An Analysis of the Respective Roles of Japanese Emperors: 1863-1945
Today, Japan stands side by side with many of the Western nations of the world in terms of its political philosophy and free market economy, but it has not always been thus. In fact, many contemporary observers would be surprised at just how much political intrigue and maneuvering took place over the past century and a half to arrive at this position today. The recent anniversary of the 60th anniversary of V-J Day only serves to reinforce just how far Japan has come in recent years, from a country than was virtually devastated to one that can compete on equal terms with any nation in the world. To determine how Japan has come to this phase in its history, this paper will provide an analysis of the respective roles played by the emperors Meiji, Taisho and Showa in modern Japanese history during the period 1863 to 1945, followed by a summary of the research and salient findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion.
Today, the Japanese government is widely regarded as a strong state, and it is also well-known for its intimate ties between the state and the industrial sector (van Wolfren, 1989); however, the path the country took to achieve this state is both convoluted and characterized by intrigue and crises. In his book, Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, Buruma describes the reinvention of the Japanese nation today from the Meiji era through the empire of the 1930s and destruction in 1945, to the westernization that took place in the post World War II era; however, some contemporary observers of Japan maintain that Japan is still a feudal society but that now the lords are the corporations; however, for much of its history, Japan was ruled by a series of emperors who enjoyed the status of gods and the adulation of the general populace (Renshaw, 1999). According to their essay, "The rise and fall of the sun," Emmott and Allardice (2003) report that it was in 1853 that ships from the United States first appeared in Tokyo Bay and compelled the Japanese leaders to open up their country to international commerce. At the time, these authors describe Japan as being a "fairly poor, feudal place that had cut itself off from the outside world for about 200 years. Afraid of being overrun by Christian missionaries and European colonialists, Japan's warlord rulers had driven out the Christians and then banned all contact except with a single nation, Holland, and through a single trading post, an island off Nagasaki" (p. 70).
As the result of increasing internal instability, combined with fear of western power, the Japanese made the decision to take another course of action by opening up their markets and their country to these outside forces and try to become sufficiently powerful to survive and even compete. "Unlike 19th-century China (but very like the China of today)," the authors advise, "it decided that in order to beat, or at least fend off, the outside world it had better learn from it, absorbing technology and even political and social ideas. Yet in order to do so while remaining Japanese, a powerful defensive mechanism was erected: the emperor, and a whole series of newly invented nationalist myths" (p. 70). As a result, by 1964, when the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, Japan was approaching its current status as one of the richest countries in the world (Emmott & Alardice, 2003). The road to this enviable position, though, was a rocky one and was characterized by much political intrigue, violence and social upheaval, factors that are discussed according to the respective reigns of the emperors involved below.
Meiji. Prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan was governed by a number of samurai overlords; the most powerful of these overlords was the shogun of the Tokugawa lineage; at the time, Japanese society was divided into four statuses: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants (Ryang, 2003). Above these statuses was the Imperial family, which had no real power, but was afforded symbolic significance of the guardian of the rites of passage. "For example, every time the shogun was replaced, the Emperor nominally endorsed it" (Ryang, 2003 p. 18). In 1868, though, the imperial court, with the support of the domains of Choshu (western Honshu) and Satsuma (southern Kyushu) restored political authority to the emperor, and Japan entered a new era with the young Meiji emperor being installed as emperor (Hane, 1996). In fact, the Meiji Constitution established the tenet that "the Emperor is sacred and inviolable" (Dobson & Hook, 2003).
According to Hane, "The sudden cultural, political, economic, social, and intellectual incursions from the West had an impact on the society that was as great, or even more dramatic, as the importation of Chinese culture had been in the past" (p. 4). The restoration of the imperial court to power is known today as the "Meiji Restoration"; these events set Japan on the path of an economic and military buildup, with the slogan adopted by the Meiji government being "rich country, strong military" (Hane, 1996 p. 4). At that time, the bakufu and daimyo domains were abolished, and the entire country was placed under the jurisdiction of the Meiji government; further, certain aspects of Western political and legal institutions were adopted and the feudal class system was abolished, to be replaced with the radical new institution of private ownership of land; however, Jansen (2002) suggests that the urban and rural protests that emerged in 19th-century Japanese did not in reality play a very significant role in the fall of the bakufu in the 1860s; in this regard, Jansen emphasizes that social change may have in fact been continuous, but that there was nevertheless "a remarkable dearth of suggestions for changing society" (p. 255). Rather, this author maintains that the Japanese tolerated inequity and inequality, and that it would be erroneous to assume that the typical Japanese citizen was dissatisfied with the status quo.
In addition, Western industries and technology were imported, and the Meiji government encouraged growth in both industry and trade. Furthermore, a modern army and navy, with universal military conscription, was also established. The reforms did not end there though. Perhaps most importantly, a system of universal education was introduced, and emulation of Western art, literature, and culture followed; however, the Western liberal ideals of freedom, democracy, people's rights, and equality were not equally embraced by the Japanese leadership despite the original call for "enlightenment and civilization" by an influential group of Japanese who were in favor of still more westernization (Hane, 1996).
By the mid-1880s, the Japanese educational system had been transformed from the earlier liberal approach to a highly centralized system designed to indoctrinate students in a Shintoistic imperial credo that supported the myth of the imperial descent from the Sun Goddess (Hane, 1996). As a result, the concept of "cult of the emperor" was widely cultivated in all Japanese subjects to further these nationalistic feelings. In addition, traditional Confucian ideals were emphasized in the schools through a curriculum focused on appropriate conduct and the importance of "knowing one's proper place" (Hane, 1996 p. 4)
According to Renshaw (1999), the reopening of Japan and the end of the isolation of the Tokugawa era from the Western world came in 1858 with the arrival of Admiral Perry's "black ships" (kurofune); the display and use of foreign armed might and technology compelled the opening of Japan's borders to the outside world. This traumatic episode in Japan's history would have important implications for the emperor's successors; in fact, Renshaw suggests that modern analysts attribute Japan's attempt to create a 20th-century empire, the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, in part to this event and from a determination not to be invaded, again either intellectually or physically. "The Western world's forced entry in the nineteenth century," Renshaw says, "combined with internal pressures toward change, precipitated the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868" (p. 68). At that time, the emperor was returned to power, enthroned in Tokyo, and his role was used by the successful junta to consolidate its power. Thereafter, Japan advanced quickly to successfully become an industrial power as it responded to the crisis of identity brought about by this forced entry of foreigners, as well as their superior technology and military might (Renshaw, 1999).
In his book, Japan and the United States, 1853-1921, Treat (1928) reports that, "During these first years of Meiji, changes of all kinds were introduced. Feudalism was abolished by 1871, and national progress under a strong central government was now possible. A national army and navy were commenced to take the place of the feudal levies" (p. 101). Beyond these initiatives, a wide range of other investments were made in the country industrial infrastructure; for example, railways were introduced and telegraph lines were constructed. In addition, various educational reforms were examined for their applicability to the Japanese lifestyle. Furthermore, Treat points out that the great law…