Background: The Popular Rights Movement

See a chronolpgy of movement at:


Itagaki Taisuke and Goto Shojiro were the leading activists. Ueki Emori and Nakae Chomin were the people who provided the theoretical underpinnings for the movement. The latter two were both Tosa men who embranced the Natural Rights theory and positivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and J.S. Mill. Originally stated by John Locke (1632-1704), the Natural Rights theory argues that God created people free and equal in the state of nature and that, in this condition, no one is naturally sovereign over anyone else. In view of this natural equality, Locke maintains that it is a law of nature that no one should harm another person's life, health, liberty or possessions:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions [Second Treatise of Government, 2:6]

In other words, this view holds that individuals, because they are natural beings, have rights that cannot be violated by anyone or by any society. Rousseau, in his writings, developed the idea of the Social Contract which was also the title of one of his books. It opens with the lines:

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.

The book's catchphrases 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite', inspired the French Revolution. Rousseau argues that only by surrendering to the general will, can an individual find his fullest freedom. The general will, essentially directed toward common good, Rousseau believed, is always right. The citizens of a united community exchanges their natural liberty for something better, moral liberty. In this theory political society is seen as involving the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will; this being both the sole source of legitimate sovereignty and something that cannot but be directed towards common good.

Natural rights were never better articulated than by the American, Thomas Paine:

Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness. . .Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right, pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not, in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection. . . .

The natural rights which [man] retains [in society] are all those in which the power to execute it is as perfect in the individual as the right itself. Among this class, as is before mentioned, are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind; consequently religion is one of those rights.

So, in other words, theorists like Ueki and Nakae (who had studied in France) supported the idea that basic human rights are inherent to human beings. Ueki even supported the idea of rights for women.

Of course, the idea of having some kind of representative government dated back at least as far as the Charter Oath ("Deliberative assemblies shall be widely convoked. . ."), or even back to Sakamoto Ryoma’s 8-Point Plan. Early in the 1870s, Kido Takayoshi of Choshu, who had drafted the Charter Oath, pointed out that Japan would never be able to revise the unequal treaties and achieve parity with the west unless Japan ceased to be a place where men exercised power arbitrarily and instead governed with rational laws and popular institutions. The west’s strength was rooted in the power that the people of these countries gave to their government in the form of popular support. He believed Japan should also harness this kind of energy and without a working constitution, it would not be possible to really unify Japan internally. Even Okubo Toshimichi accepted the notion that a carefully limited and circumscribed constitutional monarchy could help "establish harmony between the ruler and the people." In 1875, Kido, Ito and Okubo met in Osaka for the Osaka Conference where they created a Chamber of Elders to deliberate upon a constitution and to periodically convene an Assembly of Prefectural Governors.

But all this was too liberal for many of the Oligarchs who could only embrace the most gradual and limited approach to constitutional government—and nothing should be done to fundamentally modify the national polity; whatever is done must be done in an orderly fashion. Private citizens were not willing to be so patient. They inaugurated the jiyu-minken undo, or the movement of popualr rights and freedoms.

The Popular Rights Movement was responsibile for focusing attention on the issues of political freedoms and individual rights, as well as upon the theory and practice of representative government. The movement also witness the creation of Japan's earliest political "parties," organizations that functioned as pressure groups which ultimately expedited the adoption of constitutional government in Japan. As enthusiasm for the movement swept Japan, key works like J.S. Mill's On Liberty and Rousseau's Social Contract were translated into Japanese and enjoyed a wide readership. We now know that villagers throughout Japan had at least heard of the ideas found in these types of works, and in some cases, even thiugh they may not have acquired much direct knowledge of western political theory, villagers experimented with drafting constitutions on their own.

However, the movement was also brutally suppressed by reactionaries like Provincial Governor Mishima Michitsune (who was fictionalized by Enchi Fumiko in her novel, The Waiting Years--for a brief description on literature in late Meiji, click here). During the mid-1880s, in particular, there were violent episodes such as in Chichibu (Saitama Prefecture)--where the government arrested 3,000 violent protestors and hanged five of the leaders.For example, in 1882, the Liberal party of Fukushima, led by Kono Hironaka, tried to protest Mishima's "despotic rule," and he responded with force convicting Kono of treason and sentencing him to a long prison term while arresting the rest of the party membership. When radicals responded by hatching a plot to assasinate Mishima, and issued a revolutionary manifesto from Mt. Kaba in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, they were attacked by Mishima's troops. One rebel died in the fighting and seven others were hanged.

At the same time, this kind of violence created fissures in the movement as the interests of the landlord class began to be differentiated from the poorer peasants who flocked to "debtor" parties and poor people's parties. Nevertheless, as Duus notes, "Even within the constraints imposed by repressive legislation, the movement had battled the government in the public arena, attempting to mobilize popular support and change public opinion through pamphlets, newspapers and other publications, or by confrontational tactics in local assembles. The movement thus established a robust tradition of peaceful opposition to the state, very different from the peasant uprisings of the late Tokugawa period or the samurai violence of the 1870s. It shaped a new political culture in which the government had to telerate some degree of dissent." (114)


Who were some of the major players in this movement? Let us recall who the young samurai were who formed the early Meiji Government, constituting the Dajokan, or Council of State:

From Satsuma:

Okubo Toshimichi (1830-1878) Saigo Takamori (1828-1877) Matsukata Masayoshi ((1837-1924)


From Choshu:

Kido Koin (1833-1877) Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) Yamagata Aritomo (1833-1871)

From Tosa:

Itagaki Taisuke (1837-1919) Goto Shojiro (1837-1897) Sakamoto Ryoma (1835-1867)

From Hizen:

Eto Shimpei (1834-1874) Okuma Shigenobu (1838-1922)



One of the things the Popular Rights Movement began to do was criticize they government was constituted by calling it hanbatsu or government by "clique" (batsu) based on certain han (4): Sat-Cho-To-Hi.

As we know, the first generation of leaders, Okubo, Saigo, Kido were all dead by 1878. They were succeeded by the likes of Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo and Matsukata Masayoshi. Yamagata gravitated to Army and police powers while Ito seemed to handle the civilian bureaucracy and politics. Itagaki and Goto from Tosa had left the government in 1873 over the Korean issue and started to form political organizations in Tosa which became the springboard for the whole PRM. Okuma Shigenobu from Hizen was a bit of an outsider, but he was a Councillor and actually served as Finance Minister. He was succeeded by Matsukata Masayoshi from Satsuma.

The Popular Rights Movement, or Jiyuminken undo, therefore, helped create a context for and helped to precipitate the


Political Crisis of 1881


In which the Jiyuto or Liberal Party, the Tosa-based party formed by Itagaki Taisuke was formed while Okuma, the Finance Minister who favored or more liberal form of parliamentary government, created the Kaishinto or Progressive party. The crisis occurred when Ito asked all the Councillors to submit their opinion on the idea of a constitution and representative government. Most did so and agreed that having a constitution and an assembly was a decent idea, but it should come about gradually because the people were not ready. Okuma rocked the boat by handing in his opinion last, calling fro an immediate constitution, legislative assemby, and a cabinet system based on the British model of a "responsible" cabinet, i.e., it would fall when given a vote of no-confidence by the legislature. This, by everyone else's standard, was radical. Okuma was fired and replaced by Matsukata.


Ito announced a constitution would be drafted and granted within the decade, which it was. But the system it created bore little resemblance to the British model, favoring instead the Prussian example which severely curtailed the power of the people and their representatives in favor of the executive and the monarch.

This crisis, then, ushered in an


Era of Conflict: Parties v. Oligarchy

1890s saw parties in the Diet challenging rule by Oligarchs, criticized "clique" or han'batsu government

1894-5 Sino Japanese War imposed unity on diet for sake of country-at-war

1895-1905 = Era of party-oligarch compromises; both sidea make compromises

Ito forms own party, the Seiyukai 1900; party heads tend to alternate as PM


Hara Kei recruited to lead the Seiyukai party; Hara's "Positive Policy"


Saionji-Katsura Era of Compromise1905-1912


Taisho Political Crisis of 1912-13

Katsura forms his own party, Doshikai 1913 which evolves into Kenseikai headed by Kato Komei later called the Minseito


Rice Riots 1918----------> Hara becomes Premier


Era of "Normal Course of Constitutional Government"

as Seiyukai and Kenseikai alternate/share power 1924-32

for a detailed outline of Taisho political developments click here


BUT, Hara assassinated in 1921-------> 3 "Transcendental Cabinet



(anti-Korean Ritos and Police violence against the Left occurs)



Seiyukai was in Power1927-29 while the Kenseikai was in Power 1925-26


1925 Universal Manhood Suffrage Bill + Peace Preservation Law Passed

(UMS = quadruples size of electorate) (PPL = outlaws anti-kokutai ideology)

Growth of Leftwing groups and Proletarian Parties:



A very serious political incident occurrred in the early 1900s surrounding Japan's first major pollution disaster, the Ashio Mine Incident. See the detailed article listed on the syllabus, plus a book review of a Japanese study of the incident recently translated into English.