Childhood & Early Life
Born on November 3, 1852, in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, Kyoto, Yamashiro Province, Japan, Prince Mutsuhito was the son of Emperor Kōmei and his favourite lady-in-waiting, Nakayama Yoshiko.
Four of his five siblings died before reaching adulthood. Besides Mutsuhito, only his sister, Princess Suma (1859-1901) made it past infancy.
As consanguineous marriages were prevalent in the upper-class Japanese society at the time, the children born in the royal family suffered various effects of inbreeding. Mutsuhito was no exception.
While he never found out, he suffered from mandibular prognathism and spinal deformation. It was later discovered that his children had the same diseases as well.
He grew up at a time when Japan was undergoing several significant changes. One of these transformations was set off by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his American Naval squadron at Edo in July 1853.
Commodore Matthew Perry demanded Japan to allow international trade and threatened military repercussions if they did not accommodate. The shogunate reached out to the Imperial Court during the ensuing crisis, a step that they had not taken in the previous 250 years.
Mutsuhito’s father’s officials suggested that Japan should open up for international trade. They realised that their military could not possibly match up to the US military. As a result, the “Unequal Treaties” were signed between the two countries.
Not much is definitively known about the young prince’s childhood. While multiple accounts from later periods exist, they are more often than not contradictory.
On August 16, 1860, he was named Prince of the Blood and Heir to the Throne and underwent formal adoption by Empress Dowager Eishō. On 11 November, he was formally made the crown prince and received his adult name, Mutsuhito.
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Accession & Reign
For nearly seven centuries, Japan was governed by the shōgun, who were military dictators appointed by the emperors. The officials of these governments, who ran the country, were collectively known as the bakufu.
In the final years of Emperor Kōmei’s reign, the bakufu were struggling. Alongside people’s dissatisfaction with the governance and the threats of the foreign powers, the violent Shishi organization, comprised of large numbers of young samurai, emerged.
Whether Mutsuhito was aware of the political turmoil in his country is unknown. During this period, he mostly studied waka poetry. Kōmei passed away on January 30, 1867.
Meiji became the emperor on February 3, 1867. He inherited the political struggles that were raging during his father’s reign. At the time, the shōgun was Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who was involved in the incessant struggles with the Shishi and other rebel groups.
The political struggle culminated in the resignation of Yoshinobu in November 1867 and the restoration of the imperial rule. On April 7, 1868, Meiji formally received the Charter Oath, a five-point statement that provided the details of the new government. Promoted by the emperor, this document ended feudalism and introduced modern democracy in Japan.
Even after becoming the emperor, Meiji continued to be educated. His lessons on contemporary affairs began in 1871. His officials decided that he should have a more active public life.
In 1868, he came out of the imperial precincts for the first time since childhood to lead the government forces against the fleeing remnants of the bakufu army.
On September 19, 1868, the emperor declared that the city of Edo would be renamed as Tokyo, which means “eastern capital”. In 1889, Tokyo was made Japan’s capital.
His formal coronation took place in Kyoto on 15 October 1868. Not long after, he told the Japanese people that the new era, or nengō, would be referred to as Meiji or "enlightened rule". Before this, the emperors changed the nengō multiple times. During his reign, it was decided that only one nengō would be allowed per imperial tenure.
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Meiji sought to strengthen the country’s military, especially the navy. He sought and was granted more involvement in the administration. He was often present at government meetings and functions, though he rarely said anything.
In 1869, several daimyōs, who had backed the revolution, relinquished their rights to their land property. In exchange, the emperor made them governors. Within a year, all other daimyōs did the same.
Over the course of several years, the new government took away most of the privileges from the samurai class. The abolition of several other class-based distinctions also took place. In 1871, Japan was officially divided into 72 prefectures.
Despite the formation of a new parliament, it did not have any significant authority. The real power was transferred from the Tokugawa to those daimyōs and other samurai who had participated in the Restoration Movement. The country was turned into an oligarchy, which was run by the most powerful men of the military, political and economic spheres.
Initially, the revolutionaries set up a Council of State and then a system in which the government was helmed by three main ministers. In 1885, the post of “prime minister” was created.
Family & Personal Life
Not long after his coronation, Meiji married Ichijō Haruko, the daughter of an imperial official and three years his senior, on January 11, 1869. She became known posthumously as Empress Shōken and was the first Imperial Consort to be granted the title of kōgō or Empress Consort. She was also the first Imperial Consort to have an active public role. The couple did not have any children.
With his five official ladies-in-waiting, Meiji had 15 children. His successor, Haru-no-Miya Yoshihito (1879-1926), who posthumously became known as Emperor Taishō, was born to the lady-in-waiting Yanagihara Naruko. Besides Yoshihito, only four of his children made it to adulthood, including Princess Kane-no-miya Fusako (1890-1974) and Princess Yasu-no-miya Toshiko (1896-1978).
Death & Legacy
In 1910, the High Treason Incident, in which socialists and anarchist attempted to assassinate Meiji, took place. Most of the conspirators, including Shūsui Kōtoku, were executed.
Meiji had diabetes, nephritis, and gastroenteritis. He passed away due to uremia on 30 July 1912.
During his tenure, Japan underwent rapid changes, stepping out of its feudal past and into the modern future. There is a considerable amount of debate on how much Meiji contributed to it.
Some scholars believe that the emperor was just a figurehead without any real power, while others hold the view that he was an autocrat whose frequent overreaches of power and anti-democratic prejudices troubled the Genrō.
Several scholars even consider him to be an extremely individualistic and forthright person who was not controlled by anyone.