Meiji and Meiji Restoration

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Meiji and Meiji Restoration

Emperor Meiji became the 122nd emperor of Japan in 1867 and presided over a dramatic period of rapid change and modernization. A strong-minded man, his symbolic authority was accompanied by considerable personal influence over the social and political transformations that characterized his reign in a time known as the Meiji period. 

Since the 17th century, Japan had had a dual form of government in which power was actually held by the shogun, and the authority of the emperor was secondary. Meiji became the central symbol and rallying point of antigovernment forces led by two factions, the Satsuma and Choshu, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa shogun and restore the imperial form of rule. In the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the emperor again became the sovereign and supreme authority in Japan. That same year, in a symbolic gesture representing the transfer of power, Japan's capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was subsequently renamed Tokyo, or the "Eastern Capital." 
Meiji reigned during the tumultuous period of Japan's rapid modernization. The Japanese Charter Oath (1868), which outlined the new regime's principles of government, was proclaimed in his name. He attended all meetings of the Privy Council when it met to deliberate over the drafting of the Meiji Constitution (1890). He promulgated the Imperial Rescript on Education, which outlined the essential ideals of education for the nation, and he presided over the opening session of the first Japanese Parliament, the Japanese Imperial Diet. 

According to the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was "sacred and inviolable." He held supreme authority over the state, and he controlled the military. However, in practice, Meiji wielded little actual power. The small, select circle of such elder statesmen, or genro, as Hirobumi Ito and Okubo Toshimichi advised the emperor in matters of state, and for the most part, the genro ran the government. As the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, it was they who shaped the new government. Emperor Meiji largely served to legitimate their actions with his public proclamations.

Many of the changes associated with the Meiji period actually had their roots in earlier decades, when the Japanese were confronted by challenges from the United States and Europe. Not surprisingly, many of the aspects of the renovation designed to strengthen Japan to meet those challenges were adapted from the Western powers. Emperor Meiji himself initially disliked European innovations, and he insisted on the preservation of traditional, Japanese ceremonies and rites. For diplomatic purposes, however, he adopted Western-style ceremonial uniforms, particularly when dealing with the United States and the nations of Europe, and he eventually came to develop an appreciation of Western-style food, music, and sports. He studied the German language and European political theory, and he received numerous visitors of distinction from the West, including the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869 and former president of the United States Ulysses S. Grant in 1879. 

Emperor Meiji died on July 30, 1912, and a national shrine, Meiji Jingu, was erected in his honor in Tokyo. His passing symbolically marked the end of the era in which Japan was transformed from a semifeudal agrarian society to an industrialized, modern nation-state.

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