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119th Sovereign, Emperor Kokaku (AD 1780-1816)

The Emperor Kokaku ascended the throne in 1780 and abdicated in 1816. He was undoubtedly a wise sovereign and as a classical scholar he won considerable renown. After reigning for thirty-six years, he administered State affairs from the Palace of Retirement during twenty-four years, and throughout that long interval of sixty years, the country enjoyed profound peace. emperor, Kokaku's name is worth mentioning because he was "a sovereign of great sagacity." Therefore, "the age is generally spoken of as that of the wise Emperor in the West [Kioto] and of the clever Treasurer in the East [Yedo]."

On the death of Gomomozono without male issue, a Council was held to appoint a successor. In default of a direct heir it became necessary to have recourse to one of the "Four Princely Families," and the choice fell upon Prince Tomohito, representing the Kanin house. The Ex-Empress wished to elevate Sadayoshi, 18th head of the house of Fushimi, but the Kwambaku Konoe-no-Hisazane insisted that Tomohito, one of the younger sons of Sukehito, second Prince Kauin and great grandson Higashiyama, whose reputed mother was Fusako-nai Shinno, daughter of Nakamikado and great aunt of Gomomozono, was the nearest blood relation and caused him to succeed. The Emperor being only 10, Hisazane became Sessei.

The emperor Kokaku enjoyed a long reignfrom 1780 to 1816. The Shoguu Iyenori held the reins of power in Yedo for half a century, from 1787 to 1837, and was consequently contemporary not only with the emperor Kokaku, of whose long reign I have just spoken, but likewise with his successor, the emperor Ninko, whose reign began in 1817 and continued down to 1846. The history of their time shows plainly enough that the beginning of the end of the long and prosperous domination of the Tokugawas was already appearing.

One of its early incidents was the removal from office of the corrupt minister, Tanuma, and the appointment in his place of Matsudaira-Sadanobu. The new minister effected great economies, corrected many abuses, and appointed to the offices of the state the most capable men he could find. His general direction of the administration, under the Shogun Iyenori, was excellent.

In the first year of Kokaku's reign a famine ravaged Japan, and it is recorded that the district of Yonesawa escaped from its effects by virtue of the administrative excellence of the governing prince, who distinguished himself above all others by the wise economies which he practised, and, at the same time, by the substantial encouragements which he bestowed upon the culture of tea, of the silkworm, etc., and also upon letters and the fine arts. But the most important events of this reign, as observed from the standpoint now occupied by us, were the repeated unsuccessful demands of Russian vessels to trado with Japan, the attack by Russians of a Japanese garrison in the island of Yezo, and the consequent attention which was given to the coast defences of the country by the minister Sadanobu. Important for like reasons was the great spread of the Dutch language in Japan which became observable in this reign, many scientific works being translated from Dutch into Japanese, and the number of students of the foreign tongue increasing from day to day.

The period of Sadanobu's service as prime minister of the Bakufu coincided with the middle of Kokaku's reign, and in those days of happiness and prosperity men were wont to say that with a wise sovereign in the west a wise subject had appeared in the east. Up to that time the relations between Kyoto and Yedo were excellent, but Sadanobu's resignation and the cause that led to it produced between the two Courts a breach which contributed materially, though indirectly, to the ultimate fall of the Tokugawa.

The shogun's father, Hitotsubashi Harunari, moved into the western citadel of Yedo Castle, and thenceforth the great reforms which Sadanobu had effected by the force of genius and unflagging assiduity, were quickly replaced by an age of retrogression, so that posterity learned to speak of the prodigality of the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1829), instead of the frugality of the Kwansei (1789-1800). As for the shogun, Ienari, he received from the Throne the highest rank attainable by a subject, together with the office of daijo-daijin. Such honor was without precedent since the time of Ieyasu. Ienari had more than fifty daughters, all born of different mothers, from which fact the dimensions of his harem may be inferred.

The courts of Yedo and Kioto appear to have been on good terms, for upon the imperial palace in Kyoto being burnt down, Sadanobu, by Iyenori's orders, rebuilt it on a far larger scale and with greater splendor than before. After the great fire of 1788, the Bakufu, acting at the instance of their prime minister, ordered Sadanobu to supervise the work of reconstructing the Imperial palace. Since the days of Oda and Toyotomi, the palace had been rebuilt or extensively repaired on several occasions, but always the plans had been too small for the requirements of the orthodox ceremonials. Sadanobu determined to correct this fault. He called for plans and elevations upon the bases of those of the tenth century, and from the gates to the roofs he took care that everything should be modelled on the old lines. The edifices are said to have been at once chaste and magnificent, the internal decorations being from the brushes of the best artists of the Tosa and Sumiyoshi Academies. Sealed estimates had been required from several leading architects, and Sadanobu surprised his colleagues by awarding the work to the highest bidder, on the ground that cheapness could not consist with true merit in such a case, and that any thought of cost would evince a want of reverence towards the Imperial Court.

The buildings were finished in two years, and the two Emperors, the reigning and the retired, took up their residence there. His Majesty Kokaku rewarded the shogun with an autograph letter of thanks as well as a verse of poetry composed by himself, and on Sadanobu he conferred a sword and an album of poems. The shogun Ienari is said to have been profoundly gratified by this mark of Imperial favor. He openly attributed it to Sadanobu's exertions, and he presented to the latter a facsimile of the autograph letter.

The new era name of Kansei (meaning "Tolerant Government" or "Broad-minded Government") was created to mark a number of calamities including a devastating fire at the Imperial Palace. The previous era ended and a new one commenced in Tenmei 9, on the 25th day of the 1st month. The closing years of the eighteenth century are known in Japan as "the Kwansei Peace," from the era which extended from 1789 to 1800, which were far from peaceful years in Europe. The broad panoply of changes and new initiatives of the Tokugawa shogunate during this era became known as the Kansei Reforms. The Shogun greatly increased the university of Shohei, and threw it open for courses of public instruction, to which every one was admissible. The spread of public instruction had, in fact, by this time become, under the fostering care of the Tokugawa Shoguns, a subject of rivalry among the provinces and local governors of Japan.

Then occured what is known in history as Songo-no-Jiken. In the very year (1791) following the Emperor's entry into the new palace, a most untoward incident occurred. Up to that time the relations between the Courts of Kyoto and Yedo had left nothing to be desired, but now a permanent breach of amity took place. The sovereign was the son of Prince Tsunehito, head of the Kanin family. This prince, in spite of his high title, was required by Court etiquette to sit below the ministers of State on ceremonial occasions in the palace. Such an order of precedence offended the sovereign, and his Majesty proposed that the rank of dajo tenno should be given to his father, thus placing him in the position of a retired Emperor. Of course it was within the prerogative of the Emperor to confer titles. The normal procedure would have been to give the desired rank to Prince Tsunehito, and then to inform the Bakufu of the accomplished fact. But, in consideration of the very friendly relations existing between the two Courts, the sovereign seems to have been unwilling to act on his own initiative in a matter of such importance.

Yedo was consulted, and to the surprise of Kyoto, the Bakufu prime minister assumed an attitude hostile to the Court's desire. The explanation of this singular act on Sadanobu's part was that a precisely analogous problem perplexed Yedo simultaneously. When Ienari was nominated shogun, his father, Hitotsubashi Harunari, fully expected to be appointed guardian of the new potentate, and being disappointed in that hope, he expressed his desire to receive the title of o-gosho (retired shogun), so that he might enter the western citadel of Yedo Castle and thence administer affairs as had been done by ex-Emperors in Kyoto for hundreds of years, and by ex-shoguns on several occasions under the Tokugawa. Disappointed in this aspiration, Harunari, after some hesitation, invited the attention of the shogun to the fact that filial piety is the basis of all moral virtues, and that, whereas the shogun's duty required him to set a good example to the people, he subjected his own father to unbecoming humiliation. Ienari referred the matter to the State council, but the councillors hesitated to establish the precedent of conferring the rank of o-gosho on the head of one of the Sankyo families Tayasu, Shimizu, and Hitotsubashi who had never discharged the duties of shogun.

The prime minister, Sadanobu, however, had not a moment's hesitation in opposing Harunari's project. He did, indeed, order a well-known Confucian scholar to search the annals in order to find whether any precedent existed for the proposed procedure, either in Japan or in China, but he himself declared that if such an example were set in the shogun's family, it might be the cause of grave inconvenience among the people. In other words, a man whose son had been adopted into another family might claim to be regarded as the head of that family in the event of the death of the foster-father. It is certain, however, that other and stronger reasons influenced the Bakufu prime minister. Hitotsubashi Harunari was generally known as Wagamama Inkyo (the Wayward Recluse1). His most intimate friends were the shogun's father-in-law, Shimazu Ei-O, and Ikeda Isshinsai. The latter two were also inkyo and shared the tastes and foibles of Harunari. One of their greatest pleasures was to startle society. Thus, when Sadanobu was legislating with infinite care against prodigality of any kind, the above three old gentlemen loved to organize parties on an ostentatiously extravagant scale, and Sadanobu naturally shrank from seeing the title of d-gosho conferred on such a character, thus investing him with competence to interfere arbitrarily in the conduct of State affairs.

Just at this time, the Court in Kyoto preferred its application, and Sadanobu at once appreciated that if the rank of dajo tenno were conferred on Prince Tsunehito, it would be impossible to withhold that of o-gosho from Harunari. Consequently the Bakufu prime minister wrote' privately to the Kyoto prime minister, Takatsukasa Sukehira, pointing out the inadvisability of the proposed step. This letter, though not actually an official communication, had the effect of shelving the matter for a time, but, in 1791, the Emperor re-opened the question, and summoned a council in the palace to discuss it. The result was that sixty-five officials, headed by the prime minister and the minister of the Right, supported the sovereign's views, but the ex-premier, Takatsukasa Sukehira, and his son, the minister of the Left, with a few others, opposed them.

The proceedings of this council with an autograph covering-letter from the sovereign were sent to the Bakufu, in 1792, but for a long time no answer was given. Meanwhile Prince Tsunehito, already an old man, showed signs of declining health, and the Imperial Court pressed Yedo to reply. Ultimately the Bakufu officially disapproved the project. No statement of reasons accompanied the refusal, but it was softened by a suggestion that an increase of revenue might be conferred on the sovereign's father. This already sufficiently contumelious act was supplemented by a request from the Bakufu that the Imperial Court should send to Yedo the high secretary and the chief of the Household.

Unwillingly the Court complied, and after hearing the arguments advanced by these two officials, Sadanobu sentenced them to be placed in confinement for a hundred days, and fifty days, respectively, which sentence was carried out at the temple Seisho-ji in Yedo, and the two high officials were thereafter sent back to Kyoto under police escort. Ultimately they were both dismissed from office, and all the Court dignitaries who had supported the sovereign's wishes were cautioned not to associate themselves again with such "rash and unbecoming acts." It can scarcely be denied that Sadanobu exercised his power in an extreme and unwise manner on this occasion. A little recourse to tact might have settled the matter with equal facility and without open disrespect to the Throne.

But the Bakufu prime minister behaved after the manner of the deer-stalker of the Japanese proverb who does not see the mountain, and he thus placed in the hands of the Imperialist party a weapon which contributed materially to the overthrow of the Bakufu seventy years later. It has always been a common custom in Japan for the head of a family to retire nominally from active life after he attains his fiftieth year. His Majesty was a good classical scholar and an able ruler. After reigning for 36 years he resigned the sceptre to his son, but for 24 years more he busied himself with the affairs of Government. He is thenceforth known as inkyo (or recluse) - The same is true of women. It was during his reign that foreign countries again began to visit the coasts of Japan. Russia in particular sent two ambassadors, but it was the Bakufu and not the court that dealt with these matters.




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