Crash Course: Emperor Meiji

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that there are two names you’ll encounter nearly everywhere in your travels throughout Japan. The first was Tokugawa Ieyasu, father of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The second? Emperor Meiji, the man who became the emblem for the modernization movement in Japan. And it just so happens that tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Emperor Meiji’s death so what better time to talk about his lasting impact?

Emperor Meiji (known as Emperor Mutsuhito during his reign) was just a baby when Commodore Perry steamed into Yokohama Bay in 1853. That event, however, was to radically change the course of his life and the course of Japan as a whole. With America knocking on the door and the shogunate in its death throes, a teenage Meiji ascended the throne on February of 1867. He inherited a country that had been, for all intents and purposes, utterly closed off to the world for nearly 250 years.

Emperor Meiji (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The moving of the Imperial seat from Kyoto to Edo (and the rechristening of the new capital’s name to Tokyo) were just the first in a long line of changes for Japan. Under Meiji, everything Western was adopted without hesitation. Samurai topknots were chopped and exchanged for top hats. Diplomats and scientists were sent abroad to enthusiastically suck up the knowledge of Western scholars. A standardized (and obligatory) school curriculum was established. The latest technologies, such as steam locomotives, were imported – tracks soon cropped up across the country, linking the once rural provinces to the fast-growing cities. When Japan defeated first China and then Russia in two short “wars” (1894-95 and 1904-05, respectively), the world began to sit up and take notice of the modernization miracle that Japan had wrought.

Emperor Meiji passed away late on July 29th, 1912, suffering from a collection of medical issues. After his wife died a few years later, a push began for a shrine to be dedicated to these two emblems of Japan’s transition to a modern nation. And this week, Meiji Shrine is the place to be for the series of events designed to commemorate the life of the great man. If you’re in town, make sure you check it out. The Meiji Shrine English language website has more details.

The inner shrine of Meiji Jingu

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