ABDICATION WAS EMPEROR KOMEI’S ULTIMATE WEAPON AGAINST SHOGUNATE
Emperor Komei, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1846 as Japan’s 121st monarch, was the great-grandfather of Emperor Meiji. Komei died suddenly in 1867—just a year before the Meiji Restoration—after managing to preserve the authority and prestige of the imperial court over the last 20 tumultuous years of rule by the Tokugawa shogunate. In point of fact, so abrupt was his death a rumor circulated that he was killed by poisoning.
To understand the scope of Komei’s struggle with the shogunate, one must understand the life of his grandfather, Emperor Kokaku (ruled 1780-1814), whom I wrote about in my last column.
Through his fierce clash against the shogunate, Kokaku is credited with having resuscitated the dwindling authority of the imperial court along with many traditional Shinto rituals. Among other things, the title of “Emperor” that had fallen into disuse for nearly 900 years, was restored.
Komei amply inherited the political and spiritual legacy of his grandfather.
Born in 1831, Komei ascended the throne at age 16, and died in 1866. Just prior to his enthronement, China under the Qing dynasty had lost the First Opium War (1839-42), becoming a virtual British colony. The war horrified the shogunate.
As the Western powers watched for an opportunity to subjugate Japan, the king of the Netherlands, which had maintained an amicable relationship with Japan under its sakoku ( “closed country”) policy, sent a letter urging Japan to open its ports to foreign powers in order to avoid a fate similar to Qing China’s.
In the next few years, warships from Western nations including Britain, France, Denmark, and the United States frequently sailed to ports in Japan to display their overwhelming power. The Ryukyus, Nagasaki, Shimoda, Uraga at the mouth of the Tokyo Bay, Sagami-Tsurugaoka (Kanagawa Prefecture) , and Nishi-Ezo (on the Japan Sea side of Hokkaido and Sakhalin) were all exposed to the new threat of these steam-driven ships. The people were beginning to sense an impending national crisis.
At that juncture, Komei issued an imperial rescript, expressing concern about the nation’s maritime defense capabilities, while noting his expectation that the shogunate would take “every measure to further enhance all maritime security measures without slighting or fearing foreign nations.”
Absolutely Opposed to Opening the Country
Satoru Fujita, Emeritus Professor at Tokyo University and author of Emperors at the End of the Edo Period (Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko, Tokyo; 2014), takes notice of the fact that Komei’s prescript called on the shogunate to submit information pertaining to the foreign powers threatening Japan.
Kotoku, long denied political authority under the power of the shogunate, acted as the shogunate began showing signs of weakening amid drastic changes in the international situation surrounding Japan. His purpose: enhance the authority and prestige of the imperial court and reverse its position vis-à-vis the shogunate by insisting that it first submit a report on the state of the country.
Komei further enforced—and fully utilized—the power and authority of the imperial court that had been gained by Emperor Kokaku. As a result, the shogunate and Japanese domestic politics were rattled violently, leading to a series of unforeseen upheavals.
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, commander of the US East India Squadron, arrived in Uraga near Tokyo leading four “black ships.” Prof. Fujita writes in detail about the pivotal role Komei came to play during these turbulent times.
Unable to readily reply to President Filmore’s credentials demanding an opening of Japanese ports, the shogunate summoned daimyo (feudal lords) of the country for consensus-building. Finally bowing to American pressure, the shogunate was compelled to sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1854, opening the isolated ports of Shimoda and Hakodate on a limited basis.
Pressed further to sign yet another treaty that would expand commercial access to Japan, the shogunate summoned various the daimyo to Edo Castle in late 1857 to once more form a consensus. The shogunate viewed some 70% of the daimyo as favoring the treaty. However, in order to secure imperial sanction as a means of silencing opposition, Masayoshi Hotta, a member of the shogunate’s council of elders, was dispatched to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
Against the shogunate’s expectations, however, Emperor Komei on January 25, 1858, sent a letter bearing his signature to Hisatada Kujo, chief advisor to the emperor, which read:
“As regards the treaty of commerce, we will resolutely reject it even if shogunate elders come to Kyoto to plead their case. If the foreign barbarians refuse to agree, we are determined to expel them.”
The imperial court had not necessarily reached a consensus, but at the very least Komei himself was clearly adamantly against the treaty. His desire was to see the nobles and the soldiers cooperate to strengthen the shogunate so that he would continue to reign over the old Japan steadfastly maintaining national isolation.
The will of the imperial court should have been determined by the court council based on a consensus among the chief advisors to the emperor and court nobles charged with vital responsibilities, such as the giso and buke-tenso; the emperor’s ideas alone could not be final. Hotta desperately pleaded:
“Faced with a rapidly changing international situation in which every nation and people on earth is being drawn into the capitalistic market economy, our nation has only two choices: either we take a plunge into the new world, or we wage a war in order to shun the emerging world and maintain our isolation policy. If, however, there is no chance of victory, the only alternative left is to sign the treaty of commerce, become accepted as a member of the international market economy, and endeavor to recover the prestige of our nation in the future.”
Hotta was hitting the nail on the head as he argued before the court nobles for opening the nation as its only means of survival. However, Komei questioned his presentation, ordering Minister on the Left Tadahiro Konoe to investigate whether there really was no possibility of Japan defeating the Western powers in a war. In his zeal to oppose opening Japan, the emperor turned a deaf ear to the shogunate.
Biggest and Ultimate Resistance
As he steadily ignored the far-reaching changes in the world that were affecting Japan, Komei found himself growingly isolated even from the nobles. The imperial court eventually worked out a consensus to give the shogunate carte blanche. Still, Komei did not give in, sending out a letter ordering that more diverse opinions be heard in order to resolve the matter.
The emperor’s directive moved the nobles, enticing 88 of them to congregate at the court, demanding this time that the carte blanche be withdrawn. This made it public, writes Fujita, “that Emperor Komei had the steadfast determination of continuing to favor isolation and the expelling of foreign barbarians.” Komei’s challenge to the shogunate further aggravated the fierce confrontation that had by then developed between those han (domains) supporting the emperor and continued isolation and those supporting the shogunate and the opening of the country.
For its part the shogunate appointed the daimyo of Hikone, Naosuke II, as a Great Elder, and forged ahead with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. Infuriated, Komei sternly criticized the shogunate. In order to publicize his anger and rebuke the shogunate, Komei issued a rescript not only to the shogunate itself but to Mito and other han across the country that had a close relationship to the shogunate.
The emperor’s action sorely aroused emotion within the shogunate. Ii immediately embarked on a ruthless suppression of anti-shogunate forces that rallied behind the emperor—the start of Ansei Purge (1858-1860), which took the lives of many capable men wou might have made their own contributions to the modernization of Japan.
Exasperated by the actions of the shogunate, Komei challenged it to a final confrontation. Shigetaka Fukuchi has this to say in his Emperor Komei (Akita Shoten; 1974):
“Furious, Emperor Komei deplored the arbitrary actions by the shogunate but blamed his lack of divine virtue for the distressing conditions of the times. He then summoned his trusted nobles, including chief advisor Naotada Kujo, to issue a secret imperial rescript which expressed his determination to abdicate.”
After all, abdication was Komei’s ultimate weapon. Fukuchi further notes:
“On August 5, Komei wrote another rescript stating that he had decided to abdicate because the shogunate actions blatantly disregarded his intentions. For the emperor to announce his readiness to abdicate was his biggest and ultimate weapon against the shogunate.”
In considering the ongoing discussions of Emperor Akihito’s desire to abdicate, expressed in his video message telecast across the nation last August 8, one cannot help but look back at one of his ancestors who grappled with the authority, honor, and responsibility of the throne a century and a half ago.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 741 in the February 17, 2017 edition of The Weekly Shincho)