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 (9 page)

She is the Emperor’s real mother, whereas the Empress Mother ordinarily so called, Kodai Kogo, is the widow of the late Emperor. It is to the latter that the Emperor has to pay the duties of a son. He visits her ceremoniously several times a year. On the other hand he never sets foot across the threshold of his real mother’s house, for she is only a subject. She may visit him if she has asked permission and he has granted it. Strange flowers of etiquette!
10

Perhaps it was because of K
ō
mei’s compassion for a woman who had been deprived of her child that the prince was left in her care. As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, even empresses who gave birth to princes were not normally so fortunate, as their children were taken from them and left with strangers, in accordance with palace custom. Dr. Baelz reported about the eldest son of Emperor Taish
ō
(the future Hirohito),

At five went to call on Count Kawamura. The crown prince’s son has been put under the care of this elderly admiral, who must be nearly seventy. What a strange idea! I hoped that the unnatural and cruel custom of taking little princes away from their parents and handing them over to strangers had fallen into desuetude. It is not so, however. The poor crown princess was compelled to hand over her baby, which cost her many tears. Now the parents can see their child only for a brief period once or twice a month.
11

Even though he was now living with his mother, the prince was not able to sleep soundly in the palace. The rooms of Yoshiko’s apartment may have seemed cold and bleak in comparison with the Nakayama house, where he had spent most of his life up to this time. He probably missed his grandparents and especially his great-grandmother. But the only remedy for his sleeplessness that occurred to the palace staff was to summon eminent Buddhist prelates who burned holy fire and pronounced spells in order to drive away the demons responsible for the prince’s insomnia.
12

Life inside the palace fell increasingly behind life elsewhere in Japan. Traditional rites were performed exactly as in the past, and they, rather than modern medicine, were used to cure illness. Although the efficacy of vaccination against smallpox had become fairly well known elsewhere in Japan, and Meiji as a small boy was secretly vaccinated,
13
K
ō
mei refused to be vaccinated, which may have led to his untimely death.

The pleasures of life in the Gosho belonged to the past. In the spring of 1857, for example, a pavilion was built in the palace garden following plans sketched by the emperor himself. He gave the completed building the name Ch
ō
setsu—Listening to the Snow—and had the minister of the left, a noted calligrapher, inscribe a plaque to hang over the door.
14
It is agreeable to think of K
ō
mei in his pavilion composing poetry or listening not only to the snow but to
gagaku
music. Nothing seemed to have changed from the past; but from outside the palace there came increasingly loud and jarring noises.

On February 28, 1857, Donker Curtius addressed another warning to the magistrate of Nagasaki, presumably intended for the shogun. He reported (what the Japanese already knew) that China had been defeated in the Opium War with England and had been required by the peace treaty to open the ports of Amoy, Canton, Shanghai, Ningpo, and Fuchow. Although the Chinese had done this unwillingly, the ports that were opened had prospered as the result of foreign trade, and the people had greatly benefited. However, at Canton, in contravention of the treaty, the port was not opened, and mobs tore down the British flag. The city was bombarded by the British fleet and reduced to ashes. The Europeans and Americans blamed this reaction on the Chinese officials’ failure to behave in a responsible manner, and the contemptuous laughter they directed at the Chinese had still not stopped.

Donker Curtius revealed at this point why he had taken the trouble to inform the Japanese of these developments. Although what had happened in Canton did not directly concern the Japanese, it should serve as a warning to them that once they had signed a treaty, they had to live up to its provisions and not alter them willfully. He continued, “From what I have recently heard from the American official who has been dealing with the magistrate at Shimoda, your country has repeatedly procrastinated in making replies to negotiations. It has happened frequently, too, that there has been haggling over trifles or disavowals of promises. This is not the way to create ties of trust with foreign countries. Again, in correspondence with other countries your country’s attitude is often arrogant, and when addressing them the language used is that of giving commands to a vassal state. This is something that all foreigners find disagreeable. At present the major countries in the world are England, America, Russia, and France. Your country is about to open commercial relations with these great Powers. You should change your old ways as soon as possible, realize the fruits of friendly relations, move with the times, and in this way respond to general trends in the world.”
15

Donker Curtius’s words were reasonable, and the threat to Japan from the foreign powers of which he warned was real. But the basic premise of his argument, that Japan, too, would be reduced to ashes if it failed to accept the universal morality of trade, did not make sense to persons reared according to Confucian principles. Trade might be mutually beneficial to the countries involved, as Donker Curtius stated; but if a country chose to refuse such benefits, why must it be annihilated? The shogunate officials were indeed haughty, and the tactics of delay they practiced may well have been exasperating, but if the foreign visitors would only realize that they were unwanted and go away, they would avoid humiliation.

Such thoughts are likely to have passed through the minds of members of the shogunate even if they realized that Japan’s isolation could not be prolonged much longer. Improved means of transportation, including the steamship, had reduced the effectiveness of the barrier of distance that had protected Japan and made opening the country all but inevitable. But this was not necessarily an unmitigated disaster. There were probably benefits to be derived from foreign trade quite apart from the commercial profits mentioned by Donker Curtius. The
rangakusha
(scholars of Dutch learning) had been studying European science for a century, and they were convinced that it was essential for the Japanese to be aware of developments abroad in medicine, navigation, geography, and other branches of learning that could benefit Japan. It was clear, too, that if Japan had been able to import foodstuffs from abroad, many lives could have been saved during the recent famines.

Even the emperors in Ky
ō
to, normally isolated from their people, had on one occasion at least been made aware of the suffering caused by a famine: in 1787 some 70,000 persons massed around the Gosho praying to the emperor—as to a god—for relief from hunger.
16
Emperor K
ō
kaku and the retired empress Gosakuramachi were moved to compassion and gave what they could to feed the hungry.
17
k
ō
kaku was so shocked by the people’s misery that he broke precedent by asking the shogunate to relieve the people’s distress, the first time during the Tokugawa period that an emperor intervened in a matter of state policy.

It is unlikely that K
ō
mei, relaxing in his Pavilion of Listening to the Snow in the early summer of 1857, had an occasion to recall his grandfather’s gesture. The life that he led at this time was agreeable, thanks to the generous allowance he received from the shogunate, and there was no immediate reason to worry about the welfare of his people. Instead, the chief threat to his happiness was the foreign barbarians. His prayers to the gods conveyed his fervent hope that the foreigners would leave as soon as possible, and this wish remained paramount in his mind.

Before long, the cry of
sonn
ō
j
ō
i
—Respect the emperor and drive out the barbarians!—would be on the lips of countless patriots, but K
ō
mei himself wished only to drive out the barbarians. Far from seeking to profit by this new respect for the emperor and to deprive the shogun of political power, K
ō
mei was fiercely outspoken in his opposition to those whose “respect for the emperor” involved the overthrow of the shogunate. Not only was he conservative in his politics, but he was also well aware how indebted he was to the shogun for his comfortable life. His repeated bursts of anger seem to have been occasioned by frustration that he was being kept from enjoying the peace of his Pavilion of Listening to the Snow. But K
ō
mei’s tranquillity lasted only as long as he remained unacquainted with developments elsewhere in Japan.

On the fifth day of the fifth month, the day when families with sons set up pennants shaped like carp, K
ō
mei gave the prince an audience and with his own hands hung from the prince’s shoulder an ornamental scent bag. Later that day, he visited the prince’s room, an exceptional honor, and inspected the pennants like any other father. This may have been the last unclouded day of his life: a week later, he received the first report concerning the fortifications along the coast around
Ō
saka that had been constructed by the shogunate in response to the increasingly frequent appearances of foreign ships in a region that was dangerously close to the capital. Two gun emplacements each had been built at the mouths of the Kizu and Aji Rivers; forty heavy guns had been cast; and the construction of Western-style ships was being planned. These were major undertakings, and quick results could not be expected.
18

K
ō
mei’s apprehension on learning of the closeness of foreign ships was doubtless tempered somewhat by relief over these energetic preparations to defend the region around the capital, but the world seemed to be moving in a direction that was hateful to him. A few weeks later, on June 17, 1857, the magistrates of Shimoda joined with Townsend Harris in signing the Treaty of Shimoda, a further step in opening Japan to the barbarians.

Not satisfied with the provisions of the Treaty of Kanagawa, Harris had secured by negotiation and compromise an arrangement far more favorable to the United States. The “convention,” as Harris called it, opened the port of Nagasaki to American ships and gave Americans the right of permanent residence at Shimoda and Hakodate. It also provided the basis for extraterritoriality: “Americans committing offenses in Japan shall be tried by the American Consul General or Consul, and shall be punished according to American laws.”
19
In later years, the Japanese made immense efforts to persuade foreign governments to relinquish this privilege, an infringement on their sovereignty, but probably the magistrates in Shimoda did not foresee the magnitude of their concession.

Harris’s next triumph occurred when as the result of his repeated requests, the shogunate decided to permit him to proceed to Edo for an audience with the shogun. A number of influential clans opposed this decision, but the shogunate, disregarding them, informed the court of its action. Harris left Shimoda on November 23, 1857, accompanied by his Dutch interpreter, Henry Heusken,
20
and escorted by a great many soldiers provided by the shogunate, anxious to ensure that no mishap occur on the way. In the number of soldiers, the heralds, and in many other respects, it was much like a daimyo’s procession. Harris wrote in his diary, “The whole train numbered some three hundred and fifty persons.”
21

On December 7, 1857, the shogun Tokugawa Iesada granted Harris an audience in the Hall of State Ceremonies.
22
Officials of the shogunate were arrayed in tiers; the shogun was seated on the highest level, leaning on an armrest. Harris, after bowing three times, advanced toward the shogun and described his mission. He presented the letter from President Franklin Pierce to the emperor of Japan—it was still believed that the shogun, usually known as the tycoon, was the sovereign of the country—investing Harris with power and authority to “agree, treat, consult, and negotiate” concerning a treaty of commerce between the two countries. Harris’s journal continues, “Here I stopped and bowed. After a short silence the Tykoon began to jerk his head backward over his left shoulder, at the same time stamping with his right foot. This was repeated three or four times.”

It is hard to imagine what these gestures were intended to convey, but the intent was friendly. The shogun’s brief reply to Harris ended, “Intercourse shall be continued forever.”
23

Five days later, Harris visited the
r
ō
j
ū
(senior councillor) Hotta Masayoshi. He enumerated the reasons why at a time when the invention of the steamship and telegraph had made communications vastly easier among nations and the whole world had become like one family, each country must maintain friendly relations with all other countries. There were two requirements: the stationing of diplomatic personnel in the capitals of other countries and the opening of free trade.

Harris warned the Japanese of the danger of the British waging a war with Japan if they failed to obtain a commercial treaty. The British navy might well occupy Sakhalin and Ezo, and if the British and French forces that were at the moment pressing on Peking were successful, France was likely to demand Korea, and England might demand Taiwan from the Chinese. America, though, desired only peaceful relations; moreover, if the Japanese relied on the Americans, they would repel the excessive demands of the British and French. Harris warned that if war broke out with England, Japan would lose. Finally, he promised that if Japan signed a treaty with the United States, the latter would include a guarantee to prohibit the sale of opium, in this way distinguishing America from England.
24

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