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  • Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement by Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins
  • Walter Skya (bio)
Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement. By Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, Copenhagen, 2013. xviii, 312 pages. £50.00, cloth; £19.99, paper.

In Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan, Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins traces the careers and thought of “three post-Restoration radicals,” Minobe Tatsukichi (1873–1948), Sakai Toshihiko (1870–1933), and Saitō Takao (1870–1949), “who all embraced creative political dissent in the milieu of post-Restoration Japan” (p. viii). Each of the three men—constitutional legal scholar, socialist reformer, and important member of parliament, respectively—became politically active around 1905, and all three proposed alternatives for the prevailing orthodoxies of their time. [End Page 417]

In chapter 1, “The Post-Meiji Restoration: Modernisation and the Rise of the Authoritarian State,” Sasamoto-Collins explains that she organizes the findings in her book around the concept of “discretionary power,” which she defines as “executive power exercised without legal constraints” (p. 3). She notes that she is deeply indebted to Maruyama Masao’s writings, particularly his essay “Thought and Behavior Patterns of Japan’s Wartime Leaders,” originally published in the magazine Chōryō in 1949. Maruyama argued that when the Meiji leaders constructed the new Japanese state, they laid the foundations for the eventual destruction of the state. He theorized that “a system of irresponsibilities” inherent in the Meiji state structure and in Japanese society along with the irrationality of Japanese politics drove Japan to fascism and ultimately into full-scale war in East Asia and the Pacific. Sasamoto-Collins, however, employs the term “discretionary power” instead of Maruyama’s “irresponsibilities” in order to, as she states, “emphasize the systematic and institutional deficiencies in the [Japanese legal] system” (p. 3). She was also heavily influenced by British jurist and constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey (1835-1922), who defined the discretionary powers of government as “every kind of action which can legally be taken by the Crown, or by its servants, without the necessity for applying to Parliament for new statutory authority” (p. 4).

The author traces the process by which the various discretionary powers were created in Japan, focusing on the Charter Oath and the Five Board Notices, press and assembly laws, and the Constitution of the Empire of Great Japan. She examines how the expansion of discretionary powers of the state led to the subversion of the ideals of the Meiji state by the 1930s. She stresses that the constitution left ambiguous the division of authority between imperial ordinance (chokurei) and the law (hō) Chokurei is applied to executive power (taiken), while required the approval of the parliament. This “contest between chokurei and , between imperial executive power and representative government, continued throughout Japan’s prewar history” (p. 28). From her viewpoint, the inherent flaw of the constitution was that it gave support to supreme political authority with little or no accountability to the parliament. That is to say, theoretically no institution could check or stop executive power exercised in the name of the emperor. A good example of this was gunrei, direct imperial command of the army and the navy.

In chapter 2, “Minobe Tatsukichi: The Legal State and Its Obstacles,” Sasamoto-Collins discusses Minobe’s constitutional theory as a “critique of the political and legal structure of the pre-war Japanese polity” (p. 47) and attempts to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Minobe’s theory in that regard. She mentions that Minobe’s emperor-as-organ theory of the state, first articulated in 1912, which denied the emperor’s personal political [End Page 418] rule, ran directly counter to discretionary power. Nevertheless, she emphasizes that despite governmental hostility and some ideological resistance, the emperor-as-organ theory of the state had become commonly accepted. In fact, Sasamoto-Collins stresses that parliamentary politics, despite the dominance of executive power in the constitution, did begin to function as early as 1898, ten years after the first general election, and that Japan’s first party-based cabinet was established as a result of an intensified confrontation between the government and...


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