Modern Emperors of Japan I
The Meiji takes over
Not to worry; Part II is later.
The Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito was born with the name Sachinomiya in Kyoto on 3 November 1852 to the Komei Emperor and a favored concubine, Nakayama Yoshiko. That the boy survived into adulthood was a good omen that suggested he would lead Japan to great things. He was also a medical miracle, as five of his brothers and sisters (and ten of the Komei’s fifteen children) died in childhood. (Note: in Japan, the personal name of the Emperor—in this case, Mutsuhito—is not used after his elevation and is impolite after his death. Until the Showa Emperor Hirohito’s reign, the emperors were only known in the west only by their reginal names).
Less than a year after Mutsuhito's birth, Perry's squadron muscled its way into Tokyo, and Japan was never quite the same.
There are conflicting accounts of Mutsuhito's childhood, but they gave him his adult name—Mutsuhito—in 1860, not long after the Komei named him the heir. By that time, the great daimyos of Japan—the lords of the samurai domains—were making restive noises about the Tokugawa shogunate and their bakufu, or governing body. They were even more restive because those nasty treaties with the West were bringing foreign influence into Japan, and some had even fired on foreign ships in 1863. This Shimonoseki “incident” brought a warship squadron to shell Japanese forts and even Tokyo itself before they made reparations. The Komei Emperor died in January 1867, and the fourteen-year-old Meiji Emperor took the throne.
By this time, Japan was ripe for civil war.
Emperors in Japan had always been more-or-less powerless figureheads, but the daimyos had been using his happiness or unhappiness as an excuse for what they did. The Meiji Emperor—or those around him—wasn't immune to these abuses of his prerogatives. But the Tokugawa shogunate had been losing influence for decades—since the Perry landing—and the throne deposed him in January 1868, abolishing the shogunate and taking “direct” rule.
Let’s remember that the Meiji was fifteen.
We know this act as the Meiji Restoration, but it was a good deal less “restoration” than it was an excuse to get rid of an unpopular ruler. The Meiji wasn’t in charge; his advisors were. It triggered the Boshin War between the daimyos supporting the Emperor’s position of a modern Japan and those desiring nothing of the kind. By the end of the war in June 1869, the Meiji was sixteen, and was ready to take some command of his country. A year later, the seventeen-year-old Meiji Emperor had better advisors than his father and had the allegiance of the great daimyos that his father did not, so that the gradual destruction of the old samurai traditions was more palatable.
As Japan modernized and industrialized externally, its social structure and core values could not move ahead at the same pace.
The samurai—the class of swaggering swordsmen who had dominated the archipelago for centuries—was a dominant physical, social and economic influence, even though the Meiji abolished their traditions of dress, sword-wearing and their domains in 1876. When the Meiji Constitution (issued in his name but he didn't write it) took effect in 1890, it enabled political parties and an elected lower house (Diet), but real power rested in those who wielded it in the non-elected cabinet: traditional lords and strongmen.
Don’t confuse Japan’s “constitutional“ government before 1945 with any other government so described.
The prime minister at the head of the government was not elected, nor was he selected from the Diet. The emperor’s prime minister was picked off a list that was prepared by senior lords and statesmen. After he was selected, the prime minister then chose his cabinet…except…
The Army and the Navy selected the War and Navy Ministers; no one else could.
The Meiji Constitution made the War and Navy ministers co-equal with the civil government, enabling the samurai in the Army and Navy to control the destiny of the country. They did this by withdrawing their ministers, which brought down the government and forced the prime minister out, whenever the civil government did something the military didn’t like.
Which they would do often in the 20th century.
The Meiji would oversee two major overseas conflicts: the First Sino-Japanese War 1893-4, and the Russo-Japanese War 1904-5. The Meiji Emperor, after all of that, was primarily a pacifist who penned this poem:
The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?
A son and five daughters of the Meiji lived into adulthood. The son, Yoshihito, would become the Taisho Emperor on the Meiji's death on 30 July 1912. His grandson, the Showa Emperor Hirohito, read this poem in an Imperial Conference in September 1941 to show his displeasure at the samurai's growing threat of war with the West.
Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study Of Miscalculation And Folly
Yes, I peddled this one all last month, but here we are again.
The modern emperors of Japan were like children, really, suddenly thrust into an industrial world by forces they couldn’t understand and dragged into conflicts not of their making by traditionalists who barely understood the tools they built to fight with.
The subtitle—A Study of Miscalculation and Folly—emphasizes the real challenges Japan had in the 20th century. Barely industrialized, they approached foreign affairs with little genuine experience in diplomacy and even less in modern warfare or industrial organization. These issues would make their conflict with the west a catastrophic failure. It’s cheaper on Amazon than from me, BUT, I’ll be happy to sign it at the reunion in June.
The National Guard and the Draft Amnesty
And Other Arcana…
On 14 January:
1784: Meeting in the Maryland State House in Annapolis, the US Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris that brought an official end to the American War for Independence/Revolution. Britain ratified the treaty that April.
1957: Humphrey Bogart passed away in Los Angeles, California. Suffering from esophageal cancer that went untreated for too long, the stars of the studio system that he ultimately came to work against mourned him.
And today is NATIONAL HOT PASTRAMI SANDWICH DAY. Since they said it to have been one of Bogart’s favorites, here’s looking at you, Bogie…