Meisho (1624–1696)

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Meisho (1624–1696)

Japanese empress, 109th sovereign of the Empire of Japan according to the traditional count, who came to the throne as a child in 1629 and reigned until 1643 . Name variations: Meishoō; Myojo-tenno; Myosho. Born in 1624 (some sources cite 1623); died in 1696; daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo (also seen as Go-Mizuno-o) and Tokugawa Kazuko; had one sister; had three emperor brothers, Go-Komyo (r. 1643–1654, d.1654), Gosai or Go-Sai (r. 1655–1663, d. 1685), and Reigen (r. 1663–1687, d. 1732); never married.

In 1629, five-year-old Meisho became empress of Japan as a result of her father's abdication. It had been almost a millennium since a woman had been a sovereign ruler of Japan. During the Nara period (710–794 ce), there had been Empress Koōken-Shoōtoku ; a zealous Buddhist like her father Emperor Shomu, Koōken-Shoōtoku reigned from 749 to 758 and from 764 to 770.

Meisho was born into a troubled and exciting time in her country's history. Although the venerable imperial throne symbolized national unity in Japan, those who sat on it had been virtually powerless for centuries. From the 13th century forward, a shogun (military governor) ruled the island nation through feudal vassals who exchanged their military services for large estates and political rights. Ostensibly, the shogun wielded power only as a temporary stand-in for the emperor, who in theory was to remain the source of all political authority. In reality, however, emperors were no more than figureheads, with shoguns enjoying virtually total power. By 1400, the flaws of this feudal order had revealed themselves, as the conflicting interests of shoguns and their vassals increasingly resulted in protracted and bloody struggles. By the mid-16th century, Japan was torn asunder by internecine conflicts that historians would later call the era of sengoku—"the country at war."

By the late 1500s, strong states were emerging in several regions of Japan, with ambitious military leaders in each looking forward to more power as well as to the restoration of peace that would accompany national unification. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a military regime known as the Tokugawa bakufu ("tent government"), which claimed to be no more than a temporary replacement for the emperor's rule. But "temporary" rule became very permanent, with Ieyasu and his descendants ruling the bakufu as shoguns from 1600 until the end of the Tokugawa Dynasty in 1867. In 1611, while Ieyasu was still alive, Go-Mizunoo became emperor of Japan as the 108th sovereign (tenno) in the traditional count (which includes several legendary emperors). In 1620, he was made to marry Tokugawa Kazuko, the daughter of the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, who had succeeded Ieyasu on the latter's death in 1616. Although Go-Mizunoo's marriage to Kazuko is believed to have been a happy one, he was politically exasperated from repeatedly being dealt with in a peremptory fashion by the shogun and his officials. Consequently, in 1629 Go-Mizunoo made a sudden decision to abdicate the throne in favor of his five-year-old daughter, Meisho.

Meisho was enthroned as empress of Japan in 1630 at Kyoto. At the grand event, lest it be forgotten who actually wielded political power in Japan, the celebrants included Sakai Tadayo and Doi Toshikatsu, chief advisors and councillors (tairo) to the current shogun, Iemitsu. The enthronement ceremony took place in the Shishin-den (Purple Dragon Hall). Central to the ceremonial were "announcements" of the reign to the various powerful individuals or groups that were part of the imperial world. Specially commissioned messengers were dispatched, one to the Ise Shrine with a hohei (slip of paper) that symbolized the new ruler's report to the Sun Goddess. Others with similar messages were sent to the Kashiwabara Shrine, the tomb of Japan's semi-legendary first emperor Jimmu, and to several other important tomb sites.

By the early 1640s, significant tensions had arisen between the imperial court—where exemperor Go-Mizunoo continued to exercise authority behind the scenes—and the shogun. Historians have speculated as to why these stresses appeared, and theories include the possibility that the shogun had always resented the way in which Go-Mizunoo had abdicated in order to wield power unofficially. Despite the fact that Shogun Iemitsu was the Empress Meisho's grandfather (and thus directly linked to the sovereign power in the land), he did not want his authority to be trifled with. Some scholars have detected a conservative anti-feminist undercurrent directed against the Empress Meisho at the Kyoto court.

According to the chronicler Kanzawa Toko, the mechanics of the abdication process were as follows: "The Empress had reigned for thirteen years. Both the civil and military lords thought it time for her to retire. Sakai Tadakatsu and Matsudaira Nobutsuna [Shogun Iemitsu's senior advisors] went to Kyoto to discuss the matter, whereupon the Empress abdicated." Some scholars have argued that the imperial court was able to assert its rights by delaying the abdication, making it appear a free and spontaneous act on the part of the empress. Now a young woman of 20, at the center of the dispute, Meisho did as she was told. She was succeeded on the throne by her brother, Go-Komyo, who died at the age of 21 in 1654. Two more of Meisho's brothers, Gosai and Reigen, would sit on the imperial throne until 1687.

Meisho did not marry while she was on the throne or after her abdication. It has been argued that the reasons for this were political. Had she married, there might well have been serious problems of protocol in the treatment which would have been accorded her spouse and children. According to Japanese law of the time, a man's wife and children belonged to his family unless he had been adopted by the family of his wife. Special usages and traditions, however, applied to the imperial family. These included a prohibition of inheritance through the female line. As a result, any children Meisho might have had would not have belonged to her family but to her husband's. This would have likely caused considerable difficulties because as children of an ex-empress, Meisho's offspring would presumably have been deserving of special treatment. These issues of court etiquette, however, never arose due to her unwed status. Meisho died in her 70s in 1696.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Meisho (1624–1696)

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