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  • Promulgation of the Charter Oath, April 6, 1868.

    Beatriz Camino

    Promulgation of the Charter Oath, April 6, 1868.

    The Charter Oath of 1868 stands as a foundational document in Japan’s modern history, symbolising a pivotal moment of transformation and renewal. Through this oath, Japan embarked on a journey towards modernization, marking the beginning of the Meiji era.


    The Charter was published during a tumultuous period of Japan’s history, known as the Meiji Restoration. Since 1192, the country had been governed by a military government known as the shogunate, with the shōgun as the head of state. However, the feudal Tokugawa shogunate, which had ruled for over two centuries, was facing internal strife and external pressure from Western powers.

    In June 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at Edo Bay with several warships, demanding trading rights with Japan. The Tokugawa shōgun had no choice but to sign a trade treaty due to the significant technological gap between both armies, leaving the Japanese at a clear disadvantage. This exposed Japan’s technological and military inferiority, prompting urgent discussions about the need for reform and modernization.

    As a result, numerous daimyō, esteemed feudal lords, who opposed the shōgun, interpreted this as a sign of the regime’s vulnerability. Consequently, they mobilized to seize control of the government and install a new emperor, sparking the period known as bakumatsu. This movement successfully ousted the Tokugawa regime, reinstating authority to Emperor Meiji (also known as Mutsuhito) and heralding the dawn of the Meiji era. This period was characterized by a new approach of Japan to the international context and a great modernization of the country, portrayed in the charter promulgated during the enthronement of the new emperor.

    The Charter Oath

    On April 6, 1868, Emperor Meiji issued the Charter Oath, outlining five guiding principles for the new government. This oath, drafted by influential figures such as Kido Takayoshi and Okubo Toshimichi, served as a blueprint for Japan’s modernization efforts. The five clauses of the document emphasized the principles of unity, equality, and progress:

    1.  Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.

    2.  All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.

    3. The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent.

    4.  Evil customs of the past shall be broken off, and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.

    5.  Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

    The Charter Oath represented a departure from the feudal system and the establishment of a more egalitarian society. It emphasized the importance of public participation in governance, the abolition of feudal privileges, the promotion of education, and the adoption of Western knowledge and technology.

    The document was read aloud within the central ceremonial chamber of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, with the Emperor and over 400 officials in attendance. Subsequently, the attending nobles and daimyōs signed the document endorsing the Oath, pledging their utmost efforts to uphold and enact its principles. Those unable to attend the formal reading later visited the palace to add their signatures, resulting in a total of 767 signatures.


    The promise of reform articulated in the document initially faced challenges in implementation: notably, a parliament with substantial authority was not established until 1890, and the political and military dominance of the Meiji oligarchy from Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Hizen persisted well into the 20th century.

    However, the Charter Oath was reaffirmed as the first article of the constitution promulgated in June 1868, with subsequent articles expanding upon its policies. Nearly eight decades later, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Emperor Shōwa paid tribute to the Oath and reaffirmed it as the cornerstone of the “national polity” in his Imperial Rescript on National Revitalization.

    Overall, the document laid the groundwork for Japan’s rapid modernization and transformation into a major global power. In this sense, its principles guided the policies and reforms of the Meiji government, shaping every aspect of Japanese society, economy, and governance.


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