Episode 462 – The Empty Throne, Part 5

This week, we wrap up our imperial biographies with a look at the Meiji Emperor’s relationship to three important aspects of his reign: the constitution, the wars fought in his name, and his heir. Plus, we talk Meiji’s death, and his legacy.

Note: no episode next week for American Thanksgiving.


Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912. 

Gluck, Carol. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period


Meiji in his later years.
Crown Prince Yoshihito (the future Taisho Emperor) in 1892.
Emperor Meiji’s State funeral.
A nishiki-e print of Taisho’s marriage to the future Empress Teimei in 1900, by Yosai Nobukazu.


Before we get into it–today, I want to wrap up our time with Meiji by focusing on a couple of key themes of his later years. We’ve been going fairly chronologically up until this point, but from this time onward a chronological approach to Meiji’s life gets a bit less interesting given the increasingly formulaic nature of Meiji government once things started to get “figured out”. So in the interests of time and…well, interest, we’ll shift gears a bit here.

By the 1880s, it was common wisdom within the country that Japan needed a constitution. After all, the driving force of the age was Japan being accepted as an equal of Western powers, and part of that–part of the project of appearing “civilized”–was constitutional government.

Constitution study societies had cropped up around the country–we talked about one famous example, the Itsukaichi study group, back in our episodes on the freedom and people’s rights movement.

Even the emperor was getting in on the action; starting from shortly after the Meiji Restoration itself, his education had come to include a great deal on Western constitutional history and law.

But agreeing that constitutions were necessary was one thing. Agreeing what they should look like is quite another. After all, there were many ways that could go; hell, North Korea technically has a constitution, and “functional and effective government” are probably not the first words that come to mind when you think of that country.

So: what would Japan’s constitution look like? That was the real question, and it was far more divisive. On the one hand, you had liberals like Okuma Shigenobu–most of whom had, by this point, been forced out of the government but who still had influence thanks to their large followings, particularly among Japan’s earliest political parties. On the other, you had the oligarchically-inclined leadership, led by men like Ito Hirobumi, who described themselves as gradualists–accepting a constitution but wanting to limit the power given to the people because Japanese people “weren’t ready” for democratic government.

Definitely an argument that was in no way self-serving given the power Ito and his like held, I’m sure.

Where, though, did the Meiji Emperor himself fit in all this? After all, he was probably the one with the most direct stake in the whole debate. After the restoration, Meiji had inherited a system based, with some modification, on the old Ritsuryo models of early imperial Japan a millennia earlier–those, in turn, were based on the practices of imperial China. In practice, that meant the emperor enjoyed near unlimited authority, reigned in only by the moral authority of his advisors and his adherence to Confucian principles of good and limited government by the sovereign. Meiji was a firm believer in those principles, and especially in the notion–also derived from Confucianism–that his role as a ruler obligated him to care for his subjects much as a parent cares for a child.

A new constitution had the potential to radically change the structure and nature of his powers; clearly, it was a debate with high stakes for him personally.

And yet, once again, we have frustratingly little from the man himself. Meiji was not directly involved in the drafting of the constitution that bore his name; that work was handled by Ito Hirobumi, by this point pretty indisputably Japan’s most powerful politician, with the help of a cadre of advisors and legal experts. Ito was particularly taken with the model of Imperial Germany, which more or less fit what he wanted–a parliament that had some limited authority to appease the democratically inclined, but where power was primarily concentrated in the hands of the Kaiser, his close advisors, and the military.

This is also why, when the drafts of the constitution were eventually given to foreign advisors to offer feedback, the vast majority of foreigners so consulted were Germans.

We know that Meiji saw the resultant draft in April of 1888, about ten months ahead of its public promulgation to the people of Japan. But what did he think of it? We don’t really have much in the way of Meiji’s reaction to it–we simply know that he saw it, and that it was approved both by the man himself and by a new body created to advise him: the Privy Council, modeled on the group of advisors of the same name who serve the British monarchy.

Frankly, Meiji seems to have been far more concerned with the construction of his new palace; since 1873, he’d been living in a temporary palace in Akasaka while awaiting the construction of a new imperial palace on the grounds of the old shogunal one. Now, the new palace was nearing completion, and Meiji seems to have been far more invested in that than in the constitution itself.

And I have to admit, at first I found that really weird. I mean, what could be more important than the document that was literally going to establish the emperor’s relationship with the nation he was, you know, the emperor of? But as I thought about it, it started to make a kind of sense.

Palaces, after all, are very visible symbols of a monarchy, and send a certain kind of message about what that monarchy is–Meiji was apparently very concerned about the palace being grand enough to impress foreigners (which it was) but humble enough that it did not make him look like some sort of greedy tyrant, in the model of the bad rulers in Confucian histories who were concerned with luxury over the welfare of the people.

The constitution, meanwhile, was something of a different story. If I’m correct in my read of Meiji’s character from last week, he was very concerned with what he perceived to be the traditional values of the monarchy, but far less so with concrete practice–barring a few circumstances where he saw the two as interlinked.

Thus, most of the constitution–focused on the legal roles of the parliament, the cabinet, the military, and the like–would be of little concern to the emperor. He could adapt to those, just as he had adapted to wearing Western clothing and shaking hands and such.

The only parts he would have cared about were those outlining the values of the imperial institution, and here he would have little to complain about.

Indeed, the preamble of the constitution was written from the emperor’s own perspective, though so far as I know Meiji himself had no hand in writing it.

Still, I don’t think he had much to complain about; that preamble, making extensive use in English translation of the so-called royal ‘we’, declares that, “in pursuance of a great policy co-extensive with the Heavens and with the Earth, We shall maintain and secure from decline the ancient form of government” and that “The right of sovereignty of the State, We have inherited from Our Ancestors, and We shall bequeath them to Our descendants. Neither We nor they shall in future fail to wield them, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution hereby granted.”

Essentially, the constitution itself–while it clarified the precise nature of the emperor’s role–also was pretty clear that the emperor himself maintained sovereignty over the state, and that the constitution itself was less about reigning the emperor in and more about meeting the requirements of the state. The text itself rationalizes the constitution as necessary, “In consideration of the progressive tendency of the course of human affairs and in parallel with the advance of civilization”–a thinly-veiled way of saying “we need to do this so that the Westerners will take us seriously.”

But again, given that the constitution doesn’t really concretely reign in any of the emperor’s power–indeed, Articles 3 and 4 state that, “The Emperor is sacred and inviolable” and that “The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution”, Meiji didn’t have much to complain about. No wonder he had little problem lending his prestige to the document.

You can see a rather similar level of involvement in one of the other sea changes in Japanese history Meiji is often credited with helping to shepherd: its successful wars against China (in 1894-95) and against Russia from 1904-05. In both cases, under the new constitution, Meiji was the supreme commander of the armed forces, responsible (at least on paper) for directing their efforts against Japan’s enemies.

So, for example, he was present for all the deliberations in the spring of 1894 that led to war with China. For a quick refresh, since we haven’t talked about the conflict known as the First Sino-Japanese War in a while: by the 1880s, Japanese government leaders had turned their attention to Korea, believing that a key part of Japan’s quest to be a modern state was building an overseas empire to rival those of the Western powers. Korea’s proximity made it a natural choice, but also put Japan into conflict with China and Russia, both of which harbored similar ambitions for the peninsula.

Japan and China eventually worked out a deal (naturally without consulting the Korean leadership) called the convention of Tianjin and intended to preserve the balance of power on the peninsula–in particular, both sides agreed that if, for whatever reason, they had to dispatch troops to Korea to protect their interests, they’d let the other know first.

Fast forward to 1894, when a growing religious peasant movement called the Tonghaks–Korean for “Eastern Learning”–began to crop up on the southern part of the peninsula. The Tonghak movement grew out of Korean folk religion, and basically represented a sort of militarized Confucian reformism, aimed at restoring the proper place of “eastern learning” against an uncivilized West (which in the eyes of the Tonghaks also included Japan).

The Korean government proved unable to control the Tonghaks effectively, and as members of the movement marched on Seoul the monarchy reached out to China for military support.

This in turn was all the opportunity Japanese military leaders–who had been pushing for war to secure Korea for some time now–needed. They accused China of violating the Tianjin Convention, and began mobilizing troops to (they claimed) “protect Japanese interests on the peninsula.”

And thus began the Sino-Japanese War. But for us, the important question is: where was the emperor in all this? And the answer is that he was apparently pretty ambiguous about the whole undertaking. He’d sat in on the discussions of a potential conflict and–as he had to, given his constitutional role as supreme commander of the military–okayed the dispatch of troops. But he may have done that over his own personal feelings, as evidenced by this little anecdote from Donald Keene’s biography of Meiji: “On August 11 the emperor’s ancestors were officially informed of the proclamation of war. Ceremonies were held in the palace sanctuary, and high-ranking nobles were dispatched to the Ise Shrine and to the tomb of Emperor Kōmei to report the news. Some days earlier, shortly after the emperor’s declaration of war had been issued, Imperial Household Minister Hijikata Hisamoto visited the emperor to ask which envoys he wished sent to Ise and the tomb of Emperor Kōmei. The emperor answered, “Don’t send anybody. I have not been in favor of this war from the start. It was only because cabinet ministers informed me that war was inevitable that I permitted it. It is very painful for me to report what has happened to the Ise Shrine and the tomb of the previous emperor.” Hijikata, astonished by these remarks, admonished the emperor, “But Your Majesty has already issued a declaration of war. I wonder if Your Majesty might not be mistaken in giving me such a command.” The emperor flew into a rage and said, “Not another word out of you. I don’t wish to see you again.” Hijikata withdrew in fear and trepidation.

What provoked this outburst from Meiji? We straight up do not know. The next time Hijikata saw the emperor, he was jovial and seemed to have forgotten all about it, simply reminding Hijikata to choose appropriate imperial envoys for the visits to Ise and his father’s tomb.

And from this point onward, Meiji would cheerily lend his support to the war effort. In early September, he announced a plan to relocate the Imperial General Headquarters–essentially, the supreme command for the military–to Hiroshima in order to be closer to the fighting itself. As supreme commander, he would move to Hiroshima as well, arriving in the city on September 15th.

Once there, he threw himself into the work of managing the war, approving decisions by his commanders and being briefed on the war situation. He lived in relative austerity while in Hiroshima, in a small two-story building with his living quarters on top and a briefing room below. Suggestions that heating be added to the building or that the space be expanded to better befit the imperial presence were rejected; Meiji refused any comforts that were not available to soldiers on the frontlines.

He saw his role, it seems, as serving as a moral inspiration for the troops fighting in his name–by visibly showing himself to be sacrificing for the war and engaged in its progress, he hoped to inspire them to acts of greater heroism and bravery. How effective that was is, of course, up for debate; it’s not as if, given the strict press control laws of the imperial era and the laws around defaming the emperor, there could be a meaningful public discussion of what exactly it meant for the emperor to “sacrifice” in this manner.

That was particularly true since the emperor’s time “close to the frontline” also included museum visits to see art from Hiroshima, as well as time composing poetry (and even writing a noh play based loosely on the war; sadly, I was unable to find a review).

We do have some of his tanka poems composed during this time, however. Here’s one describing the battle for control of Port Arthur, now more or less the Lushunkou district of Dalian city: “yo ni takaku, hibikikeru kana, shoujuzan, semeo to shitsuru, kachidoki no koe.” How loudly they sound, echoing through the heavens, the shouts of triumph, our men have taken by storm, the fort at Pine Tree Mountain.” Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, I have to say.

He also spent a great deal of time reviewing treasures seized from Chinese troops (and eventually Chinese cities, once the Japanese army began to advance out of Korea proper) and shipped back home. Most notable were a pair of camels, eventually given to the new zoo at Ueno Park as a gift from crown Prince Yoshihito (the future Taisho emperor).

It’s hard, overall, to escape the conclusion that Meiji’s presence represented little more than a PR gesture. Even decisions credited to him as a part of the unfolding of the war were made by ministers and simply handed off to Meiji to rubber stamp. For example, in the spring of 1895 a Chinese delegation led by the senior official Li Hongzhang came to Hiroshima to begin peace negotiations–early in the process, Li was wounded by a deranged Japanese assassin who attempted to shoot him with a pistol. The assassination attempt was a source of great concern among the Japanese leadership; the attempt created a lot of international concern for Li’s fate and his image changed practically overnight from a doddering old fool and symbol of Chinese backwardness to a selfless statesman and patriot. Government leaders like Ito Hirobumi were worried this wave of public sympathy would serve as an excuse for outside intervention by another country (say Russia) in the war, so they decided to offer Li a temporary ceasefire while he recovered as a PR gesture. The ceasefire was credited as an act of imperial goodwill, but Meiji was not the one who came up with the idea; he merely approved it.

Japan’s war against Russia ten years later saw much the same pattern. That war began, recall, because of intense rivalry between Japan and Russia for control of northeastern China–the region known as Manchuria. Russia had moved into the region in order both to secure its valuable natural resources and to obtain land for its Trans-Siberian Railway, connecting its Pacific outpost of Vladivostok to European Russia without needing to go hundreds of miles out of the way to circumvent Chinese territory.

Japan, meanwhile, saw Manchuria as a buffer zone to protect its new hold over Korea (at this point, a Japanese “protectorate”, though within a few years it would be annexed outright).

Tensions between the two sides had been simmering ever since the end of the war with China, when Russia had led a diplomatic intervention to strip Japan of some of the territory it won in the peace settlement specifically the Liaodong peninsula north of Korea itself). Ostensibly, this was done to “secure the peace of Asia”–practically, it was just because Russia wanted this land for itself

When the Japanese government decided on war with Russia in February of 1904, Meiji was again in the room–but only to be informed of the decisions his ministers already made. He did not ask any questions, even when the army and navy leadership expressed extreme pessimism about a war they themselves backed (the army chief of staff Yamagata Aritomo said he gave Japan a 50/50 chance of winning the war, and the navy chief of staff Ito Sukeyuki said he expected over half the Japanese fleet to be sunk in the war–but both men still backed the conflict).

Not even these pessimistic appraisals got Meiji to question the decision, and he approved the war (though he did express some anxiety about it in his poetry: “omou koto, ooki kotoshi mo, uguisu no, koe wa sasuga ni, matarenuru kana.” This year too, when, there are so many problems, it is not surprising, the voice of the song-thrush, is so longingly awaited.”)

Despite this anxiety, Meiji was even less active in the Russo-Japanese War than he had been in the Sino-Japanese War. He did not even relocate his headquarters this time, though he did once again attempt to show solidarity with the troops by shutting off all the heating in his rooms. He diligently followed the war effort and was briefed on it regularly, with special concern paid to one of the bloodiest battles of the war–the Battle of Port Arthur, where the Japanese general Nogi Maresuke laid siege to a key Russian port on the Liaodong Peninsula. Meiji regularly received dispatches about the siege, and remarked to one chamberlain, “I am sure that Port Arthur will fall, sooner or later, but it’s terrible killing soldiers that way. Nogi’s a good general, but the way he kills soldiers is really upsetting.”

But overall, while Meiji followed what was going on, he seems to have largely left the war to his generals to manage. Even the eventual peace negotiations and treaty were simply handed to Meiji to sign (not that he could have gone himself, as the negotiations took place in New Hampshire with the US serving as a mediator.

Which, honestly, was probably for the best. There are many reasons Japan eventually won the Russo-Japanese War, from greater social support for the conflict on Japan’s side (compared to Russia, where a series of defeats triggered a near-revolution), to a vastly better naval strategy on the part of the Imperial Japanese Navy. But one of the reasons for Russia’s defeat was definitely the heavyhanded role played by czar Nicholas II, who frankly had zero aptitude for military leadership and tended to promote favorites to positions of power and ignore good advice–including a majority of his cabinet, who urged him to negotiate a peace months before the fateful sinking of a good chunk of his fleet at the Battle of Tsushima.

Meiji seems, by contrast, to have understood his limits. He was a hereditary monarch, a symbol, not an actual outright warleader. His job was, in a literal sense, to show the flag. It was not to direct the war effort itself. Much as was the case with policy, he was happy to leave the actual management to his subordinates.

So, we’ve covered Meiji’s politics, his time as a war leader, but one major subject remains untouched: his position as a family man. In official portraiture, that’s often precisely how Meiji was portrayed–with his wife, the empress Shouken, and young son crown prince Yoshihito (the future Taisho emperor), and very occasionally with one or more of his four daughters who lived to adulthood.

These public images, generally colorful and cheap nishiki-e prints used to distribute visuals related to news before photography became a cost-effective alternative, were all over the place in the Meiji period, and their message was consistent: Meiji was a family man devoted to his wife and children, and actively engaged in their lives.

The reality, however, was rather substantially different. We’ve already seen with young prince Yoshihito that Meiji kept his distance from his son, relying on the traditional method of rearing an imperial prince where trusted courtiers and relatives would foster the young boy. In particular, Meiji’s biological grandfather and mother, Nakayama Tadayasu and Nakayama Yoshiko, took the lead in the boy’s rearing.

This was a clear area where Meiji preferred Japanese tradition; though boarding schools and the like were certainly a common destination for children of European monarchies, actually moving a prince into someone else’s home was far from normal among the kings and emperors of Europe. But, while he was willing to embrace Western-style monarchies in many ways, in this area Meiji was not willing to diverge from tradition. Indeed, in many ways he was more of a strict traditionalist than his own father; Koumei had called Meiji into the palace at a fairly young age and had personally tutored the boy in poetry, but Meiji did neither of these for the future Taisho. He did not even allow his son to visit his parents as he wanted until 1886, when he was eight.

However, just because Meiji was not directly rearing the boy himself did not mean he did not take an interest in his heir. He was intimately involved in two things that profoundly shaped the life of the next emperor–his education, and his marriage.

Turning first to education: I think it’s fair to say that the future emperor’s early education was, frankly, a bit of a mess. As we discussed previously, the future Taisho was always a sickly and unhealthy kid who had convulsions even as a young child. Perhaps from fear that any degree of strictness would cause an episode–plus a general sense of reverence for the throne–he was, as a result, spoiled out of his mind. His early tutors, all old Kyoto courtiers, had a very hard time with him, as did Yumoto Takehiko, the education ministry bureaucrat tapped to replace them and try something a bit less traditional. Here’s Yumoto’s recollection of his time with his pupil: “My lessons were as I have already mentioned—the 50 kana symbols, 1, 2, 3 and that sort of thing—nothing difficult. But His Highness still had not the least conception of rules and had not made any progress in that direction. If he felt like it, he would study for 30 or 40 minutes, but when he did not feel like it, he would say, “Yumoto, that’s enough.” He would then get up and go out. His retainers and military escort, who had been waiting in the corridor, and his schoolmates, who were seated at their desks in the classroom, followed His Highness when he went out, leaving me dazed and alone in the classroom. When he was even more out of sorts, he would slam his desk down in front of him, and then go off somewhere. Once, when he was having a lesson in penmanship, he said, “Yumoto, that’s enough.” I answered, “No, you must study a bit longer,” whereupon he lost his temper completely, picked up a big writing brush soaked with red ink and threw it right at me. The brush landed on the breast of my best, brand-new frock-coat and dripped all over it.”

Yumoto, naturally enough, tried to resign, and was stopped only when Ito Hirobumi personally told him not to, and that he was offering himself up for the throne by educating the heir just as much as a military man who fought the nation’s wars was.

Eventually, the boy did begin to progress, and in 1887 he was entered in the prestigious Gakushuin, the school established by his great-grandfather Emperor Ninkou to educate the noble children of Kyoto. In 1877 the school had been relocated to Tokyo, and Meiji decided that rather than relying on solo tutoring (as had been the case with his education), his son would benefit from a somewhat more modern setup in an actual school.

The Gakushuin was, at this time, a school for the children of the privileged–in particular, it was for the children of the kazoku, the elite families that had once been either daimyo or hereditary nobles in Kyoto. Those without such pedigree could compete for a limited number of slots in the elementary and middle school programs, but overwhelmingly the Gakushuin was a school for the children of privilege.

Not that it ended up mattering much for Yoshihito, whose chronic health struggles made it hard for him to regularly attend class. That, combined with his less-than-diligent attitude—he warmed to subjects that interested him, like horseback riding or language (especially French), but basically refused to work on anything that did not. He did not end up lasting at the Gakushuin–obviously, no teacher there was going to fail the crown prince (as he was officially declared in 1888), but even so it was clear that he was not keeping up. In 1894, he was withdrawn from the school.

From this point on, Taisho would return to a more informal education governed by tutors, but here too his father continued to keep an eye on things. In particular, he appointed a distant imperial relative–prince Arisugawa Takehito, 16 years Taisho’s senior and thus the perfect age to be both relatable to him and something of a rolemodel for him, as the prince’s tutor. The two became extremely close as a result, and Takehito was able to round out the prince’s education to an extent–with a particular focus on history and politics.

The other area of his son’s life that Meiji, naturally enough, was intimately involved in, was his marriage. Taisho was obviously extremely important politically, given that he was the only one of his father’s sons to survive infancy (and, thanks to the imperial household law of 1889, the only child eligible for the throne). That precarious status also meant that it was imperative for the prince to get married and have children of his own, just to make sure no unfortunate accidents disrupted the continuity of the throne.

That said, of course the prince couldn’t just marry anyone–the marriage of an imperial son, and an heir to boot, would have to be very carefully considered. The eventual chosen candidate was Kujo Sadako, a child of one of the five branches of the old Fujiwara family that had traditionally provided wives for the imperial house in centuries past.

In this, too, Meiji was unwilling to diverge from custom.

Sadako–or Empress Teimei, as she’s often called–was six years her future husband’s junior, and of course was not given any voice in the discussion of her future husband. She was well-educated–a standout student at what’s now Gakushuin Women’s College and a student of former episode subject Tsuda Ume (see episode 192). That education and her background put her in the running as crown princess, and eventually Meiji settled on her for the most pragmatic of reasons–she was among the healthiest of the noble girls with the right background, and thus the most likely (in his mind) to provide a grandson and heir.

Meiji made the decision for the marriage on August 21, 1899. He did not, however, tell his son that he would be getting married until the following February–it is unclear to me, at least, when exactly Kujo Sadako found out.

The marriage took place on May 10, 1900, and was something of a media sensation–naturally enough, given that it was the first imperial wedding to take place after the transformation of the emperor into a public national symbol. Equally sensational was the birth, the following year, of a long-desired grandson for Meiji–young prince Michi, though he’s far better known by his adult name of Hirohito.

All told the couple would have four children including Hirohito, all boys–though Meiji would only live to see three of them born. Still, one imagines he took some joy in that.

But how much joy did he take in his actual son? It’s clear the political relationship the two men had, but they were also, you know, parent and child.

But the simple truth is that Meiji, either because he genuinely believed this was how to raise a son or simply because he was not a very engaged parent, was just not much of a presence in his son’s life. The two saw each other, of course–going on cruises on warships together for PR purposes, attending ceremonies together, that sort of thing. But these were almost always public occasions, and comparatively rare. One area where father and son disagreed sharply was their attitude towards the court itself; Meiji was very devoted to his role as emperor, but the future Taisho appears to have disliked court and all its ritual and protocol and spent as much time away from Tokyo as he could because of it.

They also apparently clashed constantly over the young prince’s relationship to Western culture. Taisho was far more westernized than his father–in particular, he was an avid Francophile and would pepper French phrases into his conversations constantly. This apparently deeply annoyed Meiji, who saw the value in things foreign but worried about his son becoming slavish to non-Japanese ideas.

There are rare glimpses of a real relationship–for example, when Meiji was living in Hiroshima “overseeing” the Sino-Japanese War, the crown prince did come to visit him for a time. When he arrived on November 17, 1894, Meiji cleared his morning for the boy: the two rode a captured Manchurian warhorse together (horseriding being a shared passion), and climbed Hiroshima castle’s keep to observe the layout of the town together before sharing lunch. It looked like a moment of genuine affection, surprising even Meiji’s own pages (who were not used to seeing that).

But even here, there were boundaries. Meiji only made time for two more lunches before sending his son home to Tokyo about a week later.

Simply put, Meiji seems to have put his role as emperor above basically all other considerations, to have lived, so to speak, for the job. And perhaps that was why he would die comparatively young–or maybe it was genetic, given that propensity among his ancestors (and given that Taisho too would die fairly young).

Or maybe it was all the hard drinking. That’s not great for you.

Certainly, by the first decade of the 20th century (when Meiji entered his 50s) he had a litany of health issues. In 1904 he was diagnosed with diabetes, and in 1906 with chronic hepatitis. His physicians attempted to treat both with regular checkups and a reduced workload–Meiji refused to listen, and continued to work himself extremely hard.

This too was par for the course; during his time in Hiroshima Meiji had actually contracted pneumonia, but refused medical treatment and insisted it was just a cold. His chamberlain Hinonishi Sukehiro later recalled, ““He had had trouble with his eyes and teeth from some time back, but he never complained to anyone. He had difficulty seeing things at a distance…. When he ate he was always very careful about what he put in his mouth and absolutely refused anything hard. But he never had any dental care. He put up with the pain…. He avoided doctors as much as possible.”

By early 1912 his health was clearly worsening because, I mean, of course it was. When he observed the yearly army maneuvers at Kurume that year he was visibly fatigued and apparently having difficulty standing; on the train on the way home, he was so ill from the train ride that he demanded the engineers slow down (insisting that they were going too fast and the speed was making him sick).

He seems to have simply accepted suffering as a part of the job, as a demonstration of his Confucian devotion to his duties as a ruler.

By June, he was bedridden much of the time; Meiji finally died of heart failure very early in the morning of July 30, 1912.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that by any measure, he’d overseen a truly incredible transformation of Japan–certainly the government agreed, laying aside space for a massive memorial and shrine in his honor in Tokyo that’s now Meiji Shrine and the associated park.

But despite that, Meiji’s role in the era named for him remains…complicated, to say the least. Obviously as a symbol and figurehead he played a tremendously important role–but how much power did he really have to drive events? Was Meiji a figurehead, or a real participant in those radical changes?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer there. Meiji clearly possessed power–substantial power, in fact–but also saw himself as restrained by a complex web of obligations and traditions. Those traditions were not grounded in, as his grandson Hirohito would later claim, constitutional monarchy or respect for the law, but in his profound belief in the Confucian tradition and its emphasis on a model of kingship that prioritized humility and moral example far more than practical policy.

Honestly, that’s my read of Meiji–he was trying as hard as he could to fulfill the role of the sage ruler, the kunshi (or junzi, usually translated as gentleman), who embodies the oodoo, or way of kings, in his actions that emphasize moral government and benevolence to the people.

Which, frankly, makes him all the more interesting–that a man who lent his name to Japan’s westernization saw himself so bound by ancient tradition.