"Invented Traditions" in Early Meiji 明治期における「創られた伝統」

Justin Aukema
June 15, 2016

(Perry's "Black Ships" from MIT Visualizing Cultures)

The early Meiji period was, to put it lightly, a time of tremendous transformations. Due largely to foreign pressure for trade from the outside and internal economic strife, the Tokugawa government was brought to the brink of collapse. On July 8, 1853 U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Uraga bay in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture with four wars ships, and two steam ships, the likes of which had never been seen in Japan before. The black smoke that the ships belched caused some Japanese observers to term them the “black ships” (kurofune). Perry and three-hundred of his men marched ashore for a hastily-readied audience with Tokugawa officials, where the U.S. Commodore handed over a letter from President Fillmore requesting, among other things, commercial intercourse, safe passage for U.S. ships, and help for shipwrecked sailors (Huffman 2010; Dower 2008).

  • See the letters from President Fillmore and Commodore Perry here

  • Also see images and an essay by John Dower on Perry’s visit here.

Six months later Perry returned to Japan with nine ships and a crew of nearly 1,800 and forced the Shogunate to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa. Following this, the Townsend Harris came to Japan and set up camp in Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula. There he negotiated the opening of more port cities including Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki (Huffman 2010). In addition, the Tokugawa government was forced to sign numerous “unfair treaties” (fubyōdō jyōyaku) with other foreign nations under which, among other things, the foreign countries maintained the right to extra-territoriality or, that is to say, the privilege of being exempt from local courts of law. 

The bakufu, meanwhile, was steadily losing its grip on control. In 1862 it was forced to abandon the sankin kōtai system and, in response to the “foreign problem” it requested the advice of the various daimyo. Far from aiding its cause, however, this only served to indicate the central government’s weakness to the domain leaders. Meanwhile, anti-foreign sentiment had been growing during the Tokugawa Period under the National Learning (kokugaku) school of thought and, by the late 19th c. it reached its peak under the sonnō jōi (revere the Emepror and expel the barbarians) movement. These groups of largely disaffected samurai known as shishi (men of valor) threatened violence against the Tokugawa regime and even assassinated the bakufu official who negotiated treaties with foreign countries, Ii Naosuke (Huffman 2010).

On January 3, 1868 troops from Satsuma-han stormed the palace grounds in Kyoto and installed the fifteen-year-old emperor Mutsuhito as the head of their Meiji “restoration.” Although Tokugawa Yoshinobu stepped down in response to this, and many domains returned their land to the throne, some domains still loyal to the Tokugawa government continued to fight on in an eighteen-month civil war known as the Boshin War (Huffman 2010).

(The Meiji Emperor, from MIT Visualizing Cultures)

In order to solidify their new and still precarious rule, as well as to create a government which could “catch up” with and challenge the West, the Meiji leaders, under the guidance of oligarchs like Prince Iwakura Tomomi and Itō Hirobumi, devised to borrow from both the new and the old and create a number of modern “invented traditions.” This section will highlight three of them in particular.

The first of these related to the imperial myth. For most of Japanese history, common people had little knowledge of the emperor or life in the imperial palace. The Tokugawa bakufu had actively attempted to cloister the imperial family, and it distanced itself from the court. In Meiji, however, the emperor/imperial court was not only the symbol of the “restoration” movement, it was the new government’s legitimization to power. Thus it was imperative that the Meiji oligarchs did everything they could to propagate their most important symbol. Toward this end they shuttled the emperor on a six tours (junkō) around the country, sometimes with as many as 700 retainers in tow (Fujitani 1996).

Next they sought to build an imperial capital. Initially many leaders like Iwakura Tomomi conceived of making Kyoto their new capital instead of Edo. This was because whereas Kyoto had a long history tied to the imperial throne, Edo was rather connected to Tokugawa history, a point that made many Meiji elites uncomfortable. In this atmosphere, imperial palace in Tokyo largely fell into neglect and, in fact, it was abandoned by the imperial family after partially burning down in 1873. Yet in the 1880s Fukuzawa Yukichi and others proposed that a magnificent capital/palace was crucial for Japan’s international image. Eventually it was settled upon that there would, in effect, be two capitals: Tokyo which embodied the modern, and Kyoto which embodied the perceived/purported “ancient” traditions associated with the imperial house (Fujitani 1996).

The second related to Shintō. As Helen Hardacre has noted, for much of Japanese history the word “shintō” was not commonly used and it had “no independent, autonomous existence” (1989: 5). In general, the populations’ beliefs were heavily influenced by Buddhism and kami were considered to be lower beings than Buddhas (15). This changed toward late Tokugawa, however, when kokugaku scholars like Motoori Norinaga argued to reclaim Shintō as a “pure” Japanese religion untainted by foreign influence. This argument was convincing for Meiji oligarchs because of Shintō’s perceived connections to the imperial court ceremonies and ritual. In other words, propagating Shintō as a national religion served as a tool of indoctrination in the imperial myth.  

In this pro-Shintō climate, Buddhism and Shintō were decreed to be separate (shinbutsu bunri) and Buddhist temples were even pillaged and burned (haibutsu kishaku). Moreover, shrines and other local religions which previously had no connection to Shintō were incorporated into a national hierarchy of Shintō shrines. This distinguished civic shrines (minsha) from government shrines (kansha) like the Nation-Protecting Shrines (gokoku jinja), the Yasukuni Shrine, and the Meiji Shrine, which were all situated at the top of the rank (84).

Belief in the imperial myth and Shintō were propagated through various laws and measures for education. This is the third invented tradition of Meiji: the idea of the kokumin. Prior to Meiji, few people considered themselves to be a part of a “Japanese” nation that had shared values and beliefs. More often than not, their loyalties instead lay to their family (ie) or local community or, at most, region. Meiji leaders, thus, felt that the creation of a common kokumin was imperative to “catch up with” the West and carry out Japan’s goal of modernization. In their view, the newly-made citizen should not be sullied by politics, but should instead demonstrate patriotism (aikoku), loyalty (chūsetsu), and nationalism. Especially important was devotion to the state and the emperor.

(Presenting the Emperor with the new Constitution, from MIT Visualizing Cultures)

Toward this end, Meiji leaders devised two important documents to disseminate their ideology. The first was the Meiji Constitution of 1889. Drafted mainly under the guidance of Itō Hirobumi, the constitution gave ultimate power to the emperor who was declared to be “sacred and inviolable” (4) while still creating some democratic institutions such as a Diet. The second was the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. The document incorporated Confucian and Shintō doctrine and was intended to be the basis of a new civic morality. In the words of Carol Gluck, it was premised on the idea “that the national education should serve the state” (1985: 103). Claiming to be set forth by “Our Imperial Ancestors” and “infallible for all ages and true in all places,” it encouraged people to “offer yourselves courageously to the State” (ctd. Lu 1997: 344).

(The Imperial Rescript on Education, from the Meiji Jingu Shrine website)

  • See sections from the Meiji Constitution here and the Imperial Rescript on Education here.

The effectiveness of these invented traditions and the drive to create a modern kokumin is observed in the funeral ceremony of the Emperor Meiji. Although when he was inaugurated hardly anyone knew of him, when he died nearly everyone knew of him. Gluck has noted the the Meiji emperor by this point had been “credited with the full achievement of modernity” 215).


Columbia University. East Asia for Educators (2009) “Excerpts from the Meiji Constitution

Columbia University. East Asia for Educators (2009) “Letters from U.S. President Millard
Fillmore and U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry to the Emperor of Japan

Dower, John (2008) “Black Ships and Samurai: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan
(1853-1854)” MIT Visualizing Cultures.

Fujitani, Takashi (1996) Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan,
University of California Press.

Gluck, Carol (1985) Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period, Princeton
University Press.

Hardacre, Helen (1989) Shinto and the State, 1868-1988, Princeton University Press.

Huffman, James L (2010) Japan in World History. Oxford University Press.

Lu, David John (1997) Japan: A Documentary History. M.E. Sharpe.

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