Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Monarch Profile: Emperor Meiji of Japan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.