He is considered the father of modern Japan. He was instrumental in influencing the transformation of Japan from a feudal, isolated regime into a modern, democratic and global economy. As home minister in 1878, he focused on boosting and westernizing the economy of Japan. As Japan’s first Prime Minister from 1885, he ensured Japan was viewed on par with global western powers from an economic and political perspective. For placing Japan on the global economic and political map, Itō Hirobumi makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management.
The vision and its execution: Itō Hirobumi had a vision of Japan as a regional superpower, at par with other Western superpowers. He achieved this by sailing with the wind, not against it – he chose to modernize Japan along the Western ideals of democracy, capitalism and military strength. As a result of his policies, by 1894 Japan had established itself as a regional super power and abolished unequal treaties with Western powers.
The education and enlightenment: Itō Hirobumi was not born great, he achieved greatness – through education, observation and remarkable foresight.
In 1863, prior to the Meiji restoration, Itō Hirobumi went to study sciences at University College London. His studies in England convinced him of the necessity to modernize Japan and open it to the rest of the world. He subsequently became one of the leaders of the Chōshū and Satsuma rebellion that eventually led to the Meiji Restoration.
In 1870, he went to the United States to study western financial and currency systems. Returning to Japan in 1871, he established Japan’s currency and taxation systems.
In 1882, he departed to Europe to study the constitutional systems across Europe and returned to draft Japan’s constitution.
Economic Reform – education and foresight: After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Itō was appointed governor of Hyōgo Prefecture, junior councilor for Foreign Affairs, and sent to the United States in 1870 to study Western currency systems. Returning to Japan in 1871, he implemented several economic reforms to lay the foundation for making Japan an economic superpower.
The economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the Yen, a sound banking system and a new set of tax laws. Japan now had the infrastructure of a vibrant capitalist economy with a new stock exchange in Tokyo and a bank of issue modeled on the US National Bank system. Hirobumi preferred following the U.S. financial system because the Japanese economy in the late 19th century was decentralized and more closely resembled the economy of the United States than that of the European countries.
Drafting of the Constitution – vision and pragmatism: Itō Hirobumi had a vision, but he was very pragmatic when it came to execution. This is clearly reflected in his drafting of the constitution for Japan.
In March 1882, Itō Hirobumi departed for Europe to study its constitutional systems. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Vienna, learning the technical details and theoretical justification of the German constitutional system. On his return to Japan, he set to work to devise a new political system which would accommodate conservative pressures within the government for an autocratic monarchical system, yet provide a modern and up-to-date alternative to the English model of constitutional government demanded by liberal and radical elements outside the government.
The drafting of a constitution began under Itō’s supervision in 1886 and was completed in 1889. A moderate in temperament and political outlook, he aimed at setting up careful checks and balances which would restrain the rasher elements in the political public and yet permit gradual evolution and progress. The document was highly authoritarian in many respects, yet flexible enough to accommodate itself to the exigencies of future political growth and change. The emperor was entrusted with most of the legal powers of the state, and the Cabinet was given most effective powers of decision over national policy. To ensure that the government consulted the people, especially on matters of public finance, Itō’s constitution provided for a bicameral national Diet, the lower house of which was to be popularly elected.
Foreign Policy: Diplomacy backed by military strength and a good understanding of the environment: Itō Hirobumi had a long term vision for Japan as a political heavyweight in Asia. In the 1870s and 1880s while Japan was building its military strength and expertise, Hirobumi favored a compromise and diplomatic caution with respect to the Korea problem. Another reason for this stance was that he didn’t want to jeopardize the goal of abolishing unequal treaties with the West, because of an aggressive stance.
During this time, Japan was building its military strength through adoption of German system of military schools, including curricula, as well as the German divisional structure, with organic artillery support. Even the Army Ministry was re-organized along German lines. Japan also realized the importance of naval superiority and sought help of Great Britain – the dominant naval power of the day. This included warships built by British Shipyards.
By the mid 1890s, Japan’s military strength had reached western standards and Itō Hirobumi ’s foreign minister Mutsu Munemitsu had successfully negotiated the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation of 1894, removing some of the onerous unequal treaty clauses that had plagued Japan for a long time.
The time was now right for Japan to establish its military superiority over the region and Itō Hirobumi as Premier, led Japan into a war with China. Japan achieved a decisive victory in this war. Itō Hirobumi, along with foreign minister Mutsu Munemitsu negotiated the Treaty of Shimonoseki – China recognized the independence of Korea and renounced any claims to that country. It also ceded the island of Formosa (Taiwan). China also agreed to pay Japan a war indemnity of 200 million Kuping taels, payable over seven years. Most notable was the signing of a commercial treaty similar to ones previously signed by China with various western powers in the aftermath of the First and Second Opium Wars. This commercial treaty confirmed the opening of various ports and rivers to Japanese trade.
The victory signaled Japan’s emergence as the dominant East Asian power. It also marked the point at which Japanese foreign policy began to emphasize Western-style territorial and economic/commercial expansion.
Itō Hirobumi was a brilliant strategist and an opportune planner. He had strong mastery of the English language which he used very effectively in negotiations with the Western powers. He followed a very results oriented execution style which is reflected in one of his famous quotes – “Even if you succeed in study and business, if your nation collapses, then what good is it for?”