Role of the emperor in meiji japan Essay

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Role of the emperor in meiji japan

Role of The Emperor in Meiji Japan

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. 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 stability to Japan which was critical to allowing
industrialists to invest in factories and increase exports and
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 were 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
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