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Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan

Article about: Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan Foreword As I had already finished writing a complete history of Japanese War Medals, I thought I might start something on the commemorative medal

  1. #1

    Default Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan

    Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan


    As I had already finished writing a complete history of Japanese War Medals, I thought I might start something on the commemorative medals.

    Whereas each conflict earned itself a war medal more or less automatically, there was no inherent justification or need for commemorative medals, unless the occasion itself unanimously deserved commemoration as a historic milestone or unless someone with a political agenda and clout actively campaigned for one.

    Thus commemorative medals had more room for interpretation and therefore possible abuse. So the event first had to speak for itself, and then in order to prevent making a big deal out of trivial events, the Decorations Bureau would screen medals of the world for comparable precedent as a check.

    We will see, however, that until Japan “got the hang of it”, sometimes it ended up issuing superfluous medals like the 25th Wedding Anniversary Medal, blindly emulating European tradition that did not really seem to have any mileage in Japan.

    Either way, unlike my stories on war medals, there needs to be more on the event or occasion itself and its historical significance; because why they decided to issue the medal in the first place is a key question.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  

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    The day when “Banzai!” meant Freedom and Equality for all

    The first medal to be discussed is the Imperial Constitution Promulgation Commemorative Medal of 1889.

    Constitutions being the bedrock of nations, the establishment of a medal to celebrate it is probably self-evident, requiring no further emphasis on the significance of the event.

    However, to understand Japanese behavior behind even subtle things like why the Japanese tourists of today still make a point of including Germany in their trips of Europe, while Korean tourists tend to think more of visits to Paris, and shun Germany as a drab, boring place, or why the Japanese Army was built as an obvious copy of the Prussian Army, it is useful to know the reasons behind Japan’s historical affinity to the Germans ever since the late 19th century, and for that, the story of how Japan’s first constitution was inspired should give readers the deepest insight.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 02:47 PM.

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    Grasping at Straws

    For someone born and raised in a democracy, it is hard to imagine Constitutional Law becoming something as desperate as a ticket to survival for a nation. We know that it watches over us like a benevolent but distant auntie, but otherwise she remains totally out of sight and out of reach of our daily lives.

    But the entire population of late 19th century Japan embraced the new Imperial Constitution as dearly as the Americans hold the Declaration of Independence. That is because, for both these nations, those documents paved a narrow path for a treacherous, but promise-full survival of infant nations.

    For the USA, the Declaration of Independence represented Exodus from tyranny, but Japan’s awakening from 200 years of national isolation, in contrast, had the opposite effect of plunging Japan into that world of tyranny the USA had escaped from. It was the constitution of 1889 that helped Japan crawl out of that predicament.

    The fall of the Shogunate and opening up the country to access from abroad was like, suddenly abandoning ship in a storm and being thrown out into an ocean full of sharks. Japan had already seen how the British had mutilated its neighbor, China, reducing it to a crippled and stoned land of opium dens. And Japan knew that it was already next on the international menu, as it was forced by America to sign a treaty, at gunpoint to open new ports for resupply of ships, thus opening access to its shores that had been closed off from the world for the past 200 years, except for limited access from China, Portugal and later Holland to an artificial islet called Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki.

    Japan neither knew how to stay afloat in these waters nor how to fend off those encircling sharks. But it was a “swim or sink” situation and even the thrashing attempts to swim were bound to draw attention of one shark or another until it got devoured and became a colony of some country.

    Despite this bleak outlook for prospects of the future, the Japanese instinct for survival vaguely told them that to avoid becoming like China, they had to leave behind the rules of Asia and adopt European ways, a concept they called “Datsua-Nyuoh 脱亜入欧”, literally meaning to leave Asia and enter Europe. But how was that to be achieved?

    On the Quest for Building Blocks of a New Nation

    Already within the first 5 years of the dawning of the new era of Meiji that began in 1868, more than 500 individuals were dispatched overseas to bring home wide-ranging know-how that would help Japan stay afloat in this new world. My own great grandfather came on a later, similar mission to Germany back in 1888.

    Another mission that left Japan on 12th November, 1871 was composed of as many as 107 men, including Hirobumi Itoh, who would later become Japan’s first Prime Minister. They would tour, first the USA, and then onto Europe, taking the next 22 months to absorb all they could of political systems, finance systems, education, etc in addition to conducting pre-negotiations for revising the unfavorable trade treaties the Shogunate had previously been forced to sign.

    Kentaro Kaneko, who would later become one of the authors of the imperial constitution, was only 18 years old as he joined the mission on his way to study in the USA. As he first had to learn English, the 18-year old Kaneko got enrolled as a 4th grader in a Boston grammar school. But like all Japanese of the time who had to swim or sink, he learned fast and graduated from Harvard Law School in June 1878.

    Before leaving on this trip, these delegates from Japan had naively believed that the rule of law also reigned supreme throughout the Western World and that “International Law 万国公法”, as discussed in the book, “Elements of International Law (1836)” by the American, Henry Wheaton maintained order and balance among the world powers.

    This book had entered Japan through China and the Shogunate had studied it like a dog-eared bible, when dealing with the Americans or other countries poised to pounce on Japan. The Japanese believed that by keeping to these set of international rules, it would be possible to make those world powers relax their pouncing stance towards Japan and eventually get to be treated as their equal.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 09:40 AM.

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    The Bismarck Revelation

    It was Otto von Bismarck, who had recently become Chancellor of the German Empire in March 1871 that gave these Japanese delegates the eye-opening reality check they needed, as he invited leading members to a heart-to-heart talk after dinner in the evening of 15th March 1873.

    It was already more than a year into their world journey, but the stay in the USA, UK or France only made Japan’s chances for the future look very bleak. Their recent visit to France even made them shudder worse, as it exposed them to the chaotic aftermath of democracy gone out of control (La Commune de Paris 1871).

    Von Bismarck started out by reminiscing how puny and powerless Prussia used to be in his youth. Just like Japan, which was not yet truly one nation, but a patchwork of over 300 domains, Germany also used to be split into that many lands, which had been merged into one Empire under Prussia. Thus Germany was a late upstart among the established European powers such as Austria, UK and Russia, and just had beaten France in the Franco-Prussian War. Germany was also a constitutional monarchy, a system the Japanese wished to emulate. Additionally, both countries shared in their high respect of craftsmanship and the diligent nature of its workforce, a commonality of human resource attributes that made the Japanese think that it just might be possible for Japan to achieve the same kind of miracle that Germany was able to achieve under Bismarck.

    In present day terms, the Japanese saw in Germany a flourishing example of a similar DNA, possibly clone-able and transplantable to Japan.

    So they listened intently to what Bismarck had to say. He continued that it was true that European powers conducted diplomacy with friendly courtesy and international laws were recognized and did indeed maintain certain order and balance. But that was all only a façade, beneath which raw military might actually reigned, where the strong preyed upon the weak. Thus nations would insist on keeping with international conventions as long as it was in their favor, but once their interests were in conflict with convention, they would not hesitate to ignore those rules and resort to military muscle.

    Thus von Bismarck revealed to the Japanese the double standards of European power politics; how gentlemanly international conventions merely served as sugarcoating to, what was still fundamentally, the laws of the jungle.

    A National Constitution as Shared Vision for National Unity

    Bismarck continued that for a small nation to survive in this environment, it was crucial to build a strong army backed up by national unity. And national unity was a matter of sharing a unified national vision, which was expressed in the form of a national constitution.

    Toshimichi Okubo, one of the three main instigators of the Meiji Restoration, as well as Hirobumi Ito, the future Prime Minister were both thunderstruck by Bismarck’s utterly frank and sincere advice to the new nation of Japan. The need for national wealth to build a strong army 富国強兵 and a national constitution 憲法 that tightly united the population were what they took out of that monumental evening.

    Another experience which reinforced this conviction for the need of a constitution was their earlier visit to the small nation of Belgium. Belgium was the first nation to codify a constitutional monarchy in 1831, and despite its small size, and being surrounded by established powers such as France, England and Germany, it had been able to miraculously maintain independence within the shifting European political landscape. This cohesiveness as a nation, the Japanese delegation attributed to a constitution that successfully bound the Belgian Royal family to the people, establishing clear national unity.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 09:47 AM.

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    Returning to a Japan in a Precarious Prelude to Civil War

    In this way, the delegation finally gained a clear vision for Japan’s future and returned from its world tour in September 1873, but the Japan they returned to was boiling with unrest. During their absence, a diplomatic problem with Korea had come to a head.

    The Korean Lee Dynasty had been refusing to recognize the new Empire of Japan since its inception in 1868 and had not only refused to receive Emperor Meiji’s letter, but insulted the envoy. Thus just like the current North Korean crisis, Japan was split whether to “put a military option on the table”. The group returning from Europe to this debate insisted that Japan had more urgent things to do than dealing with Korea, a country which only recognized the Emperor of China and which sniggered at what they saw as Japan’s pathetic kowtowing to the West.

    But those insisting on sending another diplomatic mission out to Korea thought it could not wait any longer and as many as 600 resigned the government in protest, splitting Japan into two factions and eventually erupting into the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, a civil war between the new government and the former Samurai class which unleashed all the pent up anger of being slighted and denied their ancestral privileges.

    Under such circumstances, the government could not afford to do any work on the constitution, which was put on hold, but the need for a unified vision for the future of Japan became widely acknowledged by the population, causing a flurry of private constitution drafts done by students, school teachers and other intellectuals throughout Japan. Thus as many as 55 private drafts survive today, which were produced between 1879 and 1881 and engaged the public in a wave of democratic movement. Everyone took to the soapbox and these oratories became as highly energized events as modern rock concerts.

    However, the government saw too much initiative being taken up by its citizens regarding the constitution, so in order to divert this public outpour, in 1881, they made the announcement that a national parliament would be convened in 10 years time, in 1890. This shifted the topic of heated soapbox oratories to mandates for setting up various political parties rather than a constitution.

    It was not that all of Japan’s homework got put on hold while it was suffering the backlash from the old ways of life that they were trying to leave behind. Okubo established the all powerful Home Ministry to spearhead Japan’s industrialization and had identified silk as an export commodity Japan’s national wealth was to be built upon. Thus even while the Satsuma Rebellion was breaking out, Okubo had successfully organized Japan’s first industrial Expo, which attracted large crowds, igniting entrepreneurial spirit within the population. Freighting companies were also established to provide export logistics.

    But now that the government had committed to holding the first session of diet in 1890, the clock was on a countdown for the constitution, as that naturally had to precede the establishment of parliament. The government finally had to resume work on the constitution, but so much time had been lost and key members who had listened to von Bismarck in awe with Ito, were already dead, including Okubo, who was assassinated soon after the civil war.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
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    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 08:26 PM.

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    Bismarck’s Star on the Wane

    In 1882, Ito decided to make another trip to Germany, this time to gain practical insight for the content of the constitution. But what he saw in Berlin almost made him lose the clear picture he had gained in his last visit. Von Bismarck had become hamstrung, having met overwhelming opposition from the Reichstag. Witnessing this shortcoming, even in a political system that generally invested more power in the Kaiser and Chancellor than in the parliament, vexed Ito deeply.

    However, Ito, who left Germany in this foreboding mood, was luckily able to feel his spirits rise again in Vienna Austria, where he visited next. He found the solution to the type of gridlock that Bismarck got entangled in at the University of Vienna, in its professor, Lorenz von Stein, a man fluent in 7 languages and with deep insight into constitutions of various lands. Von Stein’s thinking was that a constitution served as the basic principle with which the legislature formed national intent. But this intent could only bear fruit as action when combined with a powerful executive office, which could keep both the monarch as well as the legislature in check to carry out a stable policy. In other words, the plight of von Bismarck and von Stein’s theory of political science taught Ito that a constitution will only end up as a “paper tiger” incapable of initiating action unless there was a stable executive branch to act upon it.

    Thus Ito, returning from this second 1.5 year quest abroad, prioritized the setting up of the cabinet system in December 1885, placing himself at its top as the first Prime Minister. As he had witnessed in Germany, parliaments were bound to have disruptions like gridlocks or confusion, so a cabinet system was necessary as a shock absorber that ensured continuity of government action.

    Another action taken prior to designing a Prussian inspired constitution was to import Prussian Army traditions in the form of Prussian General Staff Major, Jacob Meckel, who on 18th March 1885 took office as professor at the Army Staff College. He will only stay in Japan for a short 3 years until March 1888, but he was instrumental in whipping the IJA into a fighting force that will win Japan the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars in succession. Then only 3 months after Meckel left for Prussia, General Nogi, later of Russo-Japanese War fame, returned from his 1.5-year studies in Prussia. So Japan was totally devoted to doing things in Prussian style, and the vision Ito gained from von Bismarck back in March 1873 was steadily and surely becoming reality.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
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    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 08:25 PM.

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    The Gang of Four

    In late 1887, Ito and 3 of his bureaucrats known as the “Constitution Gang of Four” convened at Ito’s seaside villa at Natsushima, Kanagawa Prefecture to edit a draft of the constitution.

    The Cabinet’s role as shock absorber, the solution to Bismarck’s political paralysis was expressed as Article 55 which said “The respective Ministers of State shall give their advice to the Emperor, and be responsible for it. All Laws, Imperial Ordinances and Imperial Rescripts of whatever kind, that relate to the affairs of the State, require the countersignature of the Minister of the State”.

    This draft was subjected to the final hurdle, scrutiny by the Privy Council in June 1888. It was during this meeting which Ito chaired that the minister of education challenged the need for naming the rights of citizens. It was his opinion that it was sufficient to define only the obligations of its citizens such as payment of tax and military service.

    Ito defended his constitution by saying, “A constitution’s prime role is to limit the powers of the monarch, and secondly to protect the rights of its people. Without these stipulations, we would be giving the monarch unlimited powers and at the same time burdening our citizens with unlimited obligations. That, Sir, is the definition of an absolute monarchy, which we are not.”

    With these words he was able to prevent the constitution from ending up a paper tiger. Thus, for instance, Article 29 said, “Japanese subjects shall, within the limits of law, enjoy the liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meetings and associations.”

    This last fight for the constitution was supported by Ito’s conviction that Japan had to show the world that a constitution was viable and could flourish even in Asia. This was particularly a point of contention, because the Ottoman Turks had attempted to establish a constitution and parliament in 1876, but it all fell apart within a year, ending in dismal failure that convinced the Europeans that constitutions could not take root outside Europe.

    The Turkish constitution was also motivated by the need for the nation to gain credibility in Europe and is said to have taken the Belgian example as a template. So the Turkish failure was as relevant to Japan as the Prussian success.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 09:59 AM.

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    Government Ceremonies for the Promulgation of the Constitution

    On 24th January, 1889 a telegram was dispatched to all prefectural governors to urgently assemble in Tokyo, bringing along their formal dress uniforms. They were to expect to stay in Tokyo until the 14 or 15th of February. The telegram further said that the prefectural parliament chairmen were also to report to Tokyo no later than 5th February with their semi-dress uniforms.

    This was followed by an announcement on 3rd February that, on the coming Empire’s Day of 11th February, Emperor Meiji would be promulgating the constitution and it gave the outline of the program for that day as a heads up to those who were expected to attend.

    Empire day had been established in 1873 and was to be celebrated on 11th February every year. The day was supposed to be the Enthronement day of Emperor Jinmu, the first Emperor of Japan, so it was a suitable day for announcing matters of State (The Empire day of the following year was also used to stage the launch of the Order of the Golden Kite).

    Those expected to attend were members of the royal family, government ministers and bureaucrats, excluding Haninkan rank and below. Those Japanese as well as foreigners, who had been bestowed orders 3rd class and above were also invited, as since November 1885, those classes of orders were presented by the Emperor in person and thus came with special privileges. Dukes and Marquis were also all invited, but counts, viscounts and barons were only represented by one member each. Foreign ambassadors were also invited and took place to the left of the Emperor, while the Empress was seated to his left with her ladies-in-waiting.

    The promulgation was to take place in the brand new Grand Hall at the Imperial Palace, just finished the previous year (lost to fire in the 1945 bombing of Tokyo). The Prime Minister was to enter the hall at 10 AM, leading the entire government delegation to begin the ceremony.

    The Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan was to present the box containing the Constitution to the Emperor for his signature, and a Chamberlain was to affix the Emperor’s Seal, after which the Emperor was to say a few words before handing the constitution to the Prime Minister, which was to set off a salute of guns. His Majesty was to exit as the national anthem was sung, after which all participants also exited, ending the ceremony.

    That, however, was hardly the end of the day, as all attendees were further invited to a military review to be held in the afternoon at the Aoyama Training Grounds to which the Emperor and his wife were to leave the palace in a carriage at 13:30.

    Then from 19:00, ministers and ambassadors were invited to dinner at the Hohmeiden Hall in the Palace, and from 21:00 it was back to the Grand Hall for performances of traditional Japanese dancing, continuing the festivities well towards midnight.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan   Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  

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    Celebration by the Public

    Although the Constitution would only come into force on 29th November 1890 upon the opening of the first Diet session, the streets were packed with citizens wanting to celebrate a monumental change in their lives.

    The population of Japan, which had been separated into strictly segregated social classes of (1) Samurai, (2) Farmers, (3) Artisans, and (4) Merchants, generally prohibiting marriages outside one’s class, was now treated as equals, who were now going to be working together towards a new unifying national vision called the Constitution.

    The population felt that their fates were finally in their personal hands as they read the words in Article 19 that said “Japanese subjects may, according to qualifications determined in laws or ordinances, be appointed to civil or military or any other public offices equally.”

    And for those non-intellectuals who had no idea what 憲法の発布 Kenpo No Happu (Promulgation of the Constitution) meant, a pun was coined that it was as fabulous a gift from the Emperor as a 絹布の法被 Kenpu No Happi (A Happi coat made of pure silk) and the simple folk roared in delight, spreading rumors of a silk jacket they would get.

    How true that was, I cannot tell, but it is established fact that that special day was the first time in history that the Japanese cried out, “Banzai!” to express their joy. On this point, the cry was actually initially proposed to be “奉賀 Hohga (Felicitations)” by the Minister of Education, but it was soon noted that repeating that cry would sound the same as Ahohga (You Idiot!), so it was that the Banzai (May you live ten thousand years) cry was born, as the Emperor’s carriage travelled from the Palace to the military review that afternoon.

    The pre-arranged call that day was actually supposed to be “Banzai, Banzai, Ban-Banzai”, but the first loud Banzai already shocked the horses of the carriage and caused them to freeze on the spot, so the second call got toned down and the last “Ban-Banzai” ended without ever being uttered, so many remembered it only as a simple repeat of “Banzai”.

    Although, the course of later events had unfortunately associated “Banzai!” with a darker, sinister image outside Japan, it had actually originated as a celebration of the coming of Democracy. In Japan, however, the original nuance of 1889 survives intact, as passing an exam, winning a lottery, in other words, all the good things in life are welcomed by “Banzai” calls, simply the Japanese equivalent of “Hooray!”.  
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 01:57 PM.

  10. #10


    Medal Proposal Tabled

    They must have needed to allow some time to let public opinion settle down, as the whole point was not about launching a constitution, but whether all members of society were going to buy into it to let it take hold. But by July of that year, the government must have felt optimistic, as the proposal from the Decorations Bureau addressed to the Prime Minister for a constitution medal was dated 8th July 1889.

    The letter suggested awarding to those who took part in the promulgation ceremony or the military review, a gold version for Royals and in silver for the rest. It explained further that other countries abound in examples of medals celebrating the crowning of monarchs and issuing of constitutions.

    As comparable precedent, they named the following seven European medals, as backup justification.

    1. The Golden Wilhelm I Coronation Medal for all who participated in his coronation as King of Prussia, which took place at Konigsberg Castle on 22 March 1862. A lavish gold medal was given even to enlisted men, and the ribbon was identical to that of the Black Eagle Order.

    2. Again, Wilhelm I, now the Emperor of Germany, his Golden 50th Wedding Anniversary Medal of 11th June 1879 was again in gold even for enlisted men in a design differing from the coronation medal, but still featuring the Black Eagle Order ribbon.

    3. German Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s Silver 25th Wedding Anniversary Medal of 25th January 1883 was predictably in silver down to enlisted men.

    4. The 1883 Coronation Medal for the Russian Czar, Alexander III was issued in gold as well as silver.

    5. The commemoration medal for Queen Victoria’s 50th Year of Reign of 1887 was in gold for all her royal relatives in England as well as abroad, and in silver for the others.

    6. The Russian Medal commemorating the Emancipation of Serfs on State owned land on 19th February 1866 under Czar Alexander II was in gold for the high society and in silver for the rest, all with a purple ribbon.

    7. The last example was added as breaking news taken fresh from a telegram received on 14th January 1889 from Belgrad, Serbia that a plan to issue a silver medal to commemorate their new constitution was announced in the government gazette.

    The listing of medal examples above seem to relate more to backing up Emperor Meiji’s 25th Wedding Anniversary Medal that Japan would issue later in 1894, but considering that there was never any enthronement medal for Emperor Meiji, comparing his crowning achievement of a Constitution to coronation medals may not be that unreasonable.

    The strong bias towards Prussian conventions is also clear and the practice of using an order ribbon on commemorative medals would be applied to the Constitution medal as we’ll soon see.

    These examples also explain why Japan’s first 3 commemorative medals issued in Emperor Meiji’s lifetime all got issued in both gold and silver versions, and only broke away from such wasteful practice from Emperor Taisho’s Enthronement Medal.

    That the Constitution deserved a commemorative medal was a foregone conclusion, even to the conservative Legislation Bureau, who conducted final screening of bill proposals and they promptly gave the green light to the Decoration Bureau’s proposal 4 days later, on 12th July 1889.
    Click to enlarge the picture Click to enlarge the picture Commemorative Medals of the Empire of Japan  
    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-14-2017 at 08:40 PM.

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