Race in Japan's two constitutions

1889 "subjects" and 1947 "nationals" just people

By William Wetherall

First posted 15 February 2007
Last updated 10 May 2007

1889 Meiji constitution   defines subjects, no mention of "race" or "ethnic nation"
1947 Showa constitution   defines "nationals", forbids "race" discrimination, no mention of "ethnic nation"

The legal foundations of a raceless nation

Given the conventional associations throughout the world of "Japanese" as a race and of "Japan" as a racist country, it may come as a surprise that Japan's constitutions and laws have never racilized Japan's nationality, even when its nation included Taiwan, Karafuto, and Korea. For sure, "Japanese" as a social label is highly racialized in Japan and elsewhere. In the United States but not in Japan, "Japanese" has been racialized in law (immigration and naturalization) and as a demographic term (race boxes).

Here we will look at the very few direct and indirect references to race or ethnicity in Japan's 1889 and 1947 constitutions.

Translations and commentary

All of the translations of cited articles are mine. I have shown conventional translations in brackets for comparison, and to demonstrate why conventional translations cannot be trusted to reflect the phrasing and terminology of the original texts.

In all my translations I have endeavored to represent the same Japanese terms and phrases in the same English terms or phrases. For example, 國民 will always be "national" and never "the people" or "citizens" in my nomenclature.

Terms of phrases of interest when comparing Japan's two constitutions with each other, and when comparing Japan's constitutions with those of the Republic of China (ROC) and the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), have been highlighted.

See other articles for discussions of race and ethnicity in the Chinese and Korean constitutions.


1889 Meiji constitution

1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (大日本帝國憲法)
Promulgated 2 February 1889 (Meiji 22)
Effective 29 November 1890 (Meiji 23)
Replaced 3 May 1947 (Showa 22)
7 chapters, 76 articles

Neither 人民 (jinmin "the people") nor 国民 (kokumin "nationals") appear in the Meiji constitution.

Neither 民族 (minzoku "ethnic nation") nor 人種 (jinshu "race) appear. The graph 族 (zoku) meaning "affiliation" (by birth, hence used in words for "race" or "tribe" or "clan" or "folk") appears only in the words 皇族 (kōzoku "imperial family") and 華族 (kazoku "nobility"), and 貴族 (kizoku "peers") as in 貴族院 (kizokuin "house of peers" (Article 34).


All unbracketed translations are mine. The bracketed translations are by Ito Miyoji (1857-1934), a former Hizen (Nagasaki) samurai who became a translator and statesman closely associated with Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909). Ito Miyoji accompanied Ito Hirobumi to Europe to study European constitutions and was involved in the writing of the Meiji constitution. Later, as president of the conservative Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun [Tokyo daily news], he penned provocative editorials criticizing the government.

Chapter 1: Rights and duties of subjects


Article 18
As for the requisites to be a subject of Japan [they] shall be according to the determinations of law.

[ The conditions necessary for being a Japanese subject shall be determined by law. ]


1947 Showa constitution

1947 Constitution of Japan (日本国憲法)
Promulgated 3 November 1946 (Showa 21)
Effective 3 May 1947 (Showa 22)
11 chapters, 103 articles

3 November, Emperor Meiji's birthday, is now celebrated as Culture Day.


All unbracketed translations are mine. The bracketed translations are by from the standard translation.

Chapter 3: Rights and duties of nationals
[ Chapter III: Rights and Duties of the People ]


Article 10
As for the conditions to be national of Japan, [the state shall] determine them by law.

[ The conditions necessary for being a Japanese national shall be determined by law. ]

すべて国民は、法の下に平等であつて、人種、信条、性別、社会的身分又は門地により、政治的、経済的又は社会的関係において、差別されない。[ 省略 ]

Article 14
All nationals [of Japan] are equal under the law, and they shall not be discriminated in political, economic or social relations, because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. (Rest of article omitted)

[ All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. ] (Rest of article omitted)

National origins, nationality, and aliens

See The genesis of Articles 10 and 14 for an account of how "national origin" then "nationality" -- but also "aliens" -- were written into, then out of, earlier drafts of the 1947 Constitution.

Chinese translation



Articles 44
[ The qualifications of members of both Houses and their electors shall be fixed by law. However, there shall be no discrimination because of race, creed, sex, social status, family origin, education, property or income. ] (Rest of article omitted)