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The Role Of The Emperor In Meiji Japan

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Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized that they needed

to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in order to govern effectively.

During the Age of Imperialism, members of the Satsuma and Choshu, two of

the very powerful clans in Japan, were parts of the opposition to foreign

imperialism. This opposition believed that the only way that Japan could

survive the encroachment of the foreigners was to rally around the Emperor.

The supporters of the imperial government, known as 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.

The fact that the Tokugawa's policy of opening up Japan to the western

world ran counter to 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 Japanese public and the Shogun's supporters soon felt that

they had lost the Imperial Will.

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. In 1867, the new shogun handed over all his power

to Emperor Komeo in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to Emperor

Komeo, the Emperor died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji

Emperor, which officially started the Meiji period (1868-1911). The

Meiji Emperor was only 15, and so all the power of the new restored Emperor

fell not in the Emperor's hands but in the hands of his close advisors.

Once in control of the government, the Meiji leaders and advisors to the

Emperor reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners. The reason for

doing this was because after Emperor Komeo, who strongly opposed contact

with the west, died in 1867 the Meiji Emperor's advisors were no longer

bound by his Imperial Will. They realized that opposing western powers was

impossible, and 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 wiser. 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. In this

time of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners, the imperial thrown

provided the Japanese with a belief of stability (according to Japanese

myth the imperial line is a unbroken lineage handed down since time

immortal), and the natural superiority of Japanese culture. The symbolism

of the Emperor helped ensure the success of the Meiji leaders, 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 only restored the Emperor to

power symbolically, because he was both too young and his advisors too

power hungry. By 1869, relationship between the Emperor and his Meiji

bureaucracy were very similar to the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun before

the restoration. Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under the

authority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions.

In other words, the Meiji Emperor reigned but did not rule. This was

useful for the new Meiji bureaucrats, because it kept the Emperor a mythic

and powerful symbol.

The teachings and symbols of Confucian beliefs and the Imperial

Institution were already deeply carved into the minds 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



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