Public opinion under imperial benevolence Japanese “national essence” leader Torio Koyata’s anti-liberal parliamentarianism in the Genro-in and the House of Lords1
I was born into a lowly family and I endured severe poverty. Thus, as a small child this hit me with a visceral feeling and I was painfully saddened by the misery of poverty and low-rank status. As I think about it now from the vantage point of our current era, it is like the feudal regime was a separate world. That “autonomy” (celebrated by the liberal reformers) is in reality having the Emperor above us and becoming one subject of the Emperor below him. That “liberty” is a monarchy that has no bias towards class status and a legal system entirely devoted to the creation of a land for our own happiness. The meaning of this is hard to understand for those who have not lived through feudal despotism.2
Torio Koyata, in Discussion of Current Affairs
Writing during the intense ferment of public debate over the most suitable constitutional system for the Japanese polity, arch-conservative member of the Genrô-in (Senate) Lieutenant-General Torio Koyata was emblematic of the breadth and complexity of visions seeking to fundamentally reshape the concepts and operation of liberal parliamentarianism and adapt them to the needs of Meiji Japan. The former ranking military commander who had helped usher in the modern state was among the most Emperor-centric politicians of the period. He was a trenchant critic of republicanism denouncing the foreign ideal of popular sovereignty as a menace to Japan’s religious-ethical traditions of unity and mutual cooperation. Yet, Torio was no less an indefatigable advocate of a Japanese-style constitution and a popularly elected national assembly earning praise from a range of voices as a defender of “People’s Rights.” In 1890, the popular daily newspaper Yomiuri described Torio as being “nicknamed ‘the People’s Rights activist within the government,’ and for many years has been a thorn in the side of the authorities.”3 Contemporary books written on the “People’s Rights Movement” did in fact include Torio as a central figure in the movement, and the official party history of the Liberal Party edited by its central member Itagaki Taisuke, among
DOI: 10.4324/9781003158608 the most prominent advocates of the establishment of constitutional government, stated that “among the members of the Genro-in, Torio Koyata, ... and others, listened to what the representatives of the party opposition said and often had a tendency to support the popular will.”4
At first glance Torio appears to be a paradox. He was at once among the most obstinate anti-liberal and anti-Christian political activists of rank during the mid-Meiji period, routinely stating that Western "civilization and enlightenment will destroy the customs of our Imperial land.” Nevertheless, he was also deeply critical of the liberal parties’ view that suffrage should be limited to the propertied elite and appears to have had an expansive view of the role of the people as one central pillar of the nation in tandem with the Emperor.5 In the late 1870s, Torio, along with other colleagues historians have deemed the “National Essence Preservation Movement,” grew increasingly disillusioned with the rapid modernization reforms implemented by the ruling oligarchy committed to renegotiating the unequal treaties with the Western powers and to stabilizing the state. This faction of the culturally conservative opposition perceived the rapid succession of reforms for national development as opening the floodgate of indiscriminate and arbitrary Westernization at the expense not only of historical Japanese culture but also of the welfare and development of the Japanese people. In 1881, Torio and fellow military generals who resigned from the military in protest of the oligarch's despotic approach to governance petitioned the Emperor to demand a constitution which would establish an independent legislature. Outside of the state, Torio campaigned tirelessly through his political and religious organizations on the one hand to stem the tide of Western liberalism and Christianity, and on the other to restrain the despotism of the oligarchy through idealizing a unique constitutional separation of powers with a legislature which could channel the thoughts and needs of the people to the Emperor to ensure benevolent rule.6 Despite his rigid dedication to defending the integrity of Eastern thought, Torio showed resourcefulness and adaptability in integrating the strengths of diverse trends in seeking to harness the newly prevalent concept of “public opinion,” —kogiyoron or koron -¿Hml - to legitimize greater demands for the representation of the will of the public to check the arbitrary power of the oligarchy.
Torio’s openness to a more expansive role for the citizen-subjects in politics has led some sharp observers, such as Barbara Teters and Janine Sawada, to recognize that despite Torio’s hostility to liberalism, his support for the popular will (min ’i K)S) contained elements which appear surprisingly “progressive.”7 Most historians, however, who have touched on Torio Koyata and his organizations have branded him a “reactionary.” One important example of this is Motoyama Yukihiko, who presumes that conservatives such as Torio and his Society of the Great Way were shackled to local feudal loyalties and sought the return of their former privileges as members of the samurai elite.® Nevertheless, as Manabe Masayuki has pointed out, there is a conflict between the historical perception of Torio as an anti-Western, Emperor-centric xenophobe whose social thought was nothing more than a holdover from feudal Nativism; and the complexity of his political thought and action which demands more careful attention.9 The apparent
Public opinion under imperial benevolence 77 contradiction is reinforced by his own statements in the Privy Council, where in the same session Torio insisted that the decision of the actively involved Emperor should take precedence over the majority decision of the representatives if necessary for the nation; yet, also lambasted the possibility that the proposed national assembly could not initiate legislation, revealing his fervent belief that the representatives of the people should have considerable control over the framing of national policy.10
In Torio’s ideal polity, in the intimate relationship between the Emperor and the people, the Emperor was the sole bearer of national sovereignty standing above the people as a reflection of divinity and bestowing welfare unto the people. Yet, equally vital for Iorio's conception of benevolent government, in his view the primary purpose of Eastern political philosophy, was the active role of the people both in parliamentarian politics and the moral self-cultivation necessary for ethical interaction in social relations. This self-initiated moral cultivation was the foundation of the ethical state for which the parliamentarian system was designed to facilitate and mutually reinforce. The opposition activism in the 1880s of this Buddhist-Confucian nationalist against the despotic modernizing reforms of the Meiji oligarchy, articulated through a culturally modified parliamentarian ideology, helps clarify the understudied conservative involvement in the public sphere during this formative time of public furor over the nature of the Japanese political structure. The example of Torio and his ilk associated with the “National Essence Movement” clarifies that Emperor-centric political views envisioning an intimate involvement of the Emperor in political decisions could also serve as an abstract principle to critique the state and even the Emperor himself while simultaneously embracing a more inclusive, and even central, role for the people in national affairs through the ideal of benevolent rule cognizant of the popular will. The ideal of the intertwined nature of Imperial rule and popular will can be seen in Torio’s direct criticism of the Emperor in a written statement to him in November 1880. In the document, Torio criticized the failure to establish a constitution and a national assembly, financial wastefulness, and the lack of moral governance. Torio also boldly stated that the Emperor held responsibility for trustfully employing the services of the officials of the Satsuma-Choshu clique who formed the despotic ruling oligarchy. He further reminded the Emperor that the ruler and the people have the same interests and thus the Emperor should base governance on the popular will.11
Torio’s parliamentarian thought was the product of an evolution from an initial support of a despotism devoted to military preparation against Western imperialism to a fervent belief in restraints on state power codified in a constitution compatible with Japanese culture. After being disillusioned by the authoritarian pragmatism of the oligarchy which he could not join in power, and which threatened his deeply held religious and ethical ideals, Torio began to demand a legislature independent of the cabinet. This legislature would channel the sentiments of the people to the Emperor through a popularly elected assembly to adhere to the ethical principles essential to ensuring benevolent rule. Torio’s critical stance toward his former close colleagues in the government based on principle was made possible by wielding the legitimacy of the concepts of the Emperor aud the people as the base of the state against the monopolization of power by the oligarchy. The use of the people as one base of legitimacy had important political implications and was intertwined with what could be thought of as an element of egalitarian tendencies rooted in a communalist view of ethics. Communal ethics articulated by Confucianism and Buddhism served as both the guide for self-realization within moral community and for national strength through solidarity. Torio’s participation in the diverse public debate over the nature of the Japanese Constitution to promote his conservative vision of the integration of both the Emperor as benevolent and active sovereign and the people as active agents in a moral system, was facilitated by his use of two themes: the concept of “public opinion,” and Torio’s adoption and reformulation of liberal terminology, notably his conception of naturalism or “natural law.”
“Public opinion” was representative of a broader set of assumptions about the need for active citizens in the maintenance of the state. Furthermore, for Torio, natural law was based on the universal truth of “Eastern philosophy” or “Eastern religion,” which prescribed the social relations most conducive to the realization of the thriving of a fixed human nature. In both cases, Torio reworked liberal concepts to privilege Confucianism and Buddhism as the basis of “civilization and enlightenment.” Under the unequal treaties forced upon Japan by the imperialist powers in which Japan was regarded as not fully civilized, there was a debate among Japanese nationalists concerning the adaptability of Western norms and the optimal degree of emulation necessary to enlighten the people and develop the nation. In his campaign to prove the relevance of "traditional” intellectual and political systems as civilization, Torio appears to have sought to strategically appropriate the discourse of liberalism, while overtly acknowledging some of its strengths, to show the sophistication of “Eastern thought” and its compatibility with a strong and independent state that could hold its own against the Western powers.
Consequently, Torio’s political campaigns and the influence on the public sphere he commanded help bring to light the full range of challenges confronting the oligarchy which impacted the choices they made concerning the framing of the Meiji Constitution. Torio’s career also sheds light on the civil society actors who ultimately worked to validate the Emperor system in prewar Japan as in the interest of the people and as a critical platform for evaluating the performance of the state. Finally, Torio and his movement also may provide insights into deep-seated aspirations for alternative cultural systems and social ideals to liberalism which can potentially undergird a critical mass of public support for developmen-talist, illiberal regimes whose social capital is founded on the pretense of providing for social needs divergent from the culturally, historically developed attitudes to state power in the European and North American experience.