Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909) was a Japanese statesman and one of the younger leaders of the Meiji government. He took primary responsibility for the creation of the constitutional system which governed Japan until 1945.
In the middle of the 19th century, Japan was governed by the Tokugawa shoguns (military dictators, or the bakufu). The emperor, though nominally Japan's ruler, had little influence on the government. In virtual isolation from the world since about 1600, a medieval Japan was persuaded by the threat of force by Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open its doors to the West in a series of consular treaties. The shogunate's meek accession to Western demands precipitated a nationalistic reaction, the overthrow of the bakufu, and the restoration of the governing power to the emperor.
Hirobumi Ito was born the son of a peasant named Juzo Hayashi on Sept. 2, 1841, in Tokamura, a village in the Choshu domain in western Honshu. His family rose in status when his father was adopted into a low-ranking samurai family.
Ito studied at the private academy of Shoin Yoshida, a fierce advocate of loyalty to the emperor and a critic of the weak response of the bakufu to the West. Like many of Yoshida's students, Ito became an ardent imperialist loyalist. In 1859 he went to the capital, Edo (modern Tokyo), where he came into contact with many other young samurai loyalists and participated in such antiforeign demonstrations as an incendiary attack on the British legation.
Ito soon realized that crude antiforeign acts were not a rational policy and that it would be necessary for Japan to adopt the weapons and technology of the West in order to survive. In 1863, under orders from the lord of Choshu, he sailed for Europe and stayed for nearly a year in London, studying the West at firsthand. In 1864 he received news of Western intentions to send an expedition against Choshu, which had defied the treaties signed by the bakufu. Ito rushed back to Japan in a vain attempt to mediate the dispute and to dissuade the Choshu leadership from foolish attempts to defy the foreigners.
Although he roused the ire of more xenophobic loyalists by his efforts, in 1865 he advocated armed resistance to a bakufu expedition against Choshu. He also helped to promote the Satsuma-Choshu alliance, which led to the Meiji restoration of 1868.
Early Official Career
As one of the younger members of the new imperial government, Ito had a hand in a wide variety of reforms, including the establishment of a decimal system of currency, the building of a mint at Osaka, the establishment of a banking system, and the building of an internal communication system of telegraphs, railroads, and light-houses.
In 1878 Ito became minister of home affairs and, together with Shigenobu Okuma, one of the leading younger men in the government. However, he disagreed with Okuma on matters of public finance, and believing in the need for caution in constitutional reform, he opposed Okuma's proposal for the immediate establishment of an English-style parliamentary system. In 1881, backed by other officials from Satsuma and Choshu, he succeeded in forcing Okuma out of office. During the next decade Ito became the most powerful and influential leader in the government.
The greatest undertaking of Ito's career began in March 1882, when he departed for Europe to study constitutional systems. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Vienna, learning the technical details and theoretical justification of the German constitutional system. On his return to Japan, he set to work to devise a new political system which would accommodate conservative pressures within the government for an autocratic monarchical system, yet provide a modern and up-to-date alternative to the English model of constitutional government demanded by liberal and radical elements outside the government. He supervised the preparation of laws establishing a new peerage in 1884, a modern cabinet system in 1885, an imperial household ministry in 1886, and a privy council in 1888.
Ito's main achievement was to supervise the drafting of a constitution, which began in 1886 and was finally completed in 1889. A moderate in temperament and political outlook, he aimed at setting up careful checks and balances which would restrain the rasher elements in the political public and yet permit gradual evolution and progress. The document was highly authoritarian in many respects, yet flexible enough to accommodate itself to the exigencies of future political growth and change. The emperor was entrusted with most of the legal powers of the state, and the Cabinet was given most effective powers of decision over national policy. But at the same time, the constitution, reflecting Ito's concern that the government consult the people, especially on matters of public finance, also provided for a bicameral national diet, the lower house of which was to be popularly elected.
Later Political Career
As the primary author of constitutional government, Ito was the most strongly committed of the late Meiji oligarchs to making his experiment work. He served as premier four times (1885-1888, 1892-1896, 1898, and 1900-1901). At first an advocate of "transcendental government," free from control by the parties in the lower house of the Diet, he gradually realized that, to make the constitution work, compromise with the parties would be necessary. He became persuaded that it would be necessary to form a "national party," loyal to the emperor and committed to national rather than partisan interest, which would control the lower house and support the Cabinet. After an unsuccessful attempt to form such a party in 1892, Ito organized the Seiyukai in 1900. The effort proved only partly successful, and Ito resigned from presidency of the party in 1903 to become president of the Privy Council.
Views on Foreign Affairs
In foreign affairs Ito favored a policy of diplomatic caution backed by military strength. During the 1870s and 1880s he favored compromise with China with respect to the Korea problem. He feared the effects of a more aggressive policy on the attitude of the foreign powers toward the question of treaty revision. By 1894, however, after his foreign minister, Mutsu Munemitsu, had successfully negotiated treaty revisions with the British, Ito as premier led his country into a war with China, which resulted in the acquisition of Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores as Japanese colonies. The war also detached Korea from Chinese influence but left it a target of international rivalry between Japan and Russia. Ito advocated reaching a diplomatic settlement with Russia, offering the Russians paramount control in Manchuria in return for Japanese paramount control in Korea.
Ito ended his career as resident general in Korea from 1905 to 1909. He favored making Korea a Japanese protectorate and encouraging it to undertake a policy of internal reform and Westernization like the one Japan itself had pursued. He resisted demands from Tokyo for annexation but at the same time attempted to suppress separatist movements within Korea. On Oct. 26, 1909, he was assassinated in Harbin Station by three bullets from the gun of a young Korean nationalist.
Further Reading on Hirobumi Ito
The only English-language biography of Ito is Kengi Hamada, Prince Ito (1936). It is based largely on his complete works, official papers, and reminiscences. A short sketch of his life is in James A. B. Scherer, Three Meiji Leaders: Ito, Togo, Nogi (1936).
Additional Biography Sources
Hamada, Kengi, Prince Ito. Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1979.