After taking part in the Iwakura Mission in 1871-1873, Itô was named Minister of the Interior in 1878, succeeding Ôkubo Toshimichi to that post. In debates over the structure of government in the late 1870s to early 1880s, Itô was among the leading proponents of a gradualist approach, arguing in an 1880 memorial to the throne that the common people were not ready to take on the responsibilities of electing a popular legislature in an informed, educated and responsible manner; rather, he argued that the nobility (kazoku) and former samurai (shizoku) were the ones who had the education and virtue to be entrusted with running the government, and that at least initially the popular role in government should be restricted to a Board of Auditors, who could represent the people in observing that the nation's finances are managed responsibly. Further, his memorial emphasizes the concept of the national polity, or kokutai, associating the Nation with the Emperor, rather than with the people, arguing that a powerful Upper House (a House of Lords, or Genrôin) is essential to defending and maintaining that nation (i.e. in its monarchical nature). The attitudes and approaches expressed in this memorial are quite evident in the Meiji Constitution of 1889, and of the character of pre-1945 Japanese government more broadly. The Emperor was equated with the Nation, and emphasis was placed on subjects' duty to the Nation (and to the Emperor), rather than on the government's duty to the people, and the Lower House of the National Diet was largely restricted to approving the national budget, wielding little influence on policy decisions.
Itô became the first prime minister of the modern state of Japan in 1885, when the cabinet system was established. Among his many activities in that position was participation in diplomatic negotiations with Li Hongzhang which managed, in the end, to avoid war with China in the 1880s, or depending on one's perspective, to at least delay the outbreak of conflict until the mid-1890s.
In 1895, he was among the main Japanese representatives at the negotiation and signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki which ended the Sino-Japanese War. Later that decade, he became the head of the Survey Bureau for Imperial Household Institutions (Teishitsu seido chôsakyoku), and played an influential role in creating or shaping various Imperial customs, practices, and rituals. Judging from his speeches, he seems to have been cleanly aware that the Bureau, and other government arms, were not simply reviving or restoring, but actually inventing, Imperial tradition, national ceremony, and so forth, for the new, modern, Imperial Japanese nation-state.
|Prime Minister of Japan
- David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History, ME Sharpe (1997), 333-338.
- Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1998), 23.
- Mark Peattie, The Japanese Colonial Empire, Princeton University Press (1984), 17.