UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Constitutional oligarchy : the complex unity of the imperial Japanese state in the face of crisis Fraser, Nicholas A. R.


Under the Meiji Constitution, a political system designed to create an institutional framework that allowed for the sustained oligarchic rule of the Meiji Genrō, Japan experienced multiple crises generated by popular upheaval against the government during the interwar years. One was an economic crisis in 1918 triggered by Japan’s participation in the First World War which generated an unprecedented level of popular protests in the form of nation-wide riots and some strikes. Known as the Rice Riots, this crisis threatened to unleash a confrontation of the Meiji Genrō by political parties holding seats in the Diet who sought to establish party-led cabinets. A second crisis occurred in 1936 when 1400 soldiers of the Imperial Army stationed in Tokyo occupied government buildings and assassinated several high-ranking government officials in an attempt to set up a an all-military cabinet. While both party-politicians and military officers had further expanded their influence over the policy-process after these crises neither set of actors suspended, revised or replaced the Meiji Constitutional system. It is the purpose of this thesis to explore the reason why the Imperial Japanese polity was not structurally altered as a result of power change that accompanied the Rice Riots and the 1936 Incident. This essay makes two arguments about the Meiji Constitutional system’s sustainability during the prewar years. First, it argues that the Meiji Constitutional system due to institutional design and elite political culture functioned in practice as an oligarchic state. Second, it argues that the reason the Meiji Constitution was never revised, suspended or discarded during the course of regime change was because political parties and high ranking military officers ended up using the same strategies as the Meiji Genrō to successfully maneuver the institutional structure of the policy-process. Hence, in the process of learning how to master the institutional dynamics of the political system, they eventually overcame legislative deadlock and in the process stabilized the oligarchic state without having to reform it in order to expand their power within it.

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