Promulgation of the Meiji Constitution

A new constitution for Japan adopted in 1889 created a constitutional monarchy and formally ended feudalism, dismantled the old bureaucratic institutions, outlawed samurai and guaranteed individual rights. A Western-style Parliamentary government and legal code were introduced. Many elements were inspired by Germany, under the unifying, authoritarian leader Otto Bismark.

The process of creating a new constitution began in the early 1870s with the visit by a Japanese delegation to the United States, Britain and Germany. Buruma wrote that “Japanese democracy, as defined by the Meiji Constitution, was a sickly child from the beginning. The spirit of the Constitution was a mixture of German and traditional Japanese authoritarianism. But the greatest danger, in the long run, lay in its vagueness. For the emperor was expected to stand above the worldly affairs, while a bureaucratic elite made political decisions in his name. At the same time, Japan’s armed services vowed their loyalty only to the monarch and not the civilian government.” The constitution made it possible for people to do all kinds of things in the Emperor’s name. And these things overrode the weak democracy.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Promulgated on February 11, 1889, the Meiji Constitution was a major landmark in the making of the modern Japanese state and in Japan’s drive to become one of the world’s advanced, “civilized” powers. Drafted by Itō Hirobumi, a group of other government leaders, and several Western legal scholars, the document was bestowed on the Japanese people by the Emperor Meiji and established Japan as a constitutional monarchy with a parliament (called the Diet), the lower house of which was elected. Itō and his associates drew heavily on Western models, and especially the conservative traditions of Prussia, in creating a constitution that reserved almost unrestricted power for the Emperor while still permitting the creation of democratic institutions. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Websites and Sources: Meiji Period: Images of the Westernization of Japan MIT Visualizing Culture ; Wikipedia article on the Meiji Restoration Wikipedia ; Essay on Meiji Restoration ; 1889 Constitution Meiji Taisho Perry’s Visits Japan A Visual History ; Black Ships and Samurai MIT Visualizing Culture ; Making of Modern Japan, Google e-book ; Websites and Sources on the Edo Period: Essay on the Polity opf the Tokugawa Era ; Wikipedia article on the Edo Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the History of Tokyo Wikipedia Samurai Era in Japan: Samurai Archives ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Meiji Constitution of 1889

The Preamble of The Meiji Constitution of 1889 reads: “Having, by virtue of the glories of Our Ancestors, ascended the Throne of a lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal; desiring to promote the welfare of, and to give development to the moral and intellectual faculties of Our beloved subjects, the very same that have been favored with the benevolent care and affectionate vigilance of Our Ancestors; and hoping to maintain the prosperity of the State, in concert with Our people and with their support, We hereby promulgate, in pursuance of Our Imperial Rescript of the 12th day of the 10th month of the 14th year of Meiji, a fundamental law of State, to exhibit the principles, by which We are to be guided in Our conduct, and to point out to what Our descendants and Our subjects and their descendants are forever to conform. [Source: “Modern Japan: A Brief History,” by Arthur Tiedemann (New York: D. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1962). This text originally appeared in “Commentaries on the Constitution of the Empire of Japan,” by Itō Hirobumi, translated by Itō Myoji (Tokyo). ]

The rights of sovereignty of the State, We have inherited from Our Ancestors, and We shall bequeath them to Our descendants. Neither We nor they shall in future fail to wield them, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution hereby granted.

We now declare to respect and protect the security of the rights and of the property of Our people, and to secure to them the complete enjoyment of the same, within the extent of the provisions of the present Constitution and of the law.

The Imperial Diet shall first be convoked for the 23rd year of Meiji and the time of its opening shall be the date when the present Constitution comes into force.

When in the future it may become necessary to amend any of the provisions of the present Constitution, We or Our successors shall assume the initiative right, and submit a project for the same to the Imperial Diet. The Imperial Diet shall pass its vote upon it, according to the conditions imposed by the present Constitution, and in no otherwise shall Our descendants or Our subjects be permitted to attempt any alteration thereof.

Our Ministers of State, on Our behalf, shall be held responsible for the carrying out of the present Constitution, and Our present and future subjects shall forever assume the duty of allegiance to the present Constitution.

Chapter 1 of the The Meiji Constitution of 1889

First page of the Meiji Constitution

Chapter 1 of the The Meiji Constitution of 1889: The Emperor: ARTICLE I. The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal. [Source: “Modern Japan: A Brief History,” by Arthur Tiedemann (New York: D. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1962). This text originally appeared in “Commentaries on the Constitution of the Empire of Japan,” by Itō Hirobumi, translated by Itō Myoji (Tokyo). ]

ARTICLE II. The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by Imperial male descendants, according to the provisions of the Imperial House Law.

ARTICLE III. The Emperor is sacred and inviolable.

ARTICLE IV. The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution.

ARTICLE V. The Emperor exercises the legislative power with the consent of the Imperial Diet.

ARTICLE VI. The Emperor gives sanction to laws and orders them to be promulgated and executed.

ARTICLE VII. The Emperor convokes the Imperial Diet, opens, closes and prorogues it, and dissolves the House of Representatives.

ARTICLE VIII. The Emperor, in consequence of an urgent necessity to maintain public safety or to avert public calamities, issues, when the Imperial Diet is not sitting, Imperial Ordinances in the place of law. Such Imperial Ordinances are to be laid before the Imperial Diet at its next session, and when the Diet does not approve the said Ordinances, the Government shall declare them to be invalid for the future.

ARTICLE IX. The Emperor issues or causes to be issued, the Ordinances necessary for the carrying out of the laws, or for the maintenance of the public peace and order, and for the promotion of the welfare of the subjects. But no Ordinance shall in any way alter any of the existing laws.

ARTICLE X. The Emperor determines the organization of the different branches of the administration, and salaries of all civil and military officers, and appoints and dismisses the same. Exceptions especially provided for in the present Constitution or in other laws, shall be in accordance with the respective provisions (bearing thereon).

ARTICLE XI. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.

ARTICLE XII. The Emperor determines the organization and peace standing of the Army and Navy.

ARTICLE XIII. The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.

ARTICLE XIV. The Emperor declares a state of siege. The conditions and effects of a state of siege shall be determined by law.

ARTICLE XV. The Emperor confers titles of nobility, rank, orders and other marks of honor. ARTICLE XVI. The Emperor orders amnesty, pardon, commutation of punishments and rehabilitation.

ARTICLE XVII. A Regency shall be instituted in conformity with the provisions of the Imperial House Law. The Regent shall exercise the powers appertaining to the Emperor in His name.

Issueing the Meiji Constitution

Chapter V of The Meiji Constitution of 1889

Chapter V: The Judicature: ARTICLE LVII. The Judicature shall be exercised by the Courts of Law according to law, in the name of the Emperor. The organization of the Courts of Law shall be determined by law. [Source: “Modern Japan: A Brief History,” by Arthur Tiedemann (New York: D. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1962). This text originally appeared in “Commentaries on the Constitution of the Empire of Japan,” by Itō Hirobumi, translated by Itō Myoji (Tokyo). ]

ARTICLE LVIII. The judges shall be appointed from among those who possess proper qualifications according to law. No judge shall be deprived of his position, unless by way of criminal sentence or disciplinary punishment. Rules for disciplinary punishment shall be determined by law.

ARTICLE LIX. Trials and judgments of a Court shall be conducted publicly. When, however, there exists any fear that such publicity may be prejudicial to peace and order, or to the maintenance of public morality, the public trial may be suspended by provision of law or by the decision of the Court of Law.

ARTICLE LX. All matters that fall within the competency of a special Court shall be specially provided for by law.

ARTICLE LXI. No suit at law, which relates to rights alleged to have been infringed by the illegal measures of the administrative authorities and which shall come within the competency of the Court of Administrative Litigation specially established by law, shall be taken cognizance of by a Court of Law.

Chapter VI of The Meiji Constitution of 1889

Chapter VI: Finance: ARTICLE LXII. The imposition of a new tax or the modification of the rates (of an existing one) shall be determined by law. However, all such administrative fees or other revenue having the nature of compensation shall not fall within the category of the above clause. The raising of national loans and the contracting of other liabilities to the charge of the National Treasury, except those that are provided in the Budget, shall require the consent of the Imperial Diet. ARTICLE LXIII. The taxes levied at present shall, in so far as they are not remodeled by a new law, be collected according to the old system.

ARTICLE LXIV. The expenditure and revenue of the State require the consent of the Imperial Diet by means of an annual Budget. Any and all expenditures overpassing the appropriations set forth in the Tides and Paragraphs of the Budget, or that are not provided for in the Budget, shall subsequently require the approbation of the Imperial Diet.

Imperial Procession marking the Meiji Constitution

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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