Emperor Meiji (明治天皇 Meiji Tennō; Kyōto, 3 November 1852 - Tōkyō, 30 July 1912) was the 122nd Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, from 3 February 1867 until his death on 30 July 1912.
He led the empire in a context of great change, seeing it change from a feudal state to a capitalist and imperialist world power through the Japanese industrial revolution.
His personal name was Mutsuhito (睦仁), and although he is sometimes called Emperor Mutsuhito abroad, in Japan we refer to deceased emperors only by their posthumous name.
At the time of its birth, Japan was an isolated, pre-industrial empire, controlled for centuries by the Tokugawa shogunate and daimyō, who ruled over 250 decentralized domains in the country.
By the time of its demise, Japan had gone through major political, social, and economic changes and had emerged as one of the great powers internationally.
These major changes became known as the "Meiji Renewal": this catalyzed the industrialization of Japan and led the nation to rise to military power in 1905, under the motto of "National Wealth and Military Strength" (fukoku kyohei, literally 'Rich Country, Strong Army').
Also during the Meiji reign, with the defeat of the shogunate and the restoration of imperial authority, the imperial capital was transferred from Kyoto to the old shogunale capital Edo, later renamed Tokyo (eastern capital). Meiji was succeeded by Crown Prince Yoshihito, future Emperor Taishō.
Mutsuhito was born on November 3, 1852 in the imperial palace of Kyoto, at that time the residence of the Emperor of Japan. He was the son of Emperor Osahito and one of his concubines, Nakayama Yoshiko (1836-1907), of Fujiwara lineage.
The young crown prince was born in a Japan strongly troubled by the political and social crisis resulting from the "unequal treaties" that the shogunate, ruled by the Tokugawa family,
had been forced to accept after the appearance of the black ships, U.S. ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, which in July 1853, under threat of bombing, had forced the shōgun in office,
Tokugawa Ieyoshi, to open the Asian country to foreign trade with the West, abandoning the secular policy of isolation put in place by the bakufu (the shogunal government).
Reactions to this foreign interference were not long in coming and soon two opposing parties were created in the country:
one, of xenophobic and conservative sentiments, closer to the imperial court of Kyoto, which wanted the expulsion of foreigners from Japan and a strengthening of imperial power (sentiments shared by Emperor Osahito himself, who throughout his reign never wanted to meet a foreigner) under the cry of Honor the Emperor, expel the barbarians;
The other, more moderate, supported the shaky shogunal government and wanted to initiate a timid opening to Western trends in order to strengthen the power of the shogun and not passively yield to foreign demands.
It was in fact with this in mind that the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, tried to modernize the country with the creation of a modern army and navy, calling European military advisers to instruct the Nipponese.
During this period, on January 30, 1867, the emperor died of smallpox, leaving the imperial title to his fifteen-year-old son Mutsuhito, who, as is customary, took the honorary title of Meiji (translated as "enlightened government").
The young emperor immediately tried to isolate the shogun to strengthen his authority, allying himself with the forces hostile to the Tokugawa, consisting of troops of daimyō (feudal lords) of the fiefs of Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa and Hizen.
The result of this alliance was, in November 1867, the renunciation of Yoshinobu to the shogunate and the convening of an assembly of daimyo to discuss the new form of government to be given to Japan.
The emperor took advantage of this institutional vacuum and, backed by his allies, on January 4, 1868 (after the day before the troops of Chonshu and Satsuma had occupied the imperial palace of Kyoto) declared the full restoration of imperial authority, formally abolishing the title of shogun, under pressure from his greatest ally, Saigō Takamori, middle-ranking samurai of Satsuma.
It was the beginning of the so-called "Meiji Restoration", the period in which the Empire of the Rising Sun would modernize to catch up with the European West.
But Tokugawa Yoshinobu did not give up so easily: on January 17, not recognizing the abolition of the shogunal office, he asked the Emperor to rescind it. At the imperial refusal, he decided to gather an army in Osaka and march against Kyoto, starting the Boshin War.
The ex-shogun, however, was stopped on the way by the combined armies of Choshu and Satsuma in the battles of Toba and Fushimi, forcing him to retreat to Edo. Saigo Takamori then surrounded the city and forced it to surrender in May, while the Western powers also recognized the new imperial government.
With this last act ended the civil war that had bloodied the country for a year (although there were still some pro-shogun resistance in the islands of northern Japan), Tokugawa Yoshinobu was therefore put under house arrest and deprived of all his titles, assets and property, although it was later released when it was realized that he no longer nourished political goals.
In the meantime, the Emperor Meiji had taken an oath with which he set the guidelines for the future policy of Japan:
it was in fact promised the creation of a national assembly, the abandonment of the most backward customs and the adoption of political and economic reforms borrowed from the foreign example.
To confirm this oath, the emperor moved his court from Kyoto to Edo, which became the new capital of Japan with the name of Tokyo.
In 1869 the daimyo of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen put back in the hands of the emperor their property and rights, beginning the process of dismantling of the feudal system, which in 1871, by imperial decree, was finally abolished:
in its place was created a new local administration, based on governorships, entrusted directly by the emperor to the old feudal lords, now converted into civil servants, and prefectures, geographically defined.
The decree also established the liberation of castes subject to discrimination (Eta Hinin), which were excluded from Japanese society, consisting of four classes (samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants).
As for the religious field, in 1868 Buddhism was abolished and Shintoism became the state religion, but granted the country freedom of religion, in a broader religious reform that culminated in the construction and consecration of the Yasukuni Shrine in 1869 to commemorate the victims of the Boshin War.
Soon after, the statesmen of the Meiji period decided to start the formation of a modern and efficient national army, in order to implement a policy of power in foreign countries:
in 1872, in fact, General Yamagata Aritomo, creator of the new Japanese army, issued an order establishing the system of compulsory conscription, which, together with the one that forbade the samurai to carry the sword, strongly affected the privileges of the military caste.
Education was also given special attention by the imperial government: in 1872 a law on compulsory education was passed, establishing the Ministry of National Education and dividing the country into eight school districts, each with a university, 32 secondary schools and hundreds of primary schools.
The regime also took care of the national information system, issuing a press law in 1875 that mandated the registration of the owner, editor, and printer of newspapers and the signing of all articles, without the use of pseudonyms.
In addition, the editor was responsible for libelous comments, mockery or even criticism of governmental action. Much attention was given to communication systems, with the inauguration on June 12, 1872, of Japan's first railway, which connected Tokyo to Yokohama.
In the economic field, the central government began with the modernization of agriculture, thanks to the introduction of machines and products coming from the West, and the revision of the land tax system with the compilation of a modern and efficient land register;
in 1871 a financial law was issued which replaced the complex monetary system of the Tokugawa era with a new decimal-based currency, based on the yen, while in 1873 the government reformed the tax system,
with the modification of the land tax, calculated on the quantity of rice produced or its equivalent in money, introducing at the same time another land taxation based on the assignment of certificates of ownership by the government, which allowed the transition to private ownership of the land.
Then, in 1880, when the state embarked on a policy of deflation, Finance Minister Masayoshi Matsukata continued the increase in imperial property, imposing heavy taxes on smallholders, while large landowners demanded ever higher rents from their tenants.
As a result, some 368,000 peasants lost their land.
More energy was given to industrial policy in Japan, in order to prevent the national economy from being prey to speculation by Europeans.
For this reason, after the abrogation of the "unequal treaties" and protectionist tariffs, much weight was given to exports abroad, while in the country was formed the first nascent capitalism, thanks to state participation in the formation and creation of new industries and large financial groups, sold in 1881 to private investors.
Furthermore, in order to better guarantee the central government the maintenance of foreign loans, Minister Matsukata decided to establish, in 1882, the first Central Bank of Japan; subsequently, a policy of economic isolation was adopted, with the limitation of foreign loans and the payment of those received.
This economic policy, if on the one hand favored the industrial growth of the country, on the other increased the misery of the working classes, who had to make do with low wages, no union protection, violence in hiring and poor living conditions.
All this gave rise to the first strikes and union demonstrations in the history of Japan, such as that of the miners of Takashima in 1872, harshly repressed.
A serious obstacle to the Meiji reforms was, in 1877, the revolt of Saigō Takamori and his samurai, which marked the culmination of feudal opposition to the power of the emperor.
In fact, the samurai caste, disappointed by the work of the central government and irritated by the loss of their privileges, persuaded the old ally of the emperor to lead the revolt (known as the Satsuma Rebellion), suppressed within a few months by the regular army.
The same Takamori, defeated in battle in September 1877, killed himself according to the samurai code (seppuku).
It was now necessary to give a more stable institutional structure to the state, still governed by a military oligarchy that often, despite the reforms adopted, abused its power and created discontent.
A first step was taken in 1879, when provincial assemblies were convened throughout Japan, elected on a census basis and deliberating on local budgets; it was a first timid attempt to involve the population in the management of public affairs.
Soon after, in 1881, Emperor Meiji solemnly pledged to grant within ten years a modern constitution and a parliamentary system. To this end were sent abroad senior officials of the Japanese state apparatus to better study the European constitutional models and see which best applied to the needs of Japan.
In the meantime, significant reforms were introduced within the executive, with the establishment, in 1885, of the post of Prime Minister, which Meiji entrusted on December 22 of that year to Itō Hirobumi, while in 1888 was created a private council directly dependent on the emperor.
Finally, on February 11, 1889, was promulgated the new constitution, based on the German imperial model, which recognized absolute power to the emperor and the role of commander in chief of the armed forces,
the establishment of a parliament (called National Diet) bicameral, with a House of Representatives elected on a census basis and a House of Councillors whose members were of imperial appointment, with very limited powers and a government responsible only to the sovereign.
In 1890 the country's first census-based political elections were held, while in the same year Emperor Meiji, under pressure from traditionalist elements in the court, issued the edict on education, with which he recalled the traditional values of Japanese culture, society and family.
The foreign policy of Japan in that period was totally different from the one pursued by the shogunate: instead of international isolation, the new government decided to implement, in addition to the opening with the West, an imperialist policy that would make the country equal to the European powers and was predominant in Southeast Asia.
Thanks to the establishment of a strong army and an efficient navy, Japan began its expansion in the area: in 1874, in fact, was sent a naval expedition against the island of Formosa in retaliation for the hostile acts against Japanese sailors and ships.
The Chinese government, of which the island was a tributary, denied any responsibility and undertook to pay an indemnity. Similar act of force was done against Korea, where Japanese legations were treated in a humiliating way, which in 1876 signed with the government of Tokyo the treaty of Kang-hwa, by which the Japanese were granted the port of Pusan.
In 1882, again due to riots against the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the Japanese army clashed with Korean troops; for this incident Japan imposed on Korea a new treaty and demanded a strong indemnity.
But during his reign there were two significant wars that marked the beginning of Japanese expansionism: one against China (1894-1895), which was defeated and was forced to surrender, among other things,
Formosa and the Pescadores Islands and to recognize the independence of Korea, as well as to pay huge reparations, and the other against the Russian Empire (1904-1905), whose fleet was destroyed in the battle of Tsushima.
With the Treaty of Portsmouth Japan obtained from Russia the southern part of Sachalin Island and the protectorate over Manchuria and Korea (formally annexed in 1910).
At the same time the Japanese government revised with the Western powers the "unequal treaties" imposed since 1858, eliminating the right of extraterritoriality and preferential tariffs.
Emperor Meiji, suffering from diabetes, nephritis, and gastroenteritis, died of uremia at the age of 59. Although the death was made official at 00:42 on 30 July 1912, the actual death occurred at 22:40 on 29 July 1912.
At his death throughout the country there were expressions of deep sorrow, so that in Tokyo was erected in his honor a Shinto temple (the Meiji Jingu).
On the day of his funeral, September 13, the general Nogi Maresuke reacted by idealizing the samurai tradition of junshi (follow your lord even in death by performing seppuku), even his wife Shizuko killed herself to follow the sovereign.
Junshi had been banned for some time, and some considered Nogi's gesture anachronistic, but in essence the public was moved by such an expression of the samurai spirit.
Meiji was married on January 11, 1869 with Empress Shōken, a member of the Fujiwara clan, from which he had no children, as his wife was sterile.
As was customary, the Japanese sovereign had many concubines, from whom he had many children, including Yoshihito, his successor as Emperor Taisho, son of the court lady Yanagiwara Naruko, who according to tradition was indicated as the son of Shoken.
Shichinosuke Nakamura played Emperor Meiji in the 2003 film The Last Samurai.