Jiyu Minken Undo (Freedom and popular rights movement) (自由民権運動)

The Jiyu Minken Undo (Freedom and popular rights movement) was a political and social movement that took place in Meiji-period Japan. The movement began when a petition for the establishment of an elected national assembly was filed in 1874 calling for a Diet, the land-tax reductions, the revision of the unequal treaties, and freedom of speech and assembly in opposition to the han clique-dominated government. It lasted until the Imperial Diet was established in 1890.

Beginning of the Movement

In 1874, Taisuke ITAGAKI, together with Shojiro GOTO, Shinpei ETO, Taneomi SOEJIMA and others, who left the government when it refused to allow an invasion of Korea in the preceding year, founded the Aikokuto Party and submitted a petition to the Council of the Left of the government calling for the establishment of an elected national assembly. They also founded the Risshinsha (Self-reliance Association), a political group, in Kochi Prefecture. In1875, the Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) was formed nationwide by Itagaki but was soon disbanded as the party had financial issues and Itagaki returned to the position of Sangi (councillor) at the Osaka conference. As Shinpei Eto is known to have been executed for causing the Tosa War, a revolt by family with samurai ancestors in 1874, this period of the Jiyu Minken Undo movement was characterized by the antigovernment movement led by members of the former samurai class (Shizoku) and often erupted into violence. However, the period of shizoku's military struggle against the government ended with the Seinan War in 1877. Some upper echelons of the Risshinsha was arrested for allegedly plotting to take up arms for the war.

Upsurge of the Movement

Following the resurgence of the Aikokusha in 1878, the Kokkai Kisei Domei (League for Establishing a National Assembly) was formed at a national convention (the fourth convention) in 1880 and filed a number of petitions for the establishment of the National Diet to the government. The movement became widespread not only among dissatisfied Shizoku people, but also peasants in rural villages by calling for the land-tax reform. The increased land-tax was a pain especially for leading members in rural villages. Thus, the movement had spread to the whole country.

The movement dominated by dissatisfied shizoku was termed the 'Shizoku Minken' (Popular rights movement among shizoku), whereas one dominated by leading members in rural villages was called the 'Gono Minken' (Popular rights movement among wealthy farmers). In addition to these two groups that led the movement, many people from various social backgrounds, including city bourgeoisie, the poor, and gamblers, who shared the opposition to the government, joined the movement.

Shigi Kenpo (Private Draft for National Constitution)

The Kokkai Kisei Domei took the stance that a constitution should be formulated through wide-ranging consultation rather than granted from above and voted that they would prepare drafts by next year 1881. Among other groups that prepared drafts for the constitution, Emori UEKI and the Kojunsha (a club founded by alumni of Keio university) developed the drafts. The "Itsukaichi Draft Constitution," which is known to have been found at a warehouse owned by a farmer in Tama area, Tokyo in 1968, signifies how the movement powerfully and deeply permeated in the local areas.

The 1881 Political Crisis and Formation of Political Parties

As the movement intensified, the government issued a series of laws and regulations, including the Zamboritsu (Defamation Law), the Shinbunshi Jorei (Press Regulations) in 1875, and the Shukai Jorei (Assembly Regulations) in 1880, that suppressed free speech. Sangi (councillor) Shigenobu OKUMA, who had been supporting for the prompt establishment of the National Diet, was relieved of his post by Sangi Hirobumi ITO and others in the 1881 Political Crisis. In the mean time, the government acknowledged the necessity of establishing the National Diet and issued the imperial instruction that promised to establish the Diet in 10 years, intending to ward off public criticism. Thus, the time-line for the establishment of the National Diet became clear. In fact, the government was speculating that the movement would wane in 10 years.

Soon afterwards, the Jiyuto (Liberal Party of Japan) was established at the third national conference of the Kokkai Kisei Domei. In the following year, Shigenobu OKUMA, who had left the position in the 1881 Political Crisis, was appointed as the leader of the Rikken Kaishinto (Constitutional Reform Party).

The 1881 Political Crisis drove off the radicals, which supported the freedom and popular rights movement, including Okuma, and helped the government establish a firm regime that had Hirobumi ITO as the central figure. As a result, this made the government take more severe oppressive measures against the movement.

Intensification of the Movement

The radicals of the Liberal Party, including Kentaro OI and Roichi NAITO, were forming drastic measures against the government's oppressive measures and ready to go to the length of resorting to violence if necessary. There was also a growing discontent among the peasants, who were suffering the Matsukata deflation, against the Liberal Party that was preparing to become a ruling party with the establishment of the National Diet imminent. All of the causes combined together led to frequent outbreaks of rioting. Included among the riots were the Fukushima Incident, Kabasan Incident, Gunma Incident, Iida Incident, Nagoya Incident, Takada Incident and Chichibu Incident. The Osaka Incident is also considered to be one of these riots. During this period, the Liberal Party was dissolved and Okuma also left the Constitutional Reform Party in the same year, which led to the virtual dissolution of the party. The riot police was sent to quell the Chichibu Incident.

After the Daido Danketsu (Great Merger) Movement

The popular rights movement resurged in 1886 following the Daido Danketsu movement led by Toru HOSHI and some leading political theorists, including Chomin NAKAE and Soho TOKUTOMI, came out. The movement further intensified as the 1887 political movement broke out, calling for the switch of the foreign policy, freedom of speech and assembly, the land-tax reduction, in responses to Kaoru INOUE's foreign policy that placed importance on Westernization. The government quelled this by establishing the Hoan Jorei (regulations for the preservation of law and order) and appointing Okuma of the Constitutional Reform Party as Foreign Minister. In 1889, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was finally enacted. The next year in 1890, the first general election of members of the House of Representatives was held and Imperial Diet opened. After that, all political conflicts between parties and the government were to be brought to the Diet.

However, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan specified that people's rights were "privileged" ones that were given by the emperor and these rights could be limited "by the constitution" and only permitted "within the confines of the law," in favor of public order and security. The freedom and popular rights movement came to reach true success when the Constitution of Japan came into force that regarded people's rights as the inviolable fundamental human right. In other words, the then fairly progressive Constitution of the Empire of Japan could not achieve the real aim of the movement and they had to wait to be fully realized in the democratization, which was prompted by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ) after Japan's defeat in the Pacific War in 1945.