The Role of The Emperor in Meiji Japan

Themes

Japan is a society whose culture is steeped in the traditions and
symbols of the past: Mt. Fuji, the tea ceremony, and the sacred objects of
nature revered in Shintoism. Two of the most important traditions and symbols in
Japan; the Emperor and Confucianism have endured through Shogunates,
restorations of imperial rule, and up to present day. The leaders of the Meiji
Restoration used these traditions to gain control over Japan and further their
goals of modernization. The Meiji leaders used the symbolism of the Emperor to
add legitimacy to their government, by claiming that they were ruling under the
“Imperial Will.” They also used Confucianism to maintain order and force the
Japanese people to passively accept their rule.

Japanese rulers historically have used the symbolism of the Imperial
Institution to justify their rule. The symbolism of the Japanese Emperor is very
powerful and is wrapped up in a mix of religion (Shintoism) and myths. According
to Shintoism the current Emperor is the direct descendent of the Sun Goddess who
formed the islands of Japan out of the Ocean in ancient times.Footnote1
According to these myths the Japanese Emperor unlike a King is a living
descendent of the Gods and even today he is thought of as the High Priest of
Shinto. Despite the powerful myths surrounding Japan’s imperial institution the
Emperor has enjoyed only figure head status from 1176 on. At some points during
this time the Emperor was reduced to selling calligraphy on the streets of Kyoto
to support the imperial household, but usually the Emperor received money based
on the kindness of the Shogunate.Footnote2 But despite this obvious power
imbalance even the Tokugawa Shogun was at least symbolically below the Emperor
in status and he claimed to rule so he could carry out the Imperial
rule.Footnote3
Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized that they
needed to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in order to govern
effectively. In the years leading up to 1868 members of the Satsuma and Choshu
clans were part of the imperialist opposition. This opposition claimed that the
only way that Japan could survive the encroachment of the foreigners was to
rally around the Emperor.Footnote4 The Imperialists, claimed that the Tokugawa
Shogunate had lost its imperial mandate to carry out the Imperial Will because
it had capitulated to Western powers by allowing them to open up Japan to trade.

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During this time the ideas of the imperialists gained increasing support among
Japanese citizens and intellectuals who taught at newly established schools and
wrote revisionist history books that claimed that historically the Emperor had
been the ruler of Japan.Footnote5 The fact that the Tokugawa’s policy of opening
up Japan to the western world ran counter to the beliefs of the Emperor and was
unpopular with the public made the Tokugawa vulnerable to attack from the
imperialists. The imperialists pressed their attack both militarily and from
within the Court of Kyoto. The great military regime of Edo which until recently
had been all powerful was floundering not because of military weakness, or
because the machinery of government had broken but instead because the Japanese
public and the Shoguns supporters felt they had lost the Imperial Will.Footnote6
The end of the Tokugawa regime shows the power of the symbolism and
myths surrounding the imperial institution. The head of the Tokugawa clan died
in 1867 and was replaced by the son of a lord who was a champion of Japanese
historical studies and who agreed with the imperialists claims about restoring
the Emperor.Footnote7 So in 1868 the new shogun handed over all his power to the
Emperor in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to the Emperor, the Emperor
Komeo died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji Emperor.Footnote8
Because the Meiji Emperor was only 15 all the power of the new restored Emperor
fell not in his hands but instead in the hands of his close advisors. These
advisers such as Prince Saionji, Prince Konroe, and members of the Satsuma and
Choshu clans who had been members of the imperialist movement eventually wound
up involving into the Meiji Bureaucracy and Genro of the Meiji Era.Footnote9
Once in control of the government the Meiji Leaders and advisors to the Emperor
reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners.Footnote10 They did this
because after Emperor Komeo (who was strongly opposed to contact with the west)
died in 1867 the Meiji Emperor’s advisors were no longer bound by his Imperial
Will. Being anti-western also no longer served the purposes of the Meiji
advisors. Originally it was a tool of the imperialist movement that was used to
show that the Shogun was not acting out the Imperial Will. Now that the Shogun
and Komeo Emperor were dead there was no longer a reason to take on anti-foreign
policies.

The choice of the imperial thrown by the imperialists as a point for
Japan to rally around could not have been more wise. Although the imperial
institution had no real power it had universal appeal to the Japanese public. It
was both a mythic and religious idea in their minds.Footnote11 It provided the
Japanese in this time of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners a belief
in stability (according to Japanese myth the imperial line is a unbroken lineage
handed down since time immortal), and it provided a belief in the natural
superiority of Japanese culture.Footnote12 The symbolism of the Emperor helped
ensure the success of the restorationists because it undercut the legitimacy of
the Shogunate’s rule, and it strengthened the Meiji rulers who claimed to act
for the Emperor.

What is a great paradox about the Imperialist’s claims to restore the
power of the Emperor is that the Meiji rulers did not restore the Emperor to
power except symbolically because he was both too young and his advisors to
power hungry.Footnote13 By 1869 the relationship between the Emperor and his
Meiji bureaucracy and the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun before the restoration
were very similar. Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under the
authority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions. In
Japan the Emperor reigned but did not rule. This was useful for the new Meiji
bureaucrats, it kept the Emperor a mythic and powerful symbol.Footnote14
The traditions and symbols of Confucianism and the Imperial Institution
were already deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Japanese but the new Meiji
rulers through both an education system, and the structure of the Japanese
government were able to effectively inculcate these traditions into a new
generation of Japanese. The education system the Meiji Oligarchy founded
transformed itself into a system that indoctrinated students in the ideas of
Confucianism and reverence for the Emperor.Footnote15 After the death of Okubo
in 1878; Ito, Okuma, and Iwakura emerged as the three most powerful figures
among the young bureaucrats that were running the government in the name of the
Meiji Emperor. Iwakura one of the only figures in the ancient nobility to gain
prominence among the Meiji oligarchy allied with Ito who feared Okuma’s
progressive ideas would destroy Japan’s culture.Footnote16 Iwakura it is thought
was able manipulate the young Emperor to grow concerned about the need to
strengthen traditional morals. Thus in 1882 the Emperor issued the Yogaku Koyo,
the forerunner of the Imperial Rescript on Education.Footnote17 This document
put the emphasis of the Japanese education system on a moral education from 1882
onward.

Previous to 1880 the Japanese education system was modeled on that of
the French education system. After 1880 the Japanese briefly modeled their
education system on the American system.Footnote18 However, starting with the
Yogaku Koyo in 1882 and ending with the 1885 reorganization of the department of
Education along Prussian lines the American model was abolished. The new
education minister Mori Arinori after returning from Europe in 1885 with Ito was
convinced that the Japanese education system had to have a spiritual foundation
to it.Footnote19 In Prussia Arinori saw that foundation to be Christianity and
he decreed that in Japan the Education system was to be based on reverence for
the Imperial Institution. A picture of the Emperor was placed in every classroom,
children read about the myths surrounding the Emperor in school, and they
learned that the Emperor was the head of the giant family of Japan.Footnote20 By
the time the Imperial Rescript on Education was decreed by the Emperor in 1889
the Japanese education system had already begun to transform itself into a
system that did not teach how to think but instead what to think. The Imperial
Rescript on Education in 1889 was according to Japanese scholars such as Hugh
Borton , “the nerve axis of the new order.”Footnote21 Burton believes that the
Imperial Rescript on Education signaled the rise of nationalistic elements in
Japan. The Imperial Rescript on Education was the culmination of this whole
movement to the right. The Rescript emphasized loyalty and filial piety, respect
for the constitution and readiness to serve the government. It also exalted the
Emperor as the coeval between heaven and earth.Footnote22
The Constitution of 1889 like the changes in the education system
helped strengthen reverence for the Imperial Institution. The 1889 constitution
was really the second document of its kind passed in Japan the first being the
Imperial Oath of 1868 in which the Emperor laid out the structure and who was to
head the new Meiji government.Footnote23 This Imperial Oath was refereed to as a
constitution at the time but it only very vaguely laid out the structure of
government. The constitution promulgated by the Emperor in 1889 did much more
then lay out the structure of Japanese government it also affirmed that the
Emperor was the supreme sovereign over Japan.Footnote24 The signing ceremony
itself was an auspicious event on the way to it Mori Arinori one of the moderate
leaders of the Meiji government was attacked and killed by a crazed
rightist..Footnote25 The ceremony itself evoked both the past and present and
was symbolic of the Meiji governments shift toward the right and the governments
use of the
Emperor as supreme ruler. Before signing the document Emperor Meiji prayed at
the palace sanctuary to uphold the name of his imperial ancestors he then signed
the constitution which affirmed the sanctity of the Emperor’s title (Tenno
Taiken), and his right to make or abrogate any law.Footnote26 The constitution
also set up a bicameral legislature.Footnote27 The constitution codified the
power of the Emperor and helped the Meiji oligarchy justify their rule because
they could point to the constitution and say that they were carrying out the
will of the Emperor. The Meiji Emperor even after the Constitution of 1889
enjoyed little real power. The Meiji Emperor did not even come to cabinet
meetings because his advisors told him if the cabinet made a decision that was
different then the one he wanted then that would create dissension and would
destroy the idea of the Imperial Institution. So even after the Meiji
Constitution the Emperor was still predominantly a symbol.Footnote28 The
Constitution ingrained in Japanese society the idea that the government was
being run by higher forces who new better then the Japanese people, it also
broadened the base of support of the Meiji Rulers who now had a document too
prove they were acting on Imperial Will and their decisions were imperial
decisions not those of mere mortals.Footnote29
The symbolism of the Emperor and use of Confucianism allowed the Meiji
rulers to achieve their goals. One of their goals was the abolishment of the
system of fiefs and return of all land to the Emperor. At first the new Meiji
Rulers allied themselves with the Daimyo clans in opposition to the Tokugawa
Shogun. But once the Meiji leaders had gained a control they saw that they would
need to abolish the fief system and concentrate power in the hands of a central
government. The Meiji rulers achieved their goals by having the Choshu, Satsuma,
Tosa, and Hizen clans give up their lands, granting the Daimyos large pensions
if they gave up their clans, and by having the Emperor issue two decrees in July
1869, and August 1871.Footnote30 The role and symbolism of the Emperor although
not the sole factor in influencing the Daimyo to give up their fiefs, was vital.

The Meiji Oligarchs said that not turning in the fiefs to the Emperor would be
disloyal and pointed to the historical record which Meiji scholars claimed
showed that historically all fiefs were the property of the Emperor.Footnote31
They showed this by claiming that the Shogun would switch the rulers of fiefs
and this proved that the Daimyos did not control the title to their land but
merely held it for the Emperor. Imperial decrees and slogans of loyalty to the
Emperor also accompanied the abolishment of the Samurai system.Footnote32 In the
abolishment of both these feudal systems the symbolism of the Emperor as both
the director of the initiative and recipient of the authority afterwards played
a vital role in ensuring there success.Footnote33
The abolishment of fiefs and the samurai class were essential for the
stability and industrialization of Japan.Footnote34 Without the concentration of
land and power in the hands of the Meiji oligarchs and the Emperor the Meiji
oligarchs feared they would receive opposition from powerful Daimyos and never
gain control and authority over all of Japan. Historical examples bear out the
fears of the Meiji Oligarchy; in 1467 the Ashikaga Shogun failed to control many
of the fiefs and because of this a civil war raged in Japan.Footnote35 The
centralization of power allowed the Meiji government to have taxing authority
over all of Japan and pursue national projects.Footnote36 The unity of Japan
also allowed the Meiji Oligarchs to focus on national and not local issues.

The use of Confucianism and the Emperor also brought a degree of
stability to Japan during the tumultuous Meiji years. The Emperor’s mere
presence on a train or in western clothes were enough to convince the public of
the safety or goodness of the Meiji oligarchy’s industrial policy. In one famous
instance the Japanese Emperor appeared in a train car and after that riding
trains became a common place activity in Japan. The behavior of the Imperial
family was also critical to adoption of western cultural practices. Before 1873
most Japanese women of a high social position would shave their eyebrows and
blacken their teeth to appear beautiful. But on March 3rd 1873 the Empress
appeared in public wearing her own eyebrows and with unblackened teeth.

Following that day most women in Tokyo and around Japan stopped shaving their
eyebrows and blackening their teeth.Footnote37 The Imperial institution provided
both a key tool to change Japanese culture and feelings about industrialization
and it provided s tability to Japan which was critical to allowing
industrialists to invest in factories and increase exports and
production.Footnote38
The symbols and the traditions the Meiji leaders inculcated Japanese
society with helped the Meiji government maintain stability and pursue its
economic policies but it also had severe limitations that limited the
revolutionary scope of the Japanese government and helped bring about the
downfall of the Meiji era. The use of Confucianism and the Emperor to bolster
the Imperial restoration laid the foundation for a paradox of state affairs. The
system that sought to strengthen Japan through the use of modern technology and
modern organization methods was using traditional values to further its
goals.Footnote39 This caused some to turn toward the west for the
“enlightenment” the Meiji era promised this was the case with Okuma who was
eventually forced out of the increasing nationalist Genro.Footnote40 For others
it lead them to severe nationalism rejecting all that was western. This was such
the case of Saigo who believed till his death on his own sword that the Meiji
leaders were hypocritical and we re violating the Imperial Will by negotiating
and trading with the west.Footnote41 The Meiji government used the same symbols
and traditions that the Tokugawa used and like the Tokugawa gave the Emperor no
decision making power. The Meiji Emperor although he had supreme power as
accorded in the constitution never actually made decisions but was instead a
pawn of the Meiji Genro who claimed to carry out his Imperial Will. This
Imperial Will they decided for themselves. Like the Shogunate the Meiji
governments claim to rule for the Emperor was fraught with problems. The
Imperial Will was a fluid idea that could be adopted by different parties under
changing circumstances. And just like the Meiji rulers were able to topple the
Shogun by claiming successfully that they were the true administrators of the
Imperial Will; the militarist elements in the 1930’s were able to topple the
democratic elements of Japan partially by claiming the mantle of ruling for the
Emperor.Footnote42 From this perspective the Meiji O ligarchs building up of the
Imperial Myth was a fatal flaw in the government. The constitution which says in
article I, “The empire of Japan shall be governed over by a line of Emperors
unbroken for ages eternal” gave to whoever was acting on the Imperial Will
absolute right to govern.Footnote43
The symbols of the Emperor and the tradition of Confucianism did not
end with the end of the Meiji era or world war two. Today the idea of filial
piety is still strong, multiple generations of a family still usually live
together even in cramped Japanese housing. The religion of Shinto that the Meiji
leaders rejuvenated during their rule in order to help foster the imperial cult
is still thriving as the thousands of Tori gates and Shrines around Japan
attest.Footnote44 But the most striking symbol to survive is that of the Emperor
stripped after world war two of all power the Emperor of Japan is still revered.

During the illness of Emperor Showa in 1989 every national newspaper and
television show was full of reports related to the Emperor’s health. During the
six months the Showa Emperor was sick before he died all parades and public
events were canceled in respect for the Emperor. Outside the gates of the
Imperial palace in Tokyo long tables were set up where people lined up to sign
cards to wis h the Emperor a speedy recovery. The news media even kept the type
of illness the emperor had a secret in deference to the Emperor. At his death
after months of illness it was as if the Imperial Cult of the Meiji era had
returned. Everything in Japan closed down , private television stations went as
far as to not air any commercials on the day of his death. And now almost six
years after his death more then four hundred and fifty thousand people trek
annually to the isolated grave site of Emperor Showa.Footnote45
The traditions and symbolism of Confucianism and the Emperor were
critical to the Meiji oligarchs gaining control of power and goals of
industrialization. The oligarchy inculcated the Japanese public with these
traditional values through an education system that stressed moral learning, and
through a constitution that established the law of Japan to be that of the
Imperial Will. The values of Confucianism and symbol of the Emperor allowed the
Meiji government to peaceful gain control of Japan by appealing to history and
the restoration of the Emperor. But the Meiji oligarchs never restored the
Emperor to a position of real political power. Instead he was used as a tool by
the oligarchs to achieve their modernization plans in Japan such as the
abolishment of fiefs, the end of the samurai, the propagation of new cultural
practices, and pubic acceptance of the Meiji oligarchs industrialization
policies. The symbols and traditions of Japan’s past are an enduring legacy that
have manifested themselves in the Meiji Restoration and today in Japans
continued reverence for the Emperor.


Footnote1
Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:
Hakubunkwan, 1921) 47.


Footnote2
Takatsu Kuwasaburo, The History of The Empire of Japan (Tokyo: Dai Nippon Tosho
Kabushiki Kwaisha, 1893) 206.


Footnote3
Ibid., 17.


Footnote4
Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 112.


Footnote5
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 32.


Footnote6
Shusuke Sato, Some Historical Phases of Modern Japan (New York: Japan Society,
1916) 4.


Footnote7
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 44.


Footnote8
Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 1971) 8.


Footnote9
David Titus, Palace and Politics in Prewar Japan (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1974) 55
Footnote10
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976) 73.


Footnote11
Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:
Hakubunkwan, 1921) 142.


Footnote12
Ibid., 35.


Footnote13
Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-Toyota
International Centre, 1989) 27.


Footnote14
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 70.


Footnote15
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)
116.


Footnote16
Ernest Best, Christian Faith and Cultural Crisis the Japanese Case (Leiden: E.J.

Brill, 1966) 108.


Footnote17
Ibid., 105.


Footnote18
Ibid., 106.


Footnote19
Ibid., 106.


Footnote20
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)
117.


Footnote21
Hugh Borton, Japan’s Modern Century (New York: Ronald Press, 1955) 524.


Footnote22
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)
118.


Footnote23
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 69.


Footnote24
Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:
Hakubunkwan, 1921) 60.


Footnote25
Ian Nish, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-Toyota
International Centre, 1989) 9.


Footnote26
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 193.


Footnote27
Ibid., 192.


Footnote28
Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-Toyota
International Centre, 1989) 27.


Footnote29
Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:
Hakubunkwan, 1921) 89.


Footnote30
Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (New
York: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 77.


Footnote31
Ibid., 78.


Footnote32
Ibid., 77.


Footnote33
Ibid., 83.


Footnote34
Ibid., 82.


Footnote35
Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 66.


Footnote36
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)
117.


Footnote37
Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 1971) 41.


Footnote38
Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976) 84.


Footnote39
Ibid., 119.


Footnote40
Ibid., 88.


Footnote41
Ibid., 94-95.


Footnote42
Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 166.


Footnote43
Ibid., 167.


Footnote44
Ibid., 13.


Footnote45
Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-Toyota
International Centre, 1989) 20.
Category: History