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[This is a good summary for one not familiar with the reign of Emperor Meiji of Japan. Highlights indicate the budding of a golden flower for democracy.]
August 18, 2002
'Emperor of Japan': A Scholar Pieces Together a Life of the Enigmatic Meiji
By DENNIS WASHBURN
o understand contemporary Japan one first has to grasp the sweeping social changes of the last half of the 19th century. What appeared at the time to set them off was the arrival of Commodore Perry's American naval squadron in 1853. After many attempts by several Western powers to open up Japan to trade, Perry finally succeeded in ending centuries of Japan's self-imposed isolation. His success triggered a crisis of legitimacy. For more than six centuries the chief military leaders of Japan, the shoguns, had ruled the nation. Since 1603 the hereditary shoguns were members of the powerful Tokugawa family, who, while they claimed authority in the name of the emperors in Kyoto, in fact ran the government as they wanted, from their capital in Edo (Tokyo). The regime had become ossified through the years, and its inability to resist the Western incursion exposed its weakness. Eventually a civil war broke out, the feudal shogun system collapsed, and imperial rule was restored in 1868.
In 1852, a year before Perry's arrival, a new crown prince, Mutsuhito, was born. No one could have foreseen the significance this child would assume as a symbol of Japan's modernization. As Donald Keene, with muted amusement, reveals in ''Emperor of Japan,'' Mutsuhito's upbringing was sheltered from the turmoil overtaking his country; it was traditional, steeped in the ancient protocol and customs of the court. Yet by the time he ascended the throne at 15 he was the focus of national aspirations. Traditionally an emperor might have several names during his reign and a different one after death. This emperor was called Meiji (Enlightened Rule) from the beginning, and he, and the entire historical era he embodied, have been called Meiji ever since.
In practical terms the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did not bring about direct rule by the emperor. The new government was an oligarchy made up of the senior members of the loyalist faction that had overthrown the shogunate. Even though the loyalists gained support for their cause by promising to expel all foreigners, pragmatism quickly displaced impractical idealism. A total makeover of the government began promptly, on the model of a modern constitutional monarchy. As his first major act, the Meiji emperor promulgated the Charter Oath -- five promises to the people of Japan to bring fundamental change to the political system. Although the promises were general and vague, the Charter Oath became the foundational document that effectively set the government's course for the rest of the Meiji period (1868-1912).
In those 44 years the Meiji state instituted radical economic, military and legal reforms. With the tacit support of the emperor, the oligarchy ruthlessly swept aside old bureaucratic institutions and the feudal class structure. It set up new banking and educational systems, brought the legal code into line with Western standards and established a constitution in 1889 that created a parliamentary form of government. Perhaps most important, the Meiji oligarchy initiated a march to great-power status through policies that encouraged rapid industrialization at home and colonialist expansion abroad -- expansion that led Japan into war with China in 1894 and with Russia a decade later.
The decision to resist the power and hegemony of the West by consciously emulating Western cultural forms lies at the heart of all of these changes. Some members of the original oligarchy, among them Takamori Saigo, once commander of the imperial army, disagreed vehemently with this policy, and in the early years of the Meiji period the government experienced some resistance, most notably in what is known as the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.
Once the young Meiji state had weathered its early crisis of legitimacy, however, it did not limit Japan's embrace of modernity to the importation of Western institutions and material culture. The oligarchy extended its mandate by beginning to build an empire in Asia. This mission demanded acquiescence in the racial ideologies that sustained colonial power, and only the construction of a myth of Japanese cultural uniqueness made this situation palatable. The result was a strange cultural synthesis, a hybrid of Western modernity and a newly created imperial ideology that promoted the concept of an essential Japanese culture rendered timeless by the unbroken succession of the royal line. The fundamental legacy of the Meiji period is thus the very idea of a modern Japanese state possessing a nationally shared cultural tradition.
Given the eventful nature of his reign, the lack of English-language scholarship on this emperor's life is surprising. There are many fine books on aspects of the history and culture of the Meiji period; and in recent years distinguished studies by John Dower and Herbert Bix have explored the workings of the modern imperial system through an examination of the life of Meiji's grandson, Hirohito. The Meiji emperor, however, remains an aloof and enigmatic presence whose personal life is largely inaccessible even to most modern-day Japanese.
Donald Keene attempts to address this gap in the record -- ''to find Emperor Meiji,'' as he puts it. Few scholars are as well qualified to undertake this tremendous project. He began his scholarly career in Japanese studies a few years after World War II, and he continues to be one of the foremost critics and translators of Japanese culture. Although he is best known for his extensive writings on literature, he is a cultural historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of Japan. His special gifts are on display in ''Emperor of Japan,'' which approaches Meiji's life by interweaving two separate but related narratives. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the huge compilation, ''Records of the Meiji Emperor'' (Meiji tenno ki), Keene constructs a year-by-year biography of Meiji's life. A second narrative outlining the significant events of the Meiji period frames the daily details of the emperor's personal affairs. The result is a biography that serves as political history.
The appeal of this work lies in the skill with which these two narratives are tied together. Although Keene's interpretation of the period does not depart radically from standard histories, he constantly puts Meiji's life in a rich context, and his account is informed by a literary sensibility that lets us see major events in a new light. Keene maintains a critical balance between his role as a historian and his intimate engagement with his subject. His book is a history that revels in detail but remains accessible, leading us through the complex intricacies of court life, political intrigue and international affairs.
It brings us as close to the inner life of the Meiji emperor as we are ever likely to get. Does it succeed in helping us to find Meiji? Yes and no. And the reservation here should remind us of how difficult it is even now for us to fit Hirohito into the history of World War II. There are personal reasons for what seems to be a mystery about the emperors, but cultural reasons as well. Keene's book gives a fuller picture of the man Meiji, but a sense of distance stubbornly remains. Perhaps this is due to the lack of direct commentary on his life by the emperor himself. There is a huge archive in Japan about him, but scant documentation that reveals how he regarded even the most crucial events of his time. Keene provides helpful speculations about Meiji's feelings and opinions at important moments; but, being a meticulous scholar, he also draws attention to the maddening gaps in the record.
In the end, he concludes that perhaps Meiji's greatest achievement was the longevity of his reign. But to put the stress on that brings the reader back to the problem that motivated this study in the first place. Meiji is remembered more as a representative figure of an era than as an individual because his personal identity largely derives from the symbolic nature of emperorship in Japan. For the better part of the millennium preceding Meiji's reign the primary functions of the emperor were ritual, or priestly. By the the middle of the 19th century the political ground of imperial legitimacy had become routinely symbolic -- a situation in which power flowed from the charisma of an institution rather than an individual. Meiji remains just beyond the biographer's grasp because his life was lived at that vanishing point where the public image of the emperor and the private life of the man become indistinguishable.
Dennis Washburn is a professor of Japanese studies at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is a translation of Riichi Yokomitsu's novel ''Shanghai.''
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