Category Archives: language

First Englishman in Lhasa

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 146-147:

Manning was the first Englishman ever to lay eyes on the city (and the last for the remainder of the nineteenth century). His only European predecessors were a pair of Catholic missionaries who had reached the city two hundred years earlier. From a distance, at least, it was the Shangri-La of fables. The grand Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama lived loomed high and white on a hill above the city, visible from miles off, more magnificent in appearance than he had even imagined it could be. But some of the magic was lost on approach. A ceremonial gate they passed through on the road to the city had gilt decorations that caught the sun from afar, but up close the ornaments seemed imbalanced and off-kilter to Manning, reminding him of “pastry work” or “gingerbread architecture.” The blindingly white palace itself was like a hive, swarming with monks in gorgeous robes of deep maroon, but the city below it was poor and rough. The houses were “begrimed with smut and dirt.” Wild dogs with mangy and ulcerated skin ran freely in the streets, growling and digging about for food. In spite of himself, Manning sensed a deep strangeness to the place, an unreality. “Even the mirth and laughter of the inhabitants I thought dreamy and ghostly,” he recalled. “The dreaminess no doubt was in my mind, but I never could get rid of the idea.”

On the advice of his munshi [secretary and translator], Manning pretended to be a Buddhist lama from India, one who happened to be versed in medicine. He hid the fact that he could speak or read Chinese, since it would make the presence of an interpreter suspicious. He also hid that he could speak English, so the two of them only communicated openly in Latin (in which both were fluent, it being the confluence of Manning’s Cambridge education and the munshi’s childhood training by a Roman Catholic missionary). This led to a long chain of interpretation when Manning spoke to Tibetans: someone would first have to translate from Tibetan into Chinese, then Manning’s munshi would translate the Chinese into Latin for him, and he would have to respond in Latin, back along the chain. To avoid standing out—and because he decided he liked it—he performed the kowtow before Chinese and Manchu officials whenever he was asked (a lesser version than that reserved for the emperor, touching the head to the ground three times rather than nine). In fact, he said, he found it so restful to kneel down to the ground after all the walking he had to do that he tried to kowtow as much as possible—including in front of high-ranking Tibetans (which offended his munshi, who said no Chinese would ever do that).

Manning was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama on December 17, 1811. To get to it, he had to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the side of the mountain on which the Potala Palace was built, steps that gave way in time to ladders on which he continued climbing up through the nine floors of the palace, its air rich with the smoke of incense and yak-butter lamps, to reach the high roof with its breathtaking view over the city and the broad, vast plain to the deep blue-white mountains in the distance. A monk escorted him into a smooth-floored reception hall built onto the roof, walls hung with tapestries and its ceiling held up by high, strong pillars. Sunshine streamed down through a skylight. In the middle of the hall, on a throne supported by carved lions, he found a young boy in maroon robes and a pointed saffron hood who appeared to be about seven years old (he had, in fact, just turned six). Manning knelt down before the Dalai Lama and performed the kowtow.

Manning still had his beard, but he had shaved the top of his head in preparation for the audience, so that the boy could lay hands on him. The normally impish Englishman was quieted in the lama’s presence. “His face was, I thought, poetically and effectingly beautiful,” wrote Manning. “He was of a gay and cheerful disposition; his beautiful mouth perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance. Sometimes, particularly when he had looked at me, his smile almost approached to a gentle laugh.” They made polite small talk. The Dalai Lama asked about his journey. Manning asked for Tibetan Buddhist books, and asked if someone who spoke Chinese could teach him their contents, though he was gently rebuffed. It wasn’t the conversation that mattered, though, but simply the fact of being in the Dalai Lama’s presence. Unlike Macartney’s audience with Qianlong, there was no power relationship in play, no hidden challenge, no posturing. Just curiosity. And friendliness. All of Manning’s playful cynicism vanished. “I could have wept through strangeness of sensation,” he wrote afterward. “I was absorbed in reflections when I got home.”

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Aztec Religious Imperialism

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 44-45:

The basis of Aztec dominion was the levying of tribute in the form of goods and labour from tribes defeated in battle. Territory was also expropriated and distributed as private estates to deserving Aztec nobles. To maintain their hegemony, the Aztecs planted colonies in conquered lands and supported these with Aztec garrisons. Tribute-collectors would bring back an abundance of goods to Tenochtitlán, not just staples such as maize or beans but also luxuries and trappings of status that the Aztec aristocracy craved – objects of jade and gold, precious stones, quetzal feathers and jaguar skins. Indeed, Aztec conquests were motivated as much by religious and cultural factors as by purely economic needs. Defeated tribes were forced to add the Aztec deities to their pantheon and to adopt the Nahuatl tongue. A major reason for waging war was the taking of prisoners to be sacrificed upon the altars of the great pyramid at Tenochtitlán. The Aztec gods stimulated belligerence by their unceasing demand for human blood, and it is possible that the purpose of the continual ‘wars of flowers’ against the neighbouring Tlaxcalans was to ensure a steady supply of sacrificial victims rather than conquest as such.

The Aztec nobility were able to live in great luxury by adapting the traditional customs and institutions of Middle American tribal culture to their own advantage. The most effective of these adaptations was in the field of myth and religion, for it was religion that underpinned the unquestionable authority of the Aztec emperor or tlatoani (‘he who speaks’), and provided the rationale for conquest and the imposition of tribute. Religion was a particularly effective tool of imperialism because much of the Aztec religion was common to other peoples of Middle America, all of whom could trace their heritage to the Toltecs, the true founders of Nahuatl civilization. Once the Aztecs had started on their imperial expansion, they took pride in styling themselves the heirs of the Toltecs, a claim which served to give their rule a sacred justification.

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Comparing Simon Bolivar to George Washington

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 4-6:

As Bolívar’s fame grew, he became known as the George Washington of South America. There were good reasons why. Both came from wealthy and influential families. Both were ardent defenders of freedom. Both were heroic in war, but apprehensive about marshaling the peace. Both resisted efforts to make them kings. Both claimed to want to return to private lives, but were called instead to shape governments. Both were accused of undue ambition.

There the similarities end. Bolívar’s military action lasted twice as long as Washington’s. The territory he covered was seven times as large and spanned an astonishing geographic diversity: from crocodile-infested jungles to the snowcapped reaches of the Andes. Moreover, unlike Washington’s war, Bolívar’s could not have been won without the aid of black and Indian troops; his success in rallying all races to the patriot cause became a turning point in the war for independence. It is fair to say that he led both a revolution and a civil war.

But perhaps what distinguishes these men above all can be seen most clearly in their written work. Washington’s words were measured, august, dignified—the product of a cautious and deliberate mind. Bolívar’s speeches and correspondence, on the other hand, were fiery, passionate. They represent some of the greatest writing in Latin American letters. Although much was produced in haste—on battlefields, on the run—the prose is at once lyrical and stately, clever but historically grounded, electric yet deeply wise. It is no exaggeration to say that Bolívar’s revolution changed the Spanish language, for his words marked the dawn of a new literary age. The old, dusty Castilian of his time, with its ornate flourishes and cumbersome locutions, in his remarkable voice and pen became another language entirely—urgent, vibrant, and young.

There is yet another important difference. Unlike Washington’s glory, Bolívar’s did not last unto the grave. In time, the politics in the countries Bolívar created grew ever more fractious, his detractors ever more vehement. Eventually, he came to believe that Latin Americans were not ready for a truly democratic government: abject, ignorant, suspicious, they did not understand how to govern themselves, having been systematically deprived of that experience by their Spanish oppressors. What they needed, in his eyes, was a strong hand, a strict executive. He began making unilateral decisions. He installed a dictator in Venezuela; he announced to Bolivia that it would have a president for life.

By the time he was forty-one, his wisdom began to be doubted by functionaries in every republic he had freed and founded. His deputies—jealous and wary of his extraordinary power—declared they no longer supported his dream of a unified Latin America. Regionalisms emerged, followed by border squabbles, civil wars, and, in Bolívar’s own halls, cloak-and-dagger betrayals. Trumped at last, he had no choice but to renounce command. His forty-seventh—and final—year ended in poverty, illness, and exile. Having given away the sum total of his personal fortune to the revolution, he died a poor and ravaged man. Few heroes in history have been dealt so much honor, so much power—and so much ingratitude.

But on the afternoon of August 10, 1819, as he stood at the viceroy’s splendid desk in the palace in Santa Fe de Bogotá, there was no limit to the possibilities of Bolívar’s America. The Spanish despot had left the room in such alarm that he had neglected to take the bag of gold on his table. Indeed, as Bolívar lay claim to the hoard of pesos left behind in the viceregal treasury, he understood that the tide had finally turned: his revolution stood to inherit all the abandoned riches of a waning empire. It would also inherit a whirlwind of political and social chaos. In a matter of a few years, Spain’s three-century yoke on the Americas would be sundered and the truly difficult journey toward freedom would begin.

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Chiang Kai-shek’s Soviet Bombers, 1938

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 116-118:

In January 1938, Russian pilot F. P. Polynin was still only a recent arrival in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the de facto capital after Chiang Kai-shek had left Nanjing, and the Japanese invaders had still not got used to the idea that now they also had to fight the mighty Soviet Air Force. The 31-year-old officer’s squadron of high-speed, twin-engine Tupolev SB bombers was part of the Soviet aid that was beginning to trickle into China. On a cold morning shortly after New Year, his unit was put to the test with a difficult and dangerous mission into the heart of enemy country.

Polynin’s plane took off from the airfield before dawn, followed by 25 other bombers. Only they and a few other military personnel knew where they were heading: a Japanese air base near Nanjing, where a large number of aircraft had been assembled for a planned offensive. Secrecy among the Russians and Chinese had been tight, due to an all-pervasive fear of spies. The briefing of the crews had taken place behind closed doors protected by armed guards, to make sure no one was listening in.

The bombers crossed the Yangtze River under the dim light of the moon and reached their target just as dawn was breaking. The attack came as a total surprise to the Japanese. “Apparently they were still sleeping, because nothing was moving on the airfield,” Polynin wrote in his memoirs. “The Japanese aircraft were lined up as if for a review. Soon the bombs started falling. Fires broke out, and people were running back and forth among the flames.”

The operation went completely according to plan. Intelligence later showed that 48 Japanese airplanes had been destroyed in the raid. It was just one of many successes scored by the Soviet pilots assisting China in its desperate war against Japan. The aviators, part of the military aid to China promised in the wake of the bilateral Sino-Soviet agreement of the year before, had started making an appearance on the battlefield during the autumn 1937, and by 1938 their presence was of such a scale that it made up for some of Japan’s crushing superiority in the air.

A few weeks later, Polynin and his fellow airmen took part in an even more daring raid. This time the target was Formosa, a Japanese colony that the Chinese referred to by the old name of Taiwan. A total of 28 Tupolev SB bombers took off from Wuhan and crossed the narrow Taiwan Straits heading for the ocean north of the island. Once the aircraft had reached that area, they abruptly changed course due south, in the direction of Taiwan’s main city, Taihoku [= Taipei], and its military airport. Once again, Polynin was struck by the lack of preparation by the Japanese. “We could clearly see two lines of airplanes next to the hangars,” he wrote. “The enemy had done nothing to conceal the area. Obviously, he felt completely safe.” Polynin was in the lead plane, and releasing his bombs, he saw to his satisfaction one explosion after the other unfold like flowers in the middle of the airfield. The other planes followed suit, dropping a total of 280 bombs. Japanese anti-aircraft batteries opened up, but too late. All Soviet aircraft returned safely.

As time went by, Soviet pilots came to play a pivotal role in Chiang Kai-shek’s war effort. “We depended on the Russians,” a Chinese general said later. “Our pilots had been too brave at Shanghai. Our air force had been dealt too severe a blow.” The Russians were known for their courage and their devotion, spending most of their days in their cockpits, ready for take-off at seconds’ notice. Wherever they showed themselves in the big cities, they were treated as celebrities. In the countryside, they could not count on the same level of recognition. On the back of their jackets, Chinese characters stated: “I am a Russian. I am here to help you fight Japan.” It was a safeguard, perhaps even a life insurance, if they were shot down and parachuted down among suspicious Chinese peasants.

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Japanese Reactions to the Republic of China, 1912

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 697-698:

On December 28, 1911, the Manchu government issued a statement appealing for an end to hostilities and calling for a fair election to determine whether the people desired a constitutional monarchy or a republic. The following day, without reference to this appeal, an election was held in Nanking for the president of the provisional republican government. Sun Yat-sen was elected and took office on January 1, 1912.

Faced with this opposition at home and abroad, the cabinet abandoned hope for a constitutional monarchy. Opinion among the nobles was divided, and the situation was chaotic. Yüan concluded by asking Ijūin to offer his advice. Ijūin replied that Japan had no easy solution to offer, but he conveyed the Japanese hope for a constitutional monarchy, even if this reduced the emperor to being a mere figurehead. He added that the Japanese government was unlikely to recognize any government unless it demonstrated it was capable of suppressing disturbances. Until such time, Japan would have no choice but to treat China as a country without a government. This response upset Yüan greatly.

The end of the Manchu dynasty, after 300 years of rule, came a few weeks later. On February 12, 1912, the six-year-old Emperor Hsüan T’ung announced his abdication. Yüan Shih-k’ai formed a provisional republican government and was granted full powers to negotiate with the people’s army on unification. On the thirteenth Sun Yat-sen, recognizing Yüan’s military capability, offered his resignation as president to the Assembly in Nanking and proposed that Yüan Shih-k’ai be the new president. The Assembly agreed, and on March 10, in a ceremony held in Peking, Yüan took the oath of office as the first president of China.

Emperor Meiji’s reactions to the abdication of the Chinese emperor are not recorded, but he was undoubtedly more affected than, say, when he heard that the king of Portugal had been driven from his throne. Not only was China far closer than any European country, but his respect for China lingered despite the decisive defeat Japan had administered in the Sino-Japanese War. China may have lost its preeminence among the nations of East Asia, but when letters were exchanged between the emperor of China and the emperor of Japan, they both wrote in Chinese, and Meiji’s rescripts were dotted with Chinese words and phrases borrowed from Confucian texts.

Nationalists did not hesitate to say that the Japanese, rather than contemporary Chinese, were the true heirs to the ancient glories of Chinese civilization. The fall of the Chinese monarchy, breaking traditions of more than 2,000 years since the first emperor, could not be dismissed as most Japanese had dismissed the fall of the Ryūkyūan or the Korean monarchy as the unavoidable fate of a weak country in the modern world. During the next forty years or so, China was subjected by the Japanese military to humiliation and the ravages of war, but it continued to exercise a powerful attraction on Japanese intellectuals who felt that the Chinese past was in large part their own.

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Rectification of Korean Titles, 1910

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 673-677:

The memorandum that [Resident-General of Korea] Terauchi showed to Yi Wan-yong contained a somewhat earlier version of the treaty articles. It proposed, for example, that the Korean emperor be known henceforth as taikō denka [太公殿下] (His Highness, the archduke) and the crown prince as kōdenka [公殿下] (His Highness, the prince). These titles would be hereditary. The memorandum recognized that some people might object that this represented a demotion from their present status, but these titles would be Japanese, not merely Korean.

Cho (who spoke fluent Japanese) called that night on Terauchi and told him that he and Yi agreed that unless the name Han-guk [韓国] and the title of king were retained, no compromise could be reached. They were apparently under the impression that annexation would be a union of two countries, each retaining sovereign status, rather in the manner of Austria-Hungary or Sweden-Norway. Terauchi was surprised by this lack of understanding of Japanese aims, but he finally agreed to allow the country to be known by the old name of Chōsen [朝鮮]. In response to the request that the title of king be retained, Terauchi compromised to the extent of allowing the emperor to be known as riō denka [李王殿下] (His Highness the Yi king). The title ō was not the same as kokuō [国王] (king); in Japan, ō meant no more than a prince, but this concession seemed to satisfy the Koreans’ wounded pride. Retired Emperor Kojong would be known as taiō denka [太王殿下] (His Highness, the great king), and Crown Prince Yi Eun, as ōseishi denka [王世子殿下] (His Highness, the heir to the king). Cho agreed to these changes and informed Yi, who told Terauchi that he was confident he would be able to persuade the cabinet at the meeting on the next day to accept Terauchi’s compromise.

On the same day, August 29, a series of imperial ordinances were issued, proclaiming that Han-guk was henceforth to be called Chōsen, that the government general of Chōsen had been established, that an amnesty was to be put into effect in Chōsen, and that there would be an extraordinary imperial bounty in Chōsen. Other ordinances dealt with duties on Korean merchandise imported into Japan, patents, designs, copyrights, and similar commercial matters. After long years of laxness under their own rulers, the Koreans were getting an early taste of Japanese efficiency.

Korean news media got some small revenge when they reported the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. They demoted him to 日王 (ilwang), King of Japan.

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Rise of State Shinto, 1868

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 137-138:

The young emperor’s first act of major historical significance was undoubtedly the promulgation of the Charter Oath in Five Articles on April 7, 1868. The swearing of this oath before the gods of heaven and earth, in the presence of “the hundred officials” including nobles and daimyos, was preceded a day earlier by an edict that announced the renewal of various ceremonies of Shintō worship after the extremely long hiatus imposed by the military regime. The stated purpose of the edict was to revive the union of rites and rule that had existed in ancient times.

A central element in the plan of restoration was the reestablishment of the Jingikan [神祇官], the Ministry of Shintō. It had originally been established at the beginning of the eighth century, but for centuries had possessed little more than vestigial significance. Now, however, Shintō priests and the performance of Shintō ceremonies at the court and at shrines were to be placed under its supervision, and the priests were to resume functions that had long been left to surrogates. The renewed importance of the Shintō priesthood and the insistence on separating Shintō from Buddhism were made more explicit four days later when Shintō priests who served concomitantly as Buddhist priests were ordered to yield their Buddhist ranks and positions, give up their Buddhist robes, and let their hair grow out.

For more than a thousand years, most Japanese had believed simultaneously in both Shintō and Buddhism despite the inherent contradictions between the two religions. For example, according to Shintō belief, the present world is lovely and a source of joy, but yomi [黄泉 lit. ‘yellow springs’], the world after death, is a place of foulness and corruption. According to Buddhist texts, on the contrary, this world (shaba [娑婆 lit. ‘old-woman old-woman’!]) is a place of trial and suffering, but one’s actions in this life can enable one to enjoy after death the joys of paradise. These and other fundamental differences were generally minimized by those who discussed religious matters. Instead, the doctrine of honji suijaku [本地垂迹 ‘original-land hanging-trace’], which explained the Shintō divinities as avatars in Japan of the eternal Buddhist divinities, was widely accepted. In keeping with the projected return to the system of religion and government that had prevailed in the time of Jimmu, the first emperor, Buddhism, a foreign religion, was now rejected and even persecuted.

Even during the long period when Buddhism played a far more prominent role in the state and emperors regularly entered Buddhist orders and were known posthumously by their “temple names” (in []), Shintō was never neglected by the imperial family. The most important rites performed by the emperor were those of Shintō, beginning each year with shihōhai [四方拝], the ceremony of worship of the four directions, carried out at four o’clock on the morning of New Year’s Day. The emperor prayed to the star under which he was born, to the gods of heaven and earth of the four directions, and to the tombs of his father and mother for abundant crops, a long reign, and peace in the realm—all benefits in this world, in keeping with Shintō’s this-worldly outlook. Mention of the star under which the emperor was born was an indication that the Shintō rituals had been greatly influenced by Taoism. The court was dependent on on’yōji [陰陽師], priests of yin and yang, for predictions by divination of good or bad fortune. No action of consequence was undertaken in the palace without consulting an on’yōji.

Japanese religious life at the commencement of the Meiji era included elements of Shintō, Buddhist, Taoist, and other beliefs as well as what might be called superstitions. The decision to accord special importance to Shintō, and especially to the Jingikan, was, of course, closely connected with the enhanced importance of the emperor, who, according to Shintō belief, stood at the apex of the world.

The ritual accompanying the emperor’s pronouncement of the Charter Oath was entirely Shintō.

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Kalakaua Visits Meiji, 1881

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 346-347:

On February 23 the emperor had word from John Bingham, the American minister, that King Kalakaua of Hawaii would be arriving in Japan on a round-the-world journey. The king would be traveling incognito, but he had some state business to transact: he wished to encourage Japanese migration to Hawaii and to sign a treaty with the Japanese government. He was accordingly treated as a state visitor, and Prince Yoshiaki was appointed as the commissioner for the visit. Two other officials were charged with entertaining the king.

Kalakaua arrived in Yokohama on March 4. He was greeted with twenty-one-gun salutes by Japanese and foreign warships anchored in the bay. When the boat sent by the Japanese to take the Hawaiians from the Oceanic to their hotel touched shore, they heard the Hawaiian national anthem, played with explosive vigor by a Japanese military band. They were astonished that the Japanese musicians had learned the anthem of so remote and unimportant a country. The king and the others of his retinue, touched, were all but in tears. Along the way to the palace where they were to stay, they noticed that the houses of Yokohama were decorated with crossed Japanese and Hawaiian flags. The king and his party were stunned by the welcome.

Kalakaua traveled to Tōkyō the next day aboard the imperial train and, after receiving an official reception at Shimbashi Station, proceeded directly to the Akasaka Palace. The emperor, following the etiquette of European courts that requires a monarch to receive a visiting monarch at the threshold of his palace, went to a room close to the entrance of the palace to meet his royal visitor. He was resplendent in a dress uniform studded with medals. The two monarchs shook hands. The Hawaiians, having been informed that the emperor normally did not shake hands, interpreted the gesture as a special honor. The two monarchs, after exchanging formal greetings, walked side by side into an interior room. W. N. Armstrong, the king’s chamberlain and the chronicler of his journey around the world, had heard that because of his divine origin, the emperor had never before permitted anyone to walk by his side; even the empress followed him. “But, for the first time in his own reign, and in those of his predecessors, he walked by the side of his kingly guest.”

The empress was waiting for the royal visitor in the audience chamber. Meiji presented Kalakaua to the empress. “She did not rise, but returned the king’s salutation with the least movement of her head and eyes.” Sueko, the daughter of Inoue Kaoru, who had spent several years in England, served as her interpreter. (Armstrong wrote that she spoke perfect English.) Refreshments were served, but the Hawaiians, having been previously informed that they should not eat in the presence of the emperor, declined them.

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Japan’s Two Capitals

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 188-189:

Earlier in 1869 when Emperor Meiji was about to leave for his second visit to Tōkyō, the people of Kyōto had been informed that he would return to their city in April or May of the following year and would celebrate his Daijō-e [大嘗会 ‘great tasting meeting’ = Daijō-sai ‘great tasting ceremony’] there in the winter of that year. This announcement had quieted their anxiety, only for them to be informed in the spring of 1870 that the emperor’s return to Kyōto had been unavoidably delayed because of unsettled conditions in parts of the country and the pressure of state business. A year later, on May 15, 1871, it was announced that the Daijō-e would be performed in Tōkyō instead. On May 24 Major Counselor Tokudaiji Sanetsune was sent as a special envoy to Kyōto to report to the tomb of Emperor Kōmei [Meiji’s father] that conditions in the world and an increased burden of state duties had compelled the emperor to postpone his return to Kyōto. Tokudaiji also visited the empress dowager and informed her that the emperor’s return to Kyōto would be delayed for several years.

The emperor did not in fact return to Kyōto (except for brief visits) until 1877. At no point was it officially announced that the capital was now Tōkyō and not Kyōto. All the same, when Meiji at last returned to Kyōto, his journey was characterized as gyōkō [行幸 ‘go luck’], a going away from his residence, rather than as kankō [還幸 ‘return luck’], a return to his residence, the term used when he returned to Kyōto from Tōkyō in 1868. By 1877 Tōkyō was functionally the capital of Japan, not only because it was the seat of the emperor and all organs of the government, but also because the foreign legations were situated there. However, the government hesitated to make this official, perhaps fearing the reactions of the people of Kyōto. Meiji would be buried in Kyōto, and the coronation of his son, Emperor Taishō, would also take place there in 1915, suggesting the persistence of the belief that in certain respects anyway, Kyōto was still the capital. It might even be argued, in the absence of a proclamation to the contrary, that Kyōto remains to this day the capital of Japan.

This must have been a confusing time for early railway timetable makers. Nowadays, trains “ascend” toward Tokyo, but “descend” away from Tokyo. However, the Kyoto Railway Museum displays an old timetable (from the 1870s or 1880s) whereon “ascending” destinations include Osaka, Himeji, and Maibara to the south, while “descending” destinations include Kanazawa, Toyama, Niigata, and Ueno (in Tokyo) to the north.

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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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