He was only 15 years old when he ascended the Japanese throne in 1868. When he died in 1912, Japan had risen from a feudal country to a powerful Asian nation shaped after Western patterns. Although Emperor Meiji never executed real power, he became the figurehead of the new era named after him.
The Japanese emperors had been powerless since the ninth century AD. In 1192 Yoritomo, the head of the powerful Minamato clan became the first Shogun of Japan. The shugunate was a system of military leadership that ended in 1868 when the last Shogun, Yoshinobu from the Tokugawa family was forced to resign. The Tokugawa clan had ruled Japan since 1603.
During the Tokugawa rule Japan was completely isolated from outside. No Japanese was allowed to leave the country and no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan. Trade with the outside world was only permitted with the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch were restricted to the small island enclave of Deshima in Nagasaki Harbor off the shore of Japan.
Things changed drastically when a US fleet of iron ships under commander Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) anchored in the bay of Tokyo in 1853 and again in 1854 and forced Japan to open its borders in the Treaty of Kanagawa.
In the aftermath of the forced opening it came to unrest and civil war clashes between the Tokugawa shogunate and its opponents led by the Satsuma, Choshu and other powerful family clans. The opponents of the shogunate were adamantly opposed to the opening of Japan to foreigners. The position of the Tokugawa rule was additionally weakened by a terrible economic depression with hyper inflation and famine caused by crop failures.
The forces opposed to the Tokugawa shogunate rallied around Emperor Komei. The emperor had his imperial residence for centuries in Kyoto. In January of 1868 the troops of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu advanced towards Kyoto. But they were defeated in the battle of Toba and had to retreat to Edo (Tokyo). The battle cry of the victorious forces of the Satsuma and Choshu samurai warriors was sonno joi - respect the emperor and expel the barbarians.
On May 15, 1868, a last uprise of the shogunate forces took place at the site of today's Ueno park in Tokyo. Two thousand adherents of the old Tokugawa order were devastatingly crushed by imperial troops under the leadership of Saigo Takamori, the head of the Satsuma forces, in the bloody battle of Ueno.
Prince Mutsuhito, only 15 years old, had ascended to the throne in 1867 as the 122nd emperor of Japan and took the title Meiji, meaning the enlightened ruler. The young emperor moved his permanent residence from Kyoto to Tokyo. All edicts were issued in his name, although the real power was with the men surrounding him - mainly the Satsuma and Choshu clans.
The funny thing was that the xenophobia of the victorious forces around the emperor changed from one day to another into the opposite - an attitude of embracing everything foreign with open arms. Sonno joi was replaced by bummei kaika - civilization and enlightenment.
The Japanese nation went on a tour de force to become a modern nation modeled after Western powers. One statesman of the Meiji government, Ito Hirobumi, became a major driving force in the Westernization of Japan. He was a man of humble origins, but became the most influential person of the Meiji era until his assassination in 1909.
The process of Westernization was tackled with utmost energy. Delegations for all fields of science and technology were sent out to Europe and the United States to study foreign political, economic, administrational and cultural systems. Thousands of young Japanese students were sent abroad to attend Western universities. At the same time thousands of foreign engineers, scientists and teachers were called into the country.
The Japanese pursued Westernization and industrialization so thoroughly that Japan was in danger of throwing its own cultural heritage over board. Ironically it was a handful of influential foreigners working at Japanese universities like Ernest Fenellosa (1853-1908) who convinced the Japanese to preserve their rich traditions.
Today historians think that the events in China were a major driving forces behind the great effort of Japan to become an equal member among Western states. China, for centuries the superior schoolmaster of Japan, was weak during the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus China was forced to make territorial and economical concessions to the big Western powers like England during the period of Western imperialism.
Emperor Meiji had only a representational role in the Westernization of Japan. Nevertheless his support of it was paramount. The rural population revered the institution of the emperor as a god-like character. Thus everything he did, was swiftly copied and adopted - like for instance wearing Western clothes.
Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Haruko, were continuously on representational duties. The emperor had been brought up with the awareness that his foremost duty was to serve his country. He and the empress played the role of a modern Western family leading the country on its way to 'civilization and enlightenment'. One of the major concerns of the emperor was general education. During his rule an obligatory school system was introduced.
In spite of the permanent presence of the imperial couple for all kinds of occasions like opening of a new iron bridge or a railway line, little leaked out about his private life. Interviews done after Meiji's death in 1912 with some of the men that surrounded him, revealed either trivialities or contradictory statements. The only source that could give an intimate view into his soul, are the poems written by himself. They are called Gyosai and reveal a rather sensitive man.
In 1894/1895 the Japanese achieved an easy victory against China in the Sino-Japanese war. The conflict had broken out over Japan's quest to take control of Korea. Ten years later in 1904/1905 the Japanese forces defeated the Russian fleet and army. The dispute was over Manchuria. Both wars were won because of the superior technology of the Japanese armed forces.
The Western world was astonished. Japan had developed within less than 30 years from a feudal country into the preeminent Asian power.
On July 30 of 1912, Emperor Meiji died. His son Yoshihito followed his father to the throne. With him the Meiji era ended officially and the Taisho era began.
The Meiji restoration created a new genre of woodblock prints. Woodblock prints were a means of illustrating events and news of interest for the public. The first wave of new prints depicted foreigners and their technical achievements. They are called Yokohama prints or Nagasaka prints after the enclaves where the foreigners resided.
After the proclamation of the Meiji restoration, prints depicting scenes from the imperial court and images showing the fast industrial development of Japan became popular. These prints were made by artists such as Chikanobu Toyohara, Kunichika, Watanabe Nobukazu or Hiroshige III to meet a market demand. And unintentionally they had a propagandistic function too. Most of the prints showing the imperial couple, were designed as triptychs. Chikanobu concentrated on designing prints with court scenes. Hiroshige III specialized on images of transportation and outstanding public buildings.
The popularity of woodblock prints lasted only until the time of the Sino-Japanese war in 1894/95. War prints illustrating the events from the front in Korea and Manchuria were the business of the day. Only ten years later during the Russo-Japanese war, photography had replaced woodblock prints as a means of illustrating news.
Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age, Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era, 1868-1912, MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, ISBN 0-87846-619-3 softcover.
Author: Dieter Wanczura