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 (4 page)

This was the first expression in centuries of an emperor’s views on foreign policy and could only have been the result of extreme consternation on the part of the fifteen-year-old K
ō
mei (or his advisers) on learning of the threat of foreign intrusion. The entry for June 9, 1847, is in the same vein: “The counselor Nonomiya Sadanaga was appointed as the imperial envoy to the special festival of the Iwashimizu Shrine. He was asked especially to pray for peace and tranquillity within the four seas, at a time when foreign warships have intruded into Japanese waters.”
19

This was the first of many prayers that K
ō
mei would offer to the gods, asking their assistance in ridding Japan of foreign intruders. Never in his lifetime, however, did K
ō
mei see any foreigners. Indeed, he probably knew next to nothing about them at the time his prayers were offered at the Iwashimizu Shrine, and he learned little more during the rest of his reign; but he was absolutely sure that the presence of foreigners (or, more specifically, Western foreigners) was an intolerable affront to the Land of the Gods.

The reference to foreign warships in K
ō
mei’s prayers was probably to the two American warships that entered Edo Bay in the summer of the previous year under the command of Commodore James Biddle, who attempted unsuccessfully to draw up a treaty of commerce with the magistrate of Uraga. A French warship also visited Japan in 1846. K
ō
mei referred to both in his
semmy
ō
(message from the throne) offered to the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, and he prayed that if the foreigners ever came to Japan again, the god of the shrine would raise a wind that would blow them away and leave the country in peace.
20

K
ō
mei never swerved in his antiforeign sentiments, even though at times, powerless to do otherwise, he reluctantly agreed to allow the foreigners to remain in Japan temporarily until the moment had arrived to drive them all into the sea. His xenophobia was formed early in his life and remained with him to the end; surely it was one of the elements that contributed to the fierceness of the expression in his portrait.

On October 31, 1847, the coronation of K
ō
mei took place in the Hall for State Ceremonies when he was in his seventeenth year. He delivered a
semmy
ō
, praying for peace and asking for the assistance of all his subjects. Judging from the surviving accounts, the ceremony was carried out with magnificence, and on the following day persons who were not normally allowed to approach the imperial palace were able to get a glimpse of the splendor of the occasion.
21

K
ō
mei’s life after his coronation differed little from the routine that had been established in previous reigns. There were religious observances, poetry gatherings, and the resignations and promotions of palace officials. When necessary, K
ō
mei would compose a
tanka
, usually phrased in unclouded language:

ume yanagi
As plums and willows
iromeku haru no
Take on the colors of spring
niwa no omo ni
Within the garden,
asahi majiete
Mingling with the morning sun
uguisu no naku
The song thrushes are singing.
22

The only disturbing events during the next few years were eclipses of the sun and moon, which regularly caused a suspension of all court events. K
ō
mei attended performances of
bugaku
and n
ō
in the palace, gazed at the moon at appropriate times, and attended various rites and gatherings. Almost every one of his acts occurred on the prescribed day, the same day each year. Scarcely a personal matter except for a rare illness appears in the pages of the official chronicle. Outside the Gosho, fires and floods destroyed houses and bridges, and the emperor responded to each calamity by ordering prayers for the welfare of his people to be offered at the major shrines.

The increasingly frequent appearance of foreign ships in Japanese waters caused consternation, but the most that K
ō
mei could do in response to the threat was to send messengers to the usual seven shrines and seven temples with instructions to pray for peace.

Moments of happiness also appear in the official chronicle, as when K
ō
mei’s consort put on a maternity belt, followed two months later by the birth of his first child, a daughter. Thirteen days later a son was born to a concubine, but mother and infant died the same day, the first example of what became a familiar pattern of births and deaths in the imperial family during K
ō
mei’s reign. The fact that this son’s mother was not the emperor’s consort did not diminish the importance of his birth, nor did it lessen the emperor’s disappointment over his death, but he lived for so short a time that the usual command to show respect for the dead by abstaining from making noise within the capital was not issued.
23

The record of the events of the early years of K
ō
mei’s reign is hardly engrossing, but every so often the reader’s knowledge of later events lends interest to a seemingly matter-of-fact statement. For example, the entry for August 8, 1851, states that the emperor sent a messenger to Prince Arisugawa Taruhito (1835–1895) informing him of his consent to the marriage of his sister, Princess Kazunomiya (1846–1877), to the prince.
24
She was only five at the time, and the marriage arrangement was based solely on dynastic considerations; but ten years later, when the shogun asked for her hand, this engagement would present a serious obstacle.

Again, the official record for October 15, 1851, states laconically that a prince was born.
25
Without prior knowledge of who was born on this day, it would take considerable reading in the pages that follow the bare announcement to realize that the newly born prince was the future emperor Meiji.

Chapter 2

The
Record of the Emperor K
ō
mei
supplies minimal information on the birth of the future emperor Meiji, but the
Record of the Emperor Meiji
is extraordinarily detailed from the moment when the
gon no tenji
, Nakayama Yoshiko (1835–1907), felt labor pains, beginning about eight in the morning.

At once Yoshiko’s father, the acting major counselor Nakayama Tadayasu (1809–1888), sprang into action. In the hour of the serpent (9 to 11
A.M.
) he sent for three court physicians and a midwife, who appeared promptly. He also informed in writing Chancellor Takatsukasa Masamichi (1789–1868), the court spokesmen (
gis
ō
),
1
and the military liaison officers (
buke dens
ō
)
2
of the impending birth of an imperial child. Messages were relayed at once to other affected men and women officials in the palace. The baby was born about noon, halfway through the hour of the horse. Messages were again sent out. Emperor K
ō
mei received word while he was sitting in the north garden of his residential palace, admiring the chrysanthemums in the flower beds and drinking saké before lunch. It is reported that when he heard the news of the birth of a son, he looked exceptionally pleased and drank a considerable quantity of saké.
3

No sooner was the prince born than he and the placenta were wrapped in a
ukeginu
, a square piece of white lined silk. After the birth of the prince had been announced, all fires in the Nakayama house were extinguished. They were relit with fire taken from the house of Kawabata D
ō
ki (1835–1902), a merchant whose family had for many years been the official purveyors of rice cakes to the palace. The extinguishing of household fires was probably in keeping with the belief that even fire was polluted by being in the same house where a birth had occurred. It is curious that the new fire came from a merchant’s house rather than from a shrine or the monastic retreat of some member of the imperial family, but the Kawabata family had enjoyed special status ever since the late Muromachi period, and fire from their house, known for its purity, was used in the palace kitchens.

Before the birth, Nakayama Tadayasu had borrowed safe-delivery charms from various auspicious temples and individuals. He was now able to return them with thanks and presents. A court lady sent by the emperor to inspect the prince left with him a protective dagger and a sleeved coverlet (
kaimaki
). The baby would receive many other presents that though traditional, may appear bizarre to contemporary readers. First, however, was the ceremony of cutting, binding, and cauterizing the umbilical cord.
4
The placenta was washed and placed in an earthenware vessel which, in turn, was placed in a bucket of unpainted wood, wrapped in white silk, and displayed on a stand in the next room along with a pair of knives, two blue stones, and two dried sardines.
5
In front of them a lamp was kept burning day and night, and a screen was placed around them. The wooden bucket was decorated with designs in white paste showing pines, bamboos, cranes, and tortoises but not plum blossoms (usually associated with pines and bamboos in artistic compositions) because plum blossoms fall, an inauspicious association.

After the umbilical cord had been cut, the baby was given his first bath. In keeping with the old custom, the water had been drawn from the Kamo River and was mixed with well water. For the next few days, until the baby was given swaddling clothes, he was dressed in an undershirt and a sleeveless coat. His bedding was laid on a
katataka
(a thick tatami that has been sliced in half on the bias, leaving one end much higher than the other) in the main room of the little house where he was born. A pillow was placed at the high end of the tatami to the east or to the south, and it was guarded by two papier-m
ā
ché dogs facing each other. Between the two dogs were placed sixteen articles of cosmetics. Behind them was a stand on which the “protective dagger” the prince had received was placed along with an
amagatsu
doll
6
also wrapped in white silk but with red silk pasted to the ends of its arms and its feet. In the
tokonoma
(alcove for hanging paintings) was another stand on which were placed two buckets of unpainted wood with designs in white. In one was a packet of rice and two silken cords looped into rosettes, and in the other were three blue stones and two hardheads.
7
The grains of rice were wrapped in paper flecked with silver foil, and every time the prince was moved from one spot to another, these ornamental grains of rice were scattered to dispel evil spirits. The white silken cords were each about twelve feet long. Each time the prince sneezed, from the moment of his birth until his seventh night, a knot was made in a cord; it was believed that the more he sneezed, the longer he would live. To the east of his bedding stood two clothes racks, both draped with sashes of red and black silk flecked with gold leaf. At first, these were the only touches of color in the room. In accordance with custom, the baby’s clothes were white, decorated also in white with the usual felicitous designs of pines, bamboo, cranes, and tortoises. On the 101st day after the birth, the white would be replaced with colors.

In the meantime, word was sent to Tsuchimikado Hareo (1827–1869), the chief of the Department of Yin-Yang, requesting him to appear as soon as possible. Before any major decision was made or after any important occurrence, an expert in yin-yang divination was summoned to interpret its meaning or prescribe the course of action to be taken. Tsuchimikado’s family were hereditary diviners for the imperial family, and their recommendations were always given great weight. When Nakayama Yoshiko’s delivery was approaching, Hareo had given elaborate instructions as to the direction in which the accouchement should take place, depending on the day of the month it actually occurred.

There had been a scare when Yoshiko had run a high fever in her fifth month of pregnancy, but she had survived the danger to give birth safely. All the same, no chances could be taken at this stage, and Hareo’s advice was urgently needed. Unfortunately, he lived at some distance from the palace, and by the time he arrived the baby was already being fed. Hareo nevertheless gave the customary instructions exactly as if he had arrived on time: he announced how the umbilical cord should be cut, the bath prepared, and the baby washed. He gave supplemental instructions for removing the fetal hair, putting the baby in swaddling clothes, burying the placenta, and so on. The instructions were mainly for form’s sake, since most of his prescriptions had already been implemented. One matter remained to be decided, the site for burying the placenta. For reasons of direction, Tsuchimikado chose the Yoshida Shrine, east of the city. The approval of the palace was needed, and a messenger was sent. By the time approval was received, it was already dark.

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