Rights and Responsibilities: Looking at the Meiji Constitution

Rights and Responsibilities: Looking at the Meiji Constitution

Background Information.

In the years before this period Japan had been a “patchwork” nation under a feudal system. Multiple domains were governed separately by lords called “daimyo” and, although there was an emperor, there was no cohesive governing body. The Meiji period is referred to as the “Meiji Restoration” because during this period governing power was restored to the emperor. To this end, the feudal domains were combined and replaced with a centralized government. Furthermore, the capital was relocated from Kyoto to Tokyo to reinforce the idea that this was the beginning of a new era.

The new government was structured as an oligarchy, which is a government ruled by a small, elite group of people. The Meiji Oligarchs, as they are referred to, wrote a document called the Charter Oath (or literally translated Oath in Five Articles) and gave it to the emperor to present it to the people in 1868. This document outlined five principles for the role of citizens in the new government. These principles were worded in a way that seemed to promote freedom and unity for every person throughout Japan. However, the Oligarchs explicitly withheld certain freedoms at the same time. These restrictions included the banning of Christianity and the prohibition of political parties, rioting and bearing arms to protest the government.

In 1889, as a result of pressure from the people who wanted more of a voice in the government, the Meiji Oligarchs drafted what has become known as the Meiji Constitution. After researching the constitutional documents of various nations, the leaders decided that the U.S. Constitution was too liberal and the British system gave too much power to Parliament. Instead, they chose the constitution of Imperial Germany (Prussia) as a model for the Meiji Constitution, which was adopted in 1889. In drafting this document the main concern of the leaders was the balancing of power between the emperor and the Parliament. The result was a vaguely structured constitutional monarchy that preserved the power of the emperor and provided for a popularly elected Parliament that was weak. Furthermore, several aspects of the people’s freedom were still conditional under the Meiji Constitution.

Taxation was another issue that the people of Japan became discontented with during this period. Existing taxes were increased and new taxes were imposed, both as a result of Japan’s military expansion and imperialism. People were burdened under the high taxes and felt that paying higher taxes should give them more say in the government. A political cartoon of the time depicts a man carrying a heavy package and weights on his back labeled “taxes.”

With the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912 the Taisho Emperor came into power. Partly because of this emperor’s bad health and physical weakness, there was a shift in power during this time to the Parliament and the Cabinet and political parties. In addition to a weak emperor, protests and riots broke out in response to high taxes and inflation, especially in the price of rice. As a result of these “Rice Riots,” the president of the majority party in Parliament was appointed Prime Minister in 1918. Takashi was the first PM who was a commoner. Furthermore, suffrage laws were slackened, granting universal male suffrage, increasing the voting population to 12.5 million from 3.3 million just a few years before. Because the public and the “common man” were granted a voice in government during this period, it is referred to as the “Taisho Democracy.”

In the years that followed the Taisho Emperor’s death in 1926 the new democratic government was challenged by various economic difficulties and, after the assassination of the Prime Minister (Tsuyoshi) in 1932, gave way to a government ruled by military officials and the military. Instability and military rule governed Japan until the country was democratized with the end of World War 2.

Learning Goals.

Students will identify how government can both protect and restrict freedom.

Students will identify the ways in which people can influence the government.

Standards. Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 4.  Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Standard 4.  Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 

Key Concept.

Japan emerged through the people’s struggle as a united nation under a primitive democratic government that served as a foundation for modern Japan.

Essential Question.

How is this period in Japan different or similar to the founding of America and its struggle for independence in the previous century?

When should a government limit people’s freedom?

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

Why would a centralized government be desirable?



Focus Activity Ideas.

  1. Ask students to imagine that they are emperor/empress of a new nation.  Have them list and then share between one and 3 laws they would create. 
  2. Ask students to list 2 or 3 ways they try to influence their family’s decisions.  (Useful if the lesson will focus on how people with less power influence group decisions)
  3. Ask students to make 3 lists: Things they HAVE TO do, and THINGS THEY ARE ALLOWED TO DO, THINGS THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO.  Use these lists to introduce the concept of rights, responsibilities, and limitations on rights.

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

Study the Meiji Constitution to understand how a government can both limit and protect freedom.

  1. For reference, read Meiji Constitution text, focusing particularly on Chapter II:
    (Note: This is for the teacher’s background, the text is too difficult for most elementary school students.)
  2. Based on the focus activity, explain or discuss the difference between rights, responsibilities, and restrictions on rights.
  3. Using the handout, which summarizes portions of Chapter II in simplified language, have the students divide these provisions into “rights, responsibilities, and restrictions on rights”
  4. Choosing provisions that are of most interest to your class, have them consider whether a particular provision is “fair” or “unfair” and “necessary” or “unnecessary” and why.
  5. Debate: Set up two teams to have a debate. Have each team come up with 4 or 5 points to support whether Chapter II of the Constitution was good or bad for Japan. Team elected spokespersons can present their points. The team can take notes on how to argue against the opposing team’s points.  (Some questions you may want to help student this about, in an age appropriate manner: Did the Meiji Constitution make the people’s lives better or worse? Did it make Japan stronger as a nation?)
  6. Family Feud: Divide the class into two teams. One team should come up with five positive ways in which the constitution helped make Japan a stronger nation or a fairer nation during this time (Government team). The other teams should come up with five ways in which the people could be oppressed by the government based on the constitution during this time (People’s team). The teams should list these into rank order with the most important or significant being first and assign point values to each to add up to 100. The teacher will host the game. The teacher will choose one volunteer from the Government team and ask them to name one of the five significant points that the People’s team came up with. If the volunteer can name one of them the teacher will award the team the corresponding number of points. Then the teacher will choose a volunteer from the People’s team to name one of the five significant points that the Government team listed. Each team takes turns until one of the teams reaches 100 points.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Have students pretend that they are writing their own constitution and studied the 1889 Japanese Constitution as a model.  Have each student write down one right they think everybody should have, and one responsibility everybody should have.  Call on a few students, and get them to explain, if they can, why they think that particular right or responsibility was most important.


Duus, Peter. Modern Japan. 2nd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Lu, David, ed. Japan: A Modern History. Volume II, The Late Tokugawa Period to the Present. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

McClain, James. Japan, A Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Menton, Linda et al. The Rise of Modern Japan, Curriculum on Asian and Pacific History Series: Book 2. Honolulu, HI: Curriculum Research and Development Group University of Hawaii and University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

Pyle, Kenneth. The Making of Modern Japan. 2nd Ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Wray, Harry and Hilary Conroy, eds. Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Videos: “The Meiji Revolution.” The Pacific Century, Vol. 2. Dir. Carl Byker. PBS. 1992; “Men of Action.” Japan: The Changing Tradition, Vol. 19. Dir. Smokey Forester. 1978.