The Role of The Emperor in Meiji Japan

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.Footnote1
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
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.Footnote4 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.Footnote5 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.Footnote6

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.Footnote7 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.Footnote9
Once in control of the government the Meiji Leaders and advisors to the Emperor
reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners.Footnote10 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.