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Mutsuhito (also known as Meiji Tenno; 1852-1912) was a Japanese emperor, who became the symbol for, and encouraged, the dramatic transformation of Japan from a feudal closed society into one of the great powers of the modern world.

The transformation of Japan's political and social structure in the late 19th century was an incredible phenomenon, unmatched in the long history of the expansion of Western civilization. From 1600, Japan was divided into several hundred feudal domains, ruled by largely autonomous regional lords. The power of the central government was nominally in the hands of the imperial family and the emperor, who claimed descent from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. From the 12th century, the real power and influence, however, was wielded by a succession of warrior families appointed as military deputies to the emperor. Titled shoguns, they used their military power to administer the country, granting land and bestowing titles on supporters and followers and playing rivals off one against the other. The early 17th century saw the ascension of the Tokugawa house to the shogunate, a position borne by successive Tokugawas until 1867.

Under the shogun lordship, Japan was rigidly regulated to ensure control. A strict hierarchy of hereditary economic and social positions and harshly enforced regulations ensured continuity and minimized change. Foreign contact was forbidden for most of the population after 1640 to minimize potentially negative influences. In addition, the country was divided by strong regional loyalties which were encouraged by the shoguns as a means of control. The shogun's control, however, depended on their military strength and influence. Through the 19th century, strong social and political reactions were increasingly perceived as a threat to the shogunate predominance. The undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the administration of the shogun was brought to the surface by the unwelcome appearance of Matthew Perry's American warships in 1853 and the subsequent treaties which, under threat of force, opened Japan to Western "barbarians." The shogun's inability to resist the foreign intervention became the issue which led to its ultimate demise.

The rallying point for the forces opposed to the shogunate was the long-moribund imperial court and emperor. "It was not an office of state," explains Herschel Webb, "but one of the state's adornments." The imbalance between the imperial court and the government, however, had slowly begun to evolve in the 19th century due to a number of aggressive court figures. Several notes of displeasure were sent by the Emperor Komei to the shogun and, while they were not initiated by the emperor himself, the increased political involvement had an impact. Only 15 when he succeeded to the throne, Komei kept abreast of the domestic and international developments of the day, and he made a conscious effort to educate his son about the evils of Western civilization. Komei's conclusions regarding European influences, however, were not absorbed by the crown prince, Mutsuhito.

Born in 1852, Mutsuhito was the second son of Emperor Komei. He was declared crown prince in 1860 and was treated accordingly. Mutsuhito's education, however, was far more liberal than his predecessor's had been. He was exposed to the customs and history of the outside world, acquiring a knowledge which tempered the traditional Japanese distrust of foreign influences. He was also taught theories of government and sovereignty which, in the words of the turn of the century British historian John Morris, "thoroughly fitted [him] for the duties of active sovereignty over his people." At the same time, Mutsuhito's early training was characterized by a strict discipline and rigor which produced a hardy and athletic youth, dedicated to his nation and people. Indeed, the future emperor had a love for horses and physical activity, as well as competitive sports. His training and education resulted in a disciplined servant of the people.

Mutsuhito's "progressive" and broad-minded education complemented the social and political changes occurring in Japan concurrent with his succession. The shogun's weakness produced a succession of crisis and groups determined to restore the predominance of the imperial court. Imperial advocates believed that a centralized government and administration was the only means of preventing further encroachments by foreign nations. Encouraged by regional enemies of the shogun, the emperor Komei and his court maneuvered the shogun into open rebellion and defeated his armies. The Tokugawa forces were successfully repelled in 1866, the year that Komei died. Young Mutsuhito ascended to the throne the next year after the proper period of mourning, and his coronation in 1868 coincided with the restoration of imperial rule and the final defeat of the supporters of the shogun. The impressionable young emperor was undoubtedly dominated by the victorious military and political leaders of the rebellion against the Tokugawa shogun, many of whom obtained prominent positions at court, but the co-operation of the emperor was essential if a centralized government was to be successful. Mutsuhito adopted the name Meiji and gave his name to the rebellion, the Meiji Restoration, and the period.

The Meiji emperor established the tone for his rule in his coronation oath, the "Charter Oath of Five Principles" that is believed to have been at least partially spontaneous and genuine. He observed that a representative legislative assembly would be created as soon as was practicable, that feudal customs would be abolished, and that the new government, economic and defense systems would be based on the examples of the Western powers. By so recreating Japan, he hoped that it would be able to resist foreign intervention and take a place among the great imperial powers of the day. This was certainly the wish of the men who dominated the government in the first years of the restoration. Mutsuhito's support of the growing popular consensus on the need for modernization along Western lines became ever more invaluable, however, as the emperor's position as supreme executive authority was expanded by those around him.

Mutsuhito was not the initiator of the policies that were implemented to modernize the Japanese nation. Shortly after the emperor's marriage in 1869, the government leaders took steps to abolish the feudal land system and establish a new school system. Further initiatives organized government departments and the military along the pattern of European states. The promise of constitutional government, however, remained unfulfilled, sparking protests and prompting charges that a new authoritarian government was in the making. The unrest was exacerbated by the social and economic changes that were being wrought. Not all Japanese were pleased with the modernization, particularly the European model, that their country was adopting. In the 1870s, the unrest became increasingly violent.

Mutsuhito's role during this period was largely symbolic. "In the first years after the Restoration," wrote Carol Gluck, "the new government invoked the imperial institution as the symbolic center of the unified nation and displayed the young Meiji emperor as the personal manifestation of the recently wrought political unity." Nevertheless, the emperor was not simply a passive observer. He strongly believed in the changes that were taking place and supported the direction the nation was taking. Only by his own prerogative could the Meiji become a highly visible symbol of the new Japan, and the young emperor enthusiastically responded to the call. His proximity to the people increased dramatically. He appeared in public on carefully selected and important occasions such as the completion of the nations first rail line, a cleverly orchestrated illustration of the link between the emperor and modernization. His public appearances, limited though they were, were considered acts of extreme concession and were symbolic of the new relationship between the people and their rulers at the imperial court.

Mutsuhito's personal lifestyle further endeared him to the population, setting as he did an example of frugality and disciplined hard work that the people sought to emulate. His retinue was not ostentatious and horses were his only visible leisure activity. He took an active interest in the business of the state, arriving punctually at his desk at 8 a.m. and departing only when the day's agenda was completed. Under the Japanese system, the emperor's approval was a requirement for the enactment of any legislation or policy initiative. Laws were promulgated in his name, officials appointed "as though by him," and he spoke to the people on matters of significance. Mutsuhito's abilities and dedication thus took on a great importance. His pronouncements legitimized the changes and, despite several threats to his life by disgruntled Nationalists, the emperor continued to support modernization. He also helped to make it more palatable through his personal cultivation of a balance between traditional Japanese customs and Western ideas. Mutsuhito wore Western-style clothes, ate Western-style food, and his stature became closer to that of a Western-style monarch. Nevertheless, the Meiji Emperor composed poems in the traditional Japanese style and retained the Confucian philosophy of personal relations which characterized Japanese society.

Mutsuhito's role as a symbol of national unity underwent a change in the 1880s and 1890s as the imperial institution was legally defined in the constitutional discussions of the period. The conservative Satsuma-Choshu oligarchy that dominated the imperial court had gradually come to the conclusion that constitutional government and its accompanying representative institutions were necessary for Japan to truly complete its modernization. Slowly, they implemented the necessary changes—a cabinet system was adopted in 1885, a constitution promulgated in 1889, and the Japanese Diet was officially opened in 1890. Simultaneously, government leaders reflected on the necessity of centering, as Jansen and Rozman observe, all institutions around the Imperial House "in the absence of a vital tradition of national religion comparable to the ties that bound western nations together." There was much debate as to exactly how to define the emperor in a constitution, but the role as it emerged after 1889 proved to be far different than the preceding decade.

Carol Gluck asserts that "the late 1880s and 1890s saw the emperor become the manifestation of the elements associated with national progress … and the symbol of national unity, not of a political and legal, but of a patriotic and civic kind." The emperor, in short, became the embodiment of the state and as such was raised above politics, returned "above the clouds" as the son of heaven. Mutsuhito was placed in the ironic situation of being removed from the actual practice of governing but concurrently being the nominal last court of appeal. His financial and administrative independence was enshrined in the constitution; his public appearances were reduced to a bare minimum and his contacts were limited to the state élite. After his "bestowal" of the Constitution of 1889, the emperor's political role became largely ceremonial—he opened the Diet, held ministerial meetings, and issued proclamations of the "government's will." In reality, his influence in policy was kept to a minimum.

The emperor, however, maintained an active interest in state affairs. He kept abreast of all policy initiatives through a constant reading of cabinet documents and was a voracious reader of national as well as provincial newspapers. Unfortunately, no record exists of Mutsuhito's personal feelings on his gradual estrangement from the very people he was supposed to personify. His reaction to some of the elements of "national progress," however, provide some gauge to his personal dedication. One measure of Japan's westernization and progress was her adoption of the expansionist tendencies of the imperial powers of the late 19th century. An over-crowded island nation lacking in resources, Japan looked to the Asian mainland, particularly the Korean peninsula, for that which it did not have. This brought Japan into conflict with China and Russia, and in two separate wars the Japanese proved how well they had adopted Western military techniques and technology. The Sino-Japanese War erupted in 1894 and the emperor played an active role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Mutsuhito moved with the imperial headquarters in Tokyo to the campaign debarkation headquarters at Hiroshima. For eight months, he devoted himself to the business of war, overseeing the naval and military plans for the prosecution of the campaigns to the minutest details.

When the war was over, he returned to the reclusive routines of peace-time imperial life, but a decade later the emperor again vigorously supported and took an active, if somewhat different role, in the prosecution of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05. Unlike the first war, the emperor did not move and suffer with the troops, but remained in Tokyo overseeing policy. His removal from direct planning allowed him to be credited with victories but shielded him from the blunders of the war. More than ever, Mutsuhito became a sympathetic father figure, bemoaning the fate of his war-torn people. It was this role of social benefactor that he was increasingly called on to play towards the end of his rule. Social activism was not, however, a responsibility that he avoided. The learned Meiji had, for example, been instrumental in establishing imperial support for education, and some of his few public appearances were those at the convocations of the Imperial University in Tokyo. While the government leaders actively strived to use education and the imperial image to present Japan's new modernity to the young, Mutsuhito's belief in the value of education was unquestioned. Writes Carol Gluck, "Summoning the minister of education at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, [Mutsuhito] issued a rescript urging that 'education should not be neglected even in times of military crisis.' Despite the emperor's support of Japan's expansion, he was concerned lest it interfere with the advancement of the people as a whole.

The heavy casualties of the Russo-Japanese War, and an unsatisfactory peace settlement, triggered sporadic eruptions of a social unrest that was simmering below the surface prior to the war. Mutsuhito and the imperial court became ever more involved in the government's attempts to quell the unrest. He took a direct role through an increase in assistance to the needy and social causes. More importantly, the emperor's image was evoked to ease the antagonisms between the people and the state. In the long run, this damaged the government's prestige. The military, for example, perceived itself as directly responsible, and answerable, to the emperor and the state. They gradually became the civil power's equal with tragic consequences for the future. Mutsuhito, however, was largely oblivious to such machinations, shielded by the deification process that was underway. When he died in 1912, the modernization process that he had done so much to encourage was largely completed, but the imperial institution had been removed from the practical governing of the country—placed above such mundane concerns. His name was evoked to justify many policies he had little to do with. Nevertheless, his implicit support of the expansionist policies that characterized the modern westernized Japan he helped create was a crucial factor in their implementation and would, ironically, bring about an even more far reaching transformation in the near future.

Further Reading

There is no English-language biography of Meiji. Background information is in Nobutaka Ike, The Beginnings of Political Democracy in Japan (1950); Hugh Borton, Japan's Modern Century (1955); Ryusaka Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958); Marius B. Jansen, Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration (1961); George M. Beckmann, The Modernization of China and Japan (1962); John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965); and Robert E. Ward, ed., Political Development in Modern Japan (1968).

Additional Sources

Gluck, Carol. Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Jansen, Marius B. and Gilbert Rozman, eds. Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Morris, John. Makers of Japan. London: Methuen, 1906.

Webb, Herschel. The Japanese Imperial Institution in the Tokugawa Period. Columbia University Press, 1968.

Beasley, William G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford University Press, 1972.

Hunter, Janet E. The Emergence of Modern Japan. London: Longman House, 1989. □