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.Footnote1BFootnote1 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.Footnote2BFootnote2 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
 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.Footnote4BFootnote4 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.Footnote5BFootnote5 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
 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.Footnote7BFootnote7 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.Footnote8BFootnote8 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.Footnote9BFootnote9 Once in control of the
government the Meiji Leaders and advisors to the Emperor
reversed their policy of hostility to
Foreigners.Footnote10BFootnote10 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.Footnote11BFootnote11 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.Footnote12BFootnote12 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.Footnote13BFootnote13 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.Footnote14BFootnote14 
 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.Footnote15BFootnote15 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.Footnote16BFootnote16 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.Footnote17BFootnote17 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.Footnote18BFootnote18 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.Footnote19BFootnote19 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.Footnote20BFootnote20 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."Footnote21BFootnote21 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.Footnote22BFootnote22 
 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.Footnote23BFootnote23 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.Footnote24BFootnote24 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..Footnote25BFootnote25 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.Footnote26BFootnote26 The constitution
also set up a bicameral legislature.Footnote27BFootnote27
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.Footnote28BFootnote28 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.Footnote29BFootnote29 
 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.Footnote30BFootnote30 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.Footnote31BFootnote31 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.Footnote32BFootnote32 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.Footnote33BFootnote33 
 The abolishment of fiefs and the samurai class were
essential for the stability and industrialization of
Japan.Footnote34BFootnote34 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.Footnote35BFootnote35 The
centralization of power allowed the Meiji government to
have taxing authority over all of Japan and pursue national
projects.Footnote36BFootnote36 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.Footnote37BFootnote37 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.Footnote39BFootnote39 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.Footnote40BFootnote40
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.Footnote41BFootnote41 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.Footnote42BFootnote42 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.Footnote43BFootnote43 
 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.Footnote44BFootnote44 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
 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) 32. 

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) 44.
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) 70.
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) 524.
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) 69.
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) 193.
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) 77.
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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