In 1881, the Japanese government was headed by a single President, Sanjō, assisted by two vice-presidents, Iwakura and Arisugawa. These men alone had direct access to the Emperor on state affairs. Beyond giving advice of their own, their principal task was to mediate in disputes between the councillors and to advise the Emperor on which was the stronger side when his decision was necessary to resolve a deadlock. Sanjō and Iwakura were court nobles with long ties with Satsuma and Chōshū, whose armies had fought and won the Restoration war of 1868–9, and whose leaders thereafter held the key posts in the council, the executive and the Armed Forces. While deeply conscious of their primary loyalty to the Emperor and anxious to prevent his domination by powerful factions, Sanjo and Iwakura in the last analysis, and with some regret, regarded Satsuma and Chōshū as the essential pillars of the new regime. Arisugawa was a Prince Imperial, who had been raised to the position of vice-president in 1880. He had been chairman of the legislative Genrōin that included several prominent members antipathetic to Satsuma and Chōshū dominance of the government. While Sanjō and Iwakura were basicallyagreed with the Sat-Chō leaders that Prussia provided the best model for a future constitution, Arisugawa as chairman of the Genrōin had presented the Emperor with a draft constitution in 1879 that drew heavily from the English model. It should be noted that there was therefore a possibility that Arisugawa would dissent from his presidential colleagues when the issue of the constitution was raised within the government in 1881.

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