Role of The Emperor in Meiji Japan

Japan is a society whose culture is steeped in the traditions
and symbols of the past: Mt. Fuji, the tea ceremony, and the sacred
objects of nature revered in Shintoism. Two of the most important
traditions and symbols in Japan; the Emperor and Confucianism have
endured through Shogunates, restorations of imperial rule, and up to
present day. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration used these
traditions to gain control over Japan and further their goals of
modernization. The Meiji leaders used the symbolism of the Emperor to
add legitimacy to their government, by claiming that they were ruling
under the "Imperial Will." They also used Confucianism to maintain
order and force the Japanese people to passively accept their rule.
Japanese rulers historically have used the symbolism of the
Imperial Institution to justify their rule. The symbolism of the
Japanese Emperor is very powerful and is wrapped up in a mix of
religion (Shintoism) and myths. According to Shintoism the current
Emperor is the direct descendent of the Sun Goddess who formed the
islands of Japan out of the Ocean in ancient times.Footnote1 According
to these myths the Japanese Emperor unlike a King is a living
descendent of the Gods and even today he is thought of as the High
Priest of Shinto. Despite the powerful myths surrounding Japan's
imperial institution the Emperor has enjoyed only figure head status
from 1176 on. At some points during this time the Emperor was reduced
to selling calligraphy on the streets of Kyoto to support the imperial
household, but usually the Emperor received money based on the
kindness of the Shogunate.Footnote2 But despite this obvious power
imbalance even the Tokugawa Shogun was at least symbolically below the
Emperor in status and he claimed to rule so he could carry out the
Imperial rule.Footnote3
Within this historical context the Meiji leaders realized
that they needed to harness the concept of the Imperial Will in
order to govern effectively. In the years leading up to 1868 members
of the Satsuma and Choshu clans were part of the imperialist
opposition. This opposition claimed that the only way that Japan could
survive the encroachment of the foreigners was to rally around the
Emperor.Footnote4 The Imperialists, claimed that the Tokugawa
Shogunate had lost its imperial mandate to carry out the Imperial Will
because it had capitulated to Western powers by allowing them to open
up Japan to trade. During this time the ideas of the imperialists
gained increasing support among Japanese citizens and intellectuals
who taught at newly established schools and wrote revisionist history
books that claimed that historically the Emperor had been the
ruler of Japan.Footnote5 The fact that the Tokugawa's policy of
opening up Japan to the western world ran counter to the beliefs of
the Emperor and was unpopular with the public made the Tokugawa
vulnerable to attack from the imperialists. The imperialists pressed
their attack both militarily and from within the Court of Kyoto. The
great military regime of Edo which until recently had been all
powerful was floundering not because of military weakness, or because
the machinery of government had broken but instead because the
Japanese public and the Shoguns supporters felt they had lost the
Imperial Will.Footnote6
The end of the Tokugawa regime shows the power of the
symbolism and myths surrounding the imperial institution. The
head of the Tokugawa clan died in 1867 and was replaced by the son of
a lord who was a champion of Japanese historical studies and who
agreed with the imperialists claims about restoring the Emperor.
Footnote7 So in 1868 the new shogun handed over all his power to the
Emperor in Kyoto. Shortly after handing over power to the Emperor, the
Emperor Komeo died and was replaced by his son who became the Meiji
Emperor.Footnote8 Because the Meiji Emperor was only 15 all the power
of the new restored Emperor fell not in his hands but instead in the
hands of his close advisors. These advisers such as Prince
Saionji, Prince Konroe, and members of the Satsuma and Choshu clans
who had been members of the imperialist movement eventually wound up
involving into the Meiji Bureaucracy and Genro of the Meiji
Era.Footnote9 Once in control of the government the Meiji Leaders and
advisors to the Emperor reversed their policy of hostility to
Foreigners.Footnote10 They did this because after Emperor Komeo (who
was