During the Age of Imperialism, members of the Satsuma and Choshu, two ofthe very powerful clans in Japan, were parts of the opposition to foreignimperialism. This opposition believed that the only way that Japan couldsurvive the encroachment of the foreigners was to rally around the Emperor. The supporters of the imperial government, known as imperialists, claimedthat the Tokugawa Shogunate had lost its imperial mandate to carry out theImperial Will because it had capitulated to Western powers by allowing themto open up Japan to trade. During this time the ideas of the imperialistsgained increasing support among Japanese citizens and intellectuals whotaught at newly established schools and wrote revisionist history booksthat claimed that historically the Emperor had been the ruler of Japan. The fact that the Tokugawa’s policy of opening up Japan to the westernworld ran counter to beliefs of the Emperor and was unpopular with thepublic made the Tokugawa vulnerable to attack from the imperialists. Theimperialists pressed their attack both militarily and from within the Courtof Kyoto.
The Japanese public and the Shogun’s supporters soon felt thatthey had lost the Imperial Will. The end of the Tokugawa regime shows the power of the symbolism and mythssurrounding the imperial institution. The head of the Tokugawa clan died in1867 and was replaced by the son of a lord who was a champion of Japanesehistorical studies and who agreed with the imperialists’ claims aboutrestoring the Emperor. In 1867, the new shogun handed over all his powerto Emperor Komeo in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to EmperorKomeo, the Emperor died and was replaced by his son who became the MeijiEmperor, which officially started the Meiji period (1868-1911). TheMeiji Emperor was only 15, and so all the power of the new restored Emperorfell 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 theEmperor reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners. The reason fordoing this was because after Emperor Komeo, who strongly opposed contactwith the west, died in 1867 the Meiji Emperor’s advisors were no longerbound by his Imperial Will. They realized that opposing western powers wasimpossible, and being anti-western also no longer served the purposes ofthe Meiji advisors. Originally it was a tool of the imperialist movementthat 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 areason to take on anti-foreign policies.
The choice of the imperial thrown by the imperialists as a point for Japanto rally around could not have been wiser. Although the imperialinstitution had no real power it had universal appeal to the Japanesepublic. It was both a mythic and religious idea in their minds. In thistime of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners, the imperial thrownprovided the Japanese with a belief of stability (according to Japanesemyth the imperial line is a unbroken lineage handed down since timeimmortal), and the natural superiority of Japanese culture. The symbolismof the Emperor helped ensure the success of the Meiji leaders, because itundercut the legitimacy of the Shogunate’s rule, and it strengthened theMeiji rulers who claimed to act for the Emperor.
What is a great paradox about the imperialist’s claims to restore thepower of the Emperor is that the Meiji rulers only restored the Emperor topower symbolically, because he was both too young and his advisors toopower hungry. By 1869, relationship between the Emperor and his Meijibureaucracy were very similar to the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun beforethe restoration. Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under theauthority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions. In other words, the Meiji Emperor reigned but did not rule.
This wasuseful for the new Meiji bureaucrats, because it kept the Emperor a mythicand powerful symbol. The teachings and symbols of Confucian beliefs and the ImperialInstitution were already deeply carved into the minds of the Japanese, butthe new Meiji rulers, through both an education system and the structure ofthe Japanese government, were able to effectively inculcate thesetraditions into a new generation of Japanese. Japan, as a nation close toChina, was greatly influenced by the teachings of Confucius, the greatestteacher in China. Japanese people believe in integrity, uprightness,respect for superiors, filial loyalty, and they also believe that avirtuous man must have culture and manners, which is being humble andbenevolent. These exactly resemble the teachings of Confucianism to actas an individual. The education system the Meiji rulers foundedtransformed itself into a system that indoctrinated students in the ideasof Confucianism and reverence for the Emperor.
After the death of Okubo,a very important figure in Meiji government, in 1878, Ito, Okuma, andIwakura emerged as the three most powerful figures among the youngbureaucrats that were running the government in the name of the MeijiEmperor. Iwakura, one of the only figures in the ancient nobility to gainprominence among the Meiji oligarchy allied with Ito who feared thatOkuma’s progressive ideas would destroy Japan’s culture. Iwakura’s thoughtwas able to manipulate the young Emperor to grow concerned about the needto strengthen traditional morals. Thus in 1882, the Emperor issued theYogaku Koyo, the forerunner of the Imperial Rescript on Education. Thisdocument put the emphasis of the Japanese education system on a moraleducation from 1882 onward. Previous to 1880 the Japanese education system was modeled on that of theFrench education system.
After 1880 the Japanese briefly modeled theireducation system on the American system. However, starting with theYogaku Koyo in 1882 and ending with the 1885 reorganization of thedepartment of Education along Prussian lines, the American model wasabolished. The new education minister Mori Arinori, after returning fromEurope in 1885 with Ito, was convinced that the Japanese education systemhad to have a spiritual foundation to it. In Prussia, Arinori saw thatfoundation to be Christianity, and he decreed that in Japan the Educationsystem was to be based on reverence for the Imperial Institution. Apicture of the Emperor was placed in every classroom, children read aboutthe myths surrounding the Emperor in school, and they learned that theEmperor was the head of the giant family of Japan.
By the time theImperial Rescript on Education was decreed by the Emperor in 1889 theJapanese education system had already begun to transform itself into asystem that taught what to think instead of how to think. The ImperialRescript on Education in 1889 was according to Japanese scholars such asHugh Borton, “the nerve axis of the new order. “Burton believes that theImperial Rescript on Education signaled the rise of nationalistic elementsin Japan. The Imperial Rescript on Education was the culmination of thiswhole movement to the right. The Rescript emphasized aspects fromConfucianism, especially loyalty and filial piety or respect for theconstitution and readiness to serve the government. It also exalted theEmperor as the coeval between heaven and earth.
The Constitution of 1889, like the changes in the education system, helpedstrengthen reverence for the Imperial Institution. The 1889 Constitutionwas really the second document of its kind passed in Japan, the first beingthe Imperial Oath of 1868 in which the Emperor laid out the structure andwho was to head the new Meiji government. This Imperial Oath was referredto as a constitution at the time but it only vaguely laid out the structureof government. The constitution promulgated by the Emperor in 1889 didmuch more than lay out the structure of Japanese government. It alsoaffirmed that the Emperor was the supreme sovereign over Japan.
Thesigning ceremony itself was an auspicious event on the way to it. MoriArinori, one of the moderate leaders of the Meiji government, was attackedand killed by a crazed rightist. The ceremony itself evoked both the pastand present and was symbolic of the Meiji government’s shift toward theright and the government’s use of the Emperor as supreme ruler. EmperorMeiji signed the constitution, which affirmed the sanctity of the Emperor’stitle (Tenno Taiken), and his right to make or abrogate any law.
Theconstitution also set up a bicameral legislature. The constitutioncodified the power of the Emperor and helped the Meiji rulers justify theirrule, because they could point to the constitution and say that they werecarrying out the will of the Emperor. Even after the Constitution of 1889,the Meiji Emperor enjoyed little real power. The Meiji Emperor did noteven come to cabinet meetings because his advisors told him if the cabinetmade a decision that was different then the one he wanted, then that wouldcreate dissension and would destroy the idea of the Imperial Institution. Therefore, even after the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor was stillpredominantly a symbol.
The Constitution ingrained in Japanese societythe idea that the government was being run by higher forces that knewbetter than the Japanese people did. It also broadened the base of supportof the Meiji Rulers who now had a document to prove they were acting onImperial Will and their decisions were imperial decisions instead of thoseof normal mortals. The symbolism of the Emperor and use of Confucianism allowed the Meijirulers to achieve their goals. One of their goals was the abolishment ofthe system of feudalism (taxes paid by peasants to landowners) and returnof all land to the Emperor. At first the new Meiji Rulers alliedthemselves with the Daimyo clans, which are the strongest samurais justbelow the shogun and own a great deal of lands, in opposition to theTokugawa Shogun. However, once the Meiji leaders had gained control, theysaw that they would need to abolish the feudal system and concentrate powerin the hands of a central government.
The Meiji rulers achieved theirgoals by having the Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen clans give up theirlands, granting the Daimyos large pensions if they gave up their clans, andby having the Emperor issue two decrees in July 1869, and August 1871. The role and symbolism of the Emperor, although not the sole factor ininfluencing the Daimyo to give up their land, was vital. The Meiji rulerssaid that not turning in the fiefs to the Emperor would be disloyal andpointed to the historical records, which Meiji scholars claimed, showedthat historically all land were the property of the Emperor. They showedthis by claiming that the Shogun would switch the rulers of lands and thisproved that the Daimyos did not control the title to their land but merelyheld it for the Emperor. Imperial decrees and slogans of loyalty to theEmperor also accompanied the abolishment of the Samurai system.
In theabolishment of both these feudal systems, the symbolism of the Emperor, asboth the director of the initiative and recipient of the authorityafterwards, played a vital role in ensuring there success. The abolishment of feudalism and the samurai class were essential for thestability and industrialization of Japan. Without the concentration ofland and power in the hands of the Meiji rulers and the Emperor, the Meijirulers feared they would receive opposition from powerful Daimyos and nevergain control and authority over all of Japan. Historical examples bear outthe fears of the Meiji rulers. In 1467, the Ashikaga Shogun failed tocontrol many of the lands. As a result, a civil war raged in Japan.
Thecentralization of power allowed the Meiji government to have taxingauthority over all of Japan and pursue national projects. The unity ofJapan also allowed the Meiji rulers to focus on national and not localissues. The use of Confucianism and the Emperor also brought a degree of stabilityto Japan during the tumultuous Meiji years. The Emperor’s mere presence ona train or in western clothes was enough to convince the public of thesafety or goodness of the Meiji rulers’ industrial policy. In one famousinstance, the Japanese Emperor appeared in a train car. Since then, trainbecame a common transportation in Japan.
The behavior of the Imperialfamily was also critical to adoption of western cultural practices. Before1873, most Japanese women of a high social position would shave theireyebrows and blacken their teeth to appear beautiful. However, on March3rd, 1873, the Empress appeared in public wearing her own eyebrows and withunblackened teeth. From that day on, most women in Tokyo and around Japanstopped shaving their eyebrows and blackening their teeth. The Imperialinstitution provided both a key tool to change Japanese culture andfeelings about industrialization while providing stability to Japan, whichwas critical to allowing industrialists to invest in factories and increaseexports and production.
The symbols and the traditions the Meiji leaders inculcated Japanesesociety with helped the Meiji government maintain stability and pursue itseconomic policies but it also had severe limitations that limited therevolutionary scope of the Japanese government and helped bring about thedownfall of the Meiji era. The use of Confucianism and the Emperor tobolster the Imperial restoration laid the foundation for a paradox of stateaffairs. The system that sought to strengthen Japan through the use ofmodern technology and modern organization methods was using traditionalvalues to further its goals. This caused some to turn toward the west forthe “enlightenment” the Meiji era promised. As a result, Okuma waseventually forced out of the increasing nationalist Genro, advisors of theEmperor.
For others it led them to severe nationalism rejecting all thatwas western. This was such the case of Saigo who believed till his deathon his own sword that the Meiji leaders were hypocritical and wereviolating the Imperial Will by negotiating and trading with the west. TheMeiji government used the same symbols and traditions that the Tokugawaused, and, like the Tokugawa, gave the Emperor no decision-making power. The Meiji Emperor, although having supreme power as accorded in theconstitution, never actually made decisions but was instead a pawn of theMeiji Genro who claimed to carry out his Imperial Will.
Like theShogunate, the idea that Meiji governments claim to rule for the Emperorwas full with problems. The Imperial Will was a fluid idea that could beadopted by different parties under changing circumstances. Just like theMeiji rulers were able to topple the Shogun by claiming successfully thatthey were the true administrators of the Imperial Will, the militaristelements in the 1930’s were able to topple the democratic elements of Japanpartially by claiming the mantle of ruling for the Emperor. From thisperspective, the Meiji ruling class, built up of the Imperial Myth, was afatal flaw in the government.
The constitution, which says in article I,”The Empire of Japan shall be governed over by a line of Emperors unbrokenfor ages eternal” gave to whoever was acting on the Imperial Will absoluteright to govern. The symbols of the Emperor and the tradition of Confucianism did notdisappear with the end of the Meiji era or World War II. Nowadays, theidea of filial piety is still strong, and multiple generations of a familystill usually live together even in cramped Japanese housing. The religionof Shinto, traditional Japanese animism or nature worship, that the Meijileaders rejuvenated during their rule in order to help foster the imperialcult is still thriving as the thousands of Tori gates and Shrines aroundJapan attest.
But the most striking symbol to survive is that of theEmperor, stripped after World War II of all power, is still revered. During the illness of Emperor Showa in 1989, every national newspaper andtelevision show was full of reports related to the Emperor’s health. During the six months that the Showa Emperor was sick, all parades andpublic events were canceled in respect for the Emperor. Outside the gatesof the Imperial palace in Tokyo long tables were set up where people linedup to sign cards to wish the Emperor a speedy recovery. The news mediaeven kept the type of illness the Emperor had a secret in deference to theEmperor.
At his death after months of illness, it was as if the ImperialCult of the Meiji era had returned. Everything in Japan closed down,private television stations went as far as to not air any commercials onthe day of his death, and now almost six years after his death more thanfour hundred and fifty thousand people travel annually to the isolatedgrave site of Emperor Showa. The traditions and symbolism of Confucianism and the Emperor were criticalto the Meiji rulers gaining control of power and goals ofindustrialization. The rulers implanted the Japanese public with thesetraditional values through an education system that stressed morallearning, and through a constitution that established the law of Japan tobe that of the Imperial Will.
The values of Confucianism and symbol of theEmperor allowed the Meiji government to peacefully gain control of Japan byappealing to history and the restoration of the Emperor. However, theMeiji rulers never restored the Emperor to a position of real politicalpower. Instead, he was used as a tool by the government to achieve theirmodernization plans in Japan, such as the abolishment of feudalism, the endof the samurai class, the propagation of new cultural practices, and pubicacceptance of the Meiji government’s industrialization policies. Thesymbols and traditions of Japan’s past are an enduring legacy that havemanifested themselves in the Meiji Restoration and today in Japanscontinued reverence for the Emperor. References1.
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(1997. ) East Asia: A New History. New York: AddisonWesley Longman, Inc. Endnotes1 Nagata, Hidejero. (1921). A Simplified Treatise on the Imperial Houseof 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: TuttlePublishing. p. 112. 5 McLaren, Walter. (1916).
A Political History of Japan During the MeijiEra 1867- 1912. New York: Scribner and Sons. p. 32.
6 Sato, Shusuke. (1916). Some Historical Phases of Modern Japan. NewYork: 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 andSons. p. 8.
9 Duus, Peter. (1976). The Rise of Modern Japan. Boston: HoughtonMifflin 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: AddisonWesley 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 theJapanese 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: RonaldPress.
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.History