Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Monarch Profile: Emperor Meiji of Japan

Few other monarchs in world history presided over such a crucial period for their country as the Meiji Emperor of Japan. Few lived through such dramatic changes and fewer still managed to master such changes and successfully direct them to the benefit of their country as a whole. Emperor Meiji did all of these things. Born into a land of feudalism and isolation, very advanced in traditional ways but which had fallen increasingly behind the rest of the world in others, Emperor Meiji presided over the end of Japanese isolationism, the end of the shogunate and the restoration of power to the monarchy, a period of rapid political, economic, military and educational modernization and the rise of Japan to be the preeminent regional power of East Asia, soon to become a major player on the world stage. This pivotal period of Japanese history was certainly not something that the Meiji Emperor himself would have ever expected. In most cases, the changes that occurred, even the famous “Meiji Restoration” itself, was not something he personally directed but his influence and his actions or inaction was absolutely central to exactly how things turned out, creating the Empire of Japan as it existed from the restoration until the end of the Second World War.

His Imperial Highness, Prince Mutsuhito was born on November 3, 1852 in the old imperial city of Kyoto, the only surviving son of His Majesty Emperor Komei. His mother was the imperial consort Nakayama Yoshiko though it was many years until he was aware of who his real mother was. Known as Prince Sachi, he was carefully looked after by his grandmother until, as a young child, he was taken to the Imperial Palace (Gosho) to be raised and educated in traditional fashion. Only a year later the “Black Ships” of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived and demanded that Japan open ports to trade with the United States and establish diplomatic relations. The ruling Shogun realized that the previous policy of isolationism was no longer tenable but delayed making any agreement with the Americans. The Emperor was opposed to any trade or friendship with foreign powers but by consulting the imperial court increasingly, unlike in the past, the wheels were already turning toward what became the Meiji Restoration. The Americans pointed out that China had just been beaten by Great Britain in the Opium Wars and that if Japan persisted in spurning contact with foreign powers, France, Britain or Russia might deal similarly with Japan and seize control of Japanese territory. Most of the Japanese leadership realized this was true but were divided on how quickly Japan should open up to trade and communication with the outside world. Emperor Komei remained staunchly opposed but was himself in a difficult position in how to deal with the problem as he was against the policies the Shogun was pursuing but also wanting nothing to do with rebel forces that wanted to oppose the shogunate itself.

At a critical point, the Emperor ordered the expulsion of all foreigners (his many fervent prayers for the gods to kill them all by means of natural disasters proved fruitless) and as local authorities had signed agreements with various foreign powers, there were targets on hand for Japanese warriors to attack. There was, of course, retaliation but the government also took action to suppress these forces and reassure the rest of the world that Japan was a country of law and order which would keep its agreements. There was then civil war and deep divisions in Japan when Emperor Komei died in 1867 at the age of only 37. The cause of death was smallpox and while the vaccination against this disease was known in Japan, the strict adherence of the court to traditional medicine only meant that the Imperial Family was especially vulnerable to illness (Meiji, however, was secretly vaccinated as a child). So, it was at a time of great crisis, at the age of only fourteen, that Emperor Meiji ascended the throne as the 122nd Emperor of Japan. While he continued his studies and performed the traditional rites, warring factions continued to struggle for or against the last Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu who had established closer ties to a number of foreign powers in an effort to modernize the military and strengthen the shogunate.

As with most things in Japan, the civil conflict was complicated but could be seen as a clash between the Shogun and the imperial court to determine who would ultimately rule Japan. In the end, the imperial court was victorious. This has sometimes been put forward as “traditional” Japan fighting against the forces of modernity and representing a xenophobic hatred of foreigners and all the new ideas and technologies they brought to Japan. This is completely untrue, Japan had always been eager to embrace technological innovation and it was the shogun who was first seen as the most open to the foreigners, not the imperial court and, in any event, both sides had their own foreign allies with the French backing the shogun and the British and Americans backing the forces of the Emperor. The restoration of power to the monarchy started with rebel lords upset by the opening up policy of the shogun, as was Iwakura Tomomi who played a central part in the process but this issue eventually evaporated and the imperial court pressed on because of a desire for order, unity and an overall strengthening of the nation, even though part of the disorder that alarmed them was that done on their own behalf. Major fighting broke out because the shogun agreed to hand over power to the Emperor only to later try to take it back. When it came down to who was ultimately held to hold supreme authority in Japan, there was no question that it was the Emperor and so the “Meiji Restoration” was formally declared on January 4, 1868. Iwakura stated that the actions of the court were completely in accordance with the wishes of the young monarch and there is no way to confirm or dispute this as the Emperor himself did not leave any indication of his own views on the subject.

What is known for certain is that the Emperor presided over the changes in government and was present for some very heated arguments between the pro- and anti-shogun factions and never intervened to call a halt in favor of the fallen shogun. It can only then be surmised that he approved of these changes and, based on his overall character, was likely of the view that such division and internal struggles were proof that a new system, a truly national one based on shared loyalty to one sovereign rather than local feudal lords, was what was best for Japan. The fears of those opposed to involvement with foreign powers may have been exaggerated but they were not unjustified. However, Japan would have to modernize and strengthen if it were to have any chance of surviving as an independent country and that is what Emperor Meiji was focused on. Soon, the Emperor announced the abolition of feudalism in Japan and oversaw the transition to a more democratic, representative form of government and, eventually, the adoption of a written constitution. At one point, he even took personal command of the imperial troops sweeping up the last of the pro-shogun rebel forces. By his actions, he set a clear example; Japan would adapt and move forward in order to improve but it would be done by the Japanese themselves and in their own way, embracing modern methods but retaining traditional values.

So it was that Japan began to advance at a rapid pace, establishing the institutions that would govern the Empire of Japan for its duration. The samurai of old became the officers of the Imperial Army, the daimyos became governors in imperial service and students went to study abroad to gain the latest knowledge. The British were an obvious example to follow and the Royal Navy in particular was the model on which the new Japanese Imperial Navy was built with Japan quickly gaining its first modern, armored warship, an ironclad originally built in Europe for the Confederate navy in America. The Emperor personified this embracing of new ways while holding on to tradition. In terms of government, he appointed key officials but did not personally rule the country and generally endorsed whatever course of action his ministers decided to pursue. He often showed reluctance to meet with foreign dignitaries but, when doing so, was always extremely polite and friendly, giving each the impression that he had been shown special treatment.

At the outset, there were some radicals who went so far as to wish for the monarchy to be abolished all together in the stampede to embrace the new and throw out the old and toward the end of his life several anarchists were arrested for plotting to assassinate him, however, his leadership, dedication and moral authority ensured that while Japan would advance technologically, traditional values were also upheld and the monarchy became more central to Japanese life and the emperor more revered than ever before. In terms of foreign relations, the Meiji Emperor was the greatest asset Japan had with many European and even American visitors hailing him as the greatest sovereign in the world of his time. However, the Emperor was sometimes disadvantaged by the fact that his ministers did not always keep him completely informed as to their plans and actions. This was particularly true in regards to the growing Japanese involvement in Korea where the Emperor had an incomplete view of the true state of affairs. First, however, was the problem of the First Sino-Japanese War which broke out in 1894.

This came after a series of events such as struggles between China and Japan over influence in Korea, Chinese soldiers running rampant in Nagasaki and the shutting off of food exports to Japan. The Emperor was always concerned with protecting Japanese people wherever they were but when events led to the outbreak of war he was extremely upset. When asked to send envoys to the tomb of Emperor Komei and the Ise Shrine to announce the outbreak of hostilities, the Emperor replied angrily, “Don’t send anybody. I have not been in favor of this war from the start. It was only because cabinet ministers informed me that war was inevitable that I permitted it. It is very painful for me to report what has happened to the Ise Shrine and the tomb of the previous emperor.” Later, he relented an sent envoys to Ise and Kyoto but it was obviously greatly troubling to him. He worried that other powers might intervene to the detriment of Japan, detested seeing his people killed and he had a great deal of respect for the traditional culture of China. However, once the decision had been made, he gave his full support and moved his headquarters to Hiroshima to stay in closer contact with the military forces engaged in Korea and China. As it turned out, to the surprise of all, Japan won a swift and stunning victory in the war, ostensibly for the independence of Korea.

In the aftermath, tensions continued to mount between Japan and Korea as well as between Japan and Russia. The intervention of Russia, France and Germany to force Japan to return the Liaotung Peninsula to China (which was then leased by Russia) reinforced the Emperor’s concern over foreign adventures. From the questions posed by the Emperor about the situation in Korea, it seems that he did not entirely believe the idyllic scene presented to him by his officials about Japanese-Korean friendship. When war came with Russia, the Emperor again showed signs of anxiety over the conflict but less reservations than he had about the war with China. It seemed clear to almost everyone in the government that Russia was not being sincere in the search for a diplomatic solution to their problems but was simply playing for time. Nonetheless, when war did come, the Emperor (and the Empress) showed great gallantry and insisted that greater care be taken to maintain discipline and prevent any acts of cruelty. Because of this, captured Russians were treated with great humanity and consideration. The Emperor also showed his gratitude for the support and sympathy of the United States and Great Britain in the conflict and the English-language press around the world was full of the highest praise for Emperor Meiji.

With no more competition, Japan and Korea signed a number of treaties, each bringing the two countries increasingly closer together. There was correspondence between the Korean and Japanese emperors and the Meiji Emperor showed a deep and genuine concern for his Korean counterpart. When the Crown Prince was brought to Japan to be educated, the Emperor treated him like a member of the family. Indeed, some thought he treated him better than his own son. Likewise, the Korean emperor showed a great deal of trust and admiration for the Emperor of Japan so that when Korea was finally annexed by Japan in 1910 the Meiji Emperor expressed his satisfaction with this resolution and the firm conviction that Korea would benefit from it. He had not been told of the extent of Korean opposition to Japanese rule and the Korean monarch was likewise hardly in a position to be completely candid in his letters but he expressed his hope and trust that under Emperor Meiji the peace of East Asia would be maintained and that everything would work out for the best. His actions, he stressed, were born out of a genuine desire to do what was in the best interests of his people. Tensions would continue to fester on the peninsula but in Japan, the ordinary person saw only success and reasons for optimism. Since the restoration, the Meiji era had seen Japan modernize and expand in strength and influence so that the Japanese flag was flying over Sakhalin, Korea and Taiwan.

What problems would develop were ones that the Meiji Emperor would not live to see. Troubled by increasing health problems, the revered monarch died on July 30, 1912 at the age of 59, survived by his wife, three of five concubines and five of his fifteen children. At his passing, he was praised by people all over the world, naturally mostly in those countries with whom Japan had the closest ties of friendship. The British press was effusive and even the American press, which did not often praise any monarch, professed that the Meiji Emperor was one of the greatest world leaders of all time. Even the French and the Chinese, which were not so well-disposed toward Japan, saluted his achievements. The Russian press was not left out in praising the Emperor, though they did affirm that he did not rise to the level of Peter the Great. None could fail to be impressed by how far Japan had come in such a short space of time under the leadership, active or passive, of Emperor Meiji. The country which had been a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms at the time of his birth had opened commerce with the world, industrialized, modernized and by the time of his death stood among the ranks of colonial empires and the most powerful country in East Asia. It was truly remarkable and in all of this the Emperor was no passive observer.

As a monarch, Emperor Meiji was, as if by divine design, just the sort of sovereign Japan needed at just that critical period of history. He was mindful of tradition but open to change and innovation when it was beneficial. He did not push particular policies but used his moral authority to guide them in the right direction. He was deeply concerned for his people, very frugal, was able to read people and knew how best to handle almost anyone in any situation. Above all, he was a dutiful monarch and his most frequent displays of temper usually involved some politicians who were shirking their duty. He worked tirelessly for the advancement of his country and the peace and stability of the region. Toward the end of his life, his greatest concern and complaint was that Japan had become so modern and prosperous that many people were becoming frivolous. He did not actively take part in governing but this was not surprising and by keeping the monarchy aloof from such mundane affairs, enabled it to retain its lofty stature and be ever more valuable as a focus for national unity and guardian of the national spirit. He was, in every way, an extremely successful monarch and will always occupy a unique place of distinction amongst the long list of emperors of Japan.


  1. The present Japan need an monarch like Meiji Tenno. The time we are living now is not much more stable and more peace than 100 years ago. Red China is getting more aggressive and increasing the suppression of human rights. The ISIS is killing Christian in Middle East. The world need another peacekeeper to shoulder the burden of America. "HEISEI RESTORATION"! 平成維新!!

  2. Excellent post about one of my most admired monarchs of the modern era. Meiji Banzai!
    If you see this, MM, I have a person I'd like to submit for your Soldiers of Monarchy series, if I could have an email address or some other way of conversing with you.

    1. Finding the time is the difficult part but you can leave your suggestion here if you like. Just let me know if you would prefer that it not be posted and I'll read it and delete it without posting it.


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