Author Archives: Joel

First Foreign Enclave in Tokyo, 1869

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 164-165:

During Meiji’s stay in Tōkyō, negotiations were opened with the foreign diplomats living in Yokohama on a number of matters: the end of their policy of neutrality in the conflict between the government and the rebels; the destruction of the rebels in Hakodate; the disposition of the Japanese Christians; and the issuance of paper money. The negotiations did not go smoothly. The foreign representatives, headed by the redoubtable Sir Harry Parkes, refused to consider any request that seemed to threaten the sacred right to trade—in Hakodate and anywhere else.

On January 2 a foreign trade center was opened in Tōkyō at Tsukiji, which was also made available to foreigners for residence. Samurai were forbidden to enter the settlement without written permission. This restriction on the passage of samurai into the concessions was probably intended to allay the foreigners’ fear of sworded samurai, but it had the effect of lowering their prestige. Before long, the samurai were given the task of protecting foreign ships, something none of them could have foreseen. Ōnuma Chinzan wrote a poem on their plight:

A little Yang-chou—that’s the new Shimabara;
Our browbeaten Japanese warriors guard the barbarian ships.
“Please don’t come here wearing your swords—
Please come instead with a hundred thousand coins.”

In the winter of 1868, at the same time that daimyo mansions in Tsukiji were demolished to provide living space for the foreigners, a new licensed quarter, named after the old Shimabara in Kyōto, was opened nearby. The last two lines of the poem indicate that for the prostitutes of the new Shimabara, money counted more than a customer’s rank. This surely was no less humiliating for the samurai than the duty of protecting foreigners, despite their jōi [Expel the Barbarians] convictions of a few years earlier.

On January 5 and 6 the emperor received the ministers from foreign countries, evidence of his hope for increased and better relations between Japan and the rest of the world. In Western diplomatic practice, there was nothing remarkable about the emperor’s receiving foreign diplomats and providing refreshments for them, but it was unprecedented in Japan. It is all the more astonishing when one recalls that Kōmei, who considered that the presence of foreigners on the sacred soil of Japan was an unspeakable offense to the gods, had died less than two years earlier. The young emperor was willing not only to meet foreigners but was affable to them.

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Japanese Era Names After 1868

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 159:

As a further step in cementing the ties between the emperor and his people, the emperor’s birthday was proclaimed a national holiday, the Feast of Tenchō [天長節]. Observance of the emperor’s birthday as a holiday had begun as far back as 775, but the custom had long since fallen into abeyance. Its revival at this time was thus another instance of the intention to restore ancient practices.

On October 23 [1868]  it was announced that the nengō [年号] had been changed from the fourth year of Keiō to the first year of Meiji and that henceforth there would be only one nengō for an entire reign. The name Meiji was derived from a passage in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination: “The sage, facing south, listens to the world; facing the light, he governs.” The day before the new nengō was announced, the emperor himself had visited the sanctuary (naishidokoro [内侍所 ‘inner samurai place’]) where he drew lots to determine the new nengō from among several names submitted by scholars. Although he probably did not realize it at the time, the emperor had also chosen the name by which posterity would know him; earlier emperors were known by a place-name from the site of their residence or (as was true of Meiji’s father and grandfather) by a posthumously chosen title. The name Meiji [明治], interpreted as meaning “enlightened rule,” came to seem an accurate description of his reign. Names like those of his father and grandfather, auspicious though they were, would have been less appropriate to the era.

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Meiji and The Mikado

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 136:

Three days after [British envoy Sir Harry] Parkes and [junior interpreter A. B.] Mitford were presented to the emperor, the first clash occurred between the imperial forces advancing on Edo and the Shinsengumi, a band of some 200 men under the command of Kondō Isami (1834–1868). The imperial forces under Itagaki Taisuke were victorious. Perhaps the most memorable thing about the march of the imperial troops to Edo was the song they sang, “Tokoton’yare,” composed by Shinagawa Yajirō (1843–1900) during the battles at Toba and Fushimi. This song spread not only throughout Japan but also to England, where the music and part of the Japanese words were incorporated into the operetta The Mikado, composed in 1885: Miyasama, miyasama, ouma no mae no, pira pira suru no wa nan jai na, tokoton’yare ton’yarena. Arya chōteki seibatsu seyo to no nishiki no mihata ja shiranka, tokoton’yare ton’yare na.

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Hidden Christians Unhidden, 1868

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 109-110:

Now that the long-debated issue of the port of Hyōgo [Kobe] had at last been settled, on July 7 the shogunate further decided to permit foreigners to conduct business in Edo and Ōsaka. With this, full compliance with the provisions of the treaties signed with the foreign nations had been achieved. This did not signify that all the shogunate’s problems had been solved: major and minor problems constantly arose, and increasingly the young emperor was obliged to take part in decisions.

One minor problem arose as a direct consequence of the foreign settlements. On July 14 the Nagasaki magistrate arrested and imprisoned sixty-eight Christians. Christianity had been prohibited in Japan for about 250 years, but “hidden Christians” in the region of Nagasaki had preserved the religion without guidance from ordained priests or even from Christian books. Over the years the beliefs of these Christians had steadily drifted from orthodox teachings, and by now the hymns they sang, originally in Latin, had become gibberish, memorized by believers who had no idea of the meanings. Most of the Christians were poor fishermen and peasants. If suppressing such a cult had been a purely religious matter—if, say, it involved a heterodox Buddhist sect—it could have been achieved without difficulty, but the suppression of a Christian sect immediately involved the foreign powers, which were highly sensitive to attacks on their religion.

As far back as 1857, as the result of negotiations between Townsend Harris and the senior councillor Hotta Masayoshi, it had been agreed that foreigners should be able to practice their religions without hindrance, and the Americans obtained permission to erect a Protestant church in the foreign settlement. At the same time French priests were active in promulgating Catholicism, especially in the area of Nagasaki. The hidden Christians, overjoyed by the arrival of coreligionists, openly visited the church erected by the French and appealed to the French minister for support. Some, rejoicing that their hour had at last come, flaunted their new importance, leading to conflicts even within families. Buddhists, angered by the government’s slowness in punishing the Christians, even though the religion was still prohibited, threatened to take matters into their own hands and kill the Christians. The latter responded by arming themselves with bamboo spears. After the arrests on July 14 the French and Portuguese consuls in Nagasaki demanded the release of the Christians and, when this was refused, reported the matter to their legations, urging them to negotiate with the shogunate for release of the prisoners.

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Opposition to the Shogunate, 1867

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 112-113:

The most pressing problem facing the shogunate was, of course, its continued existence. Because the mounting opposition to the shogunate is a subject already treated by many historians, suffice it to say here that the alliance between Chōshū and Satsuma, formerly bitter enemies, was the key factor in galvanizing the opposition to the shogunate. The anti-shogunate domains, mainly in west Honshū, Kyūshū, and Shikoku, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the shogunate’s monopoly of the highly lucrative foreign trade. But when discussing their grievances, they normally did not mention this; instead, they spoke of the need to restore imperial rule. A contemporary historian has written, “It needs hardly be said that the internal disturbances at the time of the Restoration were definitely not caused by loyalist convictions. Fundamentally, they resulted from the aspirations of the major domains in the southwest, headed by Satsuma and Chōshū, to be independent of the shogunate.”

Even if these were the real aspirations of Satsuma, Chōshū, and the other domains that ultimately overthrew the shogunate, they needed a rallying cry, and “Restore power to the emperor!” served this purpose. The shogunate under Tokugawa Yoshinobu, especially after its humiliating defeat in the war with Chōshū, took desperate measures to stave off collapse. With France’s help, it rapidly increased its store of modern weapons, and under Yoshinobu’s leadership, many reforms were launched. Senior shogunate statesmen, notably Oguri Tadamasa (1827–1868), attempted to push through plans for making the shogunate into an absolutist regime, believing this was the only way it could ensure its authority over rebellious domains. As early as 1866 Oguri privately discussed the advisability of abolishing the domains and replacing them with prefectures, a measure that eventually was adopted by the Meiji government in 1871, but the shogunate lacked sufficient support to carry out so daring a plan.

The daimyos of the major domains, especially in the west and south, joined forces in alliances. But for all the reverence they professed for the court in Kyōto, their chief concern seems to have been preserving their own power. Initially at least, they seem not to have hoped to substitute the absolute authority of the emperor for the authority of the shogunate, as hardly any of the daimyos or their retainers rose above anxiety over the survival of their particular domains to consider what was desirable for the country as a whole.

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Shogun’s Diplomats in Russia, 1867

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 104:

Even after its defeat in the war with Chōshū, the shogunate remained the only effective central government. The most the court could do was to refuse to consent to plans made by the shogunate, especially with regard to foreign relations; it did not initiate plans of its own. The shogunate was, of course, far more experienced than the court in dealing with foreigners, but it was now faced with problems it had not encountered as long as sakoku [national seclusion] lasted.

A dispute with Russia over the future disposition of the island of Sakhalin made it necessary to send two shogunate officials to St. Petersburg to negotiate with the Russians. At the time both Japanese and Russian colonists were living on the island, giving rise to incessant clashes. The Japanese proposed that the island be divided at the fiftieth parallel; the Russians demanded the whole island but offered in exchange to yield Etorofu and three small islands to the Japanese. The negotiations dragged on, but finally, on March 18, 1867, a provisional treaty was signed that left the island open to people of both countries but urged that friendlier relations based on mutual sincerity prevail, a pious hope that could not have satisfied settlers from either country. The mission nevertheless marked an important step in the history of Japanese diplomacy: it was the first time that Japanese envoys traveled abroad to negotiate a treaty.

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Shogun Yields to Emperor, 1863

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 66-67:

The shogunate was faced with a dilemma. It clearly wished for better relations with the court, which necessitated obeying [Emperor] Kōmei’s injunction to expel the barbarians, but the most intelligent men in the shogunate—for example, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837–1913) and Matsudaira Yoshinaga (1828–1890)—were aware that opening the country was inevitable. The shogun probably had no alternative in the end but to reply to Kōmei in terms of assurances that he fully intended to carry out the principle of jōi [攘夷 Expel the Barbarians].

The change in the relative importance of the emperor and the shogun was quickly noticed by the leaders of the different domains, and many daimyos found it necessary to visit Kyōto. The shogunate had strictly prohibited them from entering the capital, and the normal route taken by daimyos on their way to Edo from the west of Japan skirted the city of Kyōto; but at this juncture the prohibition had lost force, and daimyos now called regularly in Kyōto. Indeed, the center of politics had moved from Edo to Kyōto. Profiting by the sudden increase in its importance, the court used the influence of the visiting daimyos to persuade the shogunate to change features in the system that it found objectionable. This was the first time in at least 500 years that the emperor possessed such political importance. The main thrust of court politics was not, however, aimed at securing greater power for the emperor but at achieving the goal of jōi.

The change affected the nobles as well. Until this time they had nothing to do with national politics; instead, their political concerns were restricted to the palace and its ceremonies. Now, however, nobles began to take an active part in the government, a step toward the restoration of imperial authority.

The new importance of the emperor was underlined in 1863 when the shogun visited the capital, the first time there had been such a visit in more than 200 years. [Shogun] Iemochi wished to demonstrate both his reverence for the court and his profound desire to achieve kōbu gattai [公武合体 Union of Imperial Court and Shogunate]. The shogun was preceded by his most important advisers, including Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who visited the palace on February 27 and was received by the emperor. Three days later, Yoshinobu called at the Gakushū-in, the school for sons of the nobility founded by Kōmei’s father. On this occasion he proposed that the old practice of requiring junior members of the imperial family to enter Buddhist orders be discontinued; instead, they should be named shinnō ([新王] princes of the blood) and allowed to remain in the laity. He also proposed that after many years of confinement in the Gosho [御所 Imperial Palace], the emperor should tour the country in the spring and autumn in the manner of the monarchs of olden times. Finally, he suggested that Prince Son’yu (who had been condemned to perpetual confinement during the Ansei purge) be allowed to return to the laity. All three proposals were calculated to ingratiate him (and the shogun) with the emperor.

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Educating Japan’s Crown Prince, 1859

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Sachinomiya’s schooling began in 1859 when Prince Takahito (1812–1886) was appointed as his calligraphy teacher. The fact that Sachinomiya’s first teacher was a calligrapher suggests the importance attached to being able to write a distinguished hand. Although calligraphy was of only minor importance to a European prince, in Japan it was an indispensable element in the education of the aristocracy. A member of the imperial family was required to display his skill as a calligrapher on relatively few occasions, but it was essential that whenever he did write, his handwriting would be not merely acceptable but an imposing mirror of his character. It is difficult to say how proficient Emperor Meiji eventually became, however, because so little survives in his handwriting.

Sachinomiya had actually begun calligraphy practice during the previous year, but this instruction was apparently casual; now that he was in his eighth year, he was expected to study calligraphy (and other subjects) systematically under appropriate tutors. Prince Takahito was chosen to teach the prince calligraphy because his family had long been renowned for its penmanship. …

From this time on, Prince Takahito came several times a month on appointed days to offer calligraphy instruction to Sachinomiya. On June 4 the pupil presented for his teacher’s approbation some characters of which he had made fair copies, an occasion for a further exchange of gifts. By August 10 the young prince, apparently pleased with his own progress, was presenting to attendants samples of his calligraphy—one or two characters each, most frequently naka [中] and yama [山]. [These two ubiquitous characters were the first ones our daughter learned to recognize at age 2 when we lived in Zhongshan (中山) City, Guangdong in 1987–88.]

In the meantime, he had commenced another kind of study, reading the Confucian classics. On May 29 Fusehara Nobusato (1823–1876) was appointed as his reading tutor. During the first session with his pupil, he read a passage from the Classic of Filial Piety three times. Naturally, a boy of seven could not be expected to understand a Chinese philosophical text, even when read in Japanese pronunciation; but before long, Sachinomiya was able to recognize characters and read them aloud, following his teacher. This method of learning, known as sodoku [素読], was surprisingly effective, as we know from the generations of Japanese who learned Chinese in this way and were later able to read and write it competently; but it must have been excruciatingly boring for a boy to recite by the hour words that meant nothing to him.

As soon as Sachinomiya completed the sodoku reading of the Classic of Filial Piety, Emperor Kōmei commanded that he begin reading the Great Learning. In a sodoku class of boys of the same age, there might at least have been the pleasure of friendly emulation or perhaps fun shared at the expense of the teacher, but Sachinomiya at first had little companionship in his lessons. The nobleman Uramatsu Tarumitsu (1850–1915) became Sachinomiya’s sole school playmate in 1861, when he was eleven and the future emperor Meiji was ten (by Japanese count).

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Japan’s Angriest Emperor, 1858

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 38-40:

Kōmei became increasingly outspoken in his condemnation of the policy of allowing foreigners into the country. On July 27, 1858, he sent envoys to the Great Shrine of Ise, the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, and the Kamo Shrine to pray for divine protection. In a semmyō [imperial proclamation] he asked the gods, if warfare should break out between Japan and the foreign barbarians, to send a divine wind (kamikaze) like the one that had destroyed the ships of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. He also asked the gods to punish those who, by their failure to repay the blessings they had received from the country, showed themselves disloyal—meaning those who favored opening the country.

Kōmei’s prayers went unanswered. On July 29 the Shimoda magistrate Inoue Kiyonao met with Townsend Harris aboard the warship Powhattan [sic, actually the USS Powhatan), then anchored off Kanagawa, and signed the treaty of amity and commerce between the United States and Japan. The treaty included a schedule of dates during the next five years when ports in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate—Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki, Hyōgo (Kōbe), and Niigata—were to be opened to foreign ships.

On July 31 the shogunate sent word to the court reporting the conclusion of the treaty with America, explaining that because of the great urgency involved, there had been no time to seek the court’s advice. When the court received this letter, Kōmei was predictably furious. He sent for the chancellor and gave him a letter in which he announced his intention of abdicating the throne.

The emperor had left political matters to the shogunate and had hesitated to express his opinion for fear of worsening relations between the military and the court, but this had led to a difficult situation. At a loss what to do and having only limited ability, he had decided to relinquish the throne. Because Sachinomiya [the future Emperor Meiji] was too young to be his successor at a time when the nation faced a grave crisis, he therefore proposed one of the three princes of the blood. It was definitely not because he desired to lead a life of ease and pleasure that he was abdicating; it was because he wished someone more capable than himself to deal with the problems of state. He asked the chancellor to forward his request to the shogunate.

The letter plainly indicated Kōmei’s dissatisfaction with the shogunate’s inability to handle the foreigners. Although he did not mention this in this letter, he had become increasingly convinced that the foreigners had to be expelled, whatever the cost; their presence in Japan was an affront to the gods and to his ancestors. What makes this and his subsequent letters in a similar vein memorable is the impression they convey of a tormented human being. It is true that much of the phraseology is stereotyped, but no other emperor, at least for hundreds of years, had expressed such bitter frustration, such a sense of powerlessness, despite the grandeur of his title. Kōmei had become a tragic figure, and from this point until the terrible conclusion of his life, he had only brief periods of respite from anger and despair. To find parallels in Japanese history we would have to go back to the exiled emperors Gotoba and Godaigo. Perhaps Richard II, at least as Shakespeare portrayed him, resembled Kōmei even more closely in his awareness of how little control he possessed over his destiny. The barrage of letters Kōmei directed to the officers of his court, lamenting each new development, is without parallel in the correspondence of Japanese sovereigns.

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Dutch Urge Japan to Open, 1856

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 30:

Two days after Harris’s arrival in Shimoda [1856], 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 fumie (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.

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