Read Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852’1912 Online

Authors: Donald Keene

Tags: #History/Asia/General

Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852’1912 (3 page)

The education of a prince consisted largely of reading aloud, with the aid of a tutor, Confucian texts such as the
Classic of Filial Piety
. At first he would read the words without understanding their meaning, but eventually he would be able not only to read texts in classical Chinese but to compose poetry in that language. Calligraphy was an equally indispensable attainment of a prince, and the selection of the proper calligraphy tutor was a matter of crucial importance. Finally, a prince was expected to be able to compose Japanese poetry in the classic verse form, the
tanka
.

Apart from these elements of a traditional education, a prince seems to have learned little else from books—perhaps no more than the essentials of Japanese and Chinese history and geography. Some emperors were fond of reading Japanese fiction, and others enjoyed such entertainments as the
bugaku
dances performed at the court as they had been for a thousand years; there are records also of n
ō
being performed in the imperial palace. But these avocations were considered to be merely diversions, distinct from the serious study that the shogunate had enjoined on the imperial household as its principal occupation.

In 1615 a code of approved behavior for the nobility was drawn up by the former shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, his son Hidetada (the titular shogun), and the nobleman Nij
ō
Akizane, who had served as
kampaku
, or chancellor. This code, known as
Kinch
ū
narabi ni kuge shohatto
(Regulations for the Imperial Palace and Nobility), consisted of seventeen articles, presumably in imitation of the Seventeen Article Constitution drawn up by Prince Sh
ō
toku in 604. The first and most important article enjoined the emperor and his courtiers to devote themselves to scholarship and the arts. The emperors of the Tokugawa period seem to have taken this to heart: scholarship (the study of a limited number of Confucian classics) and the arts (chiefly
tanka
and calligraphy) were the central elements of their education. The Confucian classics were studied not in the hopes that a prince might one day rival scholars of the Tokugawa period in reinterpreting the texts; it was enough for members of the court to be familiar in general with the teachings of Confucius and to be able to quote his words at appropriate times. The remainder of the seventeen articles dealt with specific matters, such as appointments to court offices, inheritance of property by nobles, precedence among the various noble houses, and the treatment of members of the nobility who had entered priestly orders.

Even if they resented the supremacy of the shogunate and recalled nostalgically the distant past when the emperor reigned supreme, most emperors and members of the aristocracy did not chafe under the regulations to which they were subjected. The world they lived in was tiny, but they seemed unaware of its limitations, and matters of the most minute concern could occupy their minds for decades. Even those who resented the interference of the shogunate in their lives and the presence in Ky
ō
to of officials sent from Edo who monitored their every action were well aware that they could not survive without the annual stipends the shogunate paid them.

In the case of the lower ranks of the aristocracy, the stipends they received were often insufficient to maintain their households even at a modest level, and many resorted to working on the side, preferably at pursuits that were not considered to be demeaning, such as making copies of the calligraphy of old masters or painting cards for the New Year’s game of
karuta
(cards); they counted on the appeal of their illustrious names to sell their handiwork. The family of Iwakura Tomomi (1825–1883), who emerged as the most prominent noble of the late Tokugawa and early Meiji periods, was so poor that they had to rent their house as a gambling den, taking advantage of their immunity as nobles from police regulations. But even the poorest of the nobles were proud of their lineage and their social status, and they were respected by society as a whole, although some of them, as we know from the testimony of the nobles themselves, behaved outrageously, stopping at nothing in their desperate eagerness to make money.
8

The poverty of the emperor and the court has often been exaggerated, especially by popular historians who have fabricated tales of the drastic expedients to which even emperors resorted merely to stay alive. In fact, they lived reasonably well, even by the standards of the daimyos of the time, whose wealth similarly tends to be exaggerated.

The life of an emperor during the Tokugawa period must have been extremely boring, however. Apart from the consolation of nocturnal pleasures (Gomizunoo had thirty-seven children and Gosai, twenty-seven), each day seems to have been occupied mainly with ceremonies, repeated identically from year to year. But perhaps the aspect of an emperor’s life that we would find most oppressive was the narrow confines of the area in which he could move. This had not always been true. Although the emperors never traveled very far from the Gosho, they made occasional imperial progresses to different parts of the city. For example, in 1626 Gomizunoo was entertained for four days at Nij
ō
Castle, the official residence of the shogun in the capital. But from 1632, the year when the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604–1651) began to rule in his own right after the death of his father, Tokugawa Hidetada, the shogunate did not permit the emperors to leave the Gosho. On a few occasions, it is true, fires in the Gosho might compel an emperor to take refuge at a temple elsewhere in Ky
ō
to, but it is not much of an exaggeration to say that the successive emperors were prisoners of the state.

Abdicated emperors were freer to travel outside the Gosho. The Shugaku-in, in the hills northeast of the city, was originally built about 1650 as a pleasure resort for the retired emperor Gomizunoo. It was visited from time to time in later years by other abdicated emperors, but it had not been used for many years, and when the retired emperor K
ō
kaku requested permission in 1823 from the shogunate to visit the Shugaku-in, hasty repairs had to be made before the visit could take place. The occasion passed splendidly:

The cloistered emperor Gomizunoo was the first to visit the tea pavilion of the Shugaku-in, at the foot of Mount Hiyoshi. The cloistered emperor Reigen had also frequently stopped here. After the death of the cloistered emperor Reigen in 1732, for a period of about a hundred years, the place fell into rack and ruin, and the imperial visits ceased. In the autumn of 1824, the military were commanded to make fresh repairs, and reverting to their old practice, they performed this service. Accordingly, on the twenty-first day of the ninth month of 1825 the retired emperor [K
ō
kaku] paid his first visit. The route he took was as follows: he left the Gosho by the Seiwa-in Gate, proceeded to Masugata, crossed the Kamo River, and then rested a while at Nitta Yamabana. Great crowds of people cheered him, shouting “Banzai!” They filled the streets, gazing at him reverently. Truly this was proof of an auspicious reign.
9

Although emperors who had abdicated and entered priestly orders were allowed this degree of freedom by the shogunate, this was not true of reigning emperors; from 1632 until 1863, when K
ō
mei went to worship at the Kamo and Iwashimizu Shrines, the successive emperors hardly ever left the Gosho, and then only because of some disaster. None of them had seen the sea or Mount Fuji or the city of Edo, where the shoguns reigned. During his entire lifetime, an emperor would never have seen more than a few hundred of his subjects, and virtually none of the Japanese would ever have had even the barest glimpse of him. The people of Ky
ō
to were, of course, aware that the emperor lived behind the walls of the Gosho, but except for such rare occasions as when the retired emperor K
ō
kaku visited the Shugaku-in, they never saw even the palanquin in which he was borne, let alone the man. He was invisible to all but a handful of high-ranking courtiers, a presence behind curtains who excited awe and reverence but who was remote from the world of human beings.

Higashikuze Michitomi was one of the very few at the court for whom the future emperor K
ō
mei was both a human being and a friend. He recalled K
ō
mei’s proficiency in his studies: “He was able to read the Four Books and the Five Classics
10
without difficulty and learned enough even to lecture on them. He did not study Japanese books very much, but he received instruction in composing
tanka
from his father and composed them every day. His poems were extremely good. In
gagaku
[music] he received instruction from Hamuro, the major counselor, and he was a skillful player of the flute.”
11

K
ō
mei was officially named the crown prince in 1840, when he was in his tenth year. Higashikuze recalled that before the ceremony, imperial commands had been issued to seven Shint
ō
shrines and seven Buddhist temples to pray that the ceremony would not be interrupted by wind or rain.
12
The actual ceremony took place in the Shishinden (Hall for State Ceremonies). At the conclusion, the emperor presented the prince with the
tsubogiri no goken
, the sword indicating that the recipient was next in the succession.

Higashikuze did not actually become the prince’s companion until 1842, but he knew from reports how K
ō
mei looked on that occasion two years earlier: “His hair was arranged in the
agemaki
style, divided on top to left and right in loops over his ears, in the manner of the hair of the two boys in attendance on Prince Sh
ō
toku in the famous portrait. This was because he had not yet had his
gembuku
.”
13

Probably Higashikuze knew of this ceremony only from other people, but he was present for K
ō
mei’s
gembuku
, or initiation into manhood, the second most important rite of the prince’s life, which began on May 11, 1844, with the ceremony of blackening the prince’s teeth. K
ō
mei disliked this so much that he had to be forced. (It is not hard to imagine the thirteen-year-old boy squirming and perhaps shrieking as the nasty black liquid was rubbed against his teeth.) The next two days were spent rehearsing the ceremony. As Higashikuze explained, “This was something that happened only once in an emperor’s lifetime, and there were so few people who could remember what had happened the previous time that everybody had to consult books during the rehearsals.”
14

Before dawn on the day of the ceremony the prince was dressed in his costume for the occasion. All the nobles wore formal robes with trailing skirts and carried broadswords inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The emperor appeared, followed by a woman attendant bearing the crown prince’s crown. Inside the Hall for State Ceremonies, the officers of the Imperial Palace Keeper’s Bureau (
tonomory
ō
) opened the curtains. The crown prince’s tutor led him to the platform, whereupon the chancellor, Takatsukasa Masamichi, came up beside the prince. Kuj
ō
, the minister of the right, supported the prince’s train. At this solemn moment all the nobles prostrated themselves. Those of lesser rank did the same outside the building. The minister of the center, Konoe Tadahiro, placed the crown on the prince’s head, and Koga Takemichi, the acting middle counselor, bound his hair. Konoe again came forward, removed the crown, and left. Koga came forward and rearranged the prince’s hair. When this was done, the prince withdrew to the inner quarters and changed his costume.
15
The ceremony was over.

Emperor Nink
ō
, K
ō
mei’s father, died at dawn on February 23, 1846. Nobody expected him to die: he was in the prime of life (only forty-six years old) and was endowed with an exceptionally strong constitution. He had been suffering from nothing worse than a cold, but one day when he got up to go to the toilet, he discovered that he could not stand. He was supported by court ladies, but they were not able to hold up the heavy man, and he had to crawl to the toilet. On the way he had a fatal attack. His death was not immediately announced; instead, it was stated that he was so severely incapacitated he wished to abdicate. But an emperor could not abdicate without the permission of the shogunate. A fast messenger was therefore sent to Edo by the Ky
ō
to deputy
shoshidai
,
16
but Nink
ō
had died long before the reply was received.

The emperor’s death was formally announced on March 13. One week later, there was a simple ceremony to mark K
ō
mei’s succession to the throne, and on the following day Nink
ō
was placed in his coffin. Then, on March 30, it was announced that the lady-in-waiting (
miyasudokoro
) Kuj
ō
Asako (1834–1897) had been named
ny
ō
go
, the highest rank of court lady below the empress, signifying that K
ō
mei now possessed the equivalent of a wife.
17

Most of the events described in the official record of the early years of K
ō
mei’s reign have little historical importance. There were memorial services for the late emperor Nink
ō
, purification and other Shint
ō
rites, an eclipse of the moon, a cockfight—all reported with equal thoroughness and a wealth of citations. Perhaps the most important event was the opening of instruction at the Gakush
ū
-in (a school for children of the nobility). The entry for October 19, 1846, by contrast, leaps from the page: “Word of the coming of foreign ships having reached the capital, the emperor sent a message to the shogunate on sea defenses.”
18

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