Japan’s First National Elections, 1890

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 435-436:

Many problems remained before an elected, constitutional government could commence its activities. On June 28, immediately before the election, the administrative code was approved, and two days later the spheres of activity of the Privy Council and the Cabinet were defined in last-minute efforts to have the government in working order for the newly elected Diet.

The election took place on July 1. It was carried out under the provisions of the Law of Election of Members of the House of Representatives, which had been enacted by the emperor on February 11, 1889, at the same time that he sanctioned the constitution. A total of 300 seats were contested, covering the entire country with the exception of Hokkaidō, Okinawa, and the Ogasawara [a.k.a. Bonin] Islands. The franchise was severely limited. Women could not vote, and for men there were qualifications of age, residence, and property. A voter had to be twenty-five years of age, to have lived as a permanent resident in a prefecture for one year, and to have paid at least 15 yen in national taxes. This meant that only 450,365 men were entitled to vote, about 1.14 percent of a population of nearly 40 million. About 95 percent of those who were eligible to cast ballots did so, although there was no penalty for failing to vote, a mark of the great interest aroused by the election.

The elections were carried out without violence and with surprising smoothness, considering the civil strife that had torn the country not long before. On the whole there seem to have been few violations of the electoral laws, although petty deceptions may have been carried out when illiterates cast ballots. But as R. H. P. Mason commented, “in complete contrast to what went on at the time of the second general election two years later, the Government refrained from abusing its executive or judicial powers to secure the defeat of its opponents. The law was neutral, and so was its enforcement by the police and the higher political or judicial authorities.”

The emperor did not express his reactions to the election. It is hard to imagine that he was indifferent to the results, even if they did not affect him directly. His continued efforts to persuade Itō Hirobumi either to accept the post of president of the House of Peers or to resume his post as head of the Privy Council suggest his deep concern about the future of the government. Itō, although he repeatedly refused both appointments, eventually accepted the presidency of the House of Peers, provided he could resign after the first session of the Diet.

The adoption of parliamentary government led to greater freedom of assembly and formation of political organizations than had been hitherto permitted. On July 25 a law was promulgated simplifying procedures for obtaining permission to hold political meetings or forming parties. At the same time, however, new regulations were imposed prohibiting women and children from attending political meetings or joining political parties. During sessions of the imperial Diet, outdoor gatherings or large-scale movements of people were prohibited within seven miles of the Diet buildings.

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Filed under democracy, economics, Japan, nationalism

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