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Emperor Meiji

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 returned the emperor to prominence after centuries of rule by the shogun and ushered in a period of modernization and expansion. In 1867, the Komei Emperor died and was succeeded by his minor son Mutsuhito. Tokugawa Yoshinobu (or Keiki), reluctantly became head of the Tokugawa house and shogun. He tried to reorganize the government under the emperor while preserving the shogun's leadership role. Fearing the growing power of the Satsuma and Choshu daimyo, other daimyo called for returning the shogun's political power to the emperor and a council of daimyo chaired by the former Tokugawa shogun. Keiki accepted the plan in late 1867 and resigned, announcing an "imperial restoration."

The emperor emerged as a national symbol of unity in the midst of reforms that were much more radical than had been envisioned. Mutsuhito, who was to reign until 1912, selected a new reign title -- Meiji, or Enlightened Rule -- to mark the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. To further dramatize the new order, the capital was relocated from Kyoto, where it had been situated since 794, to Tokyo (Eastern Capital), the new name for Edo. The Meiji oligarchy was a privileged clique that exercised imperial power, sometimes despotically. The members of this class were adherents of kokugaku and believed they were the creators of a new order as grand as that established by Japan's original founders.

With the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, thus relocating the capital to the latter city. Those people who wanted to end Tokugawa rule did not envision a new government or a new society; they merely sought the transfer of power from Edo to Kyoto while retaining all their feudal prerogatives. Instead, a profound change took place. The emperor emerged as a national symbol of unity in the midst of reforms that were much more radical than had been envisioned. The first reform was the promulgation of the Charter Oath in 1868, a general statement of the aims of the Meiji leaders to boost morale and win financial support for the new government.

The 1873 Korean crisis resulted in the resignation of military expedition proponents Saigo and Councillor of State Eto Shimpei (1834-74). Eto, the founder of various patriotic organizations, conspired with other discontented elements to start an armed insurrection against government troops in Saga, the capital of his native prefecture in Kyushu in 1874. Charged with suppressing the revolt, Okubo swiftly crushed Eto, who had appealed unsuccessfully to Saigo for help. Three years later, the last major armed uprising--but the most serious challenge to the Meiji government -- took shape in the Satsuma Rebellion, this time with Saigo playing an active role. The Saga Rebellion and other agrarian and samurai uprisings mounted in protest to the Meiji reforms had been easily put down by the army. Satsuma's former samurai were numerous, however, and they had a long tradition of opposition to central authority. Saigo, with some reluctance and only after more widespread dissatisfaction with the Meiji reforms, raised a rebellion in 1877. Both sides fought well, but the modern weaponry and better financing of the government forces ended the Satsuma Rebellion. Although he was defeated and committed suicide, Saigo was not branded a traitor and became a heroic figure in Japanese history. The suppression of the Satsuma Rebellion marked the end of serious threats to the Meiji regime but was sobering to the oligarchy.

The feudal system was abolished, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and constitutional government along quasi-parliamentary lines. In 1898, the last of the "unequal treaties" with Western powers was removed, signaling Japan's new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades, by creating modern social, educational, economic, military, and industrial systems, the Meiji Emperor's "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power.

The Meiji emperor died early on 30 July 1912. On that same day, his body was placed in a coffin, and for the next fortnight, women of the court served him three meals a day. His encoffined body was then transferred to the confines of the hinkyu mortuary hall within the palace. Here, offerings of sakaki, rice, and water were placed before him to quell his potentially troubled spirit. How his body was preserved during the intense summer heat is unclear, but he remained in the mortuary hall for another month. His son, Emperor Taisho, then paid his final respects, and Meiji's spirit was transferred to the koreiden, an ancestral shrine in the palace ritual complex. His body was now carried from the palace on an ox-drawn hearse southwest across Tokyo to the funeral hall, or sojoden, erected in the Aoyama parade ground.

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