The Meiji Restoration

 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.

Role of the Emperor in Imperial Japan.

The question about what role the emperor played in Imperial Japan is an interesting one, especially when we compare it with the one that he played in the Shogun era. In this earlier era, the emperor was arguably nothing but an outdated figurehead, with the Shogun (a title literally meaning General) was the real source of power in Japan. This was all to change with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In theory at least, the emperor, whether that be Meiji, Taisho or Showa, was the ultimate source of power in Japan. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 describes the duties of the emperor as being the ‘head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present constitution’[1]. However, the extent to which the emperor actually used these powers and was a force in Japan must also been considered when looking at the role that the emperor played. The fact that it was not Meiji himself who drew up at the important Charter Oath of 1868, an initial document set out by Meiji about how the new restored Japan would operate, is telling of the role which the emperor would play. It was instead constructed by Iwakura Tomomki and Kido Takayoshi. The influence of men such as these, along with other figures such as Itō Hirobumi and Saigō Tsugumichi, referred to as being the ‘genrō’[2] and how much influence that they held over affairs in Japan is also important when coming to a conclusion about the role of the emperor. These men were often from the old hans (akin to a county) of Choshu and Satsuma and had been influential in the restoration of Japan, and who therefore went on to hold positions of power in Imperial Japan such as the position of Prime Minister. The political crisis faced by the Emperor Taisho in 1912 is also demonstrative of the fact that power on a political level did not lie with the emperor. This was when a politician, Katsura Tarō was accused of having too much influence over the emperor and of a lack of commitment to the constitutional government as laid out by the Meiji Constitution. Donald Keene also points out that it is hard to assess the extent to which the emperor undertook and suggested himself, since he had a heavy reliance on his ministers of state[3].

If the position of the emperor then was not one which held a vast amount of political power then, what was his role in Japan? The fact that the emperor was supposedly descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and there therefore thought of as being a manifest deity[4] suggests that there was some sort of obligation of the emperor to act in a moral capacity for Japan and be a source of moral authority. For example, the emperor was meant to have responsibility for the actions of the government as part of the Confucian values[5]. The idea of the emperor being the kind and ambivalent spiritual leader as part of the Confucian and Shinto conditions also helped to tie the Japanese together under a shared historical tradition. Due to this position as an exalted figure, it is certainly possible that the role of emperor had to be one which was removed from the political squabbling of the constitutional government in order to retain the role of being a sacred and removed figure. Moral responsibilities for the actions of the government aside, this had the advantage of meaning that the emperor was removed from the blame of things going wrong in the political sphere.

It has been argued by Stephen Large that ‘Meiji was indispensable to this process of political centralization as the symbol of new national consciousness’[6], especially in the period just after the restoration when a symbol of unity was particularly needed in order to unify Japan after the change in power. The fact that the emperor was assigned a prominent and visible role, very much unlike what it had been in the Shogun era, also helped to make him a popular figure who the people could rally around. Emperors Meiji and Showa in particular went on tours of Japan in order to gain support, and the figure of the emperor became a more accessible figure. This was especially important for the Showa emperor after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 when he toured the city after the disaster in order to show his solidarity with the people who had been affected by it[6]. Under Showa, the image of the emperor also became more modern and publically accessible, especially with the fact that he and his wife helped to popularise the wearing of modern Western dress in Japan.

To conclude, the role that the emperor played in Imperial Japan was one that was mainly concerned with acting as a unifying and moral force. This was a role that was especially important after the Meiji Restoration. The emperor also played an important role in being the source of a Japanese national identity for the restored Japan. So although the emperor probably did not hold much political power in practice, it was what the position of emperor represented, namely the idea of unity, which was ultimately of greater significance in Imperial Japan.

[1] ‘The Constitution of the Empire of Japan’, <i>National Diet Library</i>, translated by Ito Niyoji,

[2] Donald Keene, <i>Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World 1853-1912</i> (New York, 2002), 537.

[3] Ibid., 722.

[4] Stephen S. Large, <i>Emperors of the Rising Sun: Three Biographies</i> (New York, 1997), 28.

[5] T. Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan</i> (California, 1998), 10.

[6] Large, <i>Ibid</i>., 29.

Jerold M. Packard, Sons of Heaven: A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy</i> (London, 1988), 253.