The Meiji Restoration heralded the rise of Japan as an industrial and military power. The oligarchy consolidated itself under the leadership of the Emperor, and made an effort to destroy remaining vestiges of samurai and shogun power. Lands were sought to be restored to the Emperor. The Samurai's privilege to bear arms was diluted by extending this to the peasants, as well, and conscription into the army of a male member from each family in the country also came into effect. The samurai was disgruntled with what it saw as a clipping of its wings. But along with that, they also moved into other areas, seeking employment in the government, and became a new elite in Japan.
It was against the above backdrop that a constitution was promulgated in Japan, and came into effect in 1889. This Constitution enshrined the Emperor as the supreme political head, who shared power with an elected Diet or parliament. The Meiji Constitution continued till Japan was defeated in the Second World War, after which a new constitution came into effect. The Meiji Constitution marks the first time that Japan has had a written constitution. In actual practice since the emperor's powers had been curtailed, prior to the Meiji Restoration Japan was only a de jure monarchy, the actual powers often having been exercised either by an oligarchy or by the Samurai from time to time.
To draft the Meiji Constitution Japan studied those of the US, Britain, Spain, France and Prussia. The Meiji constitution seems to have been considerably influenced by the Prussian one. It has seven chapters, consisting of seventy-six articles. It also has a Preamble, an Imperial Oath Sworn in the Sanctuary in the Imperial Palace, and an Imperial Rescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution. All told, it is a document of less than 4000 words. The seven chapters headings are:
1-The Emperor; 2- The Rights and Duties of Subjects; 3-The Imperial Diet; 4-The Ministers of State and the Privy Council; 5- The Judicature; 6- Finance; and 7- The Supplementary Rules. (The Meiji Constitution)
There are portions in this Constitution, that are worded ambiguously, and it was left to the political leaders and parties of the time to interpret it either as supportive of the monarch, or as a document that established a liberal democratic system. This Constitution rests on the basic premise that the Emperor's ancestry is divine, and therin lies his legitimacy. He thus combines in his person, the powers of the legislature, executive as well as the judiciary:
"Article 3. The Emperor is sacred and inviolable." (The Meiji Constitution)
But Article 4 states that, "The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution." (The Meiji Constitution)
A subsequent article (55) however stated that the Emperor's powers were subject to ratification by a Minister of State, whose appointment was strangely in the hands of the monarch himself.
The duties and rights of the people were spelt out by the Constitution. A subject had the duty of protecting the Constitution. (Preamble) He also had to serve in the army, if called upon to do so. (Article 20) He enjoyed certain rights, provided these did not come in