Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan

Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan
   The emperor who presided over the transformation of Japan from a feudal realm into a modern nation and empire. Known posthumously as the Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito assumed the crown in 1867 and became the preeminent symbol of the dramatic changes and extraordinary accomplishments still associated with the era of “enlightened rule” of the Meiji Restoration: national unity, modernization, industrialization, military victory over China and Russia, and empire in Southern Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan.
   Although an imposing figure of stocky build, bushy brow, and calculated reticence, the Meiji Emperor, unlike European monarchs in the Age of Absolutism or even the German kaiser on which the modern Japanese imperial institution was modeled, wielded primarily symbolic power. Emperors had theoretically reigned in Japan from 660 B.C ., but from the twelfth through early nineteenth centuries, the most powerful warriors, samurai, in the land had actually ruled. Mutsuhito and his courtiers were living in obscurity in Kyoto, the traditional capital of the imperial family, when suddenly plucked to serve as the central symbol of a modern nation.
   The “restoration” of authority to the emperor was a convenient pretext for the dramatic overthrow of the warrior family that had ruled Japan for more than 250 years, the Tokugawa. A boy of only 15 in 1867, Mutsuhito was useful not only in conferring political legitimacy on the young samurai usurpers of power but ultimately in fashioning an entirely new national polity. The founders of modern Japan painstakingly transformed the imperial institution into the central symbol of a modern nation and empire. All political, diplomatic, social, and economic reforms were promulgated in the emperor’s name. The Meiji constitution of 1889 described the emperor as “sacred and inviolable” and placed all executive, legislative, and judicial powers in his hands.
   Although the samurai founders of modern Japan actually ruled in their capacity as imperial “advisers,” Mutsuhito became the official face of Imperial Japan. First introduced to his subjects in a series of six Grand Circuits between 1872 and 1885, Mutsuhito’s symbolic presence grew enormously during the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. He was described as enduring the privations of a soldier at war and portrayed as the heroic and caring commander-in-chief in woodblock prints, war songs, and magic lantern shows. Mutsuhito’s death in July 1912 spurred deep and widespread mourning and ushered in a period of wrenching national Uncertainty.
   See also <>; <>.
    Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972;
    Fujitani, Takashi. Splendid Monarchy, Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996;
    Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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