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 …