Yearbook Japan, 2019, vol. 48, pp. 250–271

DOI: 10.24411/0235-8182-2019-10011

The Japanese experience of transformation: From “monarchical constitutionalism” to a totalitarian system

K.O. Sarkisov

Abstract. Despite its similarities with the great revolutions in other countries one of the most fundamental transformations in the history of Japan — Meiji Ishin (1867–1868) had significant differences. It was relatively bloodless manifesting a “smooth” transition from one system to another. The pursuit of “continuity” and the preservation of the “connection of times” came out as something “sacred” in the most difficult moment of Japanese history, when in August 1945 Japan decided to surrender and its only condition was to preserve the imperial system.

Unlike the restorations of monarchies in European history, in Japan emperor’s coming back to power was not a counter-revolution, but just the opposite. The Japanese monarchy followed a “progressive” form of constitutional monarchy in its German (Prussian) version, which then was considered the most progressive and dynamic, but not as radical as the British with its predominance of the parliament.

From two forms of constitutional monarchy: “the monarch reigns but does not rule” and “the monarch reigns and rules under the constitution”, in which the monarch becomes a hostage of the bureaucracy, Japan had chosen the second one with the provision that the Japanese emperor’s detachment from government and the actual authority of the bureaucracy were the original idea of those who made the revolution and were building a new state.

The role of the emperor as a symbol in the post-war constitution of Japan, written by the occupying forces’ General Headquarters and regarded as the most radical measure of democratization of Japan, was in fact the same before the war. The symbolism or “spirituality” of the emperor’s power goes back to the original Japanese religion of Shinto, which was given a state status by the revolution. However, this was contrary to the nature of the Japanese, regarding religion rather as cultural and ethical, than as an ideological doctrine.

Distinctive features of “Meiji Ishin” affected the dynamics of further transformations of the country until its defeat in the Second World War.

Keywords: constitutional monarchy, restoration, Ishin, revolution, connection of times, reconciliation of two eras.

Author: Sarkisov Konstantin O., PhD (History), Leading researcher, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Contents of the issue: Yearbook Japan, 2019, Vol. 48.