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Jan 6, 2017

Jiyu Minken: The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement

“As new ideas and concepts flooded into Japan following its opening to the West, many Japanese [confronted] the problem of creating their own words for them.”

Following his departure from the central government in Tokyo, Itagaki was appointed the chief executive officer of Tosa.  The appointment itself would have likely irked Itagaki, as one of his main contentions was that prefectural leaders should be elected rather than appointed, as they had been under the Tokugawa.  Nevertheless, Itagaki made the most of his power, building in Tosa what he failed to build in the whole of Japan.  Like his predecessors, he focused on modernization, trade, and the shipping industry.  He reduced the number of restrictions on private businesses and made the process for obtaining permits easier.  He even managed to pass a handful of democratic reforms while he was at it.  However, at the same time, Itagaki was growing increasingly radical in his beliefs.  Public burnings of old Tokugawa era handbooks were common under his administration.

Itagaki’s reforms in Tosa, combined with increased public awareness and interest in liberal ideas became the foundation of jiyu minken undo, or the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement.  “Jiyu minken quickly became the signature rallying cry for many Japanese liberals, which is fascinating in part because the words jiyu and minken had only entered the Japanese lexicon within the previous twenty years.  As new ideas and concepts flooded into Japan following its opening to the West, many Japanese were confronted with the problem of creating their own words for them.  They did this by forming compound words with existing Chinese characters and their respective pronunciations, known as onyomi.1  Jiyu, for example, combined the Chinese characters for “self” and “purpose” to create the word for “freedom.”  Similarly, the characters for “people” and “right” were combined to form minken, to express the concept of “natural rights,” which is loosely translated back into “people’s rights” in English.  Sir George Sansom, an early Western observer of Japanese history and culture, noted that these terms took on nearly mythic qualities.2  Jiyu, in particular, came to be associated with Taoist principles such as a free-moving spirit.3

Together with friends and allies such as Shojiro Goto and Ryoma Sakamoto, Taisuke Itagaki formed the Public Society of Patriots in 1874.  The organization’s name was chosen to evade Meiji censorship laws, as the government, sensing unrest, was increasingly cracking down on the jiyu minken movement.  Itagaki sought to use his proto-political party to influence the direction of Japanese politics, such as actively campaigning and petitioning for direct election of government officials.  In a public statement made not long after the group’s inception, the Public Society of Patriots minced no words regarding their vision for a more liberal Japan:

The decrees of the government appear in the morning and are changed in the evening, the administration is conducted in an arbitrary manner; rewards and punishments are prompted by partiality, the channel by which the people should communicate with the government is blocked up and they cannot state their grievances …4

Itagaki and his society were clearly upset by arbitrary rule and the lack of democratic reform.  How could a government best serve its citizens, if its citizens were robbed of their voice?  Itagaki goes on:

The people whose duty it is to pay taxes to the government possess the right of sharing in their government’s affairs and of approving or condemning.  This is a principle universally acknowledged and it is not necessary to waste words in discussing it.

How is society5 to be made strong?  It is by the people of the empire becoming of one mind … The establishment of a council chamber chosen by the people will create a community of feeling between the government and the people, and they will mutually unite into one body.  Then and only then will the country become strong …6

In these two paragraphs, the influence of the French Enlightenment on Itagaki and his followers is readily apparent.  Itagaki was very interested in social contract theory and the legitimacy of state authority.  His conviction regarding this was so strong that he held it as a universal truth and saw no use in attempting to justify it.  The influence of Rousseau, in particular, on Itagaki is on display in the second paragraph, where he paraphrases Rousseau’s ideas regarding the “general will,” claiming the Japanese people will become “of one mind.”  The distinctly French flavor of classical liberalism espoused by Itagaki and his followers would eventually come into conflict with a more British-oriented liberal movement led by men such as Yukichi Fukuzawa and Shigenobu Okuma.  However, for the time being, the jiyu minken movement was small enough that significant divisions within the movement had yet to develop.

In other parts of the document, Itagaki shows interest in American schools of thought on liberalism as well.  Liberty, he asserts, is “an assumption which requires no defense,”7 echoing the reference in the Declaration of Independence to the “self-evident” fact that people possess “inalienable rights.”

Also of note is Itagaki’s preoccupation with the “strength” of the Japanese nation.  As it had in the events leading up to the Boshin War, Japan’s economic and technological inferiority to Western powers caused immense anxiety among the Japanese population, and preoccupation with making Japan a powerful nation-state was a mark of early Meiji policy discussions.  It also signifies a major distinction between Japanese and Western liberals.  While many Western liberal thinkers arrived at their conclusions through philosophy and theories of rights, many Japanese liberals embraced their new ideologies from a strongly consequentialist perspective, interested primarily in enabling Japan to become a major political power.  In essence, if democracy and laissez-faire capitalism had been the drivers of economic and technological progress in the West, then Japan should seek to emulate them. 

That is not to say, however, that Japanese liberals had no use for classical liberalism on moral grounds.  Quite the contrary.  Around the same time as Itagaki and Goto spearheaded the Public Society of Patriots, a number of private schools dedicated to providing a Western-style education sprung up throughout the country.  Shijuku, as such schools were known, taught not only Western sciences, which had been the focus of rangaku schools during the Tokugawa period, but Western literature and philosophy as well.  Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill were at the top of many shijuku reading lists, with men like Rousseau, Locke, and Guizot not far behind.  Despite attempts by the Japanese government to limit the propagation of classical liberal ideas through media censorship, many Japanese were intrigued, and the demand to attend such schools was high.

Shijuku eventually eclipsed the Public Society of Patriots as the forefront of the jiyu minken movement.  Unsatisfied with their ideas being confined to classroom, many shijuku organized traveling debate teams consisting of student and scholar alike.  By the mid-1870s, debate teams had become the most popular and effective way of spreading classical liberal ideas to the masses.  In addition to calling for public election of government officials, they sought increased democratic reforms at the local level.  Local government in Meiji Japan was nominally democratic, but citizens had to pay a fee if they wanted to vote or run for office, effectively limiting democracy to shizoku and wealthy heimin, disenfranchising a large chunk of the Japanese population.  The debate teams sought to reverse this.  Some shijuku activists went so far as to advocate the expansion of voting rights to women, nearly fifty years prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in the United States.  These debate teams worried many government officials in Tokyo.  Eifu Motoda, the conservative Confucian tutor of the Meiji Emperor, disparaged shijuku as “political discussion gangs.”8

The two most prominent shijuku within the jiyu minken movement were Keio in Tokyo and Risshisha in Tosa.  Risshisha was founded by Itagaki, and took its name from the translation of Self-Help, a book by the British author Samuel Smiles about how even those born into poverty could succeed if they had the necessary perseverance.  Itagaki projected those values onto Japan as a nation.9  At Risshisha, Itagaki continued to push liberal ideas into the mainstream.

Even more influential than Risshisha was Keio, founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa, a former student of rangaku and the foremost advocate of Western-style education in Japan.  Inspired by Herbert Spencer’s concepts of militant societies and industrial societies, Fukuzawa concluded that pre-Meiji Japan, with its rigid hierarchy and military dictatorship under the Shogun, was a perfect match with Spencer’s depiction of a militant society.  In order to transition to the more preferable industrial society, Japan would need to evolve.  For Fukuzawa, the path to Japan’s evolution lay in education.  He stressed not only the teaching Western sciences and philosophies, but adapting Western teaching methods as well.  In keeping with Fukuzawa’s vision, Keio introduced closer teacher-student relationships and emphasized critical thought and rational analysis.10  Keio’s brand of liberalism was more reserved than the often fiery rhetoric that came from Risshisha, and although Fukuzawa could at times be a fierce critic of government policy, he was in much better public standing than his contemporary, Itagaki.

As the jiyu minken movement gained steam, government fear continued to mount.  The Meiji government had good reason to be fearful of dissidents.  It had already weathered several attempted insurrections and uprisings, and, although the jiyu minken movement was non-violent, many officials worried it wouldn’t stay that way for long.  The major drivers of unrest in the decade following the Boshin War were disgruntled shizoku.  The shizoku class, consisting overwhelmingly of former samurai, felt betrayed by the kazoku and the Meiji oligarchs.  While the uprisings that led to the Boshin War and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor had been fueled largely by anti-foreign sentiment and sonnojoi, the established Meiji government was quick to abandon these principles.  Former rebels watched in anger as the new government adopted Western styles of dress, reformed traditional institutions, and advocated foreign trade and diplomacy.  Their anger was compounded by the new peerage system.  While shizoku were not subjected to nearly the number of restrictions that had been placed on samurai, for many former samurai it was still a perpetuation of the system that came before, with the oligarchs and the kazoku taking on the role of the daimyo and the bakufu.  In 1877, unrest in Satsuma erupted into the Satsuma Rebellion, the most violent anti-Meiji uprising yet.

Takamori Saigo, the most prominent general of the Boshin War and a national hero, had quit the government around the same time as Taisuke Itagaki and Shojiro Goto.  Like Itagaki and Goto, Saigo established a shijuku in his home province of Satsuma, but unlike the school of his former compatriots, Saigo’s school served as a front for a massive paramilitary training program.  Saigo, like many former rebels, was angered by the Meiji government’s rejection of sonnojoi.  He grew increasingly militaristic, advocating for an invasion of Korea in the months leading up to his departure.  Following an alleged assassination attempt by police officers who had infiltrated his compound in Satsuma, Saigo utilized the opportunity to launch a widespread revolt.  The rebellion was eventually crushed with Saigo himself committing seppuku, but not before the rebels scored multiple decisive victories over the Japanese Army, at one point controlling most of Kyushu.

Press censorship and crackdowns on dissent, while present prior to the Satsuma Rebellion, intensified in the aftermath.  The jiyu minken movement was a major casualty of this crackdown.  Liberal newspapers were ordered shut down, and shijuku were closely monitored.  These restrictions occurred despite the vocal denouncements of the Satsuma Rebellion by leaders of the movement.  Even the pugnacious Itagaki, when confronted by a group of followers clamoring to join forces with Saigo, said, “Saigo fights the government with arms; we will fight them with minken.”11


  1. Chinese characters, called kanji in Japanese, have two pronunciations in the Japanese language, known as kunyomi and onyomiKunyomi are based on the traditional Japanese pronunciation of the word a character represents, whereas onyomi are an adaptation of the Chinese pronunciation.
  2. Richard Rubinger, “Education: From One Room to One System,” in Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, ed. Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 210.
  3. Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 380.
  4. Ibid, 378.
  5. In post-sakoku Japan, the Japanese words for “society” and “government” were fluid.  Given the context here, Itagaki was more likely referencing the strength of the Japanese society or nation, rather than the “government” as it appears in the original translation.  A similar phenomenon can be observed with the word “polis” in the works of many Greek philosophers.
  6. Ibid, 378.
  7. Ibid, 378.
  8. Rubinger, 221.
  9. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, 379.
  10. Rubinger, 220.
  11. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, 377.

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