Monday, October 26, 2009

Prussia and Japan’s Diet

Itō Hirobumi, a 19th century Japanese statesmen who played a crucial role in building modern Japan, and became its first prime minister, was assassinated a century ago today. I cannot find any substantial information about him as a diarist, but the Library of the National Diet has an excellent website, partly in English, with images of a travel diary kept by Itō when visiting Prussia during a trip which would influence the very formation of the Diet.

Itō Hirobumi was born in the feudal province of Chōshū in 1841. In 1863, in gained the title of samurai, and the same year was sent by the leaders of Chōshū to England to study naval sciences. On his return, he played a minor part in the Meiji (enlightened rule) Restoration, which overthrew the shogunate (or army) and returned power to the emperor in 1868. Subsequently, he undertook government assignments to the US and Europe (a long one in 1871-1873 - see below), before being appointed home affairs minister in 1878.

Itō travelled to Europe again in 1882 to study foreign government systems, and then on his return to Japan he worked to establish a cabinet and civil service, eventually becoming the country’s first prime minister. He supervised the drafting of the first constitution (Meiji Constitution) and persuaded the government to adopt it. It was proclaimed by the emperor in 1889. A year later, the National Diet - the legislative assembly - was established. The constitution and Diet are considered to have been much influenced by the experience of Itō and others during their visits to Europe, and Prussia in particular, in the 1870s and 1880s.

Itō’s pre-eminence continued in the 1890s. He successfully negotiated with the UK for British nationals in Japan to be subject to Japanese law (an agreement which was then emulated with other Western nations). And he led Japan to success in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. He was not so successful domestically, as the infighting between political parties hindered government programmes in the Diet. Nevertheless, he served four terms in all as prime minister.

Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, when Japan occupied Korea, Itō became Korea’s first Resident General, but he was assasinated on 26 October 1909, exactly 100 years ago today, by a Korean nationalist (an event which then served as a pretext for Japan’s full annexation of Korea in 1910). For more information on Itō’s life see Wikipedia or the Notable Names Database (NNDB).

I can only find one small reference to Itō as a diarist, and this is on the Modern Japan in Archives website hosted by National Diet Library. It says he kept a diary while travelling in the West in 1871-1873 - the so-called Iwakura Mission (named after the mission leader Iwakura Tomomi). The mission lasted approximately two years, making a circuit of the US, Britain, France, Eastern Europe, and Russia. The website displays images from Itō’s diary in March 1873, and says it ‘records his stay in Prussia, with detailed memos about the parliamentary and electoral systems in that country’. Unfortunately, there’s no translation into English.

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