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Meiji Japan

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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



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