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The Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Kyūjitai: 大日本帝國憲法 Shinjitai: 大日本帝国憲法 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpō ), known informally as the Meiji Constitution (明治憲法 Meiji Kenpō ), was the organic law of the Japanese empire, in force from November 29, 1890 until May 2, 1947.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 provided Japan a form of constitutional monarchy based on the Prusso-German model, in which the Emperor of Japan was an active ruler and wielded considerable political power (over foreign policy and diplomacy) which was shared with an elected Diet. The Diet primarily dictated domestic policy matters.
After the Meiji Restoration, which restored direct political power to the emperor for the first time in over a millennium, Japan underwent a period of sweeping political and social reform and westernization aimed at strengthening Japan to the level of the nations of the Western world. The immediate consequence of the Constitution was the opening of the first Parliamentary government in Asia.
The Meiji Constitution established clear limits on the power of the executive branch and the Emperor. It also created an independent judiciary. Civil rights and civil liberties were guaranteed, though in many cases they were subject to limitation by law. However, it was ambiguous in wording, and in many places self-contradictory. The leaders of the government and the political parties were left with the task of interpretation as to whether the Meiji Constitution could be used to justify authoritarian or liberal-democratic rule. It was the struggle between these tendencies that dominated the government of the Empire of Japan.
The Meiji Constitution was used as a model for the 1931 Ethiopian Constitution by the Ethiopian intellectual Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariyam. This was one of the reasons why the progressive Ethiopian intelligentsia associated with Tekle Hawariat were known as "Japanizers".
By the surrender on 2 September 1945, the Empire of Japan was deprived of sovereignty by the Allies, and the Meiji Constitution was suspended. During the Occupation of Japan, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by a new document, the postwar Constitution of Japan. This document—officially an amendment to the Meiji Constitution—replaced imperial rule with a form of Western-style liberal democracy.
Prior to the adoption of the Meiji Constitution, Japan had in practice no written constitution. Originally, a Chinese-inspired legal system and constitution known as ritsuryō was enacted in the 6th century (in the late Asuka period and early Nara period); it described a government based on an elaborate and theoretically rational meritocratic bureaucracy, serving under the ultimate authority of the emperor and organised following Chinese models. In theory the last ritsuryō code, the Yōrō Code enacted in 752, was still in force at the time of the Meiji Restoration.
However, in practice the ritsuryō system of government had become largely an empty formality as early as in the middle of the Heian period in the 10th and 11th centuries, a development which was completed by the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1185. The high positions in the ritsuryō system remained as sinecures, and the emperor was de-powered and set aside as a symbolic figure who ‘reigned, but did not rule’ (on the theory that the living god should not have to defile himself with matters of earthly government).
The idea of a written constitution had been a subject of heated debate within and without the government since the beginnings of the Meiji government. The conservative Meiji oligarchy viewed anything resembling democracy or republicanism with suspicion and trepidation, and favored a gradualist approach. The Freedom and People's Rights Movement demanded the immediate establishment of an elected national assembly, and the promulgation of a constitution.
On October 21, 1881, Itō Hirobumi was appointed to chair a government bureau to research various forms of constitutional government, and in 1882, Itō led an overseas mission to observe and study various systems first-hand. The United States Constitution was rejected as "too liberal" and the British system as being too unwieldy and granting too much power to Parliament. The French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. The legal structures of the German Empire, particularly that of Prussia proved to be of the most interest to the Constitutional Study Mission.
He also rejected some notions as unfit for Japan, as they stemmed from European constitutional practice and Christianity. He therefore added references to the kokutai or "national polity" as the justification of the emperor's authority through his divine descent and the unbroken line of emperors, and the unique relationship between subject and sovereign.
The Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Itō as Prime Minister. The positions of Chancellor, Minister of the Left, and Minister of the Right, which had existed since the seventh century, were abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution, and to advise Emperor Meiji.
The draft committee included Inoue Kowashi, Kaneko Kentarō, Itō Miyoji and Iwakura Tomomi, along with a number of foreign advisors, in particular the German legal scholars Rudolf von Gneist and Lorenz von Stein. The central issue was the balance between sovereignty vested in the person of the Emperor, and an elected representative legislature with powers that would limit or restrict the power of the sovereign. After numerous drafts from 1886–1888, the final version was submitted to Emperor Meiji in April 1888. The Meiji Constitution was drafted in secret by the committee, without public debate.
The new constitution was promulgated by Emperor Meiji on February 11, 1889 but came into effect on November 29, 1890. The first Imperial Diet, a new representative assembly, convened on the day the Meiji Constitution came into force. The organizational structure of the Diet reflected both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Peers (which resembled the Prussian Herrenhaus and the British House of Lords), and in the formal Speech from the Throne delivered by the Emperor on Opening Day. The second chapter of the constitution, detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day.
The Meiji Constitution consists of 76 articles in seven chapters, together amounting to around 2,500 words. It is also usually reproduced with its Preamble, the Imperial Oath Sworn in the Sanctuary in the Imperial Palace, and the Imperial Rescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution, which together come to nearly another 1,000 words. The seven chapters are:
- I. The Emperor (1-17)
- II. Rights and Duties of Subjects (18-32)
- III. The Imperial Diet (33-54)
- IV. The Ministers of State and the Privy Council (55-56)
- V. The Judicature (57-61)
- VI. Finance (62-72)
- VII. Supplementary Rules (73-76)
Unlike its modern successor, the Meiji Constitution was founded on the principle that sovereignty resided in person of the Emperor, by virtue of his divine ancestry "unbroken for ages eternal", rather than in the people. Article 4 states that the "Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in himself the rights of sovereignty". The Emperor, nominally at least, united within himself all three branches (executive, legislative and judiciary) of government, albeit subject to the "consent of the Imperial Diet". Laws were issued and justice administered by the courts "in the name of the Emperor".
Separate provisions of the Constitution are contradictory as to whether the Constitution or the Emperor is supreme.
- Article 3 declares him to be "sacred and inviolable", a formula which was construed by hard-line monarchists to mean that he retained the right to withdraw the constitution, or to ignore its provisions.
- Article 4 binds the Emperor to exercise his powers "according to the provisions of the present Constitution".
- Article 11 declares that the Emperor commands the army and navy. Heads of the army and navy interpreted this article “The army and navy obey only the Emperor, do not have to obey the cabinet and diet.” Interpretation of this article caused political dispute during the imperial period.
- Article 55, however, confirmed that the Emperor’s commands (including Imperial Ordinance, Edicts, Rescripts, etc.) had no legal force within themselves, but required the signature of a “Minister of State”. On the other hand, these “Ministers of State” were appointed by (and could be dismissed by), the Emperor alone, and not by the Prime Minister or the Diet.
Rights and duties of subjects
- Duties: The constitution asserts the duty of Japanese subjects to uphold the constitution (preamble), pay taxes (Article 21) and serve in the armed forces if conscripted (Article 20).
- Qualified rights: The constitution provides for a number of rights that subjects may enjoy where the law does not provide otherwise. These included the right to:
- Less conditional rights
- Right to "be appointed to civil or military or any other public offices equally" (Article 19).
- 'Procedural' due process (Article 23).
- Right to trial before a judge (Article 24).
- Freedom of religion (Guaranteed by Article 28 "within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects").
- Right to petition government (Article 30).
Organs of government
The Emperor of Japan had the right to exercise executive authority, and to appoint and dismiss all government officials. The Emperor also had the sole rights to declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, dissolve the lower house of Diet, and issue Imperial ordinances in place of laws when the Diet was not in session. Most importantly, command over the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy was directly held by the Emperor, and not the Diet. The Meiji Constitution provided for a cabinet consisting of Ministers of State who answered to the Emperor rather than the Diet, and to the establishment of the Privy Council. Not mentioned in the Constitution were the genrō, an inner circle of advisors to the Emperor, who wielded considerable influence.
Under the Meiji Constitution, a legislature was established with two Houses. The Upper House, or House of Peers consisted of members of the Imperial Family, hereditary peerage and members appointed by the Emperor. The Lower House, or House of Representatives was elected by direct male suffrage (with property qualifications). Legislative authority was shared with the Diet, and both the Emperor and the Diet had to agree in order for a measure to become law. On the other hand, the Diet was given the authority to initiate legislation, approve all laws, and approve the budget.
The Full Meiji Constitution
Article 1. The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal.
Article 2. The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by Imperial male descendants, according to the provisions of the Imperial House Law.
Article 3. The Emperor is sacred and inviolable.
Article 4. 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 5. The Emperor exercises the legislative power with the consent of the Imperial Diet.
Article 6. The Emperor gives sanction to laws, and orders them to be promulgated and executed.
Article 7. The Emperor convokes the Imperial Diet, opens, closes, and prorogues it, and dissolves the House of Representatives.
Article 8. 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. (2) 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 9. 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 10. 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 11. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.
Article 12. The Emperor determines the organization and peace standing of the Army and Navy.
Article 13. The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.
Article 14. The Emperor declares a state of siege. (2) The conditions and effects of a state of siege shall be determined by law.
Article 15. The Emperor confers titles of nobility, rank, orders and other marks of honor.
Article 16. The Emperor orders amnesty, pardon, commutation of punishments and rehabilitation.
Article 17. A Regency shall be instituted in conformity with the provisions of the Imperial House Law. (2) The Regent shall exercise the powers appertaining to the Emperor in His name.
RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF SUBJECTS
Article 18. The conditions necessary for being a Japanese subject shall be determined by law.
Article 19. Japanese subjects may, according to qualifications determined in laws or ordinances, be appointed to civil or military or any other public offices equally.
Article 20. Japanese subjects are amenable to service in the Army or Navy, according to the provisions of law.
Article 21. Japanese subjects are amenable to the duty of paying taxes, according to the provisions of law.
Article 22. Japanese subjects shall have the liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits of the law.
Article 23. No Japanese subject shall be arrested, detained, tried or punished, unless according to law.
Article 24. No Japanese subject shall be deprived of his right of being tried by the judges determined by law.
Article 25. Except in the cases provided for in the law, the house of no Japanese subject shall be entered or searched without his consent.
Article 26. Except in the cases mentioned in the law, the secrecy of the letters of every Japanese subject shall remain inviolate.
Article 27. The right of property of every Japanese subject shall remain inviolate. (2) Measures necessary to be taken for the public benefit shall be any provided for by law.
Article 28. Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief.
Article 29. Japanese subjects shall, within the limits of law, enjoy the liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meetings and associations.
Article 30. Japanese subjects may present petitions, by observing the proper forms of respect, and by complying with the rules specially provided for the same.
Article 31. The provisions contained in the present Chapter shall not affect the exercises of the powers appertaining to the Emperor, in times of war or in cases of a national emergency.
Article 32. Each and every one of the provisions contained in the preceding Articles of the present Chapter, that are not in conflict with the laws or the rules and discipline of the Army and Navy, shall apply to the officers and men of the Army and of the Navy.
THE IMPERIAL DIET
Article 33. The Imperial Diet shall consist of two Houses, a House of Peers and a House of Representatives.
Article 34. The House of Peers shall, in accordance with the ordinance concerning the House of Peers, be composed of the members of the Imperial Family, of the orders of nobility, and of those who have been nominated thereto by the Emperor.
Article 35. The House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected by the people, according to the provisions of the law of Election.
Article 36. No one can at one and the same time be a Member of both Houses.
Article 37. Every law requires the consent of the Imperial Diet.
Article 38. Both Houses shall vote upon projects of law submitted to it by the Government, and may respectively initiate projects of law.
Article 39. A Bill, which has been rejected by either the one or the other of the two Houses, shall not be brought in again during the same session.
Article 40. Both Houses can make representations to the Government, as to laws or upon any other subject. When, however, such representations are not accepted, they cannot be made a second time during the same session.
Article 41. The Imperial Diet shall be convoked every year.
Article 42. A session of the Imperial Diet shall last during three months. In case of necessity, the duration of a session may be prolonged by the Imperial Order.
Article 43. When urgent necessity arises, an extraordinary session may be convoked in addition to the ordinary one. (2) The duration of an extraordinary session shall be determined by Imperial Order.
Article 44. The opening, closing, prolongation of session and prorogation of the Imperial Diet, shall be effected simultaneously for both Houses. (2) In case the House of Representatives has been ordered to dissolve, the House of Peers shall at the same time be prorogued.
Article 45. When the House of Representatives has been ordered to dissolve, Members shall be caused by Imperial Order to be newly elected, and the new House shall be convoked within five months from the day of dissolution.
Article 46. No debate can be opened and no vote can be taken in either House of the Imperial Diet, unless not less than one-third of the whole number of Members thereof is present.
Article 47. Votes shall be taken in both Houses by absolute majority. In the case of a tie vote, the President shall have the casting vote.
Article 48. The deliberations of both Houses shall be held in public. The deliberations may, however, upon demand of the Government or by resolution of the House, be held in secret sitting.
Article 49. Both Houses of the Imperial Diet may respectively present addresses to the Emperor.
Article 50. Both Houses may receive petitions presented by subjects.
Article 51. Both Houses may enact, besides what is provided for in the present Constitution and in the Law of the Houses, rules necessary for the management of their internal affairs.
Article 52. No Member of either House shall be held responsible outside the respective Houses, for any opinion uttered or for any vote given in the House. When, however, a Member himself has given publicity to his opinions by public speech, by documents in print or in writing, or by any other similar means, he shall, in the matter, be amenable to the general law.
Article 53. The Members of both Houses shall, during the session, be free from arrest, unless with the consent of the House, except in cases of flagrant delicts, or of offenses connected with a state of internal commotion or with a foreign trouble.
Article 54. The Ministers of State and the Delegates of the Government may, at any time, take seats and speak in either House.
THE MINISTERS OF STATE AND THE PRIVY COUNCIL
Article 55. The respective Ministers of State shall give their advice to the Emperor, and be responsible for it. (2) All Laws, Imperial Ordinances, and Imperial Rescripts of whatever kind, that relate to the affairs of the state, require the countersignature of a Minister of State.
Article 56. The Privy Councillors shall, in accordance with the provisions for the organization of the Privy Council, deliberate upon important matters of State when they have been consulted by the Emperor.
Article 57. The Judicature shall be exercised by the Courts of Law according to law, in the name of the Emperor. (2) The organization of the Courts of Law shall be determined by law.
Article 58. The judges shall be appointed from among those, who possess proper qualifications according to law. (2) No judge shall be deprived of his position, unless by way of criminal sentence or disciplinary punishment. (3) Rules for disciplinary punishment shall be determined by law.
Article 59. 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 provisions of law or by the decision of the Court of Law.
Article 60. All matters that fall within the competency of a special Court, shall be specially provided for by law.
Article 61. 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 Court of Law.
Article 62. The imposition of a new tax or the modification of the rates (of an existing one) shall be determined by law. (2) However, all such administrative fees or other revenue having the nature of compensation shall not fall within the category of the above clause. (3) 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 63. The taxes levied at present shall, in so far as they are not remodelled by a new law, be collected according to the old system.
Article 64. The expenditure and revenue of the State require the consent of the Imperial Diet by means of an annual Budget. (2) Any and all expenditures overpassing the appropriations set forth in the Titles and Paragraphs of the Budget, or that are not provided for in the Budget, shall subsequently require the approbation of the Imperial Diet.
Article 65. The Budget shall be first laid before the House of Representatives.
Article 66. The expenditures of the Imperial House shall be defrayed every year out of the National Treasury, according to the present fixed amount for the same, and shall not require the consent thereto of the Imperial Diet, except in case an increase thereof is found necessary.
Article 67. Those already fixed expenditures based by the Constitution upon the powers appertaining to the Emperor, and such expenditures as may have arisen by the effect of law, or that appertain to the legal obligations of the Government, shall be neither rejected nor reduced by the Imperial Diet, without the concurrence of the Government.
Article 68. In order to meet special requirements, the Government may ask the consent of the Imperial Diet to a certain amount as a Continuing Expenditure Fund, for a previously fixed number of years.
Article 69. In order to supply deficiencies, which are unavoidable, in the Budget, and to meet requirements unprovided for in the same, a Reserve Fund shall be provided in the Budget.
Article 70. When the Imperial Diet cannot be convoked, owing to the external or internal condition of the country, in case of urgent need for the maintenance of public safety, the Government may take all necessary financial measures, by means of an Imperial Ordinance. (2) In the case mentioned in the preceding clause, the matter shall be submitted to the Imperial Diet at its next session, and its approbation shall be obtained thereto.
Article 71. When the Imperial Diet has not voted on the Budget, or when the Budget has not been brought into actual existence, the Government shall carry out the Budget of the preceding year.
Article 72. The final account of the expenditures and revenues of the State shall be verified and confirmed by the Board of Audit, and it shall be submitted by the Government to the Imperial Diet, together with the report of verification of the said board. (2) The organization and competency of the Board of Audit shall of determined by law separately.
Article 73. When it has become necessary in future to amend the provisions of the present Constitution, a project to the effect shall be submitted to the Imperial Diet by Imperial Order. (2) In the above case, neither House can open the debate, unless not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members are present, and no amendment can be passed, unless a majority of not less than two-thirds of the Members present is obtained.
Article 74. No modification of the Imperial House Law shall be required to be submitted to the deliberation of the Imperial Diet. (2) No provision of the present Constitution can be modified by the Imperial House Law.
Article 75. No modification can be introduced into the Constitution, or into the Imperial House Law, during the time of a Regency.
Article 76. Existing legal enactments, such as laws, regulations, Ordinances, or by whatever names they may be called, shall, so far as they do not conflict with the present Constitution, continue in force. (2) All existing contracts or orders, that entail obligations upon the Government, and that are connected with expenditure, shall come within the scope of Article 67.
Amendments to the constitution were provided for by Article 73. This stipulated that to become law a proposed amendment had first to be submitted to the Diet by the Emperor, by means of an imperial order or rescript. To be approved by the Diet an amendment had to be adopted in both chambers by a two-thirds majority of the total number of members of each (rather than merely two-thirds of the total number of votes cast). Once it had been approved by the Diet an amendment was then promulgated into law by the Emperor, who had an absolute right of veto. No amendment to the constitution was permitted during the time of a regency. Despite these provisions, no amendments were made to the imperial constitution from the time it was adopted until its demise in 1947. When the Meiji Constitution was replaced, in order to ensure legal continuity, its successor was adopted in the form of a constitutional amendment. However, according to Article 73 of the Meiji Constitution, the amendment should be authorized by the Emperor. Indeed, the 1947 Constitution was authorized by the Emperor (as was declared in the letter of promulgation), which is in apparent conflict of the 1947 Constitution, according to which that constitution was made and authorized by the nation ("the principle of popular sovereignty"). To dissipate such inconsistencies, some peculiar doctrine of "August Revolution" was proposed by Toshiyoshi Miyazawa of the University of Tokyo, but without much persuasiveness.
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