The Emperor and Nationalist Ideology in Meiji Era Japan
The Meiji Era in Japan is known as a time of rapid industrialization and Westernization where many institutions of society were realigned in one form or another to be consistent with their Western counterparts. Ironically, at the same time, it was a period of growing nationalistic feelings that began to develop in Japanese society. However, besides being a reactionary or nostalgic feeling experienced by the population, this nationalist ideology was also actively promoted by the Meiji leadership. Central to this ideology was the emperor who was effectively and successfully used as a tool for legitimizing the Meiji government.
According to myth, the Japanese emperor is a direct descendent of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Despite seldom having any real power, the emperor was often used by rulers of Japan as a means to add credibility to their governments. It comes as no surprise than that the thinkers of the Meiji Era would make the emperor central to their efforts at fostering nationalist feelings among the population as a means of suppressing negative reaction towards their efforts at modernization.
Historically the emperor had three significant functions – “as a holder of power, he has served as a supreme ruler or at least a participant in the competition for power within Japan; … as the repository of sovereignty, he has served as the ultimate source of authority within the Japanese state, exercising such authority if only to provide legitimacy for successive de facto hegemonies; … [and] as an ultimate symbol of the moral order and identity of the Japanese people, he has served as the sanctifying element in a variety of theories of government and national organization.”<<1
Hall, John Whitney. “A Monarch for Modern Japan” Political Development in Modern Japan, ed. Robert E. Ward. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 20.>> It is evident that “the imperial institution has been many things at many times at it has undergone changes within these three functional level; for although a single imperial lineage was able to perpetuate itself in Japan, the relationship between the dynasty, the government and the people of Japan has changed frequently in the course of events.”<<2
Since 1868, Japan was “faced first with the crisis of national identity, then with the critical need of self-defense against external enemies, then with the need for adequate development (chiefly economic), and ultimately with the need to achieve a satisfying political adjustment-the problem of popular relationship to the political process.”<<3
Ward, Robert E. and Dankwart A. Rustow eds., Political Modernization in Japan and Turkey (Princeton, 1964), 465-466.>> Thus, “in the first years after the Restoration, from 1868 to 1881, the new government invoked the imperial institution at the symbolic center of the unified nation and displayed the young Meiji...