The Birthday of Japan's First Parliament
Tokio, November 30th, 1890
Twenty-two years ago the Emperor Mutsuhito promised his people a representative form of government.
Twenty-two months ago he fulfilled that promise by granting and proclaiming a Parliamentary Constitution and a system of fundamental laws.
Yesterday, with the ceremonial opening by his Majesty of the first Japanese Diet, the Constitution became an accomplished fact.
As a result of the peculiar circumstances of her modern career, as well as of her extraordinary earnestness, Japan has from time to time during the last thirty years presented to the astonished gaze of the Western world a series of advances and reforms so swift and so tremendous that history may be searched in vain to find its like.
The ease and success with which these drastic changes have been brought about are hardly less remarkable than their magnitude.
Men have at last almost ceased to wonder at anything Japan may do, or to tremble for the possible consequences.
But of all the bold experiments on which she has hitherto ventured, this plunge into Parliamentary institutions is perhaps the boldest.
With yesterday's ceremony, when the Emperor delivered the first Imperial Message ever addressed by a Japanese Sovereign to a Constitutional Assembly, began an order of things so organically new that its probable issue cannot be argued from anything that has gone before, and fraught with such possibilities of good or evil to the country that its first fruits will be watched with the keenest interest by all who know Japan, and even by many who do not.
As I explained in The Times of the 22nd of March 1889, the Japanese Diet consists of a House of Peers and a House of Representatives - the former composed of members sitting for life by virtue of their rank, of nobles elected by their respective orders, of Imperial nominees, and of a few elected wealthy taxpayers; the latter conisting only of elected members.
The elections to the lower House took place in July last, and passed off in a quiet and orderly manner, though the contests in most places on behalf of rival candidates were very spirited and keen.
Without figures as a guide, which are not yet forthcoming, it is impossible to give the exact ratio between the whole electoral body and the number of voters.
As far as is known, however, the percentage of the latter indicates high political activity rather than inertness on the part of the electorate.
Two or three cases of bribery have since been brought into court, but not established; and, on the whole, there seems to have been a happy freedom from jobbery and corruption.
In the House of Peers now sitting there are 252 members, of whom ten belong to the Imperial family, and 139 to the various orders of the nobility, while 59 commoners have been nominated by the Emperor for meritorious services to the State, or for erudition, and the remaining 44, also commoners, have been chosen by their fellows from among the 15 highest national taxpayers in the several electoral areas.
Of the nobility, 34 are former Kuge, or nobles of the Court, 64 are former Daimyo, or territorial lords, and 41 are of those who have been created nobles since the Restoration.
Thirty-one are princes and marquises, holding their seats by the provisions of the law; and of the lower ranks 100 have been elected by the members of their respective orders, while two are the Emperor's nominees, and one has been eleted by the taxpayers as above.
The Imperial nominees are largely composed of members of the lately defunct Genro-In, or Senate, and the elected commoners chiefly represent the landed interest.
With a few exceptions, the political faiths of the members and their probable attitude towards the present Cabinet are unknown.
As a rule, they have not allied themselves openly with any political parties.
It is the general belief of the Japanese, however, that the House of Peers will prove to be a spirited, independent, and powerful body, exercising at least its due share of influence in the Parliamentary fabric.
Though mostly rather of the old school than of the new, and not proficient in modern learning, they are of maturer average age and greater political experience than the members of the Lower House, and we may certainly expect from them a reflexion of the dignity of language and manner, and temperance in debate, which were marked characteristics of the aristocracy of Old Japan.
In the House of Representatives there are 300 members, most of them between the ages of 35 and 55, and recruited mainly from the following classes: - landowners, merchants, lawyers, journalists, and ex-officials.
Of shizoku, the former samurai, there are 180, the rest being of the heimin or lower middle grade.
Men of the old school, with some admixtures of modern ideas, predominate;, the rest are of the new school, a few of the graduates of colleges and Universities at home and abroad.
Without doubt there are some unquiet spirits in the mass, from whom lively things may be expected.
But well-informed Japanese anticipate with confidence that the proceedings of the House will be conducted, on the whole, with dignity and order; and, generally, the country seems to be satisfied with the elections, and to regard its new representatives as suitable and worthy men.
The body most numerously represented in the House is the Rikken Jiyu-to, or Constitutional Liberal party, a recent amalgamation of three sections holding somewhat similar views.
Broadly, Liberalism, aimed at maintaining the dignity and prosperity of the Crown, extending the popular rights and happiness, reforming the systems of finance and taxation, and securing equal treaties with foreign Powers, is the platform of this party - a party understood to be generally opposed to the policy of the present Government, though not inclined to factious opposition, or likely to advocate rash measures.
Of the whole 300 members, 130 belong to this body.
Next in number come the "Independent" members, of whom there are 115, not committed in anything in particular, except a resolve to justify their appellation by standing aloof from existing parties, and to observe moderation in political matters.
Including in their ranks, however, many highly-educated and powerful men of the modern school, they are likely to prove a very influential factor in the Assembly, and are expected to give their warm support to all reasonable measures of the Government.
The Rikken Kaishin-to or Constitutional Progressive party, of which Count Okuma, not a member of the Diet, is the leader, comes next, with 50 representatives in the House.
In most respects the principles of this party and its attitude towards the Cabinet resemble those of the Rikken Jiyu-to, though the former are certainly less Radical in degree.
Lastly, the Hoshu Chusei-ha, or Moderate Conservative party, sends five members, whose ideas, to judge from the recent utterances of their reputed leader, Viscount Torio, are likely to be rather Utopian than practical, and wholly out of tone with the rest.
Such, very briefly, are the constituents of Japan's first Diet, convoked by the Emperor on the 23rd ult., and occupied till the 28th with matters of organization preliminary to serious work.
For the Presidency of the Upper House, the Emperor's choice has fallen on the well known statesman Count Ito.
For the Lower House the President elected by the members and approved by the Sovereign is a Mr. Nakajima, of the Rikken Jiyuto party, an ex-Senator, and Ex-Prefect, and a staunch follower, by the way, of the Christian faith.
Externally, the temporary Parliament House, where yesterday's ceremony took place, is simplicity itself, the Government having made the prudent resolve to defer the construction of permanent buildings till full experience of the Diet's needs should be acquired, and to be content meanwhile with a cheap, unpretentious wooden edifice.
A sum of about 40,000 pounds represents the whole expenditure on the present establishment.
Its internal arrangements and accessories are, however, most admirable, and it could not be Japanese if it were not surrounded by beautifully laid-out grounds.
The Session Chambers for the Peers and Representatives, each measuring about 85 feet by 53 feet, are lofty, well ventilated, and well lighted rooms, decorated and fitted up in excellent taste, and illumined at night by electricity.
At the centre of one side rises a lofty podium, with the table of the President and Vice-President, before which, a little lower down, is the rostrum for speakers, set immediately above the space occupied by the table of the House and the seats for stenographers.
Round these rise, amphitheatre-wise, the benches of the members - each with a table before it - ranged in concentric semi-circles, which are cut by radial passages giving access to the several tiers.
In the strangers' gallery of each House there is room for fully 400 spectators, besides a large compartment reserved for Royalty.
And in the Peers' House provision for great occasions of State has been made by a handsomely designed Imperial alcove, giving on to the centre of the podium and ordinarily closed by curtains.
In the gallery of this Chamber was gathered together by 10 o'clock yesterday morning a concourse of some 400 Japanese notables of all degrees, who were privileged to witness the coming spectacle-most of them in civil, naval, or military uniforms, of dark blue and gold.
With these were about a score of lucky foreigners, of high grade in the Japanese service or otherwise entitled to special recognition.
Below, at the time of my arrival, the body of the House was still empty.
The President's table had been removed from the podium already mentioned, and at the back, beneath the raised curtains of the alcove, was seen the throne from before which the Emperor was soon to address the whole Diet.
At length there was heard the sound of trumpets without, heralding the Emperor's approach.
His Majesty had come in great State from the Palace, attended by the Imperial Princes and the Court, as well by the Cabinet and other members of the Government, and escorted by squadrons of mounted troops.
Great enthusiasm after its kind greeted his progress past the densely-packed masses of Japan's loyal populace.
Japanese throngs, however, have not yet learned to cheer as we do.
Moreover, in the case of their Sacred Ruler especially, they probably have misgivings as to the politeness or propriety of a very noisy welcome; and the Emperor himself preserves much of the stately frigidity of Japan's old-time etiquette.
Partly awed then, and partly doubtful, the crowd subdued their cheering.
But their whole demeanor and their intense eagerness to see the procession were proof enough, if proof were needed, that love and reverence towards the Throne are rooted as deeply and firmly as ever in the hearts of the Japanese people.
Alighting at the Parliament building, his Majesty was received by all the members and functionaries of both Houses, and conducted to the Imperial waiting-room.
Then the Peers began to file slowly into the Upper Chamber, and to take their allotted places in the right-hand half of the concentric semi-circles of seats facing the alcove.
They were of three classes - hereditary peers, who wore the rich robes of their orders; those appointed from official life, who wore the uniforms of their respective ranks; and those nominated from among the highest taxpayers, who were in evening dress.
With them came the President, Count Ito, to whom, it will be remembered, is due the chief share of credit in the long task of preparing Japan's Constitution.
He took his stand in front of his fellow members, immediately below the balustrade of the podium.
A few minutes later, the Peers having all entered, the members of the House of Representatives flocked in from the opposite quarter, and massed themselaves in the left-hand quadrant.
There was more hurry and excitement in the movements of this half of the Legislature, and it was not a little interesting to find here, in this very first gathering together of Japan's first Diet, the same contrast between the eagerness of the Commons and the dignity and leisurely ease of the Peers that has been characteristic of such assemblies elsewhere since dual Parliaments began.
Next came the Diplomatic Body, filling the boxes reserved for them in the gallery.
After them, the Cabinet and other dignitaries of Ministerial rank, headed by Count Yamagata, the Minister-President of State.
These entered from the right of the podium, and grouped themselves thereon at that side of the throne.
Every one was now standing, and the whole assemblage remained wonderfully silent and still.
Lastly, as the cannon began to salute and loud cheering was heard from without, the Emperor, preceded by the Chamberlains and high functionaries bearing the Imperial regalia, and attended by the Imperial Princes and the Court, came in slowly and with great state from the left of the podium..
Every head was bowed in homage, to which the Sovereign responded as he turned to take his stand before the throne.
The Minister-President of State, Count Yamagata, now advancing and making obeisance, handed to the Emperor a scroll, from which his Majesty read in dignified tones, and in a voice that was well heard throughout the whole Chamber, the following speech to the assembled Diet:-
"We announce to the members of the House of Peers and to those of the House of Representatives-
That all institution relating to internal administration, established during the period of 20 years since our accession to the Throne, have been brought to a state approaching completedness and regular arrangement.
By the efficacy of the virtues of our ancestors, and in concert with yourselves, we hope to continue and extend those measures, to reap good fruits from the working of the Constitution, and thereby to manifest, both at home and abroad, the glory of our country and the loyal and enterprising character of our people.
We have always cherished a resolve to maintain friendly relations with other countries, to develop commerce, and to extend the prestige of our land.
Happily our relations with all the treaty Powers are on a footing of constantly growing amity and intimacy.
In order to preserve tranquility at home and security from abroad, it is essential that the completion of our naval and military defences should be made an object of gradual attainment.
We shall direct our Ministers of State to submit to the Diet the Budget for the twenty-fourth year of Meiji, and certain projects of laws.
We expect that you will deliberate and advise upon them with impartiality and discretion, and we trust that you will establish such precedents as may serve for future guidance."
The Speech from the Throne finished, Count Ito advanced, received the scroll from the Emperor, made obeisance, and withdrew; whereupon the Sovereign, Court, and Cabinet immediately left the Chamber, the rest of the audience remaining a few minutes, till the strains of the National Anthem, played outside, told of his Majesty's departure for the Palace.
Brief though it naturally was, the ceremonial was nevertheless dignified and impressive in a high degree.
In every respect, in arrangement, execution, and accessories-it was undoubtedly a success, and worthy of the occasion of one of the weightiest episodes in Japan's modern history.
The Emperor, who wore a military uniform, looked in excellent health, and discharged his high functions, as his Majesty always does, with kingly dignity and ease.
Not even the sagest student of the national thought and character could venture to forecast with any confidence, at this epoch, the issue of the momentous plunge that Japan has now taken, after more than two decades of preparation.
For the present her friends can only hope the best of her.
To judge from the past, there certainly seems to be ground for hope.
Nothing has so puzzled even the men who best know Japan as the way in which, despite the worst fears and prognostications, she has conquered, one after another, by some qualities wholly inscrutable to Western minds, difficulties that might well have brought an ordinary country to grief.
Most of the rulers and counsellors who have led her up to her present stage are still to the fore in the fabric of the Government, and their influence and experience can hardly fail, for some time to come, to have an effect on the conduct of the national affairs.
It is unfortunate for Japan that any part of a ceremony so memorable in her modern annals, and so happily conducted in all other ways, should have been disfigured by the violent acts of some reckless students, said to belong to the soshi class.
Mixed up with the struggling crowd at a point already passed by the Imperial procession, a band of these fanatics, doubtless thirsting for a row, descried sundry Japanese grooms perched on the roof of a stable inside the wall of the Russian Legation grounds, and, close by, a party of foreigners, chiefly ladies, occupying a pavilion within the same inclosure, where they had assembled to see the procession.
Unfortunately, both of these points of view overlooked the road, and it it a fact that all classes of Japanese hold it to be an inexcusable breach of etiquette to look down upon the Sovereign as he passes by.
Enraged at the sight of the grooms and foreigners thus posted, the hot-headed students below set to work at stone-throwing, which was instantly responded to by the stable-men with a shower of tiles.
A general melee ensued, in which the pavilion, despite the sex of its occupants, was not spared, though happily none of these were injured before the assailants themselves had been seized by the police.
The student-rioters had had time enough, however, to disgrace their nation, seeing that, whatever cause of umbrage they had, against their own countrymen in particular, nothing could warrant the hurling of missiles at defenceless women and girls.
It is to be regretted that the easy-going, kindly disposition of the Japanese people seems to make them unpardonably tolerant of the acts of roughs of this genus, whether directed against themselves or against strangers within their gates.
The soshi, as I have explained in former letters, are the curse of modern Japan, and it is high time that they were extinguished, with a swift and stong hand.
The Times - 1891-Jan.6th
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