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Government, Constitution

Meiji constitution, express limitations, emperor Meiji, parliamentary government, constitutional revision

The Constitution of Japan became effective in 1947 as an amendment to the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (also called the Meiji constitution for the emperor Meiji, who promulgated it). The 1947 constitution was created during the military occupation of Japan by the Allied Powers following World War II and reflects reforms proposed by the occupation authorities. Occupation officials produced a draft constitution, which was revised by American and Japanese officials. The draft was then debated in Japan’s parliament, where Japanese legislators added nearly four dozen amendments. The resulting constitution made several fundamental changes to Japan’s government, the most significant of which involved the structure of government.

The Meiji constitution was adopted not long after Japan opened its borders to the West. It attempted both to preserve the authority of the centuries-old imperial line and to introduce a parliamentary government, which necessarily limited the power of the emperor. The result was a sometimes-ambiguous delegation of powers. The Meiji constitution enshrined the emperor at the top of government, granting him the authority to declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, command the military, and promulgate all laws. However, in practice and by tradition, the emperor remained passive, allowing others to act in his name.

The Meiji constitution also failed to provide an effective mechanism for resolving conflicts between the executive and legislative branches of government. Any new legislation, including the annual budget, required the approval of both the emperor’s executive cabinet of ministers and the legislature. Yet the politically powerful cabinet was not responsible to the relatively weak legislature. This situation led to frequent battles between the branches, as lawmakers used their power over the budget to obtain leverage in other matters. The constitution did not contain express limitations on the legislature’s powers, so the judiciary had no occasion to review statutes for their constitutionality—and thereby to check legislative overreaching. The constitution did, however, significantly restrict the scope and substance of administrative enactments. Thus the courts, which were fully independent of the political branches, played an important role in enforcing these constraints. The military was able to exploit this standoff between the branches to take effective control of the government during the years leading up to World War II. Military leaders claimed that they were not subject to civilian control because the emperor—the nation’s absolute sovereign—was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The postwar constitution corrected most of these structural shortcomings. The emperor continues to function as head of state, but only as a symbol of the nation. His duties now are primarily ceremonial, such as receiving ambassadors and convening legislative sessions. All law-making authority is vested in the Diet, a bicameral (two-house) legislature. The executive cabinet is fully accountable to the legislature, with the majority party (or coalition) in the Diet selecting a prime minister, who then appoints a cabinet. The judiciary has the authority to rule on the constitutionality of all legislation.

The postwar constitution also expanded and more fully protected the political and social rights of Japanese citizens. The Meiji constitution had granted a number of rights to subjects of the emperor, including the right to trial by judges and freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. None of these rights were absolute, however. All could be modified by statute. By contrast, the postwar constitution guarantees more than 25 specific rights and freedoms of Japanese citizens. Among the rights protected by the constitution are the rights to minimum standards of living and equal education, the right to work, and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Constitutionally protected freedoms include freedom from discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, social status or family origin,” freedom of occupation, and academic freedom. Most of these rights and freedoms can be limited by legislation if necessary for the public welfare.

The most controversial aspect of the postwar constitution is Article 9, which demilitarized Japan. By its provisions, Japan renounces war or the threat of war as a means of settling international disputes and is prohibited from maintaining military forces. Although its origins are disputed, Article 9 was included in the constitution at the insistence of the occupation authorities.

Japan’s constitution has not been amended since 1947, although from time to time proposals are introduced to revise some of its provisions, particularly those on demilitarization and the status of the emperor. Public support for constitutional revision is weak, as acceptance of the constitution and its fundamental principles has broadened over time.

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