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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once in control of the government the Meiji Leaders and advisors to the Emperor reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Iwakura it is thought was able to 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.Footnote17 This document put the emphasis of the Japanese education system on 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
This Imperial Oath was referred 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 than lay out the structure of the Japanese government it also affirmed that the Emperor was the supreme sovereign over Japan.
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.
The ceremony itself evoked both the past and present and was symbolic of the Meiji government’s shift toward the right and the government’s 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.
The constitution also set up a bicameral legislature. 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.
The Constitution ingrained in Japanese society the idea that the government was being run by higher forces who knew better than the Japanese people, it also broadened the base of support of the Meiji Rulers who now had a document to prove they were acting on Imperial Will and their decisions were imperial decisions not those of mere mortals.
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.
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.
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.
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 their success.
The abolishment of fiefs and the samurai class were essential for the stability and industrialization of Japan.
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.
The centralization of power allowed the Meiji government to have taxing authority over all of Japan and pursue national projects.
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. 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 production.Footnote38
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.
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.
For others, it led 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.
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 government’s 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.
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.Footnote43
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.
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 than four hundred and fifty thousand people trek annually to the isolated gravesite of Emperor Showa.
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 public acceptance of the Meiji oligarch’s 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 Japan’s continued reverence for the Emperor.
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