Japan's Reformed Polity
Tokio, April 12, 1886
The more closely the recent change in the system of government in this country is examined, the more interesting does it become to the student of political history.
It is the second great change of its kind in Japan's modern annals.
The first, which took place in 1868/9, had as its chief features the abolition of feudalism and overthrow of the Shogunate, the modelling of the Government on Western lines, and the strange spectacle of the restoration to temporal sway of the living representative of an ancient line of Sovereigns who for some eight centuries had wielded little power in the dominions beyond that which appertained to the sacred title of Mikado.
During this long era, although in theory the Mikado was an absolute monarch governing as well reigning, in reality he took very little part in public affairs.
By his people, who never saw him, he was venerated as a God-descended ruler, ineffable and without spot or blemish.
Mystery and awe shrouded his throne, and the military Regent, or Shogun residing 400 miles from the Imperial capital carried on the actual work of the government.
But in 1868 the situation was suddenly, almost magically, changed.
Freed from a seclusion that had been maintained for ages the Mikado became a palpable and living reality, going abroad among his subjects in many parts of the Empire, presiding over the Council of State, and once more holding, nominally, at least, the reins of executive authority.
Together with this resumption by the Emperor of his righful place as temporal ruler, there arose on the ashes of the Shogunate a resolute centralized Government, and a political system well enough fitted, perhaps, for the needs and circumstances of the time, but as a temporary measure only, and as a means of paving the way to higher reforms in the future.
This, then, was the first great change in Japan's modern polity - a primary and important step from the old state of things in feudal times towards the sound establishment of a constitutional monarchy as understood in Europe.
But that the new edifice could not very long survive the pace at which Japan then began to move was soon apparent to those who really guided the nation's affairs.
In a few years, notwithstanding efforts to improve it, the system came to be altogether out of harmony with the times, and to need recasting and adaptation to its altered surroundings.
Hence the second great change, decreed in December last, and described briefly in The Times a few weeks later.
Recent ordinances and regulations, issued since the date of the new decree, enable us to see more clearly than before the true features and import of the amended Constitution.
No reader of these elaborate and very skillfully prepared documents can fail to recognise that, if the second change in Japan's polity is less abrupt and astounding than the first, it brings before us undeniable proofs of a steady and circumspect advance along with the highway of political progress.
It is also decreed that every ordinance and enactment must receive his signature before it can pass into law.
Undoubtedly these are enormous powers to concentrate in a single individual, however able and experienced, and it remains to be seen whether an office thus constituted will be found equal to the strain imposed upon it.
But the step, whether it prove wise or unwise, is undertood to have been dictated by the absolute necessity, taught by recent experience, of securing political uniformity in the various departments.
And it must be owned that, looking to the large amount of constructive legislation which still lies before Japan's rulers, methodical, simple, and harmonious action in accordacne with one line of policy, such as a central directing power alone can secure, is essential to the proper working of the State machine.
In the Cabinet, consisting, besides the President, of the nine Ministers of Executive Departments, the most significant deviation from the old system is that which makes each Minister directly responsible to the Emperor for all matters within the limits of his competence.
No Parliament yet exists in Japan; none can exist before the 1890.
But the above principle is now enunciated with a degree of emphasis which suggests the inference that it is not purposed in the future, for some time at least, to suffer the policy and life of a Parliamentary majority.
In the same change may also be recognised a practical affirmation of the ancient doctrine of safeguarding the supremacy and personal rule of the Mikado.
Among other important provisions in the new arrangements are those which assign to individual Ministers increased powers and a wider sphere of action in their own departments, along with a certain discretion in the choice of matters to be submitted to the Cabinet, and the right to communicate personally with the Emperor in Council on questions in which they are individually responsible.
The fourth factor in the Government - the Gen-Ro-In, or Senate, created in 1875 - may be briefly dealt with.
It possesses little or no real power.
It is a purely consultative body, consisting of 40 members nominated by the Crown and mostly chosen for special attainments or past experience in the public service.
It is powerless either to originate measures or to veto them.
Its functions, in fact, are limited to the discussion and elaboration of such matters as the Cabinet may choose to refer to it, and to suggesting modifications of details.
It is thus only a humble and irresponsible auxiliary in the work of government.
From the foregoing particulars it will be seen that the changes lately effected in Japan's scheme of government mark a highly important and interesting epoch in her political history.
The hoary fiction of a divine or semi-devine ruler has wholly passed away, giving place to Imperial decrees which for the first time mould her polity to the form of a constitutional monarchy, and effect a timely and well-devised severance of executive and legislative powers.
This is, without doubt, a remarkable step in Japan's progress.
It will also be recognised that, while the political fabrics of both England and Germany have evidently influenced the framers of the new system, the form in which it is finally presented approximates more nearly, as far as it goes, to the German Constitution than to that of any other Western country.
A point more likely to escape attention, and therefore worth recording, is that this is the first occasion of a nation's preparing and applying a single and comprehensive code of rules to guide the working of the whole of its State Departments.
The structure of government as now reconstituted consists of the Emperor, the Minister President of State, the Cabinet and the Senate.
Of its new features the most important and radical is a well-defined partition of legislative and executive authority, hitherto combined, theoretically at least, in the person of the Mikado, but now, by his own decree, separated in such a manner that, while executive power remains to the hands of the Crown, the initiative in all legislation is handed over to the Cabinet, the Sovereign's share under the latter head extending only to the power of sanction.
The real significance of this change is wider than it might at first appear.
For, although, as we have seen, during feudal times the Emperor, immuned in his palace in Kioto, ruled Japan in name only, virtually delegating to the Shogun the whole reigning power and only exercising his Sovereign authority on the rarest occasions, yet, by a sentimental myth jealously kept up through a long roll of ages, it was always held that he and he alone was the fountain of all power and authority, legislative as well as executive, in his realm.
So also, after the restoration, the same fancy was preserved.
Great as the powers of the Daijo Daijin really were, no large change was ever wrought except as emanating directly from the revered and divinely-descended Mikado.
Now, however, we see for the first time a distinct and irrevocable abdication of the most important part of the Imperial birthright - namely, that which secured to him, in theory at least, the authorship of all legislation.
The time-honoured principle of personal government by the Mikado had nevertheless been adhered to in some important and practical respects.
Henceforward the Head of the State will take an active part in public affairs.
In the Cabinet, whose members are appointed or dismissed by himself, he will "personally give direction to all matters of State."
He will "hold each of his Ministers in the strictest responsibility to himself" so that they may "in very truth serve as His Majesty's instruments;" and he will affix the sign-manual to all principal enactments and decrees.
Next in importance to the Emperor comes the Minister President of State, who, indeed, is vested with a very wide range of power.
Not only does he lead the Cabinet and fill the offfice of chief adviser to the Crown, but he also exercises a large measure of authority over the whole executive.
With him lies the power, under the Emperor's will, to "give general directions concerning every branch of administration, and have the supervision of control over every department; to require from each and every one of the different departments information regarding any affair under its management, and to demand an account of its operations; to order, in case of necessity, the suspension of execution of any order or measure of any of the departments, for the purpose of obtaining His Majesty's instructions in referecne thereto; and to control and supervise the Commissions upon the different branches of law."
And, looking to all the exceptional circumstances of Japan's position, it would perhaps have been difficult for her to find a fitter model.
There remains the greater, and inevitable, question of popular representation - a question which will doubtless demand all the nerve, foresight, and vigilance of Japan's ablest men.
Of the manner in which it will be dealt with nothing is yet known.
But the capacity which Japanese statesmen have already shown, in grappling with political problems of scarcely less magnitude, should be sufficient to encourage confidence in their future pilotage.
The Times - June, 16th
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