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 (8 page)

Five days later, unbeknownst to the emperor and his court, a treaty of friendship was signed with the Russians in Shimoda. The Japanese were more generous in their concessions to the Russians than they had been with the Americans, perhaps influenced by their favorable impression, perhaps also out of sympathy for Putiatin, who had visited Japan four times in order to obtain the treaty and who had suffered the loss of his ships in the tsunami and later storms.
After being stranded in Japan, the Russians eventually returned to their country, some in an American transport hired for the purpose, others in a German merchant ship, and still others in a ship built by Japanese ship’s carpenters under Russian supervision. By the summer of 1855, the last Russians had left Japan.

Although the court was unaware of these developments and the official chronicle of Meiji’s life, insofar as it mentions events in Ky
to, is devoted mainly to such milestones in his life as a bout of chicken pox that left pockmarks on his face and his first steps as a baby, the court must have sensed impending danger. Regardless of whether members of the court favored keeping the country closed or opening it, they were agreed on the necessity of strengthening the national defenses. A court order was issued to collect temple bells and recast them as guns and cannons. The shogunate prohibited the use of copper, iron, lead, and other metals for Buddhist statues or ritual implements.

Natural disasters also continued to afflict the country. In September 1855 heavy rains and winds caused the rivers in the capital to rise dangerously, and all but two bridges over the Kamo River were swept away in the flood. On November 11 a great earthquake struck Edo, destroying half the city and causing numerous deaths and injuries.

The one bright spot of 1855 for the court was the completion of a new palace, replacing the one destroyed by fire in the previous year. It had taken a year and seven months, as opposed to two years and ten months for the previous palace, completed in 1788. Although the country was faced with urgent problems of defense, Abe Masahiro ordered that rebuilding the palace take precedence, a sign of the importance he placed on “relieving the imperial mind.” When asked his wishes for the new palace, the emperor replied that although he could think of various improvements that might be made, he would be satisfied, in view of the national emergency, if the palace were rebuilt without changes. That the shogunate should have asked the emperor’s wishes, and that the emperor declined to be extravagant because of the national emergency, shows how great a change had occurred not only in their relations but in the emperor’s awareness of political developments.

The cost of the new palace was met with contributions from the shogunate and the various daimyos, notably Maeda Nariyasu of Kaga (1811–1884), the richest of the daimyos. The emperor, his consort, the prince, and the others of the court moved in procession to the new palace on January 1, 1856. The prince was attended by his great-grandmother. She had shaven her head when she entered Buddhist orders but, for this joyous occasion, wore a wig.

Chapter 4

As 1856—the third year of Ansei—opened, Emperor K
mei, installed in his new palace, was able to enjoy what for his turbulent spirit were rare moments of tranquillity. But even at this relatively peaceful time, there were occasions for alarm. Foreign ships were observed with increasing frequency in the waters off
saka, and the shogunate, fearing that this must cause the emperor grave concern, reinforced Ky
to with guards from the Hikone, K
riyama, and other domains; but perhaps reassured by the splendor of his new palace, the emperor felt no special need of extra guards and sent a message to the chancellor asking that their numbers be gradually reduced.

The emperor, however, was never entirely free from worry. At this time, he seems to have been bothered less by the presence of foreigners in Japan (his usual source of unhappiness) than by Sachinomiya’s health. At the end of the previous year, the prince had run a fever. The area around his mouth was swollen, and he had trouble eating. The chief abbot of the Kakush
-in rushed to the palace and spent the night in prayers. Jinkai, the abbot of the Goj
-in, performed spells, apparently to good effect: on the same day the prince seemed better, although the respite was only temporary. On February 15 the prince’s temperature suddenly shot up. He was racked with coughing and could not fall asleep until midnight. The only nourishment he could take was sugar-water. On the seventeenth he was able to swallow a little rice gruel but slept very little. The emperor prayed for his recovery at the sanctuary and offered rice to the gods. The empress had prayers said at the Gion Shrine, and Jinkai once again performed spells.

The prince did not recover fully for another ten days. Of course, every child has illnesses, and parents worry each time their child has a cold; but in the case of children of the imperial family, each illness, however slight, may have seemed like a presage of death. When the physicians’ remedies seemed ineffectual, the only hope lay in prayers. Probably, too, as time went by and no other son was born to the emperor, each fluctuation in the prince’s health was a matter of grave concern to the entire court.

On April 29 of that year, Sachinomiya visited his father in the imperial palace. Although he was not yet three years old, he already displayed characteristic stubbornness: he refused to get into the palanquin that had been provided, and his nurse had to carry him in her arms. The prince also so disliked having people stare at him that a curtain was stretched along the path from Nakayama Tadayasu’s house (where the prince lived) all the way to the palace gate. Although the curtain shielded him from the eyes of the curious, it forced people to make a detour around his path. But despite the inconvenience, the curtain was used whenever he went to the palace. He generally walked the short distance accompanied by members of his mother’s family and a chamberlain or two.

The emperor grew increasingly fond of his son and sometimes kept him in the palace overnight or even for a month at a time. Nakayama Tadayasu missed having his grandson in the house, but judging that it was best for the child to become accustomed to the palace, he contrived to stay out of his sight when on duty there. Sometimes the prince played in the empress’s garden. His great-grandmother, Nakayama Tsunako, who often accompanied him, composed this poem as she watched him cross the little stone bridge in the empress’s garden:

noboru beki
The child of the sun
kagiri shirarenu
Destined to rise to
hi no miko no
Incalculable heights
Has crossed for the first time
ama no iwahashi
The stone bridge of heaven.

On August 21, 1856, two months after this peaceful scene was celebrated in Tsunako’s poem, the American consul, Townsend Harris, arrived in Shimoda aboard the warship
San Jacinto
. Four days later, he called on the magistrate of Shimoda, Okada Tadayasu, and informed him that henceforth he would be residing permanently in Shimoda. Okada, apparently acting on orders from the shogunate, did not recognize Harris’s right to remain in Shimoda and enumerated the existing regulations prohibiting foreigners from staying in Japan. Harris, refusing to be swayed, insisted that his residence in Japan was in accordance with the Treaty of Kanagawa, and if the officials failed to accord him the treatment appropriate to a consul, he would go directly to Edo and complain in person. After keeping Harris waiting a full month, the shogunate finally agreed to let him reside in Shimoda. In the meantime, Harris had raised the American flag at the Buddhist temple Gyokusen-ji, which he called the consulate. The shogunate commanded its representative in Ky
to, the
, to report this development to the chancellor.

Two days after Harris’s arrival in Shimoda, Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1813–1879), formerly the chief merchant of the Dutch trading station on Deshima but now the Netherlands government commissioner, sent (by way of the Nagasaki magistrate) a letter to the shogunate in which he urged that the policy of the closed country be abandoned. He predicted that if Japan persisted in this policy, it would lead to war with the major countries of the world. He also called for the old regulations against Christianity to be lifted, deploring in particular, as contrary to good relations with other countries, the use of
(images, generally of the Virgin Mary) that the Japanese were obliged to tread on to demonstrate that they were not Christians. He pointed out the advantages to Japan of trade with foreign countries and advised the Japanese to set up a schedule of import duties and encourage the production of wares suitable for export. He suggested also that men from countries with relations with Japan be permitted to bring their wives and children to live with them in the open ports. Finally, Curtius asked that the restrictions on foreign ships be lifted and the laws revised with respect to permission to leave the ports and to travel to Edo.

Twelve years earlier (in 1844) Willem II, the king of Holland, had sent a letter to the shogunate asking that the country be opened to trade. The haughty officials did not deign to respond, but since then the situation had changed dramatically, and the shogunate now felt that it had to give serious consideration to Donker Curtius’s suggestions. At the council meeting, virtually all those present spoke in favor of opening the country speedily. Only Abe Masahiro, worried about the reactions of the various domains and fanatical patriots, said that the time was not yet ripe for such action. No one defended the longstanding tradition of the closed country.
The shift in policy had occurred with startling swiftness.

These developments seem not to have been transmitted yet to the court in Ky
to. The prince’s third birthday (fourth by Japanese count) was celebrated with gifts—mainly fish—from the emperor and other members of the court. A week later, by command of the emperor, the prince went to live in the palace. The departure from the house of his grandfather, Nakayama Tadayasu, was accompanied by religious incantations and other ceremonies, but because of the prince’s dislike of riding in a palanquin, the palanquin sent for him was loaded instead with protective amulets and the like, and it was only pretended that the prince was aboard. His mother, Nakayama Yoshiko, rode beside the amulets, ostensibly to watch over the (invisible) prince. Various physicians, secretaries, and other dignitaries accompanied the palanquin the short distance to the palace gate.

As soon as the prince entered the palace, he was taken to the emperor, who gave him a cup of saké along with a box of dainties. The empress gave him mixed sweets and toys. The prince offered similar gifts in return. Although he was only three years old, he was expected to participate in the stylized ritual of gift giving and receiving. It is hard to imagine the little boy’s reactions to the role he was obliged to play. Perhaps he thought of the ritual behavior as a game, but gradually he must have become aware that bowing and exchanging presents was not a game but his life. Many years later, the German court doctor Erwin Baelz overheard It
Hirobumi remark to Prince Arisugawa, “‘It is really very hard luck to be born a crown prince. Directly he comes into the world he is swaddled in etiquette, and when he gets a little bigger he has to dance to the fiddling of his tutors and advisers.’ Thereupon It
made a movement with his fingers as if he were pulling the strings of a marionette.”

For all the privileges that a prince received, it was a painfully constricted life with almost no freedom. But human feelings were not completely suppressed. Probably the prince felt closest to his great-grandmother, Nakayama Tsunako, who had (in the words of the official chronicle) “devoted herself solely to his upbringing for four years, forgetting sleep and food.”
We can easily imagine how upset she must have been when she realized that now that he was to live in the palace, she would no longer be able to see the prince when she chose.

The prince was to stay in the apartment of his real mother, Nakayama Yoshiko, three rooms in the western part of the Hana goten (Palace of Flowers).
Soon after his birth, Yoshiko relinquished to K
mei’s consort all rights over her child. The boy addressed the consort as his mother and showed her the expected reverence. Although Yoshiko was a court lady of some importance, the most she could hope for was the privilege of waiting on her son. She was not to suggest to him (though eventually he would know) that she was his real mother. After examining Yoshiko, then known as Nii no tsubone, Dr. Baelz wrote in 1893,

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