This was done by various means: the creation of national holidays connected with the emperor; by having state propagandists go around the country; by establishing new state ceremonials and public rituals around the emperor; and by setting up the suitable buildings for those national pageants. When the Meiji-period ended in 1912, the Japanese indeed felt they shared one history centering upon the imperial household - a far cry from the situation 45 years earlier.
Here we will travel to a few places in Tokyo (and one in Kyoto) where we can still get a whiff of "Imperial Meiji."
Nijubashi and the Palace
15 min on foot from Tokyo St (Marunouchi side), or 10 min from Nijubashi-mae St on the Chiyoda line.
The imperial family moved its residence to Tokyo in 1868, after the Meiji Restoration; till then they had resided in Kyoto for more than 1,000 years. A new palace was built in the grounds of the former Edo castle; it was finished in 1888, only to be destroyed again in the air raids of 1945. This old palace was a series of linked pavilions and inside demonstrated a curious mix of Western and Japanese styles. Foreign dignitaries were impressed by its magnificence, such as the crimson Throne Room with brocaded walls, coffered ceiling, and golden throne under a baldachin. Here the Meiji Constitution was promulgated on February 11, 1889 (see a painting of the event in the Meiji Picture Gallery). The area in front of the former castle was cleared of all structures and named the Outer Garden (Kokyo Gaien). Its broad thoroughfares were convenient for military reviews and today they can still be used for marathons.
The Double Bridge (Nijubashi) is the symbolic entrance to the Imperial Palace. Most tourist programs in Tokyo, such as the tours offered by the Hato Bus company, start at this monument. There are two bridges here, but the name "Double Bridge" does not derive from that fact, although most people may think so now. The stone bridge in front is impressive with its heavy arches. It dates from 1887, the year the palace was built, and leads across the moat to the black, hermetically closed gate with a little white house for a guardsman sitting next to it. It is in fact the main entrance to the palace and was designed by a Japanese student of the British architect Conder. Then there is a steel bridge farther to the back that crosses another part of the moat and leads into the palace grounds proper. This steel bridge is modern and has replaced an wrought-iron original built also in 1887 by a German engineer. It was this old bridge that gave Nijubashi its name: it consisted of an upper and lower level, and these two decks or layers led to the designation Nijubashi.
Statue of Kusunoki Masashige
(5 min walk from the Double Bridge)
The Double Bridge is popular with Japanese tour groups. On the way back to the bus, they invariably file past the bronze equestrian statue of Kusunoki Masashige. Monumental statues of this type were another novelty of Meiji Japan: until the Edo period, there had almost only been religious sculpture, mainly Buddhist, and what statues were made of private persons were a kind of memorial portraits to revere after the death of the person in question. Meiji was hit by a veritable statumania, from military heroes as Omura Masajiro (in the Yasukuni Shrine) to the famous statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park. This public art had a clear message, too: Kusunoki was a paragon of loyalty to the imperial house, or at least, he was made into one in Meiji schoolbooks. He had died in 1336 when defending Emperor Go-Daigo in a power struggle with the Ashikaga shoguns, who in Meiji were depicted as "usurpers." The Kusunoki statue was sculpted by Takamura Koun. The small shop next to the statue sells copies of the statue and ashtrays and clocks with the effigy of the Double Bridge.
Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery
From the Double Bridge and Kusunoki Statue take the Chiyoda line (from Nijubashi-mae) to Omotesando and transfer there for one station to the Ginza line for Gaienmae. Then it is 15 min on foot through the avenue lined with gingko trees.
Admission: JPY 500 (open year round).
Seen from Aoyama-dori, over an approach lined by venerable gingko trees (the prime spot for viewing autumn colors in Tokyo), the domed Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is an impressive presence. Inside, the atmosphere is even more venerable, not to say hallowed. In the galleries stretching away on both sides from the dome, hang huge canvasses (3 by 2.7 meter) on dark, wood-paneled walls. Forty paintings in Japanese style on the one side and forty oil paintings in Western style on the other, depict the major events of the reign of the Meiji Emperor (1852 - 1912).
The Outer Gardens of the Meiji Shrine, of which the gallery's grounds form part, now are somewhat incongruously a sports Mecca, with the Jingu Baseball Stadium, a golf driving link and a tennis club. Nearby is also the National Stadium. On Sundays, the park is full of people practicing on roller-skates and skateboards, or engaged in various ball games. It is quite a change from the brightness outside to the solemnity of Meiji inside.
The Memorial Gallery was constructed in 1926. During the lifetime of the Emperor, this had been the Aoyama Military Parade Field; in a small park on the way to the Picture Hall still stands the enoki tree where to Emperor used to take his position when viewing the troops.
The paintings in the hall (which run to a total length of 250 meters) were not finished until 1936. The Japanese style murals depict the first part of the Emperor's life, from his birth in the Kyoto Imperial Palace (the Lying-in Chamber or Gosanjo is shown, which was erected especially for this occasion) to 1878; these are the brightest and most beautiful paintings, executed in soft colors. Sometimes they may be a bit stiff, but we are dealing after all with ceremonial art. These paintings focus on the happy years of early Meiji and the well-managed switch from the old feudal system to a modern state. The next 40 paintings concern the second half of the Emperor's life and are rather somber, not only due to the oil-painting technique, but also because the Meiji period gradually darkened towards war and death.
The bright years show the Prince growing up, engaged in the Ritual of Dressing the Hair, being invested as Crown-Prince, and accessing the throne upon his father Emperor Komei's sudden death in 1867. That same year, the last shogun, Yoshinobu, proclaimed his resignation in the Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Imperial Rule was restored ('restored' is the term used, although in most of Japanese history, the emperor had been a ceremonial and religious figure rather than a ruler). To convey this message abroad, we see the new Emperor receiving foreign ambassadors in audience; in the picture he greets the Minister from the Netherlands, who has typical red-brown hair. After the shogunal forces in Yedo Castle surrender, the emperor is enthroned in a colorful ceremony. In a long procession, dressed in ancient Court Regalia, he travels from Kyoto to the new national capital of Tokyo. The next year he is back in Kyoto for his marriage to Princes Haruko, who arrives at the ceremony in a traditional cart drawn by oxen.
The following decade, the Emperor undertakes several Imperial Tours around the country in order to show the people his authority. In the Edo period, most Japanese did not know about the existence of the Emperor and it was such a well-kept secret that foreigner observers actually thought that the Shogun was the Emperor. In 1872 Japan's first railway, between Tokyo and Yokohama is opened. The Imperial carriage arrives at the new. Western-style station of Shinbashi. A beautiful painting by Domoto Insho shows the Emperor receiving a lecture from a prominent scholar at the Akasaka Palace; this was a practice that continued for many years. Except for the brief samurai rebellion in Kyushu in 1877, these years are peaceful: we see visits to industrial exhibits, a Noh play, the Empress visiting a school for girls and, finally, in a poetic painting by Kaburagi Kiyokata, composing a poem.
The series of oil paintings starts innocently enough with a visit by the former U.S. President, General Grant. We see the Emperor conversing with him, a box of cigars open on the table, in the Hama Detached Palace. A currency conversion system is adapted in 1881 and the draft constitution is written in 1888. In the painting we see the conference where Ito Hirobumi (one of the leading Meiji statesmen) explains the draft to the Emperor.
In the next painting the constitution is promulgated by the Emperor on February 11, 1889 in the newly constructed Imperial Palace. Nice detail: the Emperor is shown handing the constitution to the Prime Minister - in other words, the Meiji constitution was a gift from the Emperor to the Japanese people and the Emperor himself stood above and outside that constitution (thus showing that Meiji was not a constitutional monarchy in the normal sense of the word). The first session of the Imperial Diet is opened in 1890. In 1894, the Emperor and Empress celebrate their Silver Wedding, but then a decade of war starts.
In 1894-95 the Sino-Japanese War is fought, with a battle in the Yellow Sea. Japanese warships are shown attacking the Chinese fleet with a lot of fire and smoke. The Emperor stays at military headquarters in Hiroshima to personally direct the war effort, the Empress is depicted visiting wounded soldiers. A peace treaty is finally concluded in Shimonoseki, where we see the Chinese delegates still in Manchu dress conferring with their Japanese counterparts, who are in Western-style costumes.
In 1904 war with Russia follows. We see the famous scene of the Russian General Stoessel at the surrender of Port Arthur presenting his white horse to the Japanese Commander Nogi. The bitter battle of Mukden follows, then Japan finally vanquishes Russia by destroying the Russian fleet in the Battle of the Japan Sea. Southern Sakhalin is ceded to Japan and we watch how army officers place a demarcation stone at the new frontier. By the way, that stone now stands in the garden of the museum, as Sakhalin is Russian again. One of the results of the war is that Japan could annex Korea. The next painting shows Seoul's South Gate with the caption 'The Union of Korea and Japan.' In the Gallery, history is presented exactly as it was conceived by Japan in the 1930s - as if time has stuck there.
The two last paintings show the Emperor's final illness, with people praying day and night in front of the Imperial Palace, and the funeral in the Momoyama Mausoleum in Kyoto. Fourteen years afterwards the present Gallery was built on the place where the funeral carriage was put out for public viewing and from where the cortege carrying the Emperor's body left Tokyo for burial in Kyoto on September 13, 1912. Interestingly, the very spot where the carriage stood is marked by a camphor tree or kusunoki, again a pun on the name of the loyal retainer we met above.
After all those paintings, one may be thirsty. What about tea in the Meiji Kinenkan, a restaurant and wedding hall complex sitting close to the Gallery and allied with the Meiji Shrine? Disregard the important-looking guards at the entrance and proceed to the Lounge Kinkei, although refreshments do not come cheap there. Inside, the restaurant may look familiar to you: indeed, it is the very room where the deliberations on the constitution were held from picture no. 50. The room with its characteristic wall decorations has been reconstructed here after the original building was dismantled. It now serves as a nostalgic background for ladies and gentlemen sipping coffee. Isn't that real democracy?
The Meiji Shrine
(Walk past the Picture Gallery to the large road on which Shinanomachi St lies and turn left into this road. You will pass the national No Theater, and after a while, also on the left, you will come to the north entrance of the Meiji Shrine. Alternatively, return from the Picture Gallery to Gaienmae, take a train to Omotesando and from there take the Chiyoda line to Meiji Jingu-mae. This brings you to the main entrance of the shrine.)
That Omotesando, the avenue leading to the Meiji Shrine, holds the middle between a French boulevard and a kid's town (especially on weekends) was undoubtedly not the intention of the planners. As the large stone lanterns at the Ometesando crossing demonstrate, it was meant as a formal approach to the shrine, dedicated to the memory of the revered Meiji Emperor (r. 1868-1912) and his wife. The shrine was finished in 1920. It is set in a cool and green park, on what had been a favorite spot of the Emperor and Empress: the estate and garden originally owned by the Ii clan. They seem to have loved the garden with irises that bloom here in the pond every year in spring. The many shrubs and trees now creating a dense forest in the shrine grounds were donated and planted by people from all over Japan.
The Emperor and Empress are not buried here (their tombs are in Momoyama in Kyoto), but according to Shinto belief, their souls are enshrined in the temple. Original Shinto only honored extraordinary forces of nature (mountains and rocks, huge trees, waterfalls etc.), but in a mix with ancestor veneration already in early historic times clan leaders had started to pray to their ancestors in shrines as well. Indeed, also in historical times exceptional human beings were sometimes enshrined, such as Sugawara no Michizane, a 10th century courtier. State Shinto had since the Meiji-period taken up this custom by enshrining political activists whose deeds had helped bring about the Meiji restoration, so it was not such a big step towards the canonization of the Imperial couple. The Meiji period had been a time of dramatic change and the Emperor was much honored as the leader (or at least the symbol) who steered Japan through these difficult years. Still, for a Western observer it is a strange thought that modern people come to pray to a human being who only lived a century ago.
The shrine buildings are the essence of simplicity. State Shinto architecture is based on the style of the Ise Shrines, so we find here unadorned Japanese cedar wood and smooth, green copper roofs. The buildings were replaced in 1958. There are many shrine festivals, such as the New Year visit, when however the crowds are appalling. It is nicer to visit in the middle of January, when young people decked out in kimono come for the coming-of-age day, or in November when children also in kimono are brought here for Shichigosan. On Sundays, there are often weddings. The shrine's autumn festival is held from Nov. 1-3 (Nov. 3, now called Culture Day, is in fact the birthday of the Meiji Emperor, still furtively celebrated after the war in this new guise), with performances of traditional music and martial arts.
Meiji Jingu Museum
Admission JPY 1,000 (Cl. Thursdays)
The Meiji Jingu Museum consists of a modern, airy structure from 2019 (a beautiful design by popular architect Kuma Kengo) and an old ferro-concrete building of 1921 ("Treasure House"), which copies the style of the high-floored storehouses of the Shosoin in Nara. The modern, new museum features 3,200 square meter of display space spread over two floors and wood is the major design element. (The old Treasure House is now mainly closed).
Inside, various articles used by the Imperial couple during their lifetime, are on display. We see uniforms and dresses (very small in size), but the most interesting items are the portraits of the Emperor and Empress by the Italian artist Ugolini, painted after photographs. They show the Emperor as a stiff, dignified figure in European military dress. He does not look very friendly, but perhaps it was not thought becoming for an Emperor to smile. In the picture, a vase stands on a small table at his side, and in the museum that same vase now stands in front of the painting - a nice touch.
Another interesting item is the horse-drawn carriage in which the Emperor used to ride. Mention should also be made of a copy of the so-called Imperial Rescript on Education, a short moral message issued by the Emperor, which forms a good indication of Meiji-period ethics. In fact, it is a mixture of Confucianism and nationalism, culminating in phrases as "should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth." Unfortunately, there were many such emergencies already in the Meiji period, and even more in early Showa times, so that millions of subjects were indeed compelled to give their lives. It is a bit discouraging that the shrine authorities apparently still think this feudal hodgepodge is fit to lead the Japanese into the 21st century, as is demonstrated by the various translations provided in the museum (you can also find the text on the shrine's website). But it does serve as a good indication of the spirit of Meiji times.
Many visitors only visit to the shrine proper and then leave again. That is a mistake: if one wants to understand the historical background of the shrine or the ideology of the Meiji period, one should also visit this museum as well as the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery in the shrine's Outer Gardens. After getting that perspective, one can finally unwind in the beautiful Inner Gardens of the shrine.
Admission: JPY 500
After entering the grounds of the Meiji shrine from Omotesando, one passes under huge wooden torii gates of Taiwanese cedar wood. In a bend of the path is a small sign (easily missed) indicating the Inner Garden of the Meiji Shrine. The garden is not very large, but has a good atmosphere. It lies under huge trees. The upper part is a western style lawn, the lower part contains a pond and an iris garden.
Meiji Jingu Gyoen, or the Inner Garden, is exactly what the name says: a garden almost hidden in the innermost recesses of the woods surrounding the Meiji Shrine. It is in fact the oldest part of the shrine area, as it goes back to a garden of the residences of two daimyo families, the Kato's from Kumamoto and the Ii's from Hikone. In 1889, the place came under the control of the Imperial Household Agency and was renamed as Yoyogi Imperial Garden. Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken often used to visit here. The emperor even wrote a waka poem praising the rural atmosphere of this garden in the middle of the metropolis.
The most famous part of the Inner Garden is the Iris Garden, constructed according to a design by the emperor himself on behalf of his empress. And indeed, the irises are splendid here when in full bloom. There are more than 150 varieties, collected from the best types from all over Japan, and a total of 1500 plants. The valley where the irises stand is hemmed in by dense forest and seems far removed from the mundane world. At the back of the marshy land one finds a spring from which still a stream of clear water flows. It is this natural water that also forms the large South Pond in the garden. This pond boasts water lilies which come into flower in the same period as the irises: late June to early July. They make a beautiful display. Pleasantly winding paths bring the visitor to a tea house and a fishing stand. In autumn, the red foliage of the dense trees is very impressive. The only distraction are the aggressive crows (literally thousands of them) who - lacking trees in modern Tokyo - now lord it over the garden.
General Nogi Residence and Shrine
A one-minute walk from Nogizaka Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line (exit 1)
We continue the imperial tour by returning to the theme of the Loyal Subject. The myth of Kusonoki Masashige, who gave his life for his Emperor, was reenacted by General Nogi Maresuke in September 13, 1912, when the general and his wife Shizuko followed the Meiji emperor (who had died several months before, on July 30) into the grave. At that moment, the imperial funeral cortege left the palace grounds and a gun boomed to announce this. Nogi was perhaps not a great general (as experts say), but he was very human and so seems to have spoken strongly to the Japanese. The country is still littered with monuments and shrines dedicated to him. His suicide turned him into a new myth, that could be exploited by the imperialists in the twenties and thirties. Japan had got its new Loyal Subject...
Nogi had waged both the war with China and the one with Russia. In that last war, a battle in trenches as Europe was to experience 10 years later in WW1, the loss if life was huge at 50,000 casualties; the general's two own sons died. Like in Europe, the war was waged with weapons which were modern but tactics which were ancient. You don't storm a hill fortified with machine guns by sending waves of soldiers towards it. For such a job, you need a tank, but unfortunately, tanks had not been invented yet. It may have been the dark memory of this war that inspired Nogi to his deed, rather than simple loyalty. In fact, his deed was anachronistic: samurai sometimes committed suicide when their lord and master died, but this custom was frowned upon and had died out in the early 17th c. Nogi's harakiri was contrary to his times, and that may have been why he became so famous. It also marked the end of an era, and had a profound impact on contemporary writers, such as Mori Ogai and Natsume Sōseki. For the public, Nogi became a symbol of loyalty and sacrifice.
The Nogi Shrine was set up in 1923 in the grounds of Nogi's former residence (and place of the seppuku); the house was also preserved. It is a frugal, two-storied wooden structure, raised on a stone basement. The stable next door (where General Nogi kept the white horse given him by the defeated Russian General Anatoly Stessel), is a more sturdy brick building. A walkway has been built around the house, so that visitors can look in through the windows, also into the tatami-floored suicide room. This is rather grisly: the positions of the general and his wife at death have been indicated by signs.
Meiji Imperial Tumulus in Fushimi Momoyama, Kyoto
There are in fact four "Momoyama stations" giving access to the Meiji tomb: Momoyama St on the JR Nara Line; Fushimi-Momoyama St on the Keihan Main Line; Momoyama Minamiguchi St on the Keihan Uji line; and Momoyama Goryumae St on the Kintetsu Kyoto line.
For our final destination we move from Tokyo to Kyoto. The imperial funeral cortege mentioned above, consisting of a cart decorated in gold leaf and lacquer, solemnly hauled by a team of oxen, made its way to nearby Tokyo Station where at midnight a special train left for Kyoto. Crowds gathered at stations along the way to bow in reverence.
The next day, the emperor was interred in the Fushimi Momoyama Tomb (Fushimi Momoyama Goryo) in the Fushimi area of southeastern Kyoto. This was in line with a thousand year old tradition that emperors had always found their last resting place in Kyoto (from the next Taisho emperor on, the imperial family's graves are in Hachioji in Tokyo, at the Musashi Imperial Graveyard). The emperor's tomb was laid out on the site where originally the Momoyama Castle of Hideyoshi had stood (some big stones that once belonged to that castle still are lying around). Close-by is also the tumulus of Kyoto's first emperor, Kammu. Emperor Meiji had been born in Kyoto in 1852, although he had ruled from the new capital of Tokyo since 1868.
From Fushimi, a quiet avenue a kilometer long and lined with pine trees stretches to the emperor's tomb. From another direction, the south, there is also a 230 stairs high stone stairway, now popular with joggers. The domed tomb sits behind a number of torii. It all is very clean and pure. It was the first time since the late 7th c. that an emperor was buried, rather than cremated, in a "return" to pre-Buddhist rites.
It is all in good taste and today usually very quiet. That is a big difference with the decades before the war, when the Keihan, Kintetsu and JR trains brought school class after school class to pay their respects at the Meiji tomb, via stations that had been especially set up for this purpose.
By the way, at the foot of the mausoleum, like a loyal dog lying at the feet of his master, stands another Nogi Shrine, smaller than the one in Tokyo described above.