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“Public opinion” and the impact of the public sphere

Kyu Hyun Kim, in his study of the Japanese parliamentarian movement, has clarified the prevalence of the term “public opinion” and its central significance in the public discourse on Meiji-era parliamentarianism. Kim argues that the rise of “public opinion” formed in tandem with a vibrant public sphere. The Japanese term, kogiyoron or koron, had long-standing historical significance for legitimizing the state and was initially used by domain lords to prove that they would work for the public good rather their own private interests. However, from the crisis sparked by the shock of Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy in 1853 to the restoration of monarchical government in 1868, Kim explains, the term became frequently used by intellectuals and had evolved to mean public opinion in the modern sense. Channeling public opinion was seen as important among advocates of the reform of the shogunate system and for preventing extreme centralization under the Emperor.33

Yet, Kim's argument concerning the emergence of a public sphere has rekindled a contentious debate about the nature of the constitutional order in Meiji Japan. Kim’s analysis of the broad range of views on the ideal function of parliamentarian government within both the state and the civilian movement demanding the expansion of political participation through the opening of a national assembly led Kim to conclude that state power was not absolute and that civil society was powerful enough impact state policy. Parallel to Carol Gluck’s pathbreaking argument that the Imperial system and its political myths in the late Meiji period was not purely a one-sided imposition, but rather a co-creation actively embraced by imperial subjects to protect their own interests even against the state, Kim draws on the work of Elizabeth Berry to assert that the public sphere marshaled a degree of disciplining power on state efforts to monopolize control. Even outside a democratic framework, Berry argues, the public sphere can act through various means to hold power accountable and force it to live up to the rhetorical ideals which justify its control.34 As a result. Kim contends that the Meiji constitutional system was in part a product of a negotiation between the state and civil society.35

Other historians have challenged Kim’s attempt at revisionism, arguing that the “People’s Rights Movement” seeking to introduce constitutional reforms imploded as the result of internal class divisions and a repressive state which was ultimately successful in imposing a largely Prussian constitutional regime.36 Objectively evaluating an enduring, positive impact from the public sphere on state power will continue to elicit debate in ways likely tinged by the political assumptions and ideals of the historians themselves. What can be said in the case of the conservative opposition active in the public sphere is that although their success in impacting the constitutional structure paled in comparison to their great hopes, “National Essence” leaders such as Torio had an indelible effect on the formation of a modem ethnic nationalism among a younger generation of nationalist activists who directly impacted policy in the interwar period. The example of army general and Prime Minister Hayashi Senjurb, an ardent disciple of the Society of the Great Way founded by Torio, will be briefly discussed in the conclusion.

Nevertheless, Kim has undeniably shown that there were few political actors who outright rejected parliamentarianism. There was a clear spectrum, however, of differing assumptions about the abilities of the people and the role of the state, etc., which were often either a misunderstanding of liberal ideas or deliberate reformulations. Kim acknowledges that this spectrum of parliamentary thought ranged from “reactionary” to “radical.” Yet, undergirding and informing nearly all of the strands of parliamentarian discourse was a central emphasis on the concept of public opinion, or public discussion. In the case of conservatives, however, there remains a clear tendency to assume that "Emperor-centric views” were typically mutually exclusive with governance informed by public opinion. The diversity of “Emperor-centric” positions has been partly obscured by a tendency in the secondary literature to equate what is perceived as a largely monolithic conservatism and Confucianism with an opposition to the participation of the people in politics. Even in Kim's work, which does recognize the complexity of conservatism, Torio is briefly mentioned in the same stroke as Confucianist

Motoda Eifu and even Inoue Kowashi, central advocate of a Prussian constitution, without explanation of their vast differences.37 The example of Torio, among the most enthusiastically Emperor-centric and doggedly Confucian politicians of the period together with other like-minded conservative opposition activists such as Tani Tateki, however, defies these assumptions and shows the breadth and diversity of ideological stances embracing the importance of integrating public opinion into Imperial rule as the method of forming public policy as well as the base of the legitimacy of the state, hi fact, Torio’s embrace of the people as one central pillar of the nation allowed him to transcend, not entirely, it must be stressed, but to an important degree, the elitism associated with many Confucian thinkers (in Japanese gtaninkan RJM, a view that the people are foolish and unequipped to meaningfully participate in national affairs). This allowed Torio to make the charge of elitism to the oligarchy calling for more equal treatment of the people. Torio argued that “a government worthy of the name should not provide (spoils) to the rich, selfishly use the poor (for then- own purposes), should not be partisan to the wise, nor look down on the foolish.”38

In contrast, the oligarchs Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kowashi set about creating a Prussian constitution with notable assistance from German scholars who advocated a social monarchy with the constitution ostensibly enshrining an Emperor with extensive power in response to the emergence of a vigorous parliamentarian movement. Yet, to consolidate state institutions, the oligarchy enacted statecentric policies, including the formation of the cabinet system in 1885 maligned by many opposition voices of many ideological backgrounds, including Torio’s. Kim explains that the state ideology ultimately engineered by the oligarchy was

expressed in the confirmation of the nation of the “national body” (kokutai Sft) headed by the Emperor as the central tenet of the Japanese nation. The notions of popular sovereignty as well as “public opinion” as the source of political legitimacy was decisively refuted. Never would the legitimacy of the imperial government be challenged by mere "voices of the people.”39

Thus, Torio’s views based on public opinion can be easily distinguished from a purely statist view of the Imperial system.

 
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