One of the most famous Meiji statesmen, Itō (1841-1909) was a samurai of the Chōshū domain, four-time Prime Minister of Japan (the 1st, 5th, 7th and 10th), genrō and Resident-General of Korea.

Youth

Itō Hirobumi (伊藤博文) was born as Hayashi Risuke to Hayashi Jūzō, a farmer in the feudal province of Choshu and was adopted by Itō Naoemon, a low-ranking samurai and renamed Itō Shunsuke. He studied with Kuruhara Ryōzō (來原良藏, 1829-62), a prominent official in Chōshū and a brother-in-law of Kido Takayoshi. In 1857, he entered Shōka Sonjuku, the school run by Yoshida Shōin, and came under the influence of Shōin’s pro-imperial views. He went on to study Western methods of military drill in Nagasaki and accompanied Kido to Edo (modern-day Tōkyō) and Kyōto in 1862 where they met other Sonnō jōi activists. In December of that year, he joined his Chōshū fellow Takasugi Shinsaku in burning down the British legation in Edo.

Itō was consequently made a samurai for his achievements and ordered by his domain to study abroad. He was one of the Chōshū Five who studied sciences at University College London. His studies in England convinced him of the necessity to modernise Japan. During his stay, he abandoned his anti-Western stance and came to favour the opening of Japan. He returned to Japan in 1864 with Inoue Kaoru and warned the Chōshū samurai not to go to war with the Western nations over the right of passage through the Straits of Shimonoseki. He led the negotiations following the Shimonoseki Bombardment, a retaliation of Western nations for earlier attacks by Chōshū. Itō collaborated with other reformists in Chōshū to reorganise the domain and forge an alliance with Satsuma, the other leading domain in the movement against the Tokugawa shogunate. He, therefore, became one of the leaders of the Chōshū and Satsuma rebellion that eventually led to the Meiji Restoration.

Ito Hirobumi’s early career

The new government appointed Itō Sanyo (junior councillor) with the responsibility of foreign affairs. He became in quick succession governor of Hyōgo Prefecture and assistant vice-minister of finance and popular affairs. During this time, he changed his first name to Hirobumi and initiated the construction of a railway between Tōkyō and Yokohama which was completed in 1872. In 1870, he travelled to the United States to study Western currency systems and, upon his return, was made the director of the Tax Division and National Mint. He implemented a new taxation system based on his studies abroad. In October 1871, he travelled to Europe and the United States as a member of the Iwakura Mission. When the mission returned in 1873, the government was divided over the question of invading Korea. Most of the hawks, led by Saigo Takamori, who supported an annexation, subsequently left the government. Itō was appointed sangi (councillor) and, soon after, minister of public works. The government ranks were further thinned when Kido resigned in protest to the Taiwan Expedition of 1875. In 1875, Itō convened the Osaka Conference in which he, Inoue Kaoru and Okubo Toshimichi managed to woo Kido and others back into the government, promising greater popular participation in politics. He, therefore, as head of the Legislation Bureau (法制局 Hōseikyoku), worked to reorganise Japan’s legal system.

In the later 1870s, insurrections of former samurai who had been stripped of their privileges, occurred throughout Japan, the largest of which, the Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori was suppressed in 1877, resulting in Saigō’s suicide. Kido’s death and Ōkubo’s assassination in 1878 changed the leadership in the Meiji government. Itō, now home minister, and Okuma Shigenobu emerged as the most influential leaders. Differences regarding constitutional reforms forced Ōkubo to resign, allowing Itō to move into a position of unchallenged power and to implement his plans for a Prussian form of constitutional government.

The Meiji Constitution

Itō went to Europe in 1882 to study the constitutions of those countries, spending nearly 18 months away from Japan. His meetings with Rudolf von Gneist and Lorenz von Stein strengthened his conviction that a constitutional system under an absolute monarch was best suited for Japan. In 1883, he drafted the Constitution of the Empire of Greater Japan. He legally allocated lands and funds to ensure the economic independence of the imperial family and wrote the first Imperial Household Law. As a further means of bolstering the prestige of the imperial family, he established the Japanese peerage system (kazoku 華族) in 1884.

One year later, the dajōkan system of government (太政官 was also known as daijōkan, Greater Council) was abolished and a modern cabinet system established. Thus, Itō became the first prime minister, serving as imperial household minister and chairman of the Constitutional Commission at the same time. The primary objectives of his government were the consolidation of the bureaucracy as well as a rectification of the “Unequal Treaties” imposed on Japan in the 1850s. The government also accelerated its Westernization policies to win equal recognition from Western powers. The final draft of the constitution was completed in 1888. Itō created the Privy Council (枢密院 Sūmitsuin), a sort of supra-cabinet body to give formal approval to the constitution, resigning from the position of prime minister to become its head. The constitution was finally promulgated on February 11, 1889, for which Itō received a special commendation from the emperor.

Political life

In 1890, Itō became the head of the Upper House of the Imperial Diet, and in 1892, prime minister for his second term. His government continued its efforts toward treaty revision, and in 1894 extraterritoriality of foreign citizens was abolished. In the meantime, Japan had come into conflict with China over Korea and, in 1894, started hostilities. Itō supported the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and personally represented his country in negotiating the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

In 1898, he became prime minister for the third time but was opposed by the Liberal Party (自由党 Jiyūtō) and the Progressive Party (進歩党 Shimpotō) on his proposal to impose new land taxes. Itō dissolved the Diet, prompting the two parties to merge into the Constitutional Party (憲政党 Kenseitō) which held the absolute majority in the Diet. He resigned and had the Kenseitō leaders Ōkuma and Itagaki Taisuke form a new cabinet. Convinced of the need for a pro-government party, he established the Rikken Seiyūkai (立憲政友会, “Friends of Constitutional Government Party”), made up mostly of friends and bureaucrats as well as former Jiyūtō members who had defected from the Kenseitō. One month later, Itō formed a fourth cabinet mainly composed of members of his new party. While the House of Peers opposed his proposals on tax increases, he managed to push his new tax law through with the help of an imperial rescript.

Final years

Itō resigned in 1901, tired of party politics, and travelled to Russia to establish closer trade relations. Returning to Japan in 1903, he was appointed the head of the Privy Council for the third time and ceded his duties as Rikken Seiyūkai president to Saionji Kinmochi. The Korea issue had not been resolved even after the war with China, and in 1904 Japan went to war with Russia, its new rival in Northeast Asia. Japan defeated the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), forcing Russia to recognise Korea as lying within Japan’s sphere of influence. Itō signed the Korean-Japanese Convention of 1905, which gave Japan full control over Korea’s foreign relations and returned to the country as first Japanese resident general, immediately implementing programs for economic development and the reorganisation of the courts and the police. In 1906, he forced the Korean emperor to abdicate, thereby establishing a Japanese protectorate over Korea and paving the road for a full annexation. In 1909, he resigned as the resident general to head the Privy Council. Itō was opposed to annexing Korea; however, during a tour of Manchuria in the same year, he was assassinated in Harbin by a Korean nationalist, Ahn Jung-Geun. This served as a pretext for the full annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910.

References:

This article is based on the Japan Encyclopedia by Louis-Frédéric Nussbaum, first published in English by Harvard University Press in 2005, as well as Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan, Meiji and His World 1852-1912, published by Columbia University Press in 2002.

Gallery:

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Itō Hirobumi (standing right) with Kido Takayoshi (centre front) in 1871

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Itō Hirobumi (r) with Takasugi Shinsuke (c) in the late Tokugawa Period

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Ito Hirobumi as Resident-General of Korea with the last Korean Crown Prince Yi Un (1897-1970)

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10,000-yen bill displaying Itō Hirobumi issued between 1963 and 1984

Links:
  • The politics of statues: China helps South Korea honour the assassin of a Japanese colonial official (The Economist, Nov. 23, 2013)