Like any great story, history prefers that its leading men (and women) have some sparkle, whether a foible (Henry VIII’s marital tangles; Napoleon’s alleged complex about his diminutive stature) or the ability to turn a pithy phrase (Archimedes’ “Eureka!”; Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”). Cause for wonder, then, that Sachinomiya, later Mutsuhito, later Emperor Meiji, ruler of Japan 1867-1912, is the subject of an expansive new biography by one of our foremost scholars of Japan, Donald Keene.
The Emperor was, by all accounts, a singularly colorless individual. Shortly after his death, men who had known him were asked for their recollections of the former ruler; those of the politician and diplomat Nobuaki Makino seem most to the point: “The Emperor had almost no private side to him. He also had no preferences . . . everything was done because it was necessary for the nation . . . He led almost no life apart from his work.”
Is this book, then, 922 pages of a pretty dull read? Far from it. Emperor Meiji reigned for 45 years; not only were they the most decisive years of Japan’s millennia-long existence, they were also without precedent among the history of nations. In a few short decades, a feudal society with a military ruler was transformed into an industrialized constitutional monarchy.
It is an engrossing tale, and Keene tells it in meticulous detail — year by year, and even, at times, day by day. Striving to get close to both the Emperor and his time (the book’s subtitle is “Meiji and His World, 1852-1912”), his principal source is the “Meiji tenno ki (Record of the Emperor Meiji).” This source allows Keene to unfold his narrative with remarkable precision, though being an official, sanctioned chronicle and, moreover, one focused on Imperial household business, it is inevitably a partial account.
Keene has certainly striven to fill in the gaps — in particular, the book’s early chapters are a fascinating sketch of the curious figure of Emperor Meiji’s father, Emperor Komei, and of the obscure diversions of a forgotten Imperial household. Emperor Komei, we learn, was a choleric man and a fervid xenophobe; his days appear to have been equally divided between composing tanka and penning ferocious letters to his ministers warning against opening relations with the “Western barbarians” who “imperiled the Divine Land.”
Likewise, Keene knows when to be silent. His description of the restoration itself, which returned power to the Imperial family, is economical. He does not chart the every engagement of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, the two great victories of the Meiji Era that played as important a part — if not more of one — as the promulgation of a constitution and the establishment of the Diet in winning Japan admission to the elite club of the world’s Great Powers. Keene’s purpose here is not military history, for all that modern Japan was forged in the heat of its military successes and defeats.
Into the onward march of narrative — and progress — break a few lighter moments, many related to the fads that swept Japan’s elite as it embraced “Westernization.” Keene unearths an enthusiastic tanka by Empress Shoken on the unlikely subject of “Torpedo Fire,” composed in 1886 after the Imperial couple observed naval maneuvers. And there is a delightful set-piece on the heyday of the Rokumeikan, a Western-style building for the entertainment of foreign dignitaries, where young Japanese ladies wearing white muslin dresses and elbow gloves danced the quadrille, polka and mazurka to tunes played by the army and navy bands.
Completed in November 1883, at a cost of 180,000 yen (the new Foreign Ministry building had cost a mere 40,000 yen), the Rokumeikan was intended to showcase the “new” Japan. In the eyes of those they were meant to impress, however, the Rokumeikan balls were — as the French author and traveler Pierre Loti cruelly remarked — “simply a monkey show . . . a contemptible imitation [that] . . . reveals that this people has no taste and is absolutely lacking in national pride.”
For all such diversionary inclusions, there is also — perhaps inevitably, in a narrative of this scope — a great deal that has been omitted. One area that would have merited further attention is how life changed for the average Japanese during the country’s sweeping modernization. For a study professing to be the biography of an age, as well as its ruler, this account gives its reader little information about the impact of Emperor Meiji’s reign on his subjects — for whom he never ceased to profess care and concern. “When I put on layers of figured silk and brocade, I think of those who have not even sleeves to keep off the cold,” he wrote in one poem.
Keene also denies himself the historian’s benefit of hindsight, and the result can be jarring at times. The national pride felt in Osaka’s emerging industrial might is several times alluded to — Emperor Meiji himself wrote a celebratory song describing how in the city “smoke rises, obscuring the sunlight” — but mention of the devastating poisoning caused by copper mines at Ashio is virtually the only indication of how Japan’s soon-to-be world-beating economic might was bought at a terrible environmental price.
This unwillingness to draw back the veil of time concealing the future repercussions of retold actions is particularly frustrating in the area of international relations. One outstanding aspect of this book is the detail with which Keene charts Japan’s ever-more domineering relations with Korea. Toward the end of the account comes a description of Japan’s formal annexation of the Chosen kingdom in 1910, the culminating act in the steady Japanese encroachment on Korean territory, commerce and governance. Keene summarizes the consequences of annexation and concludes: “Although it should have been easy to predict, no one seems to have feared the worst aspect of the annexation: that the Japanese in Korea would conduct themselves with the arrogance of a master race, and the Koreans, in order to survive under Japanese rule, would have to learn how to please the Japanese.” Keene’s comments induce in the reader a shock of recollection as to what comes next. It is an effective moment, and one wishes there were more like it.
Ironically, it was the arrival at the Meiji court of a young Korean prince that seemed belatedly to awake real warmth in the aging monarch — a distant father to his own, only-surviving son, the sickly future Emperor Taisho. Ten-year-old Yi Eun, son of the Korean emperor, arrived in Tokyo in 1907, ostensibly to receive a Japanese schooling but effectively to serve as a hostage during the negotiations that would lead to annexation. Improbably, the Emperor took an intense liking to the boy, giving him gifts that included a cricket bat and a telescope, and allowing him, in 1909, to participate in the Imperial family’s ritual New Year greetings in the Phoenix Hall.
The following year, Yi Eun’s father resigned his kingdom to the Japanese. When Emperor Meiji died two years after that, Yi Eun did not leave Japan; he eventually enjoyed a distinguished career as a Japanese Army officer. The Emperor’s evident affection for the young boy is one of the very few, and perhaps the most telling, of the scant personal insights that Keene recovers from the official record.
After Emperor Meiji’s death, Viscount Kototada Fujinami asked permission of the Empress Dowager to ascertain the deceased man’s height, perhaps in order to prepare funeral clothes. When younger, the Emperor had been described as a “tall youth” by the Englishman A.B. Mitford (who, with his master, the envoy Sir Harry Parkes, was perhaps the first foreigner ever to glimpse a Japanese emperor). Thereafter, his imposing bearing was remarked upon by foreign dignitaries and Japanese alike. By the viscount’s reckoning, however, the Emperor was a modest 162 cm — far from tall, even in those days.
It is a fitting revelation. The world never really got the measure of Emperor Meiji: not during his lifetime, nor — despite the best efforts of this fascinating study — has it done so yet.