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 land to the 
Emperor. At first the new Meiji Rulers allied themselves with the 
Daimyo clans in opposition to the Tokugawa Shogun. But once the Meiji 
leaders had gained a control they saw that they would need to abolish 
the fief system and concentrate power in the hands of a central 
government. The Meiji rulers achieved their goals by having the 
Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen clans give up their lands, granting 
the Daimyos large pensions if they gave up their clans, and by having 
the Emperor issue two decrees in July 1869, and August 1871.Footnote30
The role and symbolism of the Emperor although not 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 be 
disloyal and pointed to the historical record which Meiji scholars 
claimed showed that historically all fiefs were the property of the 
Emperor.Footnote31 They showed this by claiming that the Shogun would 
switch the rulers of fiefs and this proved that the Daimyos did not 
control the title to their land but merely held it for the Emperor. 
Imperial decrees and slogans of loyalty to the Emperor also 
accompanied the abolishment of the Samurai system.Footnote32 In the 
abolishment of both these feudal systems the symbolism of the Emperor
as both the director of the initiative and recipient of the authority 
afterwards played a vital role in ensuring there success.Footnote33 
 The abolishment of fiefs and the samurai class were essential 
for the stability and industrialization of Japan.Footnote34 Without 
the concentration of land and power in the hands of the Meiji 
oligarchs and the Emperor the Meiji oligarchs feared they would 
receive opposition from powerful Daimyos and never gain control and 
authority over all of Japan. Historical examples bear out the fears of 
the Meiji Oligarchy; in 1467 the Ashikaga Shogun failed to control 
many of the fiefs and because of this a civil war raged in 
Japan.Footnote35 The centralization of power allowed the Meiji 
government to have taxing authority over all of Japan and pursue 
national projects.Footnote36 The unity of Japan also allowed the Meiji 
Oligarchs to focus on national and not local issues. 
 The use of Confucianism and the Emperor also brought a degree 
of stability to Japan during the tumultuous Meiji years. The Emperor's 
mere presence on a train or in western clothes were enough to convince 
the public of the safety or goodness of the Meiji oligarchy's 
industrial policy. In one famous instance the Japanese Emperor 
appeared in a train car and after that riding trains became a common 
place activity in Japan. The behavior of the Imperial family was also 
critical to adoption of western cultural practices. Before 1873 most 
Japanese women of a high social position would shave their eyebrows 
and blacken their teeth to appear beautiful. But on March 3rd 1873 the 
Empress appeared in public wearing her own eyebrows and with
unblackened teeth. Following that day most women in Tokyo and around 
Japan stopped shaving their eyebrows and blackening their 
teeth.Footnote37 The Imperial institution provided both a key tool to 
change Japanese culture and feelings about industrialization and it 
provided stability to Japan which was critical to allowing 
industrialists to invest in factories and increase exports and 

 The symbols and the traditions the Meiji leaders inculcated 
Japanese society with helped the Meiji government maintain stability 
and pursue its economic policies but it also had severe limitations 
that limited the revolutionary scope of the Japanese government and 
helped bring about the downfall of the Meiji era. The use of 
Confucianism and the Emperor to bolster the Imperial restoration laid 
the foundation for a paradox of state affairs. The system that sought 
to strengthen Japan through the use of modern technology and modern 
organization methods was using traditional values to further its 
goals.Footnote39 This caused some to turn toward the west for the 
"enlightenment" the Meiji era promised this was the case with Okuma 
who was eventually forced out of the increasing nationalist 
Genro.Footnote40 For others it lead them to severe nationalism 
rejecting all that was western. This was such the case of Saigo who 
believed till his death on his own sword that the Meiji leaders were
hypocritical and were violating the Imperial Will by negotiating and 
trading with the west.Footnote41 The Meiji government used the same 
symbols and traditions that the Tokugawa used and like the Tokugawa 
gave the Emperor no decision making power. The Meiji Emperor although 
he had supreme power as accorded in the constitution never actually 
made decisions but was instead a pawn of the Meiji Genro who claimed 
to carry out his Imperial Will. This Imperial Will they decided for
themselves. Like the Shogunate the Meiji governments claim to rule for 
the Emperor was fraught with problems. The Imperial Will was a fluid 
idea that could be adopted by different parties under changing 
circumstances. And just like the Meiji rulers were able to topple the 
Shogun by claiming successfully that they were the true administrators 
of the Imperial Will; the militarist elements in the 1930's were able 
to topple the democratic elements of Japan partially by claiming the 
mantle of ruling for the Emperor.Footnote42 From this perspective the 
Meiji Oligarchs building up of the Imperial Myth was a fatal flaw in 
the government. The constitution which says in article I, "The empire 
of Japan shall be governed over by a line of Emperors unbroken for 
ages eternal" gave to whoever was acting on the Imperial Will absolute 
right to govern.Footnote43 
 The symbols of the Emperor and the tradition of Confucianism 
did not end with the end of the Meiji era or world war two. Today the 
idea of filial piety is still strong, multiple generations of a family 
still usually live together even in cramped Japanese housing. The 
religion of Shinto that the Meiji leaders rejuvenated during their 
rule in order to help foster the imperial cult is still thriving as 
the thousands of Tori gates and Shrines around Japan attest.Footnote44 
But the most striking symbol to survive is that of the Emperor 
stripped 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 and television show was full of reports related to 
the Emperor's health. During the six months the Showa Emperor was sick 
before he died all parades and public events were canceled in respect 
for the Emperor. Outside the gates of the Imperial palace in Tokyo 
long tables were set up where people lined up to sign cards to wish 
the Emperor a speedy recovery. The news media even kept the type of 
illness the emperor had a secret in deference to the Emperor. At his 
death after months of illness it was as if the Imperial Cult of the 
Meiji era had returned. Everything in Japan closed down , private 
television stations went as far as to not air any commercials on the 
day of his death. And now almost six years after his death more then 
four hundred and fifty thousand people trek annually to the isolated 
grave site of Emperor Showa.Footnote45 
 The traditions and symbolism of Confucianism and the Emperor 
were critical to the Meiji oligarchs gaining control of power and 
goals of industrialization. The oligarchy inculcated the Japanese 
public with these traditional values through an education system that 
stressed moral learning, and through a constitution that established 
the law of Japan to be that of the Imperial Will. The values of 
Confucianism and symbol of the Emperor allowed the Meiji government to 
peaceful gain control of Japan by appealing to history and the 
restoration of the Emperor. But the Meiji oligarchs never restored the 
Emperor to a position of real political power. Instead he was used as 
a tool by the oligarchs to achieve their modernization plans in Japan
such as the abolishment of fiefs, the end of the samurai, the 
propagation of new cultural practices, and pubic acceptance of the
Meiji oligarchs industrialization policies. The symbols and traditions 
of Japan's past are an enduring legacy that have manifested themselves 
in the Meiji Restoration and today in Japans continued reverence for 
the Emperor. 



Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan 
(Tokyo: Hakubunkwan, 1921) 47. 


Takatsu Kuwasaburo, The History of The Empire of Japan (Tokyo: Dai 
Nippon Tosho Kabushiki Kwaisha, 1893) 206.


Ibid., 17.


Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 
1987) 112.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Shusuke Sato, Some Historical Phases of Modern Japan (New York: Japan 
Society, 1916) 4.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 
1971) 8.


David Titus, Palace and Politics in Prewar Japan (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1974) 55


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 73.


Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan 
(Tokyo: Hakubunkwan, 1921) 142.


Ibid., 35.


Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: 
Suntory-Toyota International Centre, 1989) 27.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 116.


Ernest Best, Christian Faith and Cultural Crisis the Japanese Case 
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1966) 108.


Ibid., 105.


Ibid., 106.


Ibid., 106.


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 117.


Hugh Borton, Japan's Modern Century (New York: Ronald Press, 1955) 


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 118.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan 
(Tokyo: Hakubunkwan, 1921) 60.


Ian Nish, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: Suntory-Toyota 
International Centre, 1989) 9.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Ibid., 192.


Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: 
Suntory-Toyota International Centre, 1989) 27.


Hidejiro Nagata, A Simplified Treatise on The Imperial House of Japan 
(Tokyo: Hakubunkwan, 1921) 89.


Walter McLaren, A Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era 
1867-1912 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1916)


Ibid., 78.


Ibid., 77.


Ibid., 83.


Ibid., 82.


Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 
1987) 66.


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 117.


Louis Allen, Japan the Years of Triumph (London: Purnell and Sons, 
1971) 41.


Peter Duus, The Rise of Modern Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
Company, 1976) 84.


Ibid., 119.


Ibid., 88.


Ibid., 94-95.


Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan Past and Present (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 
1987) 166.


Ibid., 167.


Ibid., 13.


Stephen Large, The Japanese Constitutional of 1889 (London: 
Suntory-Toyota International Centre, 1989) 20.


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