The Role of the Emperor in Meiji Japan

Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized that they needed
to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in order to govern effectively.

During the Age of Imperialism, members of the Satsuma and Choshu, two of
the very powerful clans in Japan, were parts of the opposition to foreign
imperialism. This opposition believed that the only way that Japan could
survive the encroachment of the foreigners was to rally around the Emperor.

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The supporters of the imperial government, known as 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. 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.

The fact that the Tokugawa’s policy of opening up Japan to the western
world ran counter to 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 Japanese public and the Shogun’s supporters soon felt that
they had lost the Imperial Will.
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.In 1867, the new shogun handed over all his power
to Emperor Komeo in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to Emperor
Komeo, the Emperor died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji
Emperor, which officially started the Meiji period (1868-1911).The
Meiji Emperor was only 15, and so all the power of the new restored Emperor
fell not in the Emperor’s hands but in the hands of his close advisors.

Once in control of the government, the Meiji leaders and advisors to the
Emperor reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners.The reason for
doing this was because after Emperor Komeo, who strongly opposed contact
with the west, died in 1867 the Meiji Emperor’s advisors were no longer
bound by his Imperial Will. They realized that opposing western powers was
impossible, and 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 wiser. 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.In this
time of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners, the imperial thrown
provided the Japanese with a belief of stability (according to Japanese
myth the imperial line is a unbroken lineage handed down since time
immortal), and the natural superiority of Japanese culture.The symbolism
of the Emperor helped ensure the success of the Meiji leaders, 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 only restored the Emperor to
power symbolically, because he was both too young and his advisors too
power hungry. By 1869, relationship between the Emperor and his Meiji
bureaucracy were very similar to the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun before
the restoration. Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under the
authority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions.

In other words, the Meiji Emperor reigned but did not rule. This was
useful for the new Meiji bureaucrats, because it kept the Emperor a mythic
and powerful symbol.
The teachings and symbols of Confucian beliefs and the Imperial
Institution were already deeply carved into the minds 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. Japan, as a nation close to
China, was greatly influenced by the teachings of Confucius, the greatest
teacher in China.Japanese people believe in integrity, uprightness,
respect for superiors, filial loyalty, and they also believe that a
virtuous man must have culture and manners, which is being humble and
benevolent.These exactly resemble the teachings of Confucianism to act
as an individual. The education system the Meiji rulers founded
transformed itself into a system that indoctrinated students in the ideas
of Confucianism and reverence for the Emperor.After the death of Okubo,
a very important figure in Meiji government, 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 that
Okuma’s progressive ideas would destroy Japan’s culture. Iwakura’s thought
was able to 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.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.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.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.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 taught what to think instead of how 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.”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 aspects from
Confucianism, especially loyalty and filial piety or respect for the
constitution and readiness to serve the government. It also exalted the
Emperor as the coeval between heaven and earth.
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.This Imperial Oath was referred
to as a constitution at the time but it only vaguely laid out the structure
of government. The constitution promulgated by the Emperor in 1889 did
much more than lay out the structure of Japanese government. It also
affirmed that the Emperor was the supreme sovereign over Japan.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. The ceremony itself evoked both the past
and present and was symbolic of the Meiji government’s shift toward the
right and the government’s use of the Emperor as supreme ruler. Emperor
Meiji signed the constitution, which affirmed the sanctity of the Emperor’s
title (Tenno Taiken), and his right to make or abrogate any law.The
constitution also set up a bicameral legislature.The constitution
codified the power of the Emperor and helped the Meiji rulers justify their
rule, because they could point to the constitution and say that they were
carrying out the will of the Emperor. Even after the Constitution of 1889,
the Meiji Emperor 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.

Therefore, even after the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor was still
predominantly a symbol.The Constitution ingrained in Japanese society
the idea that the government was being run by higher forces that knew
better than the Japanese people did. It also broadened the base of support
of the Meiji Rulers who now had a document to prove they were acting on
Imperial Will and their decisions were imperial decisions instead of those
of normal mortals.
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 feudalism (taxes paid by peasants to landowners) and return
of all land to the Emperor. At first the new Meiji Rulers allied
themselves with the Daimyo clans, which are the strongest samurais just
below the shogun and own a great deal of lands, in opposition to the
Tokugawa Shogun. However, once the Meiji leaders had gained control, they
saw that they would need to abolish the feudal 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.

The role and symbolism of the Emperor, although not the sole factor in
influencing the Daimyo to give up their land, was vital. The Meiji rulers
said that not turning in the fiefs to the Emperor would be disloyal and
pointed to the historical records, which Meiji scholars claimed, showed
that historically all land were the property of the Emperor.They showed
this by claiming that the Shogun would switch the rulers of lands 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.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.
The abolishment of feudalism and the samurai class were essential for the
stability and industrialization of Japan.Without the concentration of
land and power in the hands of the Meiji rulers and the Emperor, the Meiji
rulers 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 rulers. In 1467, the Ashikaga Shogun failed to
control many of the lands. As a result, a civil war raged in Japan.The
centralization of power allowed the Meiji government to have taxing
authority over all of Japan and pursue national projects.The unity of
Japan also allowed the Meiji rulers 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 was enough to convince the public of the
safety or goodness of the Meiji rulers’ industrial policy. In one famous
instance, the Japanese Emperor appeared in a train car. Since then, train
became a common transportation 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. However, on March
3rd, 1873, the Empress appeared in public wearing her own eyebrows and with
unblackened teeth. From that day on, most women in Tokyo and around Japan
stopped shaving their eyebrows and blackening their teeth.The Imperial
institution provided both a key tool to change Japanese culture and
feelings about industrialization while providing stability to Japan, which
was critical to allowing industrialists to invest in factories and increase
exports and production.
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.This caused some to turn toward the west for
the “enlightenment” the Meiji era promised. As a result, Okuma was
eventually forced out of the increasing nationalist Genro, advisors of the
Emperor.For others it led 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 were
violating the Imperial Will by negotiating and trading with the west.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 having 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. Like the
Shogunate, the idea that Meiji governments claim to rule for the Emperor
was full with problems. The Imperial Will was a fluid idea that could be
adopted by different parties under changing circumstances. 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.From this
perspective, the Meiji ruling class, built 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.
The symbols of the Emperor and the tradition of Confucianism did not
disappear with the end of the Meiji era or World War II. Nowadays, the
idea of filial piety is still strong, and multiple generations of a family
still usually live together even in cramped Japanese housing. The religion
of Shinto, traditional Japanese animism or nature worship, 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.But the most striking symbol to survive is that of the
Emperor, stripped after World War II of all power, 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 that the Showa Emperor was sick, 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 wish 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 than
four hundred and fifty thousand people travel annually to the isolated
grave site of Emperor Showa.
The traditions and symbolism of Confucianism and the Emperor were critical
to the Meiji rulers gaining control of power and goals of
industrialization. The rulers implanted 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 peacefully gain control of Japan by
appealing to history and the restoration of the Emperor. However, the
Meiji rulers never restored the Emperor to a position of real political
power. Instead, he was used as a tool by the government to achieve their
modernization plans in Japan, such as the abolishment of feudalism, the end
of the samurai class, the propagation of new cultural practices, and pubic
acceptance of the Meiji government’s 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.


References
1. Nagata, Hidejero. (1921). A Simplified Treatise on the Imperial House
of Japan. Tokyo: Hakubunkwan.


2. Kuwasaburo, Takatsu. (1893). The History of the Empire of Japan.

Tokyo: Dai Nippon Tosho Kabushiki Kwaisha.


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


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


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


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


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


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


9. Best, Ernest. (1966). Christian Faith and Cultural Crisis the Japanese
Case. Leiden: E.J. Brill.


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


11. Murphey, Rhoads. (1997.) East Asia: A New History. New York: Addison
Wesley Longman, Inc.


Endnotes
1 Nagata, Hidejero. (1921). A Simplified Treatise on the Imperial House
of Japan. Tokyo: Hakubunkwan. p.47.


2 Kuwasaburo, Takatsu. (1893). The History of the Empire of Japan.

Tokyo: Dai Nippon Tosho Kabushiki Kwaisha. p.206.


3 Ibid. p.17.


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


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


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


7 McLaren. A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912.

p.44.


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


9 Duus, Peter. (1976). The Rise of Modern Japan. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company. p.73.


10 Nagata. A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan. p.142.


11 Ibid. p.35.


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


13 McLaren. A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912.

p.70.


14 Murphey, Rhoads. (1997). East Asia: A New History. New York: Addison
Wesley
Longman, Inc. p.44.


15 Ibid. p.45.


16 Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan. p.116.


17 Best, Ernest. (1966). Christian Faith and Cultural Crisis the
Japanese Case.
18 Leiden: E.J. Brill. p.108.


19 Ibid. p.105.


20 Ibid. p.105.


21 Ibid. p.106.


22 Ibid. p.106.


23 Ibid. p.106.


24 Ibid. p.106.


25 Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan. p.117.


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


27 Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan. p.118.


28 McLaren. A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912.

p.69.


29 Nagata. A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan. p.60.


30 Large. The Japanese Constitutional of 1889. p.9.


31 McLaren. A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912.

p.193.


32 Ibid. p.192.


33 Large. The Japanese Constitutional of 1889. p.27.


34 Nagata. A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan. p.89.


35 McLaren. A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912.

p.77.


36 Ibid. p.78.


37 Ibid. p.77.


38 Ibid. p.83.


39 Ibid. p.82.


40 Reischauer. Japan Past and Present. p.66.


41 Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan. p.117.


42 Allen. Japan the Years of Triumph. p.41.


43 Duus. The Rise of Modern Japan. p.84.


44 Ibid. p.119.


45 Ibid. p.88.


46 Ibid. p.94-95.


47 Reischauer. Japan Past and Present. p.166.


48 Ibid. p.167.


49 Ibid. p.13.


50 Large. The Japanese Constitutional of 1889. p.20.

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