“Where Japanese liberals failed to gain political power, they gained popular influence,” popularizing previously unknown ideas to the Japanese public.

Michael received his B.A. (2016) from the University of Michigan in history, with a specialization in East Asian history. His thesis, “Reverse Course: The Secret Battle for the Japanese Economy”, focused on the ideological disputes involved in the reconstruction of the Japanese economy after World War II and won the William P. Malm Award for Outstanding Student Writing in Japanese Studies and the Arthur Fondiler Award for Best Undergraduate Thesis. He worked as an intern for the Cato Institute and Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org in Fall 2016.

In 1881, using the former Public Society of Patriots as a jumping off point, Itagaki and his followers founded a proper political party. Although Itagaki believed that in a truly democratic society where people could rule through the “general will,” there would be no need for political parties, he recognized that he needed a strong political base in the interim if his goals were to be accomplished. 1 The new party would be named Jiyuto, or the Freedom Party.

Jiyuto was founded not in Tosa, home of Risshisha and the heart of the liberal movement, but in Osaka. Itagaki had found an ally in local sake brewers, who were upset with high government taxation on their businesses. According to Itagaki, the “purpose” of Jiyuto was to “enjoy nature‐​given happiness, by propagating the truth of liberty, cultivating popular power, and limiting artificial power.” 2 Like the jiyu minken movement and other groups upset with the status quo, Jiyuto’s founders consisted primarily of disaffected shizoku. However, Jiyuto was quickly able to spread its message beyond just shizoku. As with Osaka’s sake brewers, Jiyuto’s promises to lower taxes were appealing to a variety of different groups, particularly rural farmers. This popularity among farmers was so strong that it eventually led to the stereotype that Jiyuto was a party for country bumpkins.

Jiyuto scored a major contributor to its cause in Chomin Nakae. Nakae was notable for having been one of the first Japanese to study abroad in France, alongside his longtime friend and business partner Saionji Kinmochi. An admirer of French liberalism, Nakae provided the first Japanese translations of Rousseau’s Social Contract and the French legal code. Back in Japan, Nakae had been highly active in the jiyu minken movement, often running afoul of government officials. Along with Kinmochi, he briefly started a major liberal newspaper in Tokyo, the Toyo Jiyu Shinbun (or the Asian Liberal Press), but it was shut down in under a month. A skilled writer, Nakae lent his talents to the newly founded Jiyuto, serving as their top publicist.

A year later, another liberal party, Kaishinto (short for Rikken Kaishinto, or the Constitutional Reform Party), emerged. The main figure behind Kaishinto was Shigenobu Okuma. While Itagaki and Okuma both favored increased modernization, openness to the West, democratic reforms, and policies limiting the scope of government and advancing civil liberties, their personal styles could not have been more different. Itagaki was a political outsider, a former revolutionary, and a rabble‐​rouser, whereas Okuma was an insider, reserved, and willing to negotiate and make incremental changes. Their differing styles were also reflected in their influences. Itagaki was partial to sweeping, revolutionary changes, often fixated with the American and French Revolutions. Okuma, on the other hand, preferred the British parliamentary tradition, believing the Japanese government should emulate the British version of limited monarchy.

While Itagaki had abandoned the central government in a fury in the mid‐​1870s, Okuma remained behind, eventually establishing himself firmly within the ranks of the Meiji oligarchy. For a while, Okuma’s patience with gradual reform appeared to pay off. Pressured by the jiyu minken movement and political shijuku, Okuma was assigned the task of drafting an official constitution for the new Japanese government. Okuma did so, drafting a constitution with a nobility‐​controlled upper house and a democratically elected lower house, where political parties could promote their agendas through majority rule or by forming coalitions with other parties. Okuma’s proposed constitution was sternly rejected by the other oligarchs, with many claiming it infringed upon “the sovereignty of the Emperor.” 3 Other attempts to draft a constitution were put on ice, and following the Satsuma Rebellion, Okuma found his peers growing less and less receptive to his ideas.

Frustrated, Okuma hoped Kaishinto could bring about the changes he longed for. Like Jiyuto, Kaishinto was another party consisting principally of shizoku, but unlike Jiyuto, who had a strong rural base, Kaishinto had a strong following among urban elites. As a result, divisions between Jiyuto and Kaishinto occurred not only over the flavor of liberalism they sought to propagate, but also the cultures of the two parties. The urban elites within Kaishinto often looked scornfully at Jiyuto’s rural base, who were regarded as uncouth ruffians.

That is not to say the two parties were unwilling to work together. Multiple attempts were made to coordinate the two parties’ efforts towards a common end, although these attempts often ran into barriers. One of the main problems was increasing radicalism within Jiyuto. Jiyuto’s rural populist base consisted of many of the people who had clamored for sonnojoi a decade prior. Their opinions may have changed, but the ferocity of their convictions had not. Additionally, the party had become very attractive to young men who had grown up during the chaos of the Bakumatsu, the Boshin War, and subsequent incidents of unrest. These youngsters clung to Jiyuto’s ideology with fervor unmatched by anyone within Kaishinto’s constituency.

The same year, Itagaki and Goto visited Europe to speak with many of their own personal idols. Although many European liberals were encouraged by the Japanese embrace of classical liberal ideas, they also had some reservations. Herbert Spencer, a man revered by Jiyuto and Kaishinto alike, had a Burkean‐​type skepticism regarding the speed at which Japan was modernizing. He believed that old Japanese institutions were too quickly being eroded, and that such a process could lead to the breakdown of Japanese society. 4 Spencer was also troubled by Itagaki’s rhetoric, drawing parallels between his ideology and the fanaticism that had led to the French Reign of Terror.

Eventually, Itagaki travelled to London to meet with Spencer. By all accounts, their meeting got off to a good start, with Itagaki appearing to worship the ground Spencer walked on. However, things soon took a turn for the worse. As Itagaki grew more comfortable around Spencer, he began to pontificate about his vision for liberalism in Japan, often cutting Spencer off when he voiced any objections. In the end, Spencer became so fed up with Itagaki’s sermonizing that he simply walked out of the room, ending the meeting early. 5

However, after meeting several other liberal thinkers throughout Europe, Itagaki returned to Japan more moderated in his views. He largely abandoned his utopian vision for the future. Jiyuto would focus on making small steps toward increased liberty, abandoning the sweeping and immediate changes that had come before. Many of his colleagues came to agree with Itagaki, however, much of Jiyuto’s rural base chafed at this new moderation.

Itagaki and Goto’s return from Europe coincided with rising government oppression and censorship of liberal and pro‐​democratic organizations. Multiple publications supporting Kaishinto and Jiyuto were shut down, leading to some creative solutions to evade further censorship. Chomin Nakae, for example, staged “drunken conversations” as a means of performing a staged debate, where the debaters argued different points regarding liberty and the role of government. 6 Other aspects of the government’s crackdown were less humorous. In late 1882, Itagaki was nearly assassinated by a disgruntled police officer. After the assailant was apprehended and Itagaki lay wounded on the ground, he allegedly shouted, “Itagaki may die, but liberty never!” 7 For this reason, Itagaki is sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Patrick Henry.”

In the midst of the government’s crackdown on dissent and renewed unrest in the countryside, an even greater peril had emerged: the Matsukata deflation. Named after Masayoshi Matsukata, the finance minister, the Matsukata deflation resulted from attempts by Matsukata and the government to stabilize prices following a bout of high inflation. In some respects, Matsukata’s policies might be regarded positively by a libertarian onlooker. He balanced the budget and ended government support to all non‐​military industries. However, in the same breath he established a central bank, the Bank of Japan, fostered a highly centralized and cartel‐​like banking system, and jacked up taxes in order to offset government expenditures. The bulk of these new taxes came in the form of land taxes and sin taxes, hence the strong support for Jiyuto among farmers and sake brewers. The problems with the land tax would trouble Japan all the way until World War II, with most farmers, unable to pay the land tax on their own, trapped in high‐​rent tenancy systems similar to sharecropping.

However, the most defining aspect of Matsukata’s fiscal reforms and the one that bred the most discontent was a highly contractive monetary policy. The corresponding “Matsukata deflation” increased government revenue, allowing them to make the most out of the new taxes. The already high taxes on farmers were compounded by the fact that they now had to pay more in real terms, and tenant farmers, many already indebted to their landlords, found it difficult to pay off their loans. As prices dropped, many farmers cut production in order to mitigate their losses, leading to shortages in the food supply. Itagaki and Jiyuto had successfully championed their cause in the countryside by holding up Matsukata and the deflationary crisis as a result of a highly centralized government with minimal democratic institutions. 8

Unfortunately for Jiyuto, rural anger with the government flared up to much greater levels than its leaders had anticipated. Despite Itagaki’s calls for civility and pacifism, several small‐​scale rebellions were launched almost simultaneously. Unlike the Satsuma Rebellion, which had been unaffiliated with the jiyu minken movement, these rebels openly declared their support for Jiyuto. Itagaki watched in horror as his own party disintegrated before his eyes, with members split about their feelings towards the rebels. When Itagaki eventually disbanded the party, many of the more radical elements left Japan in protest for places like the United States, Britain, and France, convinced their dreams of a free and democratic Japan would never be realized. The rebellions were easily put down by Meiji forces, and, with Jiyuto gone, Kaishinto remained the sole liberal political party in Japan.

By the mid‐​1880s, Japan’s early and promising progress towards greater liberty in Japan appeared to have fizzled out. Jiyuto had dissolved and Kaishinto’s influence remained weak. While the failure of Japan’s first classical liberal political parties appeared to signal the demise of the jiyu minken movement, this was far from the case. Where Japanese liberals failed to gain political power, they gained popular influence. Through their efforts, previously unknown ideologies became known to the everyday Japanese. They had shifted political conversation towards topics such as freedom, natural rights, and democracy, despite the Meiji government’s best efforts to squelch their ideas. In the end, fearful of outbreaks of violence, the government made a series of incremental concessions to the jiyu minken movement.

Prefectural‐​level public assemblies were early concessions to the movement, although many of these assemblies were shut down in the aftermath of rebellions in the countryside. The power of these assemblies was relatively limited anyway, with most power invested in officials appointed by the central government. A far more resilient demand of the jiyu minken movement was for a written constitution.

The Japanese government had made earlier attempts at writing a constitution. Disagreements over Shigenobu Okuma’s British‐​inspired constitution had led to his departure from the government and the subsequent formation of Kaishinto. However, by this time, public demand for a constitution was enough that the Meiji oligarchs couldn’t simply scrap the project. Instead, Hirobumi Ito took up the task of designing a constitution, looking to the great Western powers for inspiration. The American and French constitutions were rejected almost immediately. He briefly mulled over a modified version of the British parliamentary system (Britain lacked, and still lacks, a written constitution), but ultimately decided that such a system gave too much power to Parliament and would reduce the Emperor to a figurehead. Ito also feared what might happen if a liberal party like Kaishinto or Jiyuto won a majority in the Diet. Finally, Ito settled on the German constitution, attracted to the powers granted to the Kaiser and its democracy‐​lite parliamentary system.

The Diet was reimagined as a bicameral legislature with the House of Peers, consisting of members of the kazoku, and the House of Representatives, whose members could now be directly elected. The poll tax remained though, so many poor Japanese, including large chunks of Jiyuto’s rural base, were disenfranchised. Universal male suffrage would not be realized until the 1920s, and women’s suffrage did not start until after World War II.

While the Diet could operate as a lawmaking body, Ito was sure to make that the extent of its power. The cabinet and the armed forces were kept deliberately from the influence of the Diet, and placed under the authority of the Emperor. Cabinet ministers were appointed directly by the Emperor, or more accurately, the circle of senior statesmen and oligarchs advising the Emperor. While at first pass, it might appear as though the Meiji Constitution granted enormous power to the Emperor, much of it was only nominal. For example, the Emperor was commander‐​in‐​chief except during wartime, when his responsibilities were instead delegated to a bureaucratic committee. The utter lack of substantial checks and balances on the different branches of the government would eventually allow the rise of right‐​wing elements during the 1930s. Right‐​wing extremists first gained control of the military and then the cabinet, from there imposing their will on the more moderate Diet.

The legislature would ratify the Meiji Constitution in 1889. For the former members of the jiyu minken movement, it was a bitter pill to swallow. They got the constitution they had long fought for, but its contents were far from what they had envisioned. Nevertheless, direct elections to the House of Representatives meant that Japanese liberals could hold some sway in the operations of the government, and many liberals jumped at the opportunity to run for office.

In 1887, Jiyuto was reestablished by Shojiro Goto, and by 1898, in order to expand their influence in the Diet, Jiyuto merged with Kaishinto and several nationalist parties to form Kenseito, or the Constitution Party. The result was a party that was economically liberal, but embraced a hawkish foreign policy, a coalition similar to that of the Republican Party of the United States. Itagaki, himself a pacifist who opposed Japan’s wars with China and Russia, was less than happy with the arrangement, but resigned himself to the notion that liberals would need to compromise in some areas to see through their objectives in others. He justified Kenseito’s aggressive foreign policy by claiming it was what the voters had voted for. 9 Itagaki ended his political career soon after Kenseito’s formation. After his death nearly two decades later, he was posthumously made a member of the kazoku, an honor he had rejected repeatedly in life. Goto, who eventually accepted a kazoku title upon being appointed a cabinet minister, died of a heart attack right before the merger.

On the Kaishinto side, Shigenobu Okuma and Yukichi Fukuzawa would live out industrious careers. As the leader of Kenseito, Okuma served twice as Prime Minister of Japan. However, both his terms were fairly short, and he accomplished little in the way of democratic or economic reforms. He would found and serve as president of Waseda University in Tokyo, which remains one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. Fukuzawa, for his part, transcended his fame as the founder of Keio. He was a frequently contributor for Jiji Shinpo, a popular newspaper, and wrote numerous books on the West and education. If Itagaki was Japan’s Patrick Henry, then Fukuzawa was Japan’s Benjamin Franklin. Both Fukuzawa and Franklin are regarded as national heroes and appear on their respective country’s highest‐​value banknote, despite never having held political office.

The robust classical liberal movement prior to and following the Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration paints a different picture than what many Westerners associate with prewar Japan. Far from being “paternalistic and Prussian,” a term used by Alfred Hussey, a U.S. Army officer involved in the occupation of Japan after World War II, 10 Japan could have been very different.

Yet Japan’s homegrown liberty movement of the late 19th century is often forgotten. After World War II, modern Japanese democracy was engineered based on observations of America under the New Deal, and arguments for limited government became less and less frequent. Nonetheless, libertarians should remember men like Taisuke Itagaki and Yukichi Fukuzawa and their place in the early history of liberalism in East Asia. If their ideas made an impact once, they very well might do so again.

  1. Taisuke Itagaki, Shigenobu Okuma, and Kazutami Ukita, “The Importance of Early Political Parties: A Contemporary Perspective,” in Democracy in Prewar Japan: Groundwork or Façade?, ed. George Totten, (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, & Co., 1966), 18.
  2. Joe Kent, “Japanese Libertarian Heritage,” International Society for Individual Liberty, March 23, 2016.
  3. Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 381.
  4. Ibid, 389.
  5. Ibid, 389.
  6. William Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan, (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1990), 100.
  7. Kent, “Japanese Libertarian Heritage.”
  8. Beasley, 176.
  9. Itagaki, Okuma, & Ukita, 19.
  10. Alfred Hussey, February 16, 1946, Folder 81-B, Alfred Rodman Hussey Papers, University of Michigan Special Collections Library, (Ann Arbor, MI).