Two great prime ministers of Japan

(Posted on March 7, 2023)


Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) was the first prime minister (he actually assumed the premiership four times) after the Meji Restoration and was one of the key figures in implementing Japan’s modernization process. Ikeda Hayato (1899-1965) became prime minister in 1960 and was best remembered as an advocator who carried out the “Double Income Program”. It’s interesting to note that the two prime ministers shared the fact that they climbed the ladder during tumultuous periods. Some even say that the two men would not become what they had become especially in times of normality. So, let’s look into their feats. 

Ito Hirobumi hailed from a low-class samurai in the Choshu domain, which was slightly smaller than today’s Yamaguchi prefecture on the south western tip of Honshu. At that time, Choshu and Satuma (in Kyushu Island) clans were decisive players in their drive to depose the Tokugawa shogunate and subsequently ushered in the Meiji period. Ito managed to study in England for a short period from 1863 to 1864; it opened his eyes that Japan should modernize itself by absorbing western knowledge including that of warfare as much and as soon as possible so that Japan would not be threatened by the great powers. 










                                            Five Choshu young samurai who went to England to study in 1863. Ito Hirobumi is at back on the right.   













 The Iwakura Mission (1871-1873) 

Let me explain briefly about the importance of the Iwakura Mission. The mission was sent to the US and European countries including England, Germany, and France. It was headed by Iwakura Tomomi (seated in the center), from a noble family and one of the leading figures of the Meiji Restoration. Seated on the left is Kido Takayoshi, hailing from Choshu. Seated on the right is Okubo Toshimichi, from Satuma. Both Kido and Okubo were two of the “Three Great Nobles” of the Meiji Restoration. (The third was Saigo Takamori of Satuma, who stayed in Japan) Standing on the right is Ito Hirobumi. The mission totaled one hundred and seven members including forty-eight administrators and scholars charged to collect western knowledge and technologies, and another forty-eight students to stay on and study in their respective countries. 

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Ito became instrumental in carrying out modernization programs one after another including industrialization, currency reforms, railway construction, reorganization of administration, women’s education and more.  Through these feats, Ito managed to become the virtual top of the Meiji government. It must be mentioned that his priority turned to creating the constitution that would focus on the prerogative power of the Meiji emperor. For this purpose, Ito went to Germany and Austria to study their constitutions in 1882. It was when Ito became the first prime minister in 1885, he finalized drafting the constitution, which was promulgated in 1889 based on the German constitution.    


During Ito’s second term as prime minister, he concluded a peace treaty with Qing China in 1895 to end the Japan-Sino war. At the time of his fourth term as prime minister, Ito introduced a constitutional political party system by creating his own party. Ito became the first Resident-General of Korea in 1905 after the Japan-Russo war. However, this led to his assassination by a Korean independence activist in 1909. 


                 (the above photo by Eric Anefo Koch)


Now let’s turn to Ikeda Hayato. He started as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance in 1925. Because of illness, he spent three years in recovery. This was a serious drawback for his career but in the end, he managed to become the undersecretary of the same ministry in 1947. Perhaps Ikeda was fortunate enough that those who held top positions in the ministry were “purged” after the end of WWII by the directives of the allied occupational administration. Soon afterwards, Ikeda turned to politics and became a member of the lower house in 1949. To his surprise, Ikeda was appointed as Minister of Finance straight away by the all-powerful diplomat-turned prime minister at that time, Yoshida Shigeru. Again, the impact of purges (affecting all segments of society) left little choice but Ikeda for Yoshida.


As finance minister, Ikeda diligently followed the instructions of the allied forces including “severe” measures to reform the Japanese fiscal system. Ikeda somehow managed to became the No. 2 politician after Yoshida, who was more focused on diplomatic missions and left financial matters entirely to Ikeda.  Regarding the economic recovery of Japan, Ikeda made some important measures: setting up two semi-government banks, the Import and Export Bank in 1951 and the Japan Development Bank in the same year. In the following year, Ikeda helped set up two private banks specialized in long-term loans to industries. Also, Ikeda made government direct investment possible through a scheme of allocating postal deposits.


                                 Ikeda Hayato and his cabinet members in 1960


Based on these measures, Ikeda embarked on his bold idea of drastic economic development called the “Double Income Program” when he became prime minister in 1960. The program called for doubling GNP (now GDP) within 10 years from 1961. Ikeda was credited for fulfilling his promise, actually exceeding his target. Unfortunately, Ikeda did not live to see the results himself because he died of cancer in 1965.






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