restricted access Chapter 5. Serving the Political Parties, 1881 to 1886
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C H A P T E R 5 111 SERVING THE POLITICAL PARTIES 1881 to 1886 A political party without a newspaper is like an army without weapons. Jiyû Shimbun, June 25, 1882 The ancestral spirits must have returned troubled from Tokyo’s bon festival in the summer of 1881. Japan’s economy was staggering under stringent retrenchment policies aimed at countering years of serious and debilitating inflation; junior councillors were waxing venomous in their debates over what kind of governing system Japan should have; unrest over taxes and political impotence was spreading like a fever in the towns and villages; and officials were whispering behind closed doors about the “land scandal” in Hokkaido . What only the most prescient among those spirits could have known, however, was that all the troubles would erupt soon in a crisis chaotic enough to goad officials into drawing up Japan’s first constitution. What even those prescient ones probably would not have guessed was that this event, known to historians simply as the seihen or “political change” of 1881, would be even more cataclysmic for Japan’s press, that while it would energize Tokyo’s journalists and dramatize their growing influence, it also would trigger a wave of editorial partisanship bitter enough, in the end, to destroy the òshimbun brand of editing and require a wholesale reshaping of the entire journalistic institution. 112 Creating a Public THE CRISIS OF 1881 Two quite different developments, one political and one economic, led to the Crisis of 1881. On the political side, a debate had gone on for months already over the timing and nature of Japan’s coming constitutional system. The junior councillors had been ordered late in 1879 to prepare written memorandums on what kind of a constitution Japan should have, and most of them complied, recommending deliberate movement toward an authoritarian document that vested power primarily in the emperor and his advisors. Òkuma Shigenobu, the powerful finance minister, by contrast, had held off on submitting his written opinion until March 1881, and when the young Meiji Emperor insisted that he delay no longer, he complied with a proposal that touched off a storm. Òkuma, it turned out, had broken ranks. In contrast to Itò Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru, to whom he was thought to be close, he outlined a constitution that would create a British-style system, with the head of the Diet’s majority party serving as prime minister . He also called for speed; the constitution was to be issued forthwith ; legislative elections would be held in 1882 and the Diet convened “early in 1883.” In defense of popular government he wrote: “Constitutional government is government by political parties .” And about the more conservative proposals of his colleagues he sniped: “Love of power is the origin of the loss of power.”1 In other words, Òkuma wanted a constitutional system that transferred considerable power to the public, and he wanted it soon. To say that his fellow councillors were aghast is to state the superfluous . The fact that Òkuma was from Saga rather than Satsuma or Chòshû already had made some of them nervous about him; this breach of ideology was a major challenge. Itò reportedly “exploded in anger” and called him a “deputy” of Fukuzawa Yukichi.2 As Mikiso Hane puts it: “Òkuma had violated one of the cardinal principles of Japanese politics, that is, the need for each individual to work with the group to which he belongs without departing radically from the consensus.”3 The German physician Erwin Baelz, likely unaware of the struggle going on behind the closed doors of the bureaucracy, observed in June that Òkuma, “though a man of cheerful disposition . . . has changed a good deal of late, and suffers from a persistent cough.”4 One suspects the reasons were more than physical. The summer’s second unsettling development related to agricultural lands in Hokkaido. For a decade a Colonization Bureau had Serving the Political Parties 113 been pouring public monies into land reclamation and improvement there in an effort to spur the economic growth of one of the country’s most undeveloped regions. By 1881, more than fourteen million yen had been spent, and when officials began looking for ways to reduce heavy government deficits, the Hokkaido project emerged as an obvious target. So when Kuroda Kiyotaka, head of the Colonization Bureau, proposed that the project be disbanded and the lands sold, everyone agreed. Eyebrows were raised, however , when he urged that the sale be...


Subject Headings

  • Press and politics -- Japan -- History -- 19th century.
  • Press -- Japan -- History -- 19th century.
  • Japan -- History -- Meiji period, 1868-1912.
  • Public interest -- Japan -- History -- 19th century.
  • Journalism -- Social aspects -- Japan -- History -- 19th century.
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