The Meiji constitution was promulgated by the emperor in 1889 and was replaced by the present constitution which was promulgated in November 1946 and put into action in May 1947. The Meiji constitution was flexible enough to permit considerable change; it left ambiguous the relationship between several major institutions of government and was long criticized for allowing undemocratic patterns of political behavior.
There were various pressures which led to the government’s decision in 1881 to research and write a constitution. Some government leaders want to follow Western patterns of development while others wanted to impose more definition and stability on the rapid changes of the period. Opponents of the government wanted, in addition, popular elections which might propel them into government. Following the Political Crisis of 1881 which was in part concerned with the question of a constitution, the topic was removed from public debate; Ito Hirobumi was placed in charge of creating a constitution. He traveled around the world and studied the German constitution at length, having decided that the German situation best paralleled Japan’s.
One of the great issues was the position of the emperor. In the end, the constitution was presented as a gift of the emperor to the people; he remained sovereign, but he was also limited by the constitution: Article 4 read ‘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’. The emperor’s connection with Shinto was also expressed in Article 3: ‘The emperor is sacred and inviolable’.
Having secured a lofty position for the emperor, Ito provided for the other institutions of a constitutional monarchy. A Diet (parliament) was established with two houses: an upper House of Peers based on a recently created European-style peerage and a lower House of Representatives elected by a small popular electorate defined by wealth. The Diet was given substantial power since it had to approve all laws. The powers of the ministers of state (heads of the bureaucratic executive branch of government) were defined; a Privy Council established; and a judiciary established.
At no point did the constitution mention the cabinet which had been created in 1885; this was one of the major ambiguities in the Meiji constitutional system. How were members of the cabinet selected and what was the relationship of the cabinet to the Diet? Government leaders generally assumed that they would maintain control and that the representatives and peers in the Diet would have no authority in this area. Government opponents disagreed with this view and when they proved able to consistently win control of the lower house in elections, a protracted struggle for control of the cabinet ensued. After 1901, the elected politicians increasingly gained the upper hand and were generally dominant until 1932.
But the ministers could be quite independent because the constitution specified that they were responsible to the emperor, not the Diet. Article 55 stated ‘The respective Ministers of State shall give their advice to the Emperor, and be responsible for it’. The military services were quick to stress this point and at length established the principle that the ministers of the army and navy could only be active-duty officers. Since every cabinet required a full complement of ministers, the military services could effectively destroy a cabinet by having its minister resign. This weapon became a crucial one in the 1920s when domestic and international crises promoted the prestige and power of the military. After the fall of the politicians in 1932, the military services became the most influential political actor.
Thus, the flexible Meiji constitution presided over a system that moved away from autocracy in the 1890s, to a nearly British-style of parliamentary democracy in the 1920s, to a system dominated by the military and strongly influenced by European fascism in the 1930s and during World War II. The last stage lead the Allied Occupation to the conclusion that the constitution was flawed and could never support true democracy; the occupation therefore provoked a radical rewriting of the document.