Now for our segment on Japanese history as part of our comeback theme for this month. And what better example if there when considering the modern history of Japan than the Meiji Restoration of 1868? In theory, this was the return of power to the imperial family from the Tokugawa family, who had established themselves officially in a position of power from 1603 under the title of shogun.
The Tokugawa were not the first family but any means to exercise control over the emperor. Various factions from Japanese history including the Soga and Fujiwara families exercised control over the imperial family, most noticeably by marrying directly into the line. For example, under one of the most influential figures of the Fujiwara period, Michinaga, four of the emperors married his daughters, two were his nephews and three were his grandsons. The title of shogun, meaning “a general who subdues barbarians” was first established in the Kamakura period for Minamoto Yoritomo, and would be one that would be in use until the Meiji Restoration. It was the shogun who in reality controlled Japan, but the role of the emperor was still important, as it was he who officially “appointed” the shoguns and gave them their legitimacy. Tokugawa Ieyasu, along with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi brought stability to Japan by uniting the daimyo or local leaders under their control in the second half of the sixteenth century. This was part of a period of instability that had arisen at the start of the Ōnin War of 1467, wherein the Ashikaga. You may have heard of the Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in 1600. It was during this battle that Ieyasu took full control, and established himself as the shogun in 1603, signalling the start of the Tokugawa shogunate.
The imperial family still played an important social and cultural role within Japan. The emperor himself was considered to be a descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu through the first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, and was therefore considered to be partly divine. This was part of the creation story of Shinto, the national religion of Japan, which gave the emperor an important role. It was because of this that after the attempts to “open” Japan to the rest of the world by Commodore Perry, and the subsequent proposal of the Harris treaty. The latter of which would mean that four more ports would be open to foreign trade in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate , as well as the exchange of ministers meant that the shogunate turned to the imperial court for extra sanction of their actions. This was especially important given that there were tensions between the samurai and diplomats, highlighted by the assassinations in 1859 and the burning down of the British legation in Edo in 1863. The fact that the imperial court refused to give its sanction made it a rallying point for opposition against the shogunate and their policy. This is reflected in the fact that popular slogans at the time for people in opposition included phrases like ‘revere the emperor’ and ‘expel the barbarian’. After the Choshu wars had taken place from 1864-6, and the Choshu forces had defeated the shogunate army, an imperial rescript was obtained to dissolve the shogunate completely. The Kyoto Imperial Palace was seized and the start of the imperial restoration was declared.
In theory, the restoration meant that power would once again return to the emperor. However, the fact remained that the emperor and the imperial court were in no real position to rule after centuries of having no real direct power, and the candidate for emperor at the time that the restoration was proclaimed, Prince Mutsuhito, was only fourteen. Again, the real power arguably lay with the officials who had orchestrated the restoration in the first place, or who had come into prominence after it had taken place. Officials such as Iwakura Tomomi, who had been a court noble and was to become Minister of the Right in 1871 as well as acting as a close advisor to the young emperor, was where the real power laid.
All the same, it was still a clear restoration of imperial power, however much that power might have actually have been applied. Emphasis was put on the fact that Emperor Meiji, as well as his ancestors and descendants were the high priests of the national religion, Shinto, and this served as a point of unification for a country that was still in a period of instability. The Meiji Constitution of 1889, a document which set out the direction that the new Japan would go, was presented as a gift from the emperor to his people, which highlights the important role that the emperor had. Within in, Meiji was presented as part of a sacred and lasting line and the various powers and responsibilities that he held were detailed. This included the ability to make amendments to any policy that was decided by the Diet, which was the government body, as well as the power to control said Diet and a position as the supreme head of the army and navy. The symbolic power of the emperor and the imperial family must not be underestimated, especially as a unifier of country where factional problems had been a common way of overthrowing those in power.
So although the emperor still remained a figurehead rather than a controller of any real power, as is often the case in Japan’s history, the fact remains that it was still an imperial restoration; simply more of a restoration of the office of emperor. A way of looking back to Japan’s past when constructing a new and more modern Japan and an important unifying and cultural symbol.