The origin of the Japanese imperial system is clouded in myth and mystery. Oral histories first written down in the eighth century traced the beginning of the imperial line to a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Modern “nation builders” in the mid-19th perpetuated this myth of divine descent, and put the date of the establishment of the throne by this divine progenitor—“Emperor Jimmu”—at 660 B.C. by the Western calendar. The Japanese leaders who formulated a modern and ostensibly Western-style constitutional monarchy in 1890 spoke of a dynasty “unbroken for ages eternal,” declared the emperor “sacred and inviolable,” and limited hereditary succession to the throne to males—despite the vaunted descent from a goddess, and despite the fact that there had been empresses in the past.
Historians now trace the likely origin of the imperial line to around the fifth century, when one out of many warring regional clans emerged ascendant. Through the ages, succession struggles were predictably frequent and sometimes brutal, and the “direct” line of descent was broken on at least one occasion. Still, this was indeed a long-surviving dynasty, and remained ensconced in the imperial
palace in Kyoto from the eighth century until after the coming of Commodore Perry in the mid-19th century. Long bereft of real political power, the throne endured as a resilient symbol of refined Japanese bloodlines and traditional culture.
In practice, the imperial line lost real power in two great stages: first, beginning in the ninth century, to another noble clan (the Fujiwara), who manipulated and controlled the throne without actually seizing it; and second, to the rough warrior class that first established its own dominant government—known as the Bakufu, and headed by a shogun or great generalissimo—in the late-12th century. It was Bakufu officials with whom Commodore Perry dealt when he arrived to demand that Japan open up to the outside world in 1853 and 1854. And it was this long-lived system of rule by hereditary shoguns that was overthrown in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which set Japan on the path of “Westernization” and modernization.
The term “restoration” was what we would call in present-day parlance a masterpiece of political spin. Simply put, the rebels who overthrew the Bakufu argued that they were not really rebels at all,
The Meiji emperor and the “emperor system” he embodied were excellent examples of what historians refer to as the “invention (or reinvention) of tradition.” This was a thoroughly modern creation—a carefully and quite brilliantly executed exercise in forging a modern nationalistic consciousness. Before Commodore Perry’s arrival, isolated Japan had never really thought of itself as a “nation” among other nations. (Individual Japanese identified themselves in terms of local affiliations—the feudal fief, the city, or even town or village of residence.) Before Perry, few ordinary Japanese thought about the emperor at all.
Forging this emperor-centered national identity took time, and in the 1880s and 1890s, woodblock prints played a conspicuous role in the process. In the opening years of the Meiji era, several photos of the young emperor and his consort were made public; thereafter, for reasons of his own, the Meiji emperor avoided being photographed. (A famous “realistic” portrait released in 1889 was actually a lithograph based on a drawing of the emperor by an Italian who worked for the government.) As a result, as the Meiji era advanced and emperor-centered nationalism was increasingly pumped up,
but simply “restoring” power and authority to its original and proper source—an imperial line that in actuality had been more or less powerless for almost a millennium. They declared a new era of imperial rule beginning in 1868, baptized this new era with the auspicious name Meiji, or “bright government”; and declared that henceforth each year on the calendar would be identified not only by the Western way of counting, but also by the year of the emperor’s reign. 1868 thus became Meiji 1. When the emperor died in 1912, this was “Meiji 45” by the modern Japanese calendar.
In actual practice, the Meiji emperor’s “sacred and inviolate” authority was nominal. Real power rested elsewhere, among those who could best seize the opportunity to act “in the emperor’s name.” The emperor’s role was potent, but in largely symbolic ways. He symbolized the unity of the country, its long history, its distinctive traditional culture, its ostensible “purity” or singleness of blood, its ties to a unique indigenous religion (the Shinto tradition associated with the sun goddess), and its patriarchal bias.
the most familiar image of the emperor and his family that his subjects saw took the form of the brightly colored popular prints known as “brocade pictures” (nishikie).
These popular prints are highly romanticized, of course. Woodblock artists never actually saw the emperor. At the same time, they make vividly clear the extent to which Westernization was part and parcel of this new emperor-centered nationalism. While their female attendants might wear traditional court dress, the emperor and empress were always depicted in the prints wearing Western clothing—a military uniform in his case, and the most up-to-date of wasp-waisted European fashion in hers. The sovereign was depicted at work and at rest—and in the former case, the imperial tasks were again always in one way or another associated with building a modern nation. Such activities included reviewing the modern military on maneuvers, visiting industrial expositions, presenting the new national charter that enshrined constitutional monarchy, and presiding over the newly established diet or parliament.