The Role of the Emperor in Meiji Japan

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  • Topic: Emperor of Japan, Japan, Meiji Restoration
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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The 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...
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