Emperor Meiji

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Statue of Emperor Meiji at Naminoue Shrine in Okinawa, identified as kokka, or, "The State."
The tomb-mound of Emperor Meiji, at the former site of Fushimi castle in Kyoto.
  • Born: 1852/9/22
  • Died: 1912
  • Reign: 1867-1912
  • Other Names: 睦仁 (Mutsuhito), 祐宮 (Sachinomiya)
  • Japanese: 明治天皇 (Meiji tennou)

The Meiji Emperor was the great-grandfather of the current Emperor of Japan. Following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, he was the first Emperor since Emperor Go-Daigo in the 1330s to rule the country in the absence of a shogunate; he was also the last Emperor to reign in Kyoto, doing so briefly before the move to Tokyo.

Life & Reign

Emperor Meiji, known by his personal name Mutsuhito during his life, was the son of Emperor Kômei and Nakayama Yoshiko, an imperial concubine. His wife, Ichijô Haruko, came to be known as Empress Dowager Shôken. At seven days old, he was initially named Sachinomiya.[1]

Meiji took the throne on 1867/1/9, less than a year before Tokugawa Yoshinobu stepped down as Shogun, marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the "restoration" of Imperial rule.

His reign, known as the Meiji period (1867-1912), was marked by dramatic, rapid modernization and Westernization, as the country industrialized, militarized, began colonial/imperial expansion, instituted a system of rule based around a constitutional/parliamentary monarchy, nationwide public education, and a myriad of other reforms and developments.

Among the many other significant events of his reign, the emperor received numerous foreign heads of state, royals, and other dignitaries who came to Japan on formal and informal visits, including US President Ulysses S. Grant, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Tsarevitch Nicholas II of Russia, and a number of British royals, among others. The emperor never learned to speak any English, and is said to have never been able to relax in conversation with foreigners, showing little personality and instead playing the part of Imperial host.[2]

Emperor Meiji died in 1912, and was succeeded by his son, the Taishô Emperor. He was entombed at the former site of Fushimi castle, a short distance from the grave of Emperor Kammu; thus, the first and last emperors to reign in Heian-kyô (Kyoto) are buried nearby one another.


In the first years of his reign, the Meiji Emperor dressed as his predecessors did. A written description by Ernest Satow of a meeting with the emperor in 1868, as well as the first of his two official photographs by Uchida Kuichi, taken in 1872, reveal the emperor in long, flowing sokutai robes (classical court dress), with his long hair pinned up, and a tall court cap. His face was whitened, and eyebrows shaved off, then painted back in a few inches higher, as was the classical style.

By 1871, however, the emperor declared in an imperial rescript a reform of court dress, on the basis that the traditional modes "gave the impression of weakness." Indeed, Satow's account describes the emperor as "bashful or timid," and as needing "to be assisted."[3] The second of his official portrait photographs, taken by the same Uchida Kuichi in 1873, shows a dramatic transformation. In this, another of the most famous and most widely familiar images of the Meiji Emperor today, the emperor is seen in Western-style military dress uniform, complete with epaulets and numerous frills; a formal hat in the style most stereotypically associated with Napoleon sits on a table next to the emperor, who sits in a Western-style chair and holding a sheathed saber. His hair is cut short and parted, and bears a thin mustache and beard.

Throughout his reign, newspapers and other media sources described the Emperor wearing classical court dress while performing sacred Imperial rites within the palace, reinforcing ideas of the emperor's transcendent nature and connection to an unbroken line of emperors stretching back to the gods, as well as to Japan's illustrious traditions and history. However, when seen in public, as he was in numerous very public imperial tours, processions, military reviews, and other events over the course of the Meiji period, the emperor was almost invariably dressed in Western-style military uniform, a demonstration of his modernity and masculine strength as a modern, masculine monarch in the European style. This was essential to the Meiji government's efforts to pursue equal treatment for Japan among the great powers of the world.

The third of the Meiji Emperor's official portraits, though widely assumed to have also been a photograph of the monarch, was in fact an 1888 photograph by Maruki Toshiaki of a drawing by Edoardo Chiossone, based on sketches done by Chiossone during a brief in-person meeting with the emperor. It was this image which was copied countless times over and distributed to public schools and other institutions across the country.

Preceded by
Emperor Kômei
Emperor of Japan
Succeeded by
Emperor Taishô


  • "Chronology of the Japanese Emperors since the Mid-Nineteenth Century." in Handbook of Oriental Studies. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008. pp335-336.
  • Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996).
  1. Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要, vol 1 (1937), 378.
  2. Sir Hugh Cortazzi, "Royal Visits to Japan in the Meiji Period, 1868-1912," in Collected Writings of Sir Hugh Cortazzi, Edition Synapse (2000), 111.
  3. Fujitani, 174.