Itō Hirobumi was a history changing prime minister of Japan whose efforts directly resulted in the personal union between Japan and Korea.
Itō was born as the son of Hayashi Juzo. He was originally named Hayashi Risuke. His father Hayashi Juzo was the adopted son of Mizui Buhei who was an adopted son of Itō Yaemon's family, a lower class samurai from Hagi, Chōshū domain (present-day Yamaguchi prefecture). Mizui Buhei was renamed to Itō Naoemon. Mizui Juzo took the name Itō Juzo, and Hayashi Risuke was renamed to Itō Shunsuke at first, then Itō Hirobumi. He was a student of Yoshida Shōin at the Shōka Sonjuku and later joined the Sonnō jōi movement (“to revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians”), together with Kido Takayoshi. Itō was chosen to be one of the Chōshū Five who studied at University College London in 1863, and the experience in Great Britain convinced him of the necessity of Japan adopting Western ways.
In 1864, Itō returned to Japan with fellow student Inoue Kaoru to attempt to warn the Chōshū clan against going to war with the foreign powers (the Bombardment of Shimonoseki) over the right of passage through the Straits of Shimonoseki. At that time, he met Ernest Satow for the first time, later a lifelong friend.
After the Meiji Restoration, 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 established Japan's taxation system. Later that year, he was sent on the Iwakura Mission around the world as vice-envoy extraordinary, during which he won the confidence of Ōkubo Toshimichi one of the three great nobles who led the Meiji Restoration.
In 1873, Itō was made a full councilor, Minister of Public Works, and in 1875 chairman of the first Assembly of Prefectural Governors. After Ōkubo's assassination, he took over the post of Home Minister and secured a central position in the Meiji government. In 1881 he urged Ōkuma Shigenobu to resign, leaving himself in unchallenged control.
Itō went to Europe in 1882 to study the constitutions of those countries, spending nearly 18 months away from Japan. While working on a constitution for Japan, he also wrote the first Imperial Household Law and established the Japanese peerage system (kazoku) in 1884.
Prime Minister of Japan
Also in 1885, based on European ideas, Itō established a cabinet system of government, replacing the Daijō-kan as the decision-making state organization, and on December 22, 1885, he became the first prime minister of Japan.
On April 30, 1888, Itō resigned as prime minister, but headed the new Privy Council to maintain power behind-the-scenes. In 1889, he also became the first genro. The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in February 1889.
He remained a powerful force while Kuroda Kiyotaka and Yamagata Aritomo, his political nemesis, were prime ministers. Statues of Mutsu Munemitsu (Right) and Itō Hirobumi (Left) at ShimonosekiDuring Itō’s second term as prime minister (August 8, 1892 – August 31, 1896), he supported the First Sino-Japanese War and negotiated the Treaty of Shimonoseki in March 1895 with his ailing foreign minister Mutsu Munemitsu. In the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation of 1894, he succeeded in removing some of the onerous unequal treaty clauses that had plagued Japanese foreign relations since the start of the Meiji period.
During Itō’s third term as prime minister (January 12 – June 30, 1898), he encountered problems with party politics. Both the Jiyūtō and the Shimpotō opposed his proposed new land taxes, and in retaliation, Itō dissolved the Diet and called for new elections. As a result, both parties merged into the Kenseitō, won a majority of the seats, and forced Itō to resign. This lesson taught Itō the need for a pro-government political party, so he organized the Rikken Seiyūkai in 1900. Itō's womanizing was a popular theme in editorial cartoons and in parodies by contemporary comedians, and was used by his political enemies in their campaign against him.
Itō returned to office as prime minister for a fourth term from October 19, 1900, to May 10, 1901, this time facing political opposition from the House of Peers. Weary of political back-stabbing, he resigned in 1901, but remained as head of the Privy Council as the premiership alternated between Saionji Kimmochi and Katsura Tarō. Itō received an honorary doctorate from Yale University around this time.
Resident-General of Japan
In November 1905, following the Russo-Japanese War, the Korean government signed the Eulsa Treaty, making Korea a Japanese protectorate. After the Eulsa Treaty had been signed, Itō became the first Resident-General of Korea on December 21, 1905. He urged Emperor Gojong to abdicate in 1907 in favor of his son Emperor Sunjong and pushed through the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1907, giving Japan control over Korean internal affairs. However, Ito's position was nuanced. He was firmly against Korea falling into the hand of China and Russia, which would cause a grave threat to Japan's national security. However, he was actually against the annexation, instead advocating that Korea remain a protectorate. When the cabinet eventually voted to annex Korea, he insisted and obtained a delay, hoping that the decision of annexation could be reversed in the future.
Itō arrived at the Harbin Railway Station on October 26, 1909 for a meeting with Vladimir Kokovtsov, a Russian representative in Manchuria. When he arrived and proceeded to meet his Russian colleague, An Jung-geun, a Korean nationalist and independence activist, fired six shots at him. The would-be assassin was quickly apprehended by his guards. Two shots hit him and he was rushed to a hospital. Luckily, the bullets struck non-vital areas and blood loss was quickly contained. He recovered within six months.
Japanese-Korean Union Treaty
Itō proclaimed that if East Asia would not co-operate together like brothers, all would be absorbed into Western countries. Gojong and the Joseon government believing in these claims, agreed to help the Japanese military. When military cooperation was achieved, the Imperial Japanese Army, led by Yamagata Aritomo, lost much of its support within the Japanese Cabinet and with the Emperor, who was somewhat sympathetic to the Pan-Asian cause. As a result, the vote for annexation was reversed and, after much debate, a personal union was decided to be the best option. It was a compromise between the hardline IJA's stance of annexation and Hirobumi's protectorate stance. While Emperor Gojong of Korea was forced to ultimately give up his dynasty's control of Korea, they were allowed to continue to claim the title (but not the authority) of "King of Korea," which signaled their subservience to Japan. The Japanese-Korean Union Treaty came into effect on
After the signing of the Japanese-Korean Union Treaty, Ito continued to advocate for the non-imperial unification of Asia. Ultimately thanks to his success in Korea, he and his allies were able to sideline the IJA and Yamagata Aritomo. He retired from politics in 1919.
Ito Hirobumi died on April 18, 1921 at the age of 82. He died peacefully in his sleep due to natural causes.
Ito Hirobumi prevented the creation of an imperialist state in Japan and led efforts which greatly weakened the IJA politically. Today, he is regarded as a hero in Korea who is celebrated for his efforts to maintain Korean sovereignty.