Liberal Party of Japan (1881)

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The Jiyūtō (自由党 Liberal Party?) is the name of several liberal political parties in the history of Japan, two of which existed in the Empire of Japan prior to 1945.

Liberal Party of 1881[edit]

The first Liberal Party of Japan was formed on October 18, 1881, by Itagaki Taisuke and other members of the Freedom and People's Rights Movement (Jiyūtō) to agitate for the establishment of a national assembly, with a membership based on the ideals of liberal democracy under a constitutional monarchy. It attracted a wide following of former samurai who were discontent because they were no longer an elite class and no longer received stipends from the government. The Jiyūtō also aimed for suffrage for samurai and an elected assembly in each prefecture. Itagaki was party president, with Nakajima Nobuyuki as vice-president. Other notable members included Gotō Shōjirō. Baba Tatsui, Suehiro Tetcho, Ueki Emori, and Nakae Chōmin.

The Meiji government viewed the growth of the Jiyūtō with misgivings, suspecting it of harboring tendencies towards republicanism. The party was also made vulnerable due to peasant uprisings in rural areas led or inspired by local Jiyūtō members. The Jiyūtō voted to dissolve itself on October 29, 1884, on the eve of the Chichibu Incident.

Rikken Jiyūtō[edit]

In 1887, Gotō Shojirō regrouped some members of the former Jiyūtō into a proto-party called the Daidō Danketsu Movement. This group was merged with two smaller groups led by Nakae Chōmin and Ōi Kentarō by Itagaki Taisuke to form the Rikken Jiyūtō (立憲自由党 Constitutional Liberal Party?) on August 25, 1890 to contest the upcoming first general election for the new lower house of the Diet of Japan. The party emerged as the majority party after the Japanese general election, 1890 with 130 out of 300 seats. It renamed itself back to Jiyūtō in 1891.

In the Diet, the Jiyūtō allied itself with Ōkuma Shigenobu’s Rikken Kaishintō (38 seats) and a number of independents to obtain an absolute majority. Itagaki and Ōkuma spoke out against clan-based politics and the arbitrary rule by the genrō and House of Peers, and used the only weapon allowed to them under the provisions of the Meiji Constitution to block legislation: withholding approval of the national budget. When the Diet became gridlocked in 1891, Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo was forced to call for new elections.

During this period, a rift developed in the movement between the lower class members and the aristocratic leadership of the party. Itagaki became embroiled in controversy when he took a trip to Europe believed by many to have been funded by the government. The trip turned out to have been provided by the Mitsui zaibatsu, but suspicions that Itagaki was being won over to the government side persisted. Consequently, splinter groups proliferated, undermining party unity.

The 1892 General Elections was marred by violence and intimidation by the government against Jiyūtō candidates and supporters; however, Jiyūtō managed to retain its position as majority party in the Diet by securing 94 seats, with 41 seats to their Rikken Kenseitō allies.

In April 1896, Itagaki joined the second Itō administration as Home Minister. In 1898, Itagaki joined with Ōkuma Shigenobu of the Shimpotō (the former Rikken Kenseitō) to form the Kenseitō, and Japan's first party government. Ōkuma became Prime Minister, and Itagaki continued serving as Home Minister. The Cabinet collapsed after four months of squabbling between the factions.

After the Kenseitō dissolved, many former Jiyūtō members joined with former Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi to form the Rikken Seiyukai in 1900.

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