Friday, June 1, 2012

Monarch Profile: The Taisho Emperor of Japan

His Imperial Highness Prince Yoshihito of Japan was born at the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo on August 31, 1879 to Their Majesties the Meiji Emperor and his consort Empress Shoken. He was not the firstborn son but, as his two older brothers died very young, Prince Yoshihito eventually became crown prince and heir-to-the-throne. Prince Yoshihito himself was often in frail health. As a newborn he came down with cerebral meningitis and, although he was able to recover, he was never extremely robust physically for the rest of his life. Until he was seven-years-old he was raised in the household of Prince Nakayama Tadayasu. In 1885 he was transferred to the Aoyama Detached Palace and started his formal education, studying the usual mixture of reading, writing and arithmetic but with added lessons on the Shinto religion, Japanese morality and the place of the Emperor and Imperial Family in society. In the afternoons he exercised by playing sports, however, his studies and activities were often interrupted by his recurring fevers. The following year he began to take his lessons with a select group of other students from a local school for the aristocracy to learn how to interact with others.

On August 31, 1887 Prince Yoshihito was formally declared heir-to-the-throne and Crown Prince of Japan with his formal investiture being held the following year on an auspicious date chosen by the court astrologers. He continued his education but was not a particularly remarkable student. Because of some of his later behavior some have exaggerated the disabilities of the Taisho Emperor to the point that he is portrayed as totally incompetent. This was definitely not the case for while he lagged behind in certain subjects he excelled at others. He had a remarkable gift for languages and was an adept horseman. Much of his difficulty doubtlessly originated in his poor health which did not allow him to devote the time to his studies that was necessary. He spent a great deal of time on the coast where the climate was deemed healthier for his fragile disposition. He was finally withdrawn from school and tutored privately after being placed in the care of Prince Takehito by the Emperor, with whom he would become close friends.

In 1898 the Crown Prince began attending sessions of the House of Peers in the National Diet to learn about politics and military and diplomatic affairs as part of his preparation for the throne. He hosted receptions for foreign diplomats and showed good conversational skills. French and Chinese officials were impressed that the Crown Prince could converse with them in their own languages. He became very interested in the western world and was fond of speaking French, sometimes speaking French and Japanese at the same time which the Emperor did not always find amusing. For a time he even sported a long, upturned moustache in the fashion of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Crown Prince Yoshihito also started undertaking official tours on behalf of the Emperor, visiting naval installations, factories, schools, temples and government offices; keeping an eye on how the rapid modernization of Japan was progressing on every level. Yet, there did seem to be something not quite “right” about the heir-to-the-throne and this worried the imperial court a great deal. So, when the time came for him to marry in 1900 care was taken to choose a bride of remarkable intelligence, bearing and speech.

A better choice would have hardly seemed possible and on May 10 the Crown Prince married the 15-year-old daughter of Prince Kujo Michitaka, Kujo Sadako (later known as Empress Teimei) of the illustrious Fujiwara clan. She proved to be the ideal imperial wife, ever supportive of her husband and compensating for his deficiencies in a most delicate way. The two were a devoted couple and within a year of their wedding the first of their four sons were born, Prince Hirohito, the future Showa Emperor. When war approached with the Russian Empire, Crown Prince Yoshihito was appointed to the rank of colonel in the army and captain in the navy though, of course, he was denied actual service. Nonetheless, he took his military duties and the war very seriously and was constantly visiting the troops, inspecting installations and encouraging the wounded. After the war he took it upon himself to learn Korean (though he never became fluent at it) after making a tour of Korea and meeting the Korean Royal Family; his visit marking the first time that a Crown Prince had ever left Japanese soil.

Not long after, in 1912, the Meiji Emperor passed away and Crown Prince Yoshihito became Emperor of Japan. However, it was not quite the glorious occasion one usually associates with a royal succession. The mental health afflictions of the new Emperor had been increasing and he was beginning to display a growing number of physical handicaps as well. Again, some of his odd behavior has been rather exaggerated but, nonetheless, the Imperial Household was extremely worried about protecting the public image of the Emperor as well as his own health. As a result, the Taisho Emperor rarely appeared in public and, indeed, seldom ventured beyond the walls of the Imperial Palace. Within ten years of his enthronement he had ceased all official duties and Crown Prince Hirohito was appointed to carry out his obligations for him, being named Prince Regent in late 1921. He remained secluded from the outside world, carefully attended by his devoted Empress, and kept informed of national events by his son via carrier pigeons. After coming down with pneumonia the Taisho Emperor suffered a heart attack and passed away on December 25, 1926 at the Imperial Villa in Hayama at the age of only 47.

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