Power and Politics in Modern Japan

The beginning of Japan's modern period is usually said to be 1868, the year the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and a new centralized, bureaucratic government put into place. The symbolic head of this new government was the emperor Meiji and the period from 1868-1912 is referred to as the Meiji period. In the early years after the fall of the Tokugawa the Meiji leaders worked hard to create government institutions that would create a strong united nation, one able to withstand pressures from the West. In 1889 these leaders wrote a constitution which was given to the people in the emperor's name. This constitution established a political framework in which the emperor (or in reality, his advisers) controlled the military and the civil bureaucracy, issued orders called ordinances, and held sovereign power. The constitution also established a democratically elected parliament (called the Diet), which was responsible for drawing up the national budget and making national law.

Under this constitution (called the Meiji Constitution), the emperor was supreme but did not actually make political decisions. Political power was divided between the parliament, the civil bureaucracy, the military, and the imperial household. In the 1920s the parliament's power gradually expanded, but in the 1930s the Japanese military asserted control over all other branches of government and led the country to war against China and the Allied Powers.

After World War II, during the American occupation of Japan, a new constitution was drafted. This constitution, which took effect in 1947 (and is still in effect), gave sovereign power to the people, instead of the emperor, and guaranteed many basic freedoms that the Japanese had not enjoyed previously, such as the right to free speech and elections, the right to marry freely, and the right to work, to organize, to bargain and to act collectively. The 1947 constitution states:

"The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."

Today, Emperor Akihito, who took the throne in 1989, is viewed by much of the Japanese public with respect and affection as a symbol of Japanese culture and unity. Like British royalty, he must carry out various ceremonial state duties.

Discussion Questions

  1. When was the Meiji Constitution written? What was the emperor's position as defined by the Meiji Constitution?
  2. Who had gained most of the political control in the 1930's? What was the result?
  3. When was Japan's current constitution drafted?
  4. List some of the rights guaranteed by the current constitution. Explain how such rights strengthen the power of the people.
  5. What is the emperor's position as defined by the current constitution.
  6. Other countries besides Japan have emperors, kings, or queens. Can you name three such countries? Why is there no monarchy in the United States?
  7. What is the name of the current emperor of Japan? How long has he held this title?

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