Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Monarch Profile: Emperor Komei of Japan

The Meiji Restoration is rightly regarded as one of the pivotal events in Japanese history. It was a turning point after which everything would be different and a critical shift away from the centuries-long rule of the shogunate in favor of the restoration of imperial power. Japan modernized, abandoned isolationism, became wealthy, powerful and one of the major world powers. However, these events have largely overshadowed the reign of the father of Emperor Meiji, the Emperor Komei, whose reign was almost just as pivotal. To a large extent, the events of the Meiji Restoration were set into motion during the reign of Emperor Komei. It was Emperor Komei who had to deal with the return of foreign peoples to the shores of Japan in a major way and it was the process of dealing with that which led directly to the restoration of imperial power and the downfall of the last shogun. The events of the Meiji era would likely have surprised Emperor Komei, but a careful inspection shows that his actions were critical in shaping those events.

Palace gate, Kyoto
Komei was born on July 23, 1831 to His Majesty Emperor Ninko, by tradition the 120th Emperor of Japan, and one of his concubines but who was, by tradition, regarded as the child of the Empress. Being the fourth son, he would not have been expected to inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne but, at a time when the imperial court at Kyoto relied solely on traditional Chinese medicine, sickness often took a heavy toll on the Imperial Family. By the time the future Emperor Komei was born, all of his older brothers had predeceased him and so he, Osahito (his given name) was crown prince. In fact, of the fifteen children of Emperor Ninko, only three lived beyond their third birthday. Emperor Komei would have six children and only one (Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor) would survive and of the fifteen children of the Meiji Emperor, only five would reach adulthood. Emperor Meiji himself might not have lived were it not for him being secretly vaccinated for smallpox with Dutch medicine smuggled into the Gosho in the imperial capital of Kyoto.

In keeping with tradition, Crown Prince Osahito (Komei) was raised on the Gosho, 220-acres enclosed by high walls in the city of Kyoto, dominated by the Heian Palace. The Emperor and his family were kept isolated, out of public view, regarded as too lofty, too sacred to be exposed to ordinary people or mundane affairs. They lived a cloistered life of ritual. Little Prince Osahito was taught by private tutors, an education dominated in those days by the “Classic of Filial Piety” by Confucius and traditional Japanese literature. Basic history and geography of the region were virtually the only other subjects deemed worth knowing anything about. There was leisure in the form of traditional entertainments but the Imperial Family lived a fairly austere life for such lofty individuals. They did not live lavishly like wealthy, powerful people but, while they certainly wanted for nothing, rather like members of a religious order in simple but beautiful confinement, though certainly with plenty of time for romance. Given the high mortality rate of Japanese princes and princesses, it was important that the Emperor father as many children as possible.

Emperor Komei
It came as a great shock when HM Emperor Ninko suddenly died in the morning, as the sun was rising, on February 23, 1846. He was only 46-years old, had always been healthy and had been bothered by what seemed no more than a cold. Then, one day, he found he could not walk and he died soon after. This was announced on March 13 and the following week Crown Prince Osahito was formally enthroned as His Majesty the Komei Emperor of Japan. The usual rituals followed but before the year was out, events would be set in motion that would result in dramatic changes. By the middle of October, word reached the new Emperor Komei that foreign ships had arrived at the Japanese capital. This was alarming but not too serious and the Emperor sent a formal message to the shogun about improving the naval and coastal defenses of the country. The Emperor then went to Iwashimizu Shrine to pray for peace and for the gods to spare Japan from anymore foreign ships.

These ships were most likely the American vessels of Commodore James Biddle who tried, and failed, to negotiate a trade agreement with a local Japanese official. A French warship also visited Japan the same year and in each case the response of Emperor Komei was the same, to go to Iwashimizu Shrine and pray for the gods to blow the foreign barbarians far away from ‘the Land of the Gods’. This would prove to be a lifelong concern for Emperor Komei and he never changed his position on it. Foreigners did not belong in Japan and their presence would not be tolerated. Occasionally, some circumstance would strand a foreigner on Japanese shores and the Emperor was not without compassion but they would be allowed to remain only until the first available opportunity to send them away. For Emperor Komei, other than a few bad omens and the usual, occasional, fires, floods or outbreaks of sickness, life carried on as before but the sighting of foreign ships seemed to be increasing and this was a growing concern.

For a time, life went on as usual, there were family matters to deal with, rituals to be observed and so on and then, on July 8, 1853, the “Black Ships” of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in the port of Uraga, near Edo (Tokyo). The standing order that all foreign ships must be expelled from Japanese waters was shown to Perry, but he refused to leave until he had delivered the message he carried from the President of the United States to a sufficiently high-ranking Japanese official. After being put off for a time, Perry threatened to send an armed landing party to deliver the message to the shogun himself if something was not done. This caused consternation in the Japanese hierarchy where the existing law forbid receiving any foreign communications. Told that the shogun was too ill to receive him, Perry was finally convinced to leave but promised to return for an answer the following year. None of this was immediately known in Kyoto but it caused an uproar in Edo among the Shogun and his advisers. Some favored opening relations with the Americans and other foreigners while others favored continued isolation.

Commodore Perry arrives in Japan
It was not until July 15, 1853 that an official announcement of these events was sent from the Shogun to the Emperor who immediately ordered seventeen days of prayers in seven shrines and seven temples for protection from the gods from the foreign devils. The local daimyos were also informed, given copies of the presidential letter but they had different opinions about how best to proceed. The daimyo of Fukuoka, Kuroda Nagahiro, advised opening up trade but only with America and the Russian Empire while strengthening Japanese coastal defenses and navy. At the moment, he warned, Japan was far too lacking in modern weaponry to risk the wrath of the major powers in Europe and America. If Japan did not open up a little, and modernize, they would be conquered. It was not until August that Emperor Komei himself was given the text of President Fillmore’s request for trade and diplomatic relations and, while some advised opening up only to America (perhaps in a similar way to their long-standing, arms-length relations with the Netherlands) the consensus was against it.

However, what was significant was that the imperial court asked that they be informed by the Shogun prior to his taking any action and the Shogun also asked for the advice of the imperial court which was something that had not happened in 250 years in Japan. This, seemingly small, interaction was the beginning of the shift toward the restoration of the imperial power. The Shogun would not be acting alone but would inform and take advise from the imperial court. The following month, Russian ships arrived in Nagasaki with a note from the Czar and threatened to go to Edo harbor (as the Americans had done) if they were not dealt with. The Japanese officials could not decide what to do and so simply delayed answering the Russians as long as possible. They were finally told that the Japanese government would have an answer in 3 to 5 years. These events caused more Japanese officials to decide that the country had to be opened, particularly after the Russians threatened to annex all of the northern islands if they received no satisfactory answer. The local officials finally convinced the Russians to leave but everyone was convinced that the situation was now serious.

The Shogun agreed that Japan at least needed to take naval defense more seriously and lifted the ban on the building of large ships and even went so far as to order several steam ships from the Dutch and authorized an official flag for Japanese ships to fly, of course, a red sun on a white field. When the Shogun died, Emperor Komei appointed his heir, Tokugawa Iesada, to succeed him along with the urging to drive away all the foreign ships. The new Shogun asked the Emperor to be free with his advise and promised to act according to the Emperor’s wishes at all times. The power shift was well underway. Afterward, Emperor Komei was annoyed that more was not being done to keep the foreigners away for good and sent inquiries about the state of the coastal and naval defenses. When a treaty was subsequently signed with the United States, the Emperor would likely have been outraged when he was informed but a major fire at the palace took up his attention. He was more alarmed when the Russians arrived at Osaka and Emperor Komei ordered the usual prayers as well as fasting which alarmed the public and local daimyos assembled forces to defend the area in case the Russians made a move.

A large earthquake and tsunami which occurred during the negotiations with Russia over opening trade and their northern border was seen by many as another sign of divine disfavor at dealing with the foreigners. Unknown to Emperor Komei, the shogun signed a treaty with the Russians, granting them even more concessions than they had to America, and the Emperor was furious when he found out. He wanted no concessions made to the foreigners at all, no interaction with them and objected to any foreign presence on Japanese soil at all. Still, foreigners continued to come and a Dutch commissioner warned the shogun that the old Japanese attitude was likely to lead to war if things did not change. He advised making trade agreements and lifting the ban on Christianity in the country. At a subsequent meeting of the shogun and his top officials, almost all agreed that Japan had to deal with the outside world. Isolationism would come to an end.

In 1857 the same Dutch commissioner who had warned of trouble if Japan continued to shun foreign contact, informed Japanese officials that the Great Qing Empire had just been defeated in the Opium War by the British, and rather humiliatingly so. Obviously a warning, the commissioner also told of how Shanghai, Canton, Fuchow and other port cities were prospering after being opened to trade. There were, of course, scholars in Japan who had studied information from the west, obtained by their limited contact with the Netherlands, that Japan was woefully behind in the latest technology, medicine, transportation, weaponry and industry and had long urged the government to adapt in order to survive. Emperor Komei, however, saw things in more spiritual terms. The very presence of the foreign barbarians was disturbing the peace of the “land of the gods” and continued to pray that they would all leave and never return. Despite being annoyed at the agreements signed by the shogun without his prior knowledge, the Emperor was given a generous allowance and was not looking to take government into his own hands. While others began to shout, “Respect the emperor and drive out the barbarians!”, Komei himself desired no change with the shogunate, he simply wanted life to go on as it had before the worrisome White demons had appeared off their shores.

Nonetheless, on December 7, 1857 the Shogun Tokugawa Iesada, received an envoy from U.S. President Franklin Pierce who had come to negotiate a permanent trade agreement. The envoy, Harris, warned that France or Britain might make a colony of Japan but that America had no desires beyond trade and diplomatic relations and offered to support Japan against the French or British if they started to become acquisitive. To further differentiate America from Britain, he also promised that American merchants would never sell opium in Japan. When word reached Emperor Komei of these happenings, he was less than pleased and became quite angry when he heard that one official was coming to bring him a large monetary gift. Clearly offended, he said that he could not be bribed, that he would lose the love of the people if he allowed interaction with the foreign devils and warned the other elites of the country not to allow themselves to be influenced by the promise of rewards for accepting relations with alien races.

Ise Grand Shrine
This, finally, led to an outright disagreement as the Shogun decided it would be best to sign a treaty with the United States but Emperor Komei refused to agree, saying it would be detrimental to Japan to have any further interaction with the foreign barbarians. The Emperor still left this political matter up to the Shogun but there were many powerful aristocrats in the country who also opposed any further interaction with the White demons. In 1858, Emperor Komei sent envoys to pray at the Grand Ise Shrine and other major shrines, asking the gods to send another “Divine Wind” to wipe away the foreigners if conflict should erupt and calling down divine retribution on the “disloyal” who favored opening Japan to interaction with the foreign nations. In fact, when Emperor Komei learned that a treaty had been signed with the United States without his prior knowledge or approval (the Shogun saying that there had not been time), he threatened to abdicate the throne, the most drastic act of which he was capable.

Emperor Komei was adamant that the presence of foreigners in Japan was unacceptable, that it was an affront to the gods and that all means necessary had to be employed to expel all foreign elements from the country. He even cast doubts on the imperial system itself, though, from the available information, it seems that this letter never reached the Shogun. Nonetheless, powerful officials in Japan began to align with the Emperor against the Shogun, furthering the division that would ultimately result in the restoration of the imperial power. Ultimately, Emperor Komei relented that the treaty with America had been necessary but he continued to express his displeasure with this state of affairs with the next shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi. He became increasingly free with his opinions and interacted more with the government than any emperor had done in centuries. He tried to intervene in judicial matters but was thwarted by the fact that he had no actual power and the shogun even carried out something of a purge against those who had been in sympathy with the emperor and opposed to the policies of the shogunate.

Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi
It is worth reiterating that the Emperor had never been opposed to the existing political system, still regarding his position as being above government and policy making, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that he could do nothing to change or halt government policies which he regarded as detrimental to the ‘national spirit’. A political marriage was arranged between an imperial princess (Kazu-no-Miya Chikako) and the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi and during the negotiations for this, the Shogun agreed that the foreigners would be expelled eventually but that greater unity was needed first and Japan had to upgrade and strengthen its military capability. Again, there was a threat of abdication if the Emperor did not gain greater input in national affairs and the bride-to-be backed up her brother in asserting conditions of her own. The result was an agreement that amounted to almost a sharing of power between the Shogun and the Emperor, another significant step in the process of restoring the imperial power.

Dissidents still associated themselves with the emperor, bemoaning the treaties the Shogun had signed with the foreign powers and the poor, backward state of the Japanese armed forces after such a long period of peace and isolation. Some began to go farther and urge Emperor Komei to take command of the country himself and even to demand tribute from the “five continents” of the rest of the world. This culminated, in 1863, with an imperial order from Emperor Komei to ‘expel the barbarians’. The Shogun had no intention of following such an order, fearing that it would result in immediate war with a number of countries that Japan could not hope to defeat in her current state, however, a number of ronin samurai took action on their own, attacking and assassinating foreigners in Japan as well as officials loyal to the Shogun.

One of those killed was Charles Lennox Richardson, an English merchant. When a Royal Navy squadron arrived in Kagoshima demanding reparations for this, the loyal daimyo attacked them and the British ships bombarded the area (which was in the Satsuma domain), destroying property and killing five people who had not been evacuated with the rest. Although, oddly enough, the Satsuma had not been generally anti-foreign and would, in the later Boshin War, be unofficial allies of the British. All the same, this incident caused great alarm that the shogun was unable to maintain effective control of the country to stop actions contrary to its policy, nor was it able to defend Japan from the superior military forces of the foreigners. The stage for the Meji Restoration had clearly been set.

Emperor Komei
It was, though, the Meiji and not the Komei Restoration as the Emperor Komei, after a life of robust health, suddenly became very ill and was diagnosed with smallpox in January of 1867. His condition worsened and Emperor Komei passed away on January 30, 1867 at the age of only 35. This was immediately seized upon by some factions who claimed that he had been assassinated by sympathizers of the Choshu and Satsuma domains who opposed the shogun since the Emperor had continued to support the shogunate and oppose any change to the existing order even while he strenuously disagreed with shogunate policies. In truth, however, he had died of natural causes which, as mentioned at the outset, were far from uncommon among the members of the Imperial Family with their isolation and opposition to modern medicine. He was immediately succeeded by his son, the Meiji Emperor and, as they say, the rest is history.

In conclusion, a final point that must be addressed is the accusation of those who claim that as Emperor Komei had vehemently opposed all foreign contact and that the restoration of the imperial power during the Meiji era result in Japan firmly joining the international community, modernizing and even becoming the first (and only) non-European member of the “Great Powers” of the time, that this represents a sort of repudiation of Emperor Komei or that, to put it even more harshly, the restored imperial power had brought about exactly the state of affairs he had most feared. This, in my view, is incorrect and the result of an overly narrow view. The Meiji era represented a coming together of the valid views of both the shogun, who realized that Japan as it was would be easy prey, offending and provoking wars it could not possibly win, and that interaction and modernization were necessary; as well as those of Emperor Komei who wished to maintain the Japanese ‘national spirit’. Foreigners were never accepted into Japan in any appreciable numbers, nor are large numbers of foreigners allowed into Japan even today. Additionally, the moral arguments of Emperor Komei, his heartfelt concern for the Japanese ‘spirit’ did prevail and Japan, going forward, always maintained traditional Japanese customs and values, the traditional Japanese culture, even while adopting and even improving on western learning and technology. Emperor Komei was, in my view, vital to the survival of Japan as a nation and his fears were not unfounded.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this. I was quite familiar with Meiji and modern Japanese monarchs, but not with Emperor Komei.


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