The Meiji Restoration brought forth a desire among the governing elite to create a governing ideology that would ensure and maintain Japan’s place as a state within the nation-state system. The development of the state governing ideology began with such early Meiji documents as The Charter Oath (1868) and the Imperial Rescript on the Abolition of the Han (1871). The essay finds that the Charter Oath, though ambiguous, supplied Meiji government with tremendous power of discretion and strengthened the power of the state over various facets of the society. The Letter from the Meiji Emperor to his Subject in 1868 attempted restore and legitimize the paramount status of the emperor. This letter became an important springboard for the creation of the Meiji Constitution, in which the Meiji emperor as the sovereign authority and the symbol of the unifying ideological force is solidified. The Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) created an educational system of national morality that promoted nationalism and loyalty to the state. However, Carol Gluck argues in Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period that not all supported this system because it potentially erodes traditional morality. The last part of the essay addresses the ideological relationship between the Meiji state and conceptions of civilization and westernization. In Reasons for Opposing the Korean Expedition (1873) a prominent Dajokan member, Okibo, calls for a prioritization of the national economy and people’s livelihood, rather than expansionist policy. Trent E. Maxey’s the Greatest Problem: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan shows that Meiji government promoted Shintoism as a governing tool to unify the Japanese people. Lastly, Toshio Watanabe in Josiah Conder’s Rokumeikan: Architecture and National Representation in Meiji Japan argues that Meiji government built western-style architecture to elevate its diplomatic status and ultimately seek modernity. These sources showed that the Meiji government created and then reinforced an invented history and tradition that allowed for a state ideology, which conformed to the nation-state form.
Central to the development of Meiji ideology was the Charter Oath of 1868, which sought to orient national morality across Japan. In adopting an oath that was intended to become the basis of a constitution and legal system, the Meiji government declared an ideology that undercut the previous political system of the Tokugawa shogunate and the political relationships through which the people of the Japanese archipelago had operated. The first point of the Charter Oath shows the government’s intention to increase transparency amongst the decision-making leadership. The government’s aim of achieving a national, classless unity is addressed in the second point, which would involve the abolition of binding class assignments. The third point seeks to establish a meritocratic system in place of the rigid shi-no-ko-sho hierarchy in the society. The fourth point, of elective removal of state determined “evil customs” and the institution of “just laws of nature”, explicitly shows the government’s intent to reform. The last point describes the perceived need for knowledge and education from the West, and states that it will “strengthen” imperial rule. The vassals of the Shogun, or Daimyos, held the authority over their domains in the pre-Meiji era. After the Meiji restoration, lords from Chochu, Satsuma, Hizen and Tosa returned their lands to the Emperor. This act, which gestured toward the need for the central government with a single sovereign, was followed by domanial reforms to meet this aim. The Imperial Rescript on the Abolition of the Han legalizes the abolition of the Han (Clans) in favor of the singular authority of the Meiji Emperor. The Imperial Rescript on the Abolition of the Han worked to reinforce the ideology guidelines established by the Charter Oath. The Charter Oath suggests a plan to overhaul the old order and establish a new set of guidelines to form a new state ideology. The language, however, is fairly vague, as each section of the Oath could manifest itself in numerous ways. This allows future justification for a range of government actions that claim to enact Meiji state ideology. Citing the need to provide “protection and tranquility” at home and maintain “equality” with foreigners this document asserts the necessity of creating a government centered on a single sovereign.
The Letter From the Meiji Emperor to His People of 1868 was an attempt by the Meiji Emperor to dissociate himself from the previous Tokugawa regime and realign himself with modern Japanese politics as the apex of the state. This ideological shift was further established in the Meiji Constitution of 1890, in which the first set of articles concerns the role of the emperor. Prior to these two documents, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan existed as an alliance of feudal domains under a family-led military government. The Charter Oath attempted to remove political power from the Tokugawa Shogunate and the “evil customs of the past”, effectively creating a new Japanese state ideology that could be centered around the imperial line, culminating in the Meiji Constitution of 1890.
In the early Meiji period, steps were taken to solidify the Meiji Emperor’s place as the central authority in the Japanese political hierarchy. One example of this was through the abolition of the Han. In The Letter From the Meiji Emperor to His People, Emperor Meiji explains that in order to civilize, power had to be consolidated. The Letter states that “it is only by stepping into the shoes Our ancestors wore in ancient times and throwing Ourself into governing the country that We fulfill Our Heaven-sent mission”. His description of “duty” and “Heaven-sent mission” is analogous to the European divine right of kings’ doctrine, or the Mandate of Heaven in imperial China. And as intended in Western civilizations, the Emperor’s proclamation of divine right gave him political legitimacy, affirming the validity of the Charter Oath as guidelines to be followed by all Japanese subjects. Thus, the Letter was a breakthrough in the formation of Meiji state ideology as a definable, tangible concept to be viewed by Japanese subjects and foreign nations. This assertion set the framework for the establishment of the Emperor’s sovereign and divine rule in the Meiji Constitution of 1890.
Ratified on November 29th, 1890, The Meiji Constitution took the place of the Charter Oath as the defining legal document of Meiji Japan. The Constitution established Japan as a constitutional monarchy due to the Meiji government’s desire to define Japan as a modern nation. This was achieved by implementing a democratic structure with political parties, civil rights and liberties, and three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judiciary). Bearing similarities to the Prusso-German constitutional monarchy, the Meiji Emperor stands above each branch of the government as the Sovereign Head of State, as described in preliminary articles of the Constitution. Article 4 states “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.” The claim to the Emperor’s sovereign rule is supplemented by Article 3, which draws upon Shintoism to validate the Emperor’s divine rule, stating that the Emperor is “sacred and inviolable,” being granted “supreme authority over the Army and Navy.” Although state and religion are not one and the same in this document, the Emperor, by establishing himself as the head of the state, with a spiritual, almost natural justification, welds the two together. Without the preceding Letter From the Meiji Emperor to His People in 1868, the implementation of the Meiji Emperor as the political and religious symbol of Japan would have appeared as a radical change in government structure within the Meiji Constitution as opposed to an already widely accepted ideology.
The promulgation of national morality was intrinsically linked to the creation of a statewide education system in Meiji Japan. Guidance for moral behavior is explicitly mentioned in the second section of the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), and when partnered with Carol Gluck’s ideas on civil morality, shows the Meiji government’s desire to use education as a way of instilling state ideology into the public. The Imperial Rescript on Education was concerned with not only articulating government policy on the principles of education, but inculcating a strong sense of identity for the Japanese citizen and unswerving loyalty to the Emperor. The Rescript does this by evoking imagery of an unbroken Japanese lineage, in which subjects are the beacon of security that guard the imperial throne. This is evident in the opening of the Rescript which states, “Our Imperial Ancestors have founded our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue.” This referral of Japan’s “Imperial Ancestors” alludes to the symbiotic relationship between the foundation of Japan and its imperial institution. Through its highly pregnant language, the Rescript manages to find a theoretical basis for Japan as a nation-state within the country’s invented ‘historical tradition.’ The Rescript’s themes of virtue, spiritism, and love of the country reflects the ideology of the Meiji state, and it was by endorsing it through education that the government sought to harness unified public energy in the operation of the state.
The Imperial Rescript on Education can be seen as a distinct moment in the early Meiji government’s efforts to legitimize their political standing and attempts to unify their subjects under a particular series of objectives. It does this through a distinct conglomeration of old and new elements, by stating that “the way set forth” was “bequeathed by [their] imperial ancestors”, thereby associating the entire history of Japan with a recall of Shinto beliefs. Following its publication, the Rescript was issued to all schools, where students were required to memorize and recite the text, ensuring its widespread reception. In this way, the Rescript and other government documents become the basis for learning, with all education built upon essential cultural values within these sources. The “fundamental character” of the Japanese empire and education are derived from the same source (“subjects ever united”) in the Rescript, further emphasizing the ideological association of education with morality.
Carol Gluck discusses Japan’s created morality in the chapter titled “Civil Morality” by showing its dissemination through education. The “civilization” of the Japanese people, however, posed a threat for common social practices and cultural norms (in the minds of some intellectuals). The Rescript attempted to prevent this problem by describing a Japanese ancestral tradition that detailed filial piety and the learned traditions of many generations of Japanese culture. Although these (kokutai, filial piety, beauty, etc.) are included in the Rescript, it fails to do anything more than simply mention them. It was widely perceived amongst intellectuals, however, that the disintegration of traditional morals would signify an ethical decline, so they formed groups to voice their versions of the correct ideological base. Despite this, the official ideologues of the Meiji government were disseminated by multiple official bodies and soon became a measure of “minimum civil allegiance”. This, coupled with the Imperial Rescript on Education secured the spread of ideas on morality that stemmed from the central government. Gluck concludes by saying that associating morality with the newly formed notion of the grand imperial line produced an ideological tension between the “unremarkably familiar and relentlessly demanding at one and the same time”.
The debate on whether to export the Meiji Ishin to Korea played a role in developing the Meiji state ideology. Aside from provoking the breakdown of the Dajokan and the creation of a Liberal party, the Korean debate allowed those in the Dajokan to reject the plan for expansion in favor of focusing on internal affairs. Exporting the Meiji Ishin to Korea would have allowed Japan to do to the Korean court what the Tokugawa experienced in Perry’s gunboat policy. However, as Okubo argues in “Reasons for Opposing the Korean Expedition,” “hasty action” in Korea was not the best path. This sentiment was well expressed by the members of the Iwakura Mission who returned early to vote against attacking Korea. Their votes enforced Okubo’s seven points. First, the Emperor is still young and that the bedrock of his reign is not yet firmly set. Second, the nation’s finances are not yet at a place that could support the financial strain of war. Third, war would, in addition, lead to the complete abandonment of unfinished government projects that are necessary for the nation’s development because it would drain the government’s financial resources. Fourth, the economy would be harmed by the armed conflict with Korea because the reduction of gold reserves would hurt the government’s credit and the reduced money circulation would hurt the people financially. Fifth, Okubo warns of the threat of Russia asserting its dominance over the Korean peninsula in the region while Japan is occupied with Korea. Sixth, he also warns that England would use Japan’s poor wartime economic status as a pretext for interfering in its internal affairs. In his last point, Okubo asserts that the nation’s priority should be getting rid of the unequal treaties. Rejecting the export of the Ishin to Korea made room for a governing ideology that saw the development of Meiji state ideology through internal development rather than imperialist expansion, unlike many of Japan’s Western counterparts at the time.
Japan’s attempt at civilizing its society in accordance with western methodology was first seen in the Charter Oath of 1868, before culminating in the Meiji Constitution of 1890. This centralized Japanese state, controlled by the divine right of the Meiji Emperor, was intended to have absolute political control over Japan. However, The Emperor’s divine right to rule the government implied that state institutions were also of divine construct, despite their definition as secular (not subject to religious rule) in the Constitution. As a result, it was difficult to reconcile the differences between the divinity of the imperial institution and the secularization of state institutions. According to “The “Greatest Problem” Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan” by Trent E. Maxey, the way to unite this difference was religion. “Religion…had come to provide the conceptual and regulative means by which to contain and mobilize the plurality (of sectarian positions) in the service of a centralized nation-state” (pg. 236). Reminiscent of the constitutional monarchies of Europe, Japan’s incorporation of freedom of religion in the Meiji Constitution affirmed the Emperor’s claim of divine right through the powerful mediums of law and belief. Consequently, The Emperor’s sovereignty as the Head of State was legitimized, allowing him complete control over the state. Thus, the importance and effectiveness of religion in Japan mirrored that of the western world, and signified a large step by the Japanese towards becoming civilized through western methods.
Meiji state ideology was revealed through the carefully planned architectural designs of the early Meiji era. Toshio Watanabe’s Josiah Conder’s Rokumeikan: Architecture and National Representation in Meiji Japan argues that the western-style architectures of the Rokumeikan represented a serious government attempt at elevating the diplomatic status of Japan. . An immensely costly building in the early Meiji era, the Rokumeikan bore a purely western architectural outlook devoid of any Edo-style architectural traits. To many Meiji intellectuals such as Inoue Kaoru, for Japan to assert an equal diplomatic status to the West it needed to adopt western ways from dress to table manners and dancing, not to mention the architecture. By appropriating and imitating western ways and designs, Japan could, as Kaoru hoped, show tangible signs of progress to become a civilized nation. Though the ideology behind western-style architecture visualized a highly civilized Japan, Japan’s modernity, comparable to the West, the western nations were not impressed by Japan’s efforts. Some individuals like the architect Josiah Conder considered the Rokumeikan as the limbo in Japan’s progress to modernity. This is because Japan was simply placed within the western notion of the Orient, not considered separately Japanese. The creation of the Japanese nation was, therefore, critical in representing not only the civilizational level but the level of modernity. The failure also showed that, in the early Meiji era, the “Japaneseness” was yet to be formed. As such, the Rokumeikan failed to impress many individuals in Japan alike and did not deliver the message of modernity attempted to be represented in the building. Lack of the appreciation of national art and architecture by the Japanese was therefore chief barrier against the appreciate of the modernity embodied in the western-style architecture embodied in the Rokumeikan.
These sources reveal the extent to which the Meiji government evolved to consolidate their state ideology in Japan. Evidence such as The Letter from the Emperor to his Subject and The Imperial Rescript on Education shows that in order to effectively unite the Japanese people as a nation, the Meiji leaders emphasized modern Japan as being part of a long chain of imperial tradition, with the Meiji Emperor as its Head of State. In the numerous sources, the constant reinforcement of the Emperor being promulgated to power was a conscious act, as if he had long been the symbol of Japanese culture and historical continuity. Thus, the significance of the Meiji leaders attempt to modernize was that they turned Japan’s invented imperial past into a strong sense of national consciousness among Japanese citizens. This was the root of the state ideology: the employment of imperial ideology as the basis of the Japanese moral code as well as the constitutional system. The Greatest Problem: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan also reveals the government’s endeavors to unite Japan by instilling Shintoism as the state religion. In doing so, by associating Shinto with the imperial line, Japan had not only created the oldest ruling house in the world, but also a powerful symbol of age-old national unity. However, the discordant agglomeration of old and new, imperial and modern, birthed an ideological tension in the Meiji era. This is evident in the 1873 Reasons for Opposing the Korean Expedition which saw a split in the intellectual belief of prioritizing Japan’s imperialistic quests over its national security. Ultimately, these recommended readings will help construct an impression of the depth the Meiji government underwent in transforming Japan to a modern nation, as well as shed light on the internal conflicts and tensions that arose as a result.
 “Memorial on the Proposal to Return to the Registers.” In Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by WM Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, Arthur E. Tiedemann, 10-12. 2.nd ed. Vol. 2. New York, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2006.
The Charter Oath (1868), in Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 7.
The Charter Oath was one of the earliest documents of the Meiji period that sought to establish a “national wealth” across the emperor’s domain. The Oath’s first point shows the intention to increase transparency amongst the decision-making leadership. The aim of a national, classless unity (which would involve the abolition of binding class assignments) is addressed in the second point. The third point seeks to establish a meritocratic system in place of the rigid shi-no-ko-sho hierarchy. The fourth point, of elective removal of state determined “evil customs” and institution of “just laws of nature”, explicitly shows the intent to form a new state ideology. The last point describes the perceived need for knowledge and education from the West, and states that it will “strengthen” imperial rule. The Charter Oath seems to contain a plan to overhaul the old order and establish a new set of guidelines by which to form a state ideology.
Imperial Rescript on the Abolition of the Han (1871), in Japanese Government Documents I, edited by W.W. McLaren Washington (Washington DC: University Publications of America, 1979), 32-33.
This document legalized the abolition of the Han (Clans) in favor of the singular authority of the Emperor. This reform marked an ideological departure from the decentralized daimyo system in which lords controlled their own lands but were vassals of the Shogun. Citing the need to provide “protection and tranquility” at home and maintain “equality” with foreigners, this document asserted the necessity of a government centered on a single authority. The document noted that prior to its writing the Han returned their register and Chiji (Governor) were appointed. However, because in some places authority shifted in name only, the Imperial Rescript on the Abolition of the Han was necessary to abolish the Han.
The Meiji Constitution (1889), in Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 8.
The main outline of the 1890 Meiji Constitution may be broken down into seven categories: The Rights and Duties of the Subjects, the Imperial Diet, The Emperor, The Ministers of State and Privy Council, The Judicature, Finance and Supplementary Rules. In doing so, the Constitution established the Emperor as the head of state, as well as set up two legislative bodies. These two bodies were The House of Peers (made up of Japanese nobles) and the House of Representatives (Made up of people elected by the citizens). The Constitution also established an executive branch of intellectuals who would serve to advise the Emperor, which is detailed in the section ‘The Ministers of State and Privy Council’. Moreover, the creation of courts of law to deal with criminals and settle civil disputes was implemented, as well as the right of civil liberties for the Japanese citizens. These implementations helped make Japan more democratic and more ‘open’ to the Western world since its declaration of independence of the old feudal system in 1868. Civil rights and liberties remain ambiguous in the constitution. While freedom of speech and press is granted they are subject to legal limitations. The fluctuations between authoritarian and liberal-democratic political behaviors continue to be seen in other aspects Meiji state ideology.
Letter from the Meiji Emperor to His People (1868), in Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 25.
The Letter from the Meiji Emperor to His People was issued the same day as the Charter Oath. The Charter Oath established the legal stage for Japan’s modernization and allowed for the first step towards “modern” statehood. Furthermore, the Charter Oath set the ideological groundwork for Japanese life. One of the main facets of this ideological groundwork was the maintenance of imperial rule. Imperial rule does not exist without an emperor, and Meiji subjects were potentially unaware of the Emperor’s existence. The Meiji Emperor addressed his subjects directly for the first time in this letter as a way to establish the emperor’s place as the past, present, and future of Japanese rule and as the ideological symbol of the newly crystallizing Japanese state,. Through this letter, the Emperor signified his authority and making himself tangible to a people who have lived in a feudal system without an imperial head of state.
The Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), in Ryūsaku Tsunoda, Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 646.
The Imperial Rescript on Education was aimed to promote national morality amongst Japanese citizens. Its basis lies on an assumed historic bond between the Emperor and his subjects. This is enforced by the use of archaic, Confucian statements in the document regarding loyalty to the emperor. Allegiance to the emperor would “guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.” Thus, the script presented introduced the tradition of self-sacrifice. The Rescript emphasized traditional Confucian beliefs of harmony and filial piety, as well as the cultivation of modern ethos, which call upon the people to “offer [themselves] courageously to the state.” It was heavily indoctrinated following its publication, where beginning in the 1890s, as students were made to memorize and recite the text.
Gluck, Carol. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton University Press, 1985. 102-156.
Carol Gluck discusses Japan’s created morality in the chapter titled “Civil Morality” by showing its promulgation through education. The “civilization” of the Japanese people, however, posed a threat for common social practices and cultural norms. It was widely perceived amongst intellectuals that the disintegration of traditional morals would signify an ethical decline, so they formed groups to voice their versions of the correct ideological base. The official ideologues of the Meiji government were disseminated by multiple official bodies and soon became a measure of “minimum civil allegiance”. Gluck concludes by saying that associating morality with the newly formed notion of the grand imperial line produced an ideological tension between the “unremarkably familiar and relentlessly demanding at one and the same time”.
Reasons for Opposing the Korean Expedition, in Ryūsaku Tsunoda, Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 658-665.
In “Reasons for Opposing the Korean Expedition” Okubo Toshimichi argued against “hasty action” in Korea, a stance the Meiji government ultimately accepted. With the wellbeing of the nation and people in mind Okubo presented seven cases against “hasty action” in Korea. First, he asserted that the Emperor is still young and that the bedrock of his reign is not yet firmly set. Okubo argued that the nation’s finances are not yet at a place that could support the financial strain of war. Okubo asserted that war would lead to the complete abandonment of necessary but unfinished government projects. For his fourth point, Okubo argued that the economy would be harmed because a reduction of gold would hurt the government’s credit and the reduction of paper money will hurt the people financially. He warned of the threat of Russia asserting its dominance in the region while Japan is occupied with Korea. He also warned that England would use Japan’s poor wartime economic status as a pretext for interfering in internal affairs. In his last point, Okubo asserted that the nation’s priority should be getting rid of the unequal treaties. This text described the Meiji ideology justifying expansion, and the case against the Korean expedition.
Maxey, Trent E.. The “Greatest Problem” Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014.
“The “Greatest Problem” Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan” analyzes how Japanese religions became a representation of individualism and social diversity that resisted direct state control, and why it gave the Meiji government a reason to contain and regulate that diversity. The architects of the Meiji Constitution established a clear religious understanding that operated, “within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects,” meaning citizens could practice religion so long as it did not interfere with the designed operation of Meiji state control (as seen in the Meiji Constitution). However, instead of keeping citizens subdued, religion caused people of different social backgrounds to find a common ground, thus uniting the public, while giving individuals a sense of existential purpose not specifically pertaining to the Meiji state. As a result, the state developed many of its imperial institutions in direct opposition to religion. Hence the importance of this text, which evaluates the evident effect of religion on the formation of the Meiji state.
Watanabe, Toshio. “Josiah Conder’s Rokumeikan: Architecture and National Representation in Meiji Japan.” Art Journal: Volume 55, Issue 3. 1996.
This paper studies the ideological basis behind the architectural representation of western-style buildings during he Meiji era, with specific references to Rokumeikan, a costly Meiji era building. Rokumeikan bore a purely western architectural outlook, departing from the traditional Japanese style. Like the building’s architect, Inoue Kaoru, Meiji intellectuals were desperately trying to modernize Japan by elevating its national status to that of the West. Inoue, like many of his contemporaries, came to believe that the imitation of western culture was a tangible sign of progress. The architectural style of Rokumeikan presented positive traits of solidity, permanence, and authority, a contrast to buildings from the Edo period. This paper, in reference to this particular ideology, claims that the lack of national identity was the chief barrier to the appreciation or positive reception of Rokumeikan’s representation of modernity.