Japan is a society whose culture is steeped in the traditions andsymbols of the past: Mt. Fuji, the tea ceremony, and the sacred objects ofnature revered in Shintoism. Two of the most important traditions and symbols inJapan; the Emperor and Confucianism have endured through Shogunates,restorations of imperial rule, and up to present day.
The leaders of the MeijiRestoration used these traditions to gain control over Japan and further theirgoals of modernization. The Meiji leaders used the symbolism of the Emperor toadd legitimacy to their government, by claiming that they were ruling under the”Imperial Will. ” They also used Confucianism to maintain order and force theJapanese people to passively accept their rule. Japanese rulers historically have used the symbolism of the ImperialInstitution to justify their rule. The symbolism of the Japanese Emperor is verypowerful and is wrapped up in a mix of religion (Shintoism) and myths. Accordingto Shintoism the current Emperor is the direct descendent of the Sun Goddess whoformed the islands of Japan out of the Ocean in ancient times.
Footnote1According to these myths the Japanese Emperor unlike a King is a livingdescendent of the Gods and even today he is thought of as the High Priest ofShinto. Despite the powerful myths surrounding Japan’s imperial institution theEmperor has enjoyed only figure head status from 1176 on. At some points duringthis time the Emperor was reduced to selling calligraphy on the streets of Kyototo support the imperial household, but usually the Emperor received money basedon the kindness of the Shogunate. Footnote2 But despite this obvious powerimbalance even the Tokugawa Shogun was at least symbolically below the Emperorin status and he claimed to rule so he could carry out the Imperialrule. Footnote3 Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized that theyneeded to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in order to governeffectively. In the years leading up to 1868 members of the Satsuma and Choshuclans were part of the imperialist opposition.
This opposition claimed that theonly way that Japan could survive the encroachment of the foreigners was torally around the Emperor. Footnote4 The Imperialists, claimed that the TokugawaShogunate had lost its imperial mandate to carry out the Imperial Will becauseit 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 amongJapanese citizens and intellectuals who taught at newly established schools andwrote revisionist history books that claimed that historically the Emperor hadbeen the ruler of Japan. Footnote5 The fact that the Tokugawa’s policy of openingup Japan to the western world ran counter to the beliefs of the Emperor and wasunpopular with the public made the Tokugawa vulnerable to attack from theimperialists. The imperialists pressed their attack both militarily and fromwithin the Court of Kyoto. The great military regime of Edo which until recentlyhad been all powerful was floundering not because of military weakness, orbecause the machinery of government had broken but instead because the Japanesepublic and the Shoguns supporters felt they had lost the Imperial Will.
Footnote6 The end of the Tokugawa regime shows the power of the symbolism andmyths surrounding the imperial institution. The head of the Tokugawa clan diedin 1867 and was replaced by the son of a lord who was a champion of Japanesehistorical studies and who agreed with the imperialists claims about restoringthe Emperor. Footnote7 So in 1868 the new shogun handed over all his power to theEmperor in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to the Emperor, the EmperorKomeo died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji Emperor. Footnote8Because the Meiji Emperor was only 15 all the power of the new restored Emperorfell not in his hands but instead in the hands of his close advisors. Theseadvisers such as Prince Saionji, Prince Konroe, and members of the Satsuma andChoshu clans who had been members of the imperialist movement eventually woundup involving into the Meiji Bureaucracy and Genro of the Meiji Era.
Footnote9Once in control of the government the Meiji Leaders and advisors to the Emperorreversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners. Footnote10 They did thisbecause 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 ImperialWill. Being anti-western also no longer served the purposes of the Meijiadvisors. Originally it was a tool of the imperialist movement that was used toshow that the Shogun was not acting out the Imperial Will. Now that the Shogunand Komeo Emperor were dead there was no longer a reason to take on anti-foreignpolicies. The choice of the imperial thrown by the imperialists as a point forJapan to rally around could not have been more wise.
Although the imperialinstitution had no real power it had universal appeal to the Japanese public. Itwas both a mythic and religious idea in their minds. Footnote11 It provided theJapanese in this time of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners a beliefin stability (according to Japanese myth the imperial line is a unbroken lineagehanded down since time immortal), and it provided a belief in the naturalsuperiority of Japanese culture. Footnote12 The symbolism of the Emperor helpedensure the success of the restorationists because it undercut the legitimacy ofthe Shogunate’s rule, and it strengthened the Meiji rulers who claimed to actfor the Emperor. What is a great paradox about the Imperialist’s claims to restore thepower of the Emperor is that the Meiji rulers did not restore the Emperor topower except symbolically because he was both too young and his advisors topower hungry. Footnote13 By 1869 the relationship between the Emperor and hisMeiji bureaucracy and the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun before the restorationwere very similar.
Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under theauthority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions. InJapan the Emperor reigned but did not rule. This was useful for the new Meijibureaucrats, it kept the Emperor a mythic and powerful symbol. Footnote14 The traditions and symbols of Confucianism and the Imperial Institutionwere already deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Japanese but the new Meijirulers through both an education system, and the structure of the Japanesegovernment were able to effectively inculcate these traditions into a newgeneration of Japanese. The education system the Meiji Oligarchy foundedtransformed itself into a system that indoctrinated students in the ideas ofConfucianism and reverence for the Emperor. Footnote15 After the death of Okuboin 1878; Ito, Okuma, and Iwakura emerged as the three most powerful figuresamong the young bureaucrats that were running the government in the name of theMeiji Emperor.
Iwakura one of the only figures in the ancient nobility to gainprominence among the Meiji oligarchy allied with Ito who feared Okuma’sprogressive ideas would destroy Japan’s culture. Footnote16 Iwakura it is thoughtwas able manipulate the young Emperor to grow concerned about the need tostrengthen traditional morals. Thus in 1882 the Emperor issued the Yogaku Koyo,the forerunner of the Imperial Rescript on Education. Footnote17 This documentput the emphasis of the Japanese education system on a moral education from 1882onward. Previous to 1880 the Japanese education system was modeled on that ofthe French education system.
After 1880 the Japanese briefly modeled theireducation system on the American system. Footnote18 However, starting with theYogaku Koyo in 1882 and ending with the 1885 reorganization of the department ofEducation along Prussian lines the American model was abolished. The neweducation minister Mori Arinori after returning from Europe in 1885 with Ito wasconvinced that the Japanese education system had to have a spiritual foundationto it. Footnote19 In Prussia Arinori saw that foundation to be Christianity andhe decreed that in Japan the Education system was to be based on reverence forthe Imperial Institution.
A picture of the Emperor was placed in every classroom,children read about the myths surrounding the Emperor in school, and theylearned that the Emperor was the head of the giant family of Japan. Footnote20 Bythe time the Imperial Rescript on Education was decreed by the Emperor in 1889the Japanese education system had already begun to transform itself into asystem that did not teach how to think but instead what to think. The ImperialRescript on Education in 1889 was according to Japanese scholars such as HughBorton , “the nerve axis of the new order. “Footnote21 Burton believes that theImperial Rescript on Education signaled the rise of nationalistic elements inJapan.
The Imperial Rescript on Education was the culmination of this wholemovement to the right. The Rescript emphasized loyalty and filial piety, respectfor the constitution and readiness to serve the government. It also exalted theEmperor as the coeval between heaven and earth. Footnote22 The Constitution of 1889 like the changes in the education systemhelped strengthen reverence for the Imperial Institution. The 1889 constitutionwas really the second document of its kind passed in Japan the first being theImperial Oath of 1868 in which the Emperor laid out the structure and who was tohead the new Meiji government. Footnote23 This Imperial Oath was refereed to as aconstitution at the time but it only very vaguely laid out the structure ofgovernment.
The constitution promulgated by the Emperor in 1889 did much morethen lay out the structure of Japanese government it also affirmed that theEmperor was the supreme sovereign over Japan. Footnote24 The signing ceremonyitself was an auspicious event on the way to it Mori Arinori one of the moderateleaders of the Meiji government was attacked and killed by a crazedrightist. . Footnote25 The ceremony itself evoked both the past and present andwas symbolic of the Meiji governments shift toward the right and the governmentsuse of theEmperor as supreme ruler.
Before signing the document Emperor Meiji prayed atthe palace sanctuary to uphold the name of his imperial ancestors he then signedthe constitution which affirmed the sanctity of the Emperor’s title (TennoTaiken), and his right to make or abrogate any law. Footnote26 The constitutionalso set up a bicameral legislature. Footnote27 The constitution codified thepower of the Emperor and helped the Meiji oligarchy justify their rule becausethey could point to the constitution and say that they were carrying out thewill of the Emperor. The Meiji Emperor even after the Constitution of 1889enjoyed little real power. The Meiji Emperor did not even come to cabinetmeetings because his advisors told him if the cabinet made a decision that wasdifferent then the one he wanted then that would create dissension and woulddestroy the idea of the Imperial Institution.
So even after the MeijiConstitution the Emperor was still predominantly a symbol. Footnote28 TheConstitution ingrained in Japanese society the idea that the government wasbeing run by higher forces who new better then the Japanese people, it alsobroadened the base of support of the Meiji Rulers who now had a document tooprove they were acting on Imperial Will and their decisions were imperialdecisions not those of mere mortals. Footnote29 The symbolism of the Emperor and use of Confucianism allowed the Meijirulers to achieve their goals. One of their goals was the abolishment of thesystem of fiefs and return of all land to the Emperor.
At first the new MeijiRulers allied themselves with the Daimyo clans in opposition to the TokugawaShogun. But once the Meiji leaders had gained a control they saw that they wouldneed to abolish the fief system and concentrate power in the hands of a centralgovernment. The Meiji rulers achieved their goals by having the Choshu, Satsuma,Tosa, and Hizen clans give up their lands, granting the Daimyos large pensionsif they gave up their clans, and by having the Emperor issue two decrees in July1869, and August 1871. Footnote30 The role and symbolism of the Emperor althoughnot the sole factor in influencing the Daimyo to give up their fiefs, was vital. The Meiji Oligarchs said that not turning in the fiefs to the Emperor would bedisloyal and pointed to the historical record which Meiji scholars claimedshowed that historically all fiefs were the property of the Emperor.
Footnote31They showed this by claiming that the Shogun would switch the rulers of fiefsand this proved that the Daimyos did not control the title to their land butmerely held it for the Emperor. Imperial decrees and slogans of loyalty to theEmperor also accompanied the abolishment of the Samurai system. Footnote32 In theabolishment of both these feudal systems the symbolism of the Emperor as boththe director of the initiative and recipient of the authority afterwards playeda vital role in ensuring there success. Footnote33 The abolishment of fiefs and the samurai class were essential for thestability and industrialization of Japan.
Footnote34 Without the concentration ofland and power in the hands of the Meiji oligarchs and the Emperor the Meijioligarchs feared they would receive opposition from powerful Daimyos and nevergain control and authority over all of Japan. Historical examples bear out thefears of the Meiji Oligarchy; in 1467 the Ashikaga Shogun failed to control manyof the fiefs and because of this a civil war raged in Japan. Footnote35 Thecentralization of power allowed the Meiji government to have taxing authorityover all of Japan and pursue national projects. Footnote36 The unity of Japanalso allowed the Meiji Oligarchs to focus on national and not local issues.
The use of Confucianism and the Emperor also brought a degree ofstability to Japan during the tumultuous Meiji years. The Emperor’s merepresence on a train or in western clothes were enough to convince the public ofthe safety or goodness of the Meiji oligarchy’s industrial policy. In one famousinstance the Japanese Emperor appeared in a train car and after that ridingtrains became a common place activity in Japan. The behavior of the Imperialfamily was also critical to adoption of western cultural practices. Before 1873most Japanese women of a high social position would shave their eyebrows andblacken their teeth to appear beautiful.
But on March 3rd 1873 the Empressappeared in public wearing her own eyebrows and with unblackened teeth. Following that day most women in Tokyo and around Japan stopped shaving theireyebrows and blackening their teeth. Footnote37 The Imperial institution providedboth a key tool to change Japanese culture and feelings about industrializationand it provided s tability to Japan which was critical to allowingindustrialists to invest in factories and increase exports andproduction. Footnote38 The symbols and the traditions the Meiji leaders inculcated Japanesesociety with helped the Meiji government maintain stability and pursue itseconomic policies but it also had severe limitations that limited therevolutionary scope of the Japanese government and helped bring about thedownfall of the Meiji era. The use of Confucianism and the Emperor to bolsterthe Imperial restoration laid the foundation for a paradox of state affairs. Thesystem that sought to strengthen Japan through the use of modern technology andmodern organization methods was using traditional values to further itsgoals.
Footnote39 This caused some to turn toward the west for the”enlightenment” the Meiji era promised this was the case with Okuma who waseventually forced out of the increasing nationalist Genro. Footnote40 For othersit lead them to severe nationalism rejecting all that was western. This was suchthe case of Saigo who believed till his death on his own sword that the Meijileaders were hypocritical and we re violating the Imperial Will by negotiatingand trading with the west. Footnote41 The Meiji government used the same symbolsand traditions that the Tokugawa used and like the Tokugawa gave the Emperor nodecision making power. The Meiji Emperor although he had supreme power asaccorded in the constitution never actually made decisions but was instead apawn of the Meiji Genro who claimed to carry out his Imperial Will. ThisImperial Will they decided for themselves.
Like the Shogunate the Meijigovernments claim to rule for the Emperor was fraught with problems. TheImperial Will was a fluid idea that could be adopted by different parties underchanging circumstances. And just like the Meiji rulers were able to topple theShogun by claiming successfully that they were the true administrators of theImperial Will; the militarist elements in the 1930’s were able to topple thedemocratic elements of Japan partially by claiming the mantle of ruling for theEmperor. Footnote42 From this perspective the Meiji O ligarchs building up of theImperial Myth was a fatal flaw in the government. The constitution which says inarticle I, “The empire of Japan shall be governed over by a line of Emperorsunbroken for ages eternal” gave to whoever was acting on the Imperial Willabsolute right to govern. Footnote43 The symbols of the Emperor and the tradition of Confucianism did notend with the end of the Meiji era or world war two.
Today the idea of filialpiety is still strong, multiple generations of a family still usually livetogether even in cramped Japanese housing. The religion of Shinto that the Meijileaders rejuvenated during their rule in order to help foster the imperial cultis still thriving as the thousands of Tori gates and Shrines around Japanattest. Footnote44 But the most striking symbol to survive is that of the Emperorstripped after world war two of all power the Emperor of Japan is still revered. During the illness of Emperor Showa in 1989 every national newspaper andtelevision show was full of reports related to the Emperor’s health. During thesix months the Showa Emperor was sick before he died all parades and publicevents were canceled in respect for the Emperor. Outside the gates of theImperial palace in Tokyo long tables were set up where people lined up to signcards to wis h the Emperor a speedy recovery.
The news media even kept the typeof illness the emperor had a secret in deference to the Emperor. At his deathafter months of illness it was as if the Imperial Cult of the Meiji era hadreturned. Everything in Japan closed down , private television stations went asfar as to not air any commercials on the day of his death. And now almost sixyears after his death more then four hundred and fifty thousand people trekannually to the isolated grave site of Emperor Showa. Footnote45 The traditions and symbolism of Confucianism and the Emperor werecritical to the Meiji oligarchs gaining control of power and goals ofindustrialization.
The oligarchy inculcated the Japanese public with thesetraditional values through an education system that stressed moral learning, andthrough a constitution that established the law of Japan to be that of theImperial Will. The values of Confucianism and symbol of the Emperor allowed theMeiji government to peaceful gain control of Japan by appealing to history andthe restoration of the Emperor. But the Meiji oligarchs never restored theEmperor to a position of real political power. Instead he was used as a tool bythe oligarchs to achieve their modernization plans in Japan such as theabolishment of fiefs, the end of the samurai, the propagation of new culturalpractices, and pubic acceptance of the Meiji oligarchs industrializationpolicies. The symbols and traditions of Japan’s past are an enduring legacy thathave manifested themselves in the Meiji Restoration and today in Japanscontinued reverence for the Emperor. Footnote1Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:Hakubunkwan, 1921) 47.
Footnote2Takatsu Kuwasaburo, The History of The Empire of Japan (Tokyo: Dai Nippon ToshoKabushiki Kwaisha, 1893) 206. Footnote3Ibid. , 17. Footnote4Edwin O.
Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 112. Footnote5Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 32. Footnote6Shusuke Sato, Some Historical Phases of Modern Japan (New York: Japan Society,1916) 4. Footnote7Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 44.
Footnote8Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 1971) 8. Footnote9David Titus, Palace and Politics in Prewar Japan (New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1974) 55Footnote10Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976) 73. Footnote11Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:Hakubunkwan, 1921) 142. Footnote12Ibid. , 35.
Footnote13Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-ToyotaInternational Centre, 1989) 27. Footnote14Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 70. Footnote15Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)116. Footnote16Ernest Best, Christian Faith and Cultural Crisis the Japanese Case (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966) 108.
Footnote17Ibid. , 105. Footnote18Ibid. , 106. Footnote19Ibid. , 106.
Footnote20Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)117. Footnote21Hugh Borton, Japan’s Modern Century (New York: Ronald Press, 1955) 524. Footnote22Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)118. Footnote23Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 69. Footnote24Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:Hakubunkwan, 1921) 60. Footnote25Ian Nish, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-ToyotaInternational Centre, 1989) 9.
Footnote26Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 193. Footnote27Ibid. , 192. Footnote28Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-ToyotaInternational Centre, 1989) 27. Footnote29Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan (Tokyo:Hakubunkwan, 1921) 89.
Footnote30Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 1867-1912 (NewYork: Scribner and Sons, 1916) 77. Footnote31Ibid. , 78. Footnote32Ibid. , 77.
Footnote33Ibid. , 83. Footnote34Ibid. , 82. Footnote35Edwin O.
Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 66. Footnote36Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)117. Footnote37Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 1971) 41. Footnote38Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976) 84.
Footnote39Ibid. , 119. Footnote40Ibid. , 88.
Footnote41Ibid. , 94-95. Footnote42Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987) 166. Footnote43Ibid.
, 167. Footnote44Ibid. , 13. Footnote45Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-ToyotaInternational Centre, 1989) 20. Category: History