The New Student's Reference Work/Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan

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The New Student's Reference Work
Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan


Mutsuhito (mo͝ot′ so͝o-hē′ tṓ), Emperor of Japan (1868–1912.)  With the “Era of Enlightened Peace” of Japan, which dates from 1868, will always be associated the name of the famous emperor whose reign coincided with the renaissance of the empire.  Cromwell, Washington and Diaz refused crowns, but to Mutsuhito belongs the singular distinction of resigning despotic power.  In all recorded history there is no other instance of voluntary relinquishment of an autocracy held in one family for 25 centuries.  The constitution of Japan is a gift from the throne, in a time of peace, under no pressure of revolution or external coercion, to a people who were deliberately educated in the proper understanding and use of it.

The story of Mutsuhito’s life is one of wildest romance.  He was born on November 3, 1852, in the temple-palace of Kioto. This old sacred capital of Japan is an inland city near the southern extremity of Nippon Island, 250 miles from Yedo (Tokyo) where the shogun had his court and citadel.  Hemmed in by streams and mountains, walled and forbidden, it was an isolated city of palaces, temples, shrines and pleasure-gardens, inhabited by nobles of imperial ancestry.  The emperor’s palace stood in a great walled park guarded by nobles, Shinto priests and royal samurai.  Here, in the middle of the 19th century, the crown-prince Mutsuhito grew up in such hermit-seclusion as surrounds only the Grand Llama of Tibet in the monastery palace of Lhasa to-day.  He was the 123d of a royal line that (it is alleged) ran back to Emperor Jimmu, 600 B. C., and was the living representative of gods who created Dai Nippon for a throne in the sea.  He was a sacred person into whose presence only a few of exalted rank could be admitted.  For two centuries and a half the emperors had lived thus, “behind the screen,” leaving the task of governing and defending the empire to the military chieftain or shogun.  The shogunate had become hereditary in the Tokugawa family and a despotic military dictatorship established over the empire.  To the common people their emperor was an invisible, semi-mythical deity to whom they addressed prayers in Shinto temples.  No murmur of the civil wars that raged in Japan for more than two centuries penetrated the imperial hermitage; no foreign wares of the Portuguese and Dutch who traded in Nagasaki in the 16th century were spread before them; no echo of the eloquence of St. Francis Xavier who preached in the streets of Kioto in the 17th century reached the recluse.

The little crown-prince who was to figure in such startling changes was in his third year when Commodore Perry forced the shogun to open the harbor of Yedo to American trade.  In 1865 daring young nobles, leaders of the revolution, who had returned from abroad with a definite and complete program of deposing the shogun and forming a modern empire, decided to take Kioto by assault and restore the emperor to active rulership.  They revered him and everything in the ancient history of Japan that he stood for.  As a matter of wise public policy they knew that only around the sacred person of his majesty would all the warring clans of the country unite; only against him would the shogun be powerless, only to him as the supreme authority would foreign powers defer.  Nevertheless, they were determined to form the mind of their young ruler and to model Japan after western governments.  They got near enough to fire the sacred city but were driven back by the forces of the shogun.  The imperial court watched the flames from the palace-walls, watched them die down, but they could not have known the cause or meaning of the conflagration.  The emperor died on Feb. 3, 1867, unaware that the war-vessels of 18 powers were anchored in the harbors of Japan, the empire rent by revolution, the shogun tottering to a final fall.  He left a 15-year-old successor who knew as little of all these startling changes as we know of the planet Mars.

The leaders of the revolution let the foreigners into the secret that they had been hoaxed and that the supreme authority over Japan was not in the shogun but in the hermit-emperor at Kioto.  The fleets sailed away to Osaka, the port of Kioto, to support the revolution.  The city was stormed, the palace-wall scaled, the boy emperor whisked out by night to the neighboring castle of Nijo and then, in what bewilderment may be imagined, took the oath to carry out the national will of Japan.  Then he was whirled away to Yedo, which was forthwith christened Tokyo or Eastern Capital, blinking in the light of an amazing day.  The shogun abdicated and the mikado was set up on the temporal throne of an oriental empire that was committed to policies of reform, progress, representative government and friendly relations with a world which, he learned, is round and inhabited by many peoples who had power to coerce Japan.  That the young ruler was a man of remarkable intellect and character is proved by the rapidity with which he adjusted himself to kaleidoscopic changes.  From a contemplative recluse set apart for the worship of a people he became a modern man of tireless activity and democratic ideas.  He was fortunate in being surrounded by wise and patriotic advisers.  Under their direction he made no mistakes, and he was so apt and eager a pupil that in a few years he was the real impetus in the forward march of the empire.  He went about the capital in western dress, like any European sovereign drove in public with the empress, and entered Crown-Prince Yoshihito in the public university.  In the Japanese empire he occupied a place similar to that of Queen Victoria over the British.  He had no political bias.  The power of veto rests in the premier and the imperial council.

Dying in his 60th year, every one of Emperor Mutsuhito’s seven decades of life had seen dramatic changes.  The first was the hermit life.  In the second the revolution stripped him of spiritual, but restored his family to temporal, power.  The third decade he was engaged in directing national consolidation and evolution into a constitutional government.  In the fourth he deliberately limited his own prerogatives and powers, and launched the new ship of a self-governing state.  In the fifth he waged war with China over a threatened Chinese protectorate in Korea, relieved his empire from consular courts and recovered the right to regulate foreign trade.  In the sixth his armies defeated one of the greatest western powers.  He died at Tokio, July 30, 1912 and was succeeded by the crown prince Yoshihito who was born Aug. 31, 1879.

In person Emperor Mutsuhito was tall, as compared with the Japanese people.  In mind he was described as sagacious, progressive, aspiring.  In a similar situation he might have been another Peter the Great of Russia and, unaided, have forced a greater measure of civilization on an unready people.  In manner he had the traditional affability of the Japanese, was a student of history, politics and literature, and a poet whose verses were frequently translated for their beauty of form and thought.  Thoroughly in sympathy with the ideas and ambitions of modern Japan, he cooperated in forwarding them with rare intelligence and patriotism.  Voluntarily resigning the right to rule, he won from a grateful, loyal people whose task he made easy, the right to reign over them, secured peace to the empire and peaceful succession to his descendants.  From every view point he presents one of the most kingly figures in history.  See Japan.