The Role of the Emperor in Meiji Japan

Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized that they needed
to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in order to govern effectively.
During the Age of Imperialism, members of the Satsuma and Choshu, two of
the very powerful clans in Japan, were parts of the opposition to foreign
imperialism. This opposition believed that the only way that Japan could
survive the encroachment of the foreigners was to rally around the Emperor.
The supporters of the imperial government, known as 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 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 Japanese public and the Shogun\'s supporters soon felt that
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. In 1867, the new shogun handed over all his power
to Emperor Komeo in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to Emperor
Komeo, the Emperor died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji
Emperor, which officially started the Meiji period (1868-1911). The
Meiji Emperor was only 15, and so all the power of the new restored Emperor
fell not in the Emperor\'s hands but in the hands of his close advisors.
Once in control of the government, the Meiji leaders and advisors to the
Emperor reversed their policy of hostility to Foreigners. The reason for
doing this was because after Emperor Komeo, who strongly opposed contact
with the west, died in 1867 the Meiji Emperor\'s advisors were no longer
bound by his Imperial Will. They realized that opposing western powers was
impossible, and 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. In this
time of chaos after coming in contact with foreigners, the imperial thrown
provided the Japanese with a belief of stability (according to Japanese
myth the imperial line is a unbroken lineage handed down since time
immortal), and the natural superiority of Japanese culture. The symbolism
of the Emperor helped ensure the success of the Meiji leaders, 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 only restored the Emperor to
power symbolically, because he was both too young and his advisors too
power hungry. By 1869, relationship between the Emperor and his Meiji
bureaucracy were very similar to the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun before
the restoration. Both the Meiji Bureaucrats and the Shogun ruled under the
authority of the Emperor but did not let the Emperor make any decisions.
In other words, the Meiji Emperor reigned but did not rule. This was
useful for the new Meiji bureaucrats, because it kept the Emperor a mythic
and powerful symbol.
The teachings and symbols of Confucian beliefs and the Imperial
Institution were already deeply carved into the minds 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.