New Japan


10. The Emperor Meiji

The Emperor Mutsu Hito (Gentle Pity) died on the 30th of July 1912, and, in accordance with immemorial custom, with him died the personal name that he had borne in life. He will be known in history by his posthumous title, the Emperor Meiji (Enlightened Government), the year name so happily chosen at the beginning of his reign and since amply vindicated in all the great administiative changes that have combined to render the name eminently applicable to the reign. In taking the year name as the posthumous title of the Emperor, a new departure was made, but it is possible that the precedent thus created will be followed in future ages. The posthumous titles of all the former Emperors were founded on the quality that most favourably characterised the holder in his lifetime, such as " Divine Valour," " Honour the Gods,' " Modesty " (in the case of an Empress), "Pious Enlightenment," or were taken from a locality in or in the neighbourhood of Kioto with which the Emperor liad some personal connection. Year periods were formerly never synchronous with reigns. New ones were not begun at the beginning of a reign but more or less frequently during its continuation. The late Emperor's father, for example, ascended the throne in the third year of Kokwa (great transformation), and three years passed before a new period was begun, while, though his whole reign only lasted for twenty years, it comprised no less than seven year periods. The period of Meiji began in the second calendar year of the late reign and continued unchanged till its close, and there was therefore a reason for giving its title to the Emperor that did not exist in the case of any of his predecessors. Apart from that, no previous sovereign of Japan ever merited, in his personal character or in his government, the title chosen to honour his memory more than did he to whom that of Meiji has been given.

The Emperor Meiji was the 121st member of the dynasty which, in an unbroken line of succession, claims to have occupied the throne of Japan since the Emperor Jimmu first ascended it in the year 660 B.C. Modern research has reduced to pure mythology the first ten centuries of the so-called history of Japan, and it is only from the sixth century of the Christian era that the national annals are such as to bear the light of scientific criticism. Thenceforward they may justly be called authentic history and, however visionary may be the claim of the Imperial House of Japan to the more ancient descent, there is no doubt that from the sixth century it has consecutively occupied the throne, and it is therefore, beyond all cavil, the oldest reigning family in the world. Imperial rescripts emphasize the duration and immutability of the dynasty : " We, sitting on the throne that has been occupied by our Imperial ancestors for 2,500 years " : " The throne of our ancestors of a lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal " : " We, by the grace of Heaven, seated on a throne occupied by the same dynasty from time immemorial," are the ordinary opening words of important rescripts, and they are reverentially accepted by the Emperor's subjects with the same unquestioning faith that devout and orthodox Christians tender to the most sacred utterances in Holy Writ.

No other Sovereign or Pontifi^ on earth occupies the same position as the Emperor of Japan. In the eyes of his subjects he is the vicegerent on earth of the gods in Heaven, vested with their divine attributes of love, benevolence and all-seeing wisdom. In his earthly functions he is both sovereign and pope, who reigns equally in the love and veneration of his people. All the achievements of his statesmen and generals are believed to be due to the virtues which he has inherited from his ancestors and which, in his lifetime, he practises as the Father of his people. It was no spirit of empty flattery that prompted Oyama and Togo, the respective commanders-in-chief of all the military and naval forces in the Russian War, to ascribe to him all the merit of their great victories nor Ito that of his domestic and foreign statesmanship. They only voiced, in doing so, the faith that was deeply implanted in their own hearts and in those of all their fellow-subjects and was the foundation of the fervent loyalty that rendered death for his sake a glorious martyrdom.

The birth of the Emperor Meiji has been already mentioned in this volume. His early years were passed in the well-guarded seclusion of the Court at Kioto, but when he was little beyond the threshold of his boyhood he had direct experience of the civil war that preceded the Restoration. The Imperial palace was guarded by the forces of the Shogunate, and Choshiu, who had thrown down the gauntlet of rebellion, determined to drive them from their post, and to obtain direct access to the Emperor and his countenance of the revolt against the Shogun. For a whole day and night the battle continued around the palace with varying fortunes ; the gates were taken and retaken, bullets fell thickly within the precincts of the palace, many reaching the innermost Imperial apartments, and the din of musketry and artillery was incessant. Choshiu was defeated and the palace was saved, but the city, " surrounded by a ninefold circle of flowers " (flames), was destroyed, and " nothing was left of it but a burnt and scorched desert."

Before this battle the Emperor had already, when he reached the eighth year of his age, been declared to be the heir-apparent to the throne, and in his fifteenth year he succeeded his father. It cannot be supposed that, at that tender age, he can have exercised a direct influence on the early political events of his reign, but it would have been within his capacity to have withheld his sanction from the ministers who were subverting the most sacred traditions of the Empire, and inflicting what his father would have considered the most degrading humiliations on the Imperial dignity when they declared, in his name, that foreign friendship should be cultivated and the Court opened to the diplomatic representatives of Foreign Powers. Fortunately, he had had the benefit of tutors more enlightened and liberalminded than the majority of the courtiers, and the results of their teaching were sufficient to counteract the reactionary sentiments that might have been imbibed from his bigoted father. The germs of the good sense and sound judgment, which he displayed in manhood, must, however, have been active while he was still a boy, and without those qualities it is not likely that any tutors, no matter how capable or how secure in the affections of their pupil, could so speedily have overcome all the prejudices that were founded on filial love and respect, the strongest of all obligations in the Japanese code of morality. It has been already told that the first Europeans admitted to his presence were impressed by his tact and readiness. It is not an extravagant supposition that his own ministers may have had equal reason to appreciate and benefit by the more sober qualities which enabled him to be in full sympathy with their reforms.

The historians of those days relate no instance in which the ministers found him an obstacle to their measures. He received the hitherto hated and despised foreigners without demur. When he was advised that the future government of his Empire might be facilitated by the transfer of his residence from Kioto to Yedo, he left the home of his childhood and youth, and of all his ancestors for more than a thousand years, and, resisting the entreaties of devoted disciples of the old school who implored him not to forsake the venerable city that was hallowed by so many sacred memories, he uncomplainingly made a new home in the mushroom capital of the Shoguns, the seat of their government which had usurped all the prerogatives of his Imperial forefathers. And when he was further advised that he should no longer be a hidden mystery to his people, though remembering how his ovm father in his lifetime had been shrouded from them, he freely and unostentatiously showed himself in public, driving about the streets of Tokio, with a small escort, without disturbing the daily avocations of the citizens, and taking part in functions and ceremonies where he could be seen by all who cared to look upon him.

How great this change was may be easily estimated from the description already given of his first journey to Osaka, and from that of his first journey to Tokio. In was in October 1868 that he left Kioto for his new capital, 300 miles away. He was 28 days on the road, carried in a palanquin in which he was screened from all onlookers, and on both sides of which double lines of courtiers, all in the stately silken robes of old Japan, walked in slow and solemn step. An escort of 2,000 courtiers and guards attended him throughout the entire route. All bystanders fell upon their knees as his procession approached and, as he passed, remained with heads bent reverentially to the ground and in profound silence that was only broken by the triple clapping of the hands that prefaces all Japanese prayers. No one dared to lift the eye even to the level of the palanquin that bore him. "All seemed to hold their breaths for very awe as the mysterious Presence, on whom few are privileged to look and live, was passing slowly by."

Early in the following year he returned to Kioto to celebrate the third anniversary of his father's death (a sacred duty marking the close of the period of deep mourning that has to be performed by Japanese sons of all classes in life) and his own marriage, which took place on March 9, 1869. The lady chosen to share his throne was Haruko, a daughter of the Ichijo branch of the Fujiwara family. The origin of this family, like that of the Imperial House, is shrouded in myth, but an unimpeachable lineage can be traced back to the 7th century. Six hundred years later the family was divided into five branches, of which the Ichijo was one. All of these still exist, their respective heads holding the highest rank in the modern peerage. The marriage, although childless, proved eminently fortunate. The Empress did not begin to take part in public functions so early as her husband. The old traditions that had to be overcome in her case were even more severe than in his, but from the time she did so, she played a true woman's part in all works of charity, and above all in the promotion of female education and in raising the general social conditions of her countrywomen. Women, prior to the Restoration, except in the lower agricultural and trading classes, had no other functions than to be the humble and uncomplaining servitors of their husbands and the mothers of their children. They enjoyed more freedom than in other Oriental countries, but they were taught from infancy that their lot in life was obedience, to their fathere while maidens, to their husbands while wives, and to their eldest sons while widows, and no education fitted them to become the intellectual companions of men. It is mainly to the Empress that they owe the emancipation fi*om these conditions which is one of the most marked features in the modern life of Japan.

After his marriage the Emperor returned to Tokio where he was soon followed by his bride. There both afterwards lived continuously till they were parted by death. Both occasionally visited other parts of the Empire, and the Emperor made many state progresses through all parts of his dominions, but Tokio was always their home, and neither showed any inclination to leave it, even to seek temporary refuge from its oppressive heat in summer or from its bitter winter cold. Their presence did much to restore the prosperity of the city under the Tokugawas, when in wealth, population, industry and intelligence it was by far the foremost in the Empire. When the Tokugawas fell, Yedo fell with them, and for a time it seemed as if all its former glory was gone for ever. But Tokio sprang from its ruins, and, before many years had passed, had not only regained but far surpassed the most imposing acme of the old prosperity. To compare Tokio of the present day with Yedo as it was, even when the present writer first knew it little more than forty years ago, when the Tokugawas had just surrendered their sceptre, would be like comparing London of the days of Charles II with London as we now daily see it. Yedo was a lovely city, one in which it was a joy to live, with its spacious parks and temple gardens, its great orchards, even in its very heart, of cherry, plum and pear trees, each in turn bright with their masses of fragrant blossom ; its stately palaces of the daimio, with their massive gateways and granite bastions ; and its streets, with never a sound to break the rigid decorum of their silence, thronged with silk-clad, sword-girded samurai, on foot or on horseback, but in either case proceeding gravely and solemnly as became their rank and dignity. The masses of the people, if serfs, were contented and happy and not a trace of squalid poverty was to be seen even in the poorest quarters. But the city had another aspect. It was equally wanting in sanitation and police. At night it was in its outward appearance a vast solitude, shrouded in Cimmerian darkness, and if there were no foot-pads to be dreaded by the few belated wayfarers, drunken samurai returning from wild orgies in brothels or taverns, ready to use their terrible swords, with or without provocation, either on their humble fellow-countrymen or on any European who was unfortunate enough to cross their path, or in brawls, that were only ended by death, with others of their own rank, were a terror from which peaceful citizens were never free. The samurai in his dignity, in the day-time, was as stately and picturesque as a courtier of Louis XIV. At night, the dissolute members of the same class, of whom there were many, were as quarrelsome and dangerous as the clansmen in the streets of Edinburgh at the beginning of the 1 8th century.

Tokio of the present day has all the amenities of the London of George V. It is a more comfortable, convenient, safe and healthy place in which to live, but all that made Yedo so picturesque has gone. Only one feature of its medieval and feudal splendour has been preserved. The deep moats, massive walls and turf-clad glacis that encircled the palace of the Shogun still surround the palace of the Emperor and have lost none of their old grandeur. The pine and cherry trees still line the moat edges and the walls, and myriads of water fowl still find a sanctuary in the moats. Everything else is gone. Even the parks have been disfigured by architectural monstrosities in glaringly-red bricks, and the son of the stately silk-robed samurai now hurries, in a tweed suit and a felt hat, to his desk in a bank in a noisy, crowded, electric tram-car. At night the main streets are as brilliant, populous, noisy and safe as Piccadilly ; they are entirely exempt from Piccadilly's plague spot in that there is no open display of female vice, and the danger that confronts the peaceful pedestrian is no longer the sword of the samurai but the motor of the road-hog.

It is diflficult for a foreigner to attempt to estimate the direct share which the Emperor had in all the marvellous progress of his Empire. No sovereign in the history of the world has ever been better served in every department of his government, whether military or civil. None has ever commanded so devoted a people. But that the Emperor was well served was largely owing to himself. He possessed, in an eminent degree, what is perhaps the most precious attribute of a sovereign, the faculty of judging men, of selecting the best among them as his advisers, and he gave to those whom he selected his complete confidence and a support that never wavered in its loyalty. It is known that he was not only industrious, but industrious even to a degree that would not misbecome a man who had to make his name and earn his livelihood in an arduous profession. He presided in person at important meetings of his cabinet, when vital affairs of state had to be discussed and decided, and read not only the official reports of his ministers and the minutes of his parliaments, but the leading journals in the press. He had occasionally to decide between conflicting views of those whom he most trusted, and did so with firmness that brooked no contradiction, and without reservation of any kind. When only 21 years of age, as has been already told, he prevented war with Korea, though nearly the whole nation demanded it, and by his decision he had to sacrifice the future services of some of those Avho had done much to establish him on his throne. Twenty years later, it was he again who decided that Japan must accept the humiliation of yielding to the three Powers, and it was only his decision that reconciled the nation to the sacrifice of what had been fairly won in war. When a refractory parliament rejected the naval estimates that were considered essential for the national safety, he publicly declared that the parliament must give way and it did, awed into prompt submission and shamed perhaps by his sacrifice of a substantial portion of his own civil list. Many other incidents might be quoted, and it may be assumed that the firmness he showed in great was not wanting in less important affairs and that at no period of his reign did he ever permit himself to fall into the role of a dummy ruler.

His interest in both his army and navy was manifested by his presence at all manoeuvres and reviews that were held on a large scale. No inclemency of weather ever deterred him, and he was equally assiduous in the performance of the more ornamental functions of a sovereign. Hospitals were visited, railways, docks and other great public undertakings were opened by him in person, and even jails knew his presence. No work of public benefit, charity or mercy ever sought his personal interest in vain, and his private purse was always open for the relief of the national distress that ensued on fire, earthquake, flood or pestilence, calamities from which his country suffered often and heavily. The rapidity and extent of the purely material advance of Japan, military, industrial and commercial, has thrown into the shade the progress she has made in the domain of science. She may be said to have been absolutely ignorant of even the elements of Western science prior to the Restoration. Now there are few branches in which her sons, if they have not won distinction beyond their own borders, have not, at least, proved themselves capable experts, fully competent both to practise and to teach. That this is so is due to the encouragement which the Emperor gave to higher education in Japan and to the continuation in Europe of the studies of the best pupils of the home universities.

He had only two amusements, horse riding and the composition of poetry. He rode both boldly and well, better than most of his subjects who have not had a special training. Verse-making is a necessary accomplishment of every educated Japanese gentleman and not an uncommon one among women. It holds the place that Latin versification did in England in the days of Addison. The beauties of nature - beauties such as trees bending beneath a weight of snow or an autumn moon reflected in a placid lake, to which the English sense is often blind but which appeal strongly to the Japanese - and the vicissitudes of human life are its chief themes. In this art the Emperor excelled. Many of his poems have been published and they confirm the estimate of his character that is founded on his public actions, breathing as they do the most tender sentiments of compassion and pity. He had his own full share of human sorrow. The Empress was childless but fourteen children were born to him from the four ladies who were united to him as Jugo. Nine died in infancy or childhood, leaving one son, who is now the Emperor, and four daughters who have grown to womanhood. Two of his nearest relatives sacrificed their lives in the China war, and of the devoted ministers and generals who served him at the Restoration, to all of whom he was attached by ties of gratitude and affection, only five survived him.

His reign was the longest in the authentic history of Japan. It lasted 45 years, and its end came with grief and sorrow to all his people. His active life was spent in Tokio, where he died in his modern palace, but his last resting place is in a mausoleum at Kioto, built in the old style of Japan, amid the solemn and silent groves where rest also the remains of his ancestors during more than a thousand years. With his death ended the period of Meiji, during which the evolution of New Japan was begun and carried to its end. In all the history of the civilisation of the world there is nothing that can compare with its rapidity and completeness.


In 1897 Japan adopted a gold standard of currency, the unit being the yen, the sterling equivalent of which is 2s 0 1/2d. Prior to 1897, the yen was a silver coin, the sterling value of which fluctuated in ratio with the market price of silver. Silver was a steadily depreciating commodity and the sterling value of the yen gradually fell from about 4s. 2d. in 1874 to less than half that amount in 1894. Allowance must be made for this fall in estimating in sterling the progress of the foreign trade of Japan which is described on page 92, but the yen has been retained in the text as the only available common denominator. The value of the Chinese tael, a silver token, elsewhere mentioned, at the close of the Japan-China war was roughly about 38.

"Hara-kiri," - literally "belly-cut" - suicide by disembowelling, was the prerogative of the Samurai class. It was instituted in the middle ages in order that Samurai who had committed crimes which, though meriting the punishment of death, were not in themselves disgraceful, should by putting an end to their own lives escape the indignity of dying by the hands of the common executioner. In these cases, it was carried out in the presence of witnesses, with much formality, in accordance with a very rigid code of etiquette, on the command either of the Government or of the suicide's superiors in his own Fief. Death in this way involved no degradation either to the sufferer or his family. In time, it came to be committed voluntarily, either when a Samurai had, for any reason, lost all interest in life, or when (by far the more common cause) he desired to make the strongest protest that was in his power against some act, conduct, or policy of his superiors. Every Samurai carried two swords, a long and a short one. The first was to be used against enemies, the second on himself. He never parted from either. When abroad, they were both worn in his girdle; when indoors, both lay close beside him, whether by day or night, and he was trained from his infancy to be ready to use either for its specific purpose at a moment's notice. When the act was performed by command, the short sword was thrust into the belly by the suicide, but he was then immediately decapitated by a "Second," who stood beside him with drawn sword, and who was generally either a relative or a close friend. The physical agony was, therefore, momentary. But, in voluntary cases, there was no " Second " and the belly was cut completely open by the suicide himself, so that the act was prolonged and excruciatingly painful. A full description of it is given in Lord Eedesdale's Tales of old Japan, Lord Redesdale having himself witnessed the completion of a judicial sentence of this nature. Women of the Samurai class imitated their husbands, but in their case the throat and not the belly was cut. The last instances were the suicides of General Nogi and his wife on the death of the late Emperor.

Considerations of space have necessitated the omission of the Kurile Islands from the map of the Japanese Empire. These Islands, called by the Japanese "Chi-shima" or "the thousand isles" are 31 in number, and extend in a continuous chain from the north-east of Hokkaido to Cape Lopatka, the southern extremity of Kamchatka. (End)