Japanese Government: Historical vs. Contemporary

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

The government of Japan has changed greatly over the past centuries. In this lesson, we will track the involvement of two major institutions in Japanese politics -- the emperor and the military -- in that change.

Governments of Japan

Though Japan has had an emperor for hundreds of years, its government has changed dramatically over time. One thousand years ago, the emperor was a figurehead, while the emperor's father, known as the 'Cloistered Emperor,' held the real power from a different court behind the scenes. In the past 200 years, however, the Japanese government has undergone significant changes in leadership, from shogun to emperor to prime minister.

The Shogun

For hundreds of years, particularly from the late 12th century to the late 19th century, the emperor of Japan was a mere figurehead. Instead, it was a completely different person, the shogun, who held the real power. This military commander inherited his title, which was passed down from father to son. The emperor held a little power and could technically appoint a shogun; however, shoguns commanded the army, and so members of the imperial family were historically hesitant to challenge them. Ultimately, this led to a great deal of bloodshed, as different families often vied for power.

The Meiji Restoration

This infighting acted as a source of weakness for Japan. Finally, Emperor Meiji was given an opportunity to end his role as a figurehead and become a leader of Japan. The shogun at the time, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, allowed Emperor Meiji control over the government. In this move, known as the Meiji Restoration, full governing power was returned to the hands of the emperor for the first time in centuries. Over the next few decades, Emperor Meiji made many changes to modernize Japan and its government.

Ieyasu Tokugawa was the founder of the last shogunate

Growing Power of the Military

One area in which Emperor Meiji was very successful in achieving modernization was the military. Japan's military had proven itself capable of defeating European powers, most notably Russia. As a result, under the guise of increased nationalism, more and more posts were filled by military officers. This increased nationalism was coupled with a number of perceived offenses, such as treaties that treated Western powers better than the Japanese. A great example of this is the Washington Naval Conference between 1921 and 1922, in which British and American fleets were allowed to be larger than the Japanese fleet. This was eventually viewed as an attempt to limit Japanese power and influence, and, in turn, likely helped to establish the conditions for World War II.

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