.
How far those qualities have been exhibited in the successive measures of recent years will have been gathered by the readers of this series of letters in the columns of The Times.
How far success is to be anticipated from the final and most momentous step may be judged from what follows.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of the Emperor Jimmu Tenno, the Sovereign from whom sprang this oldest of the world's dynasties, and who, according to the commonly received chronology, began to reign in the year 660 B.C.
Yesterday, then, was chosen as an auspicious day, on which the first Monarch's descendant, the Emperor Mutsuhito, might fitly ratify his Imperial vow and proclaim and give the new Constitution to his subjects.
And accordingly on the morning of yesterday, amid the splendours of the new Palace in the ancient castle of this capital, in the presence of a great assemblage representing all the power, wealth, intellect, and high lineage of the country and all classes of the people, and with the pomp and solemnity befitting so signal an occasion, the reigning Sovereign wrought the deed by which the 11th of February becomes henceforward in a double sense a red-letter day among the festivals of the Japanese calender.
Space forbids me to relate in this letter my experiences of the delightful details of yesterday's pageant and the Imperial entertainment which followed it, as well as of those general public rejoicings and demonstrations for which the Japanese people have a happy aptitude amounting to genius, combined with an artistic taste so perfect, that their cities, parks, and gardens are turned as by magic on such occasions into very fairylands of brightness and beauty.
For the present at least, therefore, I must confine myself to giving an outline of the general features of the Constitution now brought to birth after years of laborious preparation.
Prior to yesterday's ceremony of promulgation, the Emperor executed a solemn oath in the Palace Sanctuary, by which he swore, in the names of the great founder of his House and of his other Imperial Ancestors, that he would maintain and secure from decline the ancient form of government, and would never fail to be an example to his subjects in the observance of the new laws.
Then, after a short speech, couched in stately and kingly languagae and uttered with great dignity, His Majesty publicly delivered the said laws to Count Kuroda, his Minister President of State.
These are five in number, and are entitled respectively the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, the Imperial Ordinance concerning the House of Peers, the Law of the Houses, the Law of Election for the members of the House of Representatives, and the Law of Finance.
In the first, one salient and interesting feature is the care taken to affirm with emphatic brevity the time-honoured doctrines of the sanctity of the Emperor's title and the immutabilty of his dynasty.
Thus, while the first article declares that his line shall run "for ages eternal," the second says simply "The Emperor is sacred and inviolable."
Then follows a definition of the sovereign prerogatives, from which it appears that, while the Emperor is to remain the source of all laws, in that without Imperial approval no Parliamentary measures can become law, the making of laws is to be the function of the Diet, and no law can be put into force without its assent, the one exception on the latter point being that the Emperor reserves the power of issuing ordinances in urgent cases, on behalf of the public safety or welfare, when the Diet is not sitting, but that such ordinaces to remain law must be approved at the next Parliamentary Session.
In succeeding articles it is laid down that the Emperor determines the organization of every branch of the administration, appoints and dismisses all civil and military officers, and fixes their salaries; that he has the supreme command of the army and navy, and determines their organization and peace standing; and that it is he who makes war or peace, concludes treaties, confers titles of nobility, rank, orders, and other marks of honour, and grants amnesties, pardons and commutation of punishment.
The rights and duties of subjects are next set forth.
By these it is determined, among other things, that a Japanese subject, while amenable to taxation and to service in the army or navy, shall be free from all illegal arrest, detention, trial, or punishment; that, subject in every case to the provisions and limits of the laws, he shall have liberty of abode and of change of abode; that his house shall not be entered or searched against his will; that the secrecy of his letters and all his rights of property shall be inviolate; and that he shall enjoy freedom of religious belief, consistently with the duties of the subject and the preservation of peace and order, as well as liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meeting, and association.
The Parliamentary system is to consist of a House of Peers and a House of Representatives, called together the Imperial Diet, and holding an ordinary annual session of three months - which, however, may be extended by Imperial order - and extraordinary sessions in urgent cases.
The first session is to take place next year - rumour says in the autumn - and the new Constitution is to come into force from the time of the Diet's opening.
For the Upper House there are four classes of members.
First, members of the Imperial Family on reaching their majority, and of princes and marquises on attaining the age of 25; these hold office for life.
Secondly, counts, viscounts, and barons of not less than 25 years, and in numbers not exceeding one-fifth of the whole number of those orders; these are to be elected by their fellows for a term of seven years.
Thirdly, members nominated for life by the Sovereign, for meritorious services to the State, or for erudition, and above the age of 30.
Fourthly, 45 commoners, elected in the prefectures and urban districts - one for each - by the 15 largest taxpayers in each electoral area, and appointed for a term of seven years, if approved by the Emperor.
It is further laid down that the number of members in the last two classes shall not exceed that in the first two.
For the Lower House there are to be 300 members, elected by ballot in 258 electoral districts as defined in an appendix.
The suffrage is limited to males not less than 25 years old, who must have resided in the district for at least a year before registration and be still resident, and have paid in the district for a similar period, and be still paying, district national taxes to the amount of not less than 15 Japanese dollars, and, besides, have paid income-tax for three years, and be still paying it.
Candidates for election must be full 30 years old, and must possess similar qualifications to the above as taxpayers, but without the condition of residence.
Several classes of officials are excepted, as well as Shinto priests, and all teachers of religion; while, in addition to obvious disqualifications in the cases of public offenders and others, no one serving in or temporarily retired or suspended from the army or navy can either vote or be elected.
Four years, which is the House's limit of life, is also the limit of membership.
But the former may be dissolved at any time by Imperial order, and a new Assembly convoked within a period of five months.
For each House there are to be, besides a Chief and other Secretaries, a President and a Vice-President nominated by the Emperor, with annual salaries of, $4,000 and $2,000 respectively; while the commoners in the Upper House and all members of the Lower House, those in the Government service excepted, are to receive $800 per annum.
Among a host of other general provisions it is laid down, for both Houses, that, except in special cases for which rules are provided, all debate shall be public; that the President is to have a casting vote; that the necessary quorum for any debate or vote is to be one-third of the whole number of members; that Cabinet Ministers and Government Delegates - the "Government," meaning the Emperor and his Cabinet - may sit and speak in either House, but not vote therein unless they are members of it; and, further, that, whenever the Emperor may present to the Diet any project for the amendment of the Constitution, no debate theron can take place unless two-thirds, at least, of the members are present, and no amendment can be carried by less than a two-thirds majority.
As regards finance, the Diet is to discuss and vote the Budget, and its approval is required in respect of any excesses upon the appropriations, as well as of national loans or other liabilities to the Treasury.
Its powers are, nevertheless, a good deal circumscribed.
For example, the outlay of the Imperial Household, as well as the entire peace appropriations for the army and navy, the salaries of the army and navy, the salaries of officials, and all expenditures that "may have arisen by the effect of law," or that "appertain to the legal obligations of the Government," are practically removed from Parliamentary control.
It is also provided that, in urgent cases arising out of the internal or external condition of the country, and when the Diet cannot be convoked, the necessary financial measures may be taken under Imperial ordinances; and, again, that the Government may carry out the Budget of a preceding year whenever a Budget has not been voted or brought into existence.
The Privy Council is, as heretofore, to deliberate on important matters of State, at the instance of the Emperor; and the ten Ministers of State remain His Majesty's responsible advisers; and as to the Judicature, there is a satisfactory provision that the Judges, appointed by the Crown, can only be removed from their office by law.
It will be seen from the above outline that, while the Emperor's promise is being strictly fulfilled, the first plunge into Parliamentary representation will be made with befitting vigilance and caution.
Looking to the average means of the Japanese, the franchise is undoubtedly high - a piece of prudence to be much commended, seeing that any precipitate measure of enfranchisement at this opoch might result in a popular despotism fraught with danger to the country.
It is evident also, not only from the broad outlines of the scheme, but from abundant internal evidence running through the text of the new laws, that, besides a careful avoidance of any definition of the responsibility of the Cabinet vis-a-vis the Diet, the whole intention is to follow the German principle of making the former responsible to the Crown alone, and to render the life of the Ministry independent, at least temporarily, of a hostile Parliament.
At present certainly these tactics are wise, whatever Japan, like some other countries under constitutional Monarchy, may come to in the future.
Meantime, what a unique and interesting drama it is that is being enacted before our eyes in this island Empire, so nigh upon the end of the 19th century !
Not only is the spectacle that of a Monarch presenting his 40 millions of subjects, released barely two decades ago from the bonds of feudalism, with a well thought-out Constitution, founded on European lines and conveying to them a substantial measure of political liberty.
It is also the spectacle of the reigning Sovereign of the world's most ancient dynasty descending finally from the lofty realm occupied for so many ages by the "Sons of Heaven", and, while solemnly abdicating the supreme and autocratic power wielded by his ancestors, in theory at least, for more than 2,500 years, offering to his people henceforward a large share in the functions of government.
That matters would sooner or later come to this was, no doubt, in the nature of things inevitable and foreseen.
To what purpose, otherwise, the Restoration of 1868, seeing that the military class enjoyed under the feudal system a not unimportant share in the functions of government, which was wholly lost to them when, with the fall of feudalism, they become absorbed into the masses of the people?
If, however, the scene witnessed yesterday at the Imperial Palace was but one act of a drama every part of which has followed in its anticipated order, it constituted, nevertheless, a most memorable and stirring occasion in the history of this interesting country - an occasion marked, moreover, by splendid ceremonial, intense popular joy and enthusism, public demonstrations on a scale of remarkable beauty as well as magnitude, and countless tender prayers for the beloved and revered ruler of Japan and for his illustrious Consort from all classes of their subjects.
Is not the present also an occasion to call forth the earnest hopes and good wishes of all friendly watchers of Japanese progress?
The Times - Mar.22nd
Going Back to Article List