*Note to reader: If you notice discrepancies in the ages of our Players in comparison to when they were born/died, this is due to a practice in Japan of counting a child as 1 year old at the time of birth (as opposed to starting the clock at 0 like we would in the U.S.). This is how ages of members of the Japanese royal family during this period were often calculated and recorded in documentation, so I will do the same here.
*Second note to reader: Some of the following should include accents, which are included in the photos above but not in the main text (due to the limitations of this website)
You may have heard of the Meiji Restoration or of Emperor Hirohito, but I am willing to bet you have never heard the names Taisho or Yoshihito. And neither had I before embarking on this journey. What fascinated me about Japan’s Emperor Taisho (born Yoshihito) when I first began to research him was actually the lack of information I could find. Every other monarch we have covered has sections of libraries dedicated to them, but in all of my research I could not find one single book solely written about Taisho. He is only mentioned in biographies of his grandfather or son, which I found to be odd since there is an entire period of time in Japan referred to as “Taisho democracy”. The literature that does exist on the topic differs widely on what, if anything, was wrong with Taisho when he stepped aside from public life at the age of 42. His short rule, only 14 years, has been deemed insignificant by historians and by his own country, but this week ULTC is here to shed some light on the forgotten bridge between the Meiji and Hirohito Empires. Between these three men, Japan was ushered (and sometimes forced) into the modern world. As a result, the 14 years of Taisho’s reign cannot be overlooked.
Yoshihito’s father, Emperor Meiji, ascended to the throne in 1867 at the young age of 15. It was not unusual for Japanese emperors at that time to begin their reign so young, but Meiji’s experience as emperor would be anything but normal. In 1868, revolution broke out in Japan and the military was pushed out of the government where they had held influence and control for two centuries. This time in Japanese history “came to be identified with the subsequent era of major political, economic, and social change—the Meiji period —that brought about the modernization and Westernization of the country” (Britannica). It was also the beginning of the Japanese peoples’ intense distrust of their Western neighbors, who were seen as encroaching on their land and way of life.
I Will Survive, Keep on Survivin’
This was the world that the future Emperor Taisho was born into. Before he was the Emperor, Taisho was born Crown Prince Yoshihito on August 31, 1879. His father, as I mentioned, was the current Emperor Meiji, and his birth mother was the “gon no tenji” Yanagihara Naruko. The term means, for lack of a better word, concubine, and Meiji kept many of these women throughout his adult life. However, these women held more of a role than just being around for the emperor’s pleasure and were actually ladies-in-waiting to Meiji’s legal wife, Empress Shoken.
Yoshihito’s birth was traumatizing for his poor mother. Yanagihara survived the ordeal, but “it was so difficult and accompanied by such hysteria and screams of anguish that she was never again permitted to share the emperor’s bed (251, Keene)”. And the worry did not end there – when Yoshihito was only three weeks old, he contracted cerebral meningitis. Next week, Riley will walk you through meningitis in more detail, but essentially it is an infection that causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. I once had a friend in college who had it and I found him hallucinating in a bathtub with a raging fever, so imagine how scary it was for a baby to contract this infection in the 19th century.
Yoshihito’s prospects looked grim for a time; in fact, his father did not even meet him until December. By that time, the baby had turned a corner for the better and the country could finally celebrate the birth of a male heir! But wait…wasn’t Yoshihito a bastard if he wasn’t the son of the emperor’s legal wife? As we have seen over and over throughout our series, the birth of a legitimate heir could make or break dynasties. Henry VIII would have happily made his bastard son Henry FitzRoy his rightful heir if English law had allowed, possibly saving many young women’s lives in the process. However, the Japanese allowed for different rules and customs. Empress Shoken was unable to conceive her own children and so legally adopted Yoshihito, which made him legitimate in the eyes of the law. We have actually seen this before in our adventures and it is not completely unprecedented. In Caligula’s Rome, emperors commonly adopted boys who were then recognized legally as their sons, with all of the rights of a legitimate heir.
There’s No Place Like (Great-Grandpa’s) Home
For the first years of his young life, Yoshihito lived in the home of his great-grandfather Nakayama Tadayasu. Tadayasu was very fond of his great-grandson, but by the time Yoshihito was seven, he had moved back into the royal palace with his parents. Because of the close bond with his great-grandfather, Yoshihito was allowed to have sleepovers at Nakayama’s house. One night in 1885 during a visit, the price developed a severe fever and convulsions. In fact he was so sick, Yoshihito remained at the house for a month as he recovered his strength to be able to move back in with his parents. Keene suggests that this bout “was psychosomatic, induced by his reluctance to leave the nostalgic warmth of the Nakayama house for the solemnity of the palace” (Keene). In other words, something about his mental state triggered the physical symptoms – perhaps the fact that he was happier living with his great-grandfather?
Whatever the reason behind this episode, it further cemented the royal family’s concern that Yoshihito may not live to see adulthood. And that fear was justified – in all, Emperor Meiji fathered 15 children and only four survived. Yoshihito was the sole boy who survived infancy and “inevitably the court suspected that hundreds of years of imperial inbreeding had resulted in a genetic defect of some sort” (Bix). Since Yoshihito was all they had, he would continue to be raised as the country’s future ruler, with some adjustments made along the way. One of these adjustments was Yoshihito’s schooling. Unfortunately for the prince, who was scheduled to begin school with his peers by this time, he was not able to join the other noble children of his age because of his unpredictable health. Instead he was given private tutors and, perhaps not surprisingly for a seven year old boy, Yoshihito was difficult to control. His attention span was short and his behavior towards his tutors was less than polite. For a young prince, this was not unheard of (cough George Jr. cough), but it was believed that Yoshihito’s attitude was exacerbated by his delicate medical history. Because of the mysteriousness of his symptoms, “those around him, fearing that scolding might bring on convulsions, had permitted him to have his way in everything”(Keene, 407). So, he was a spoiled brat.
Inevitably this brat was deemed strong enough to enter the real world and in 1887, Prince Yoshihito finally began attending public school with kids his age. This was not only significant for Yoshihito personally, having spent the beginning of his life in relative lockdown in various homes, but for the crown in general. This was the first time that an heir had attended public school (shout out to my fellow public school kids!). Also of significance was the fact that Emperor Meiji was determined that his son’s education include history and customs of the West. Neither had been done before, and it was all a reflection of Meiji’s belief that “the old methods of education, based on the antiquated usages of the palace, were no longer viable”(Keene). The emperor was adamant that his only son be as prepared as possible to take the throne in a modern and changing world.
By the time Yoshihito was a young man, his love of the West, influenced by his non-traditional upbringing, had only grown more intense. In fact, he was often known to speak French (something that the more traditional elders in Japan did not care for). Despite the fact that Yoshihito never managed to excel in school, or in the military positions he was appointed to, he was by all accounts a pretty happy young man who enjoyed traveling Japan and wasn’t interested in the rigidities and traditions of court life. But that didn’t mean he was not subject to its rules. After all, he was the heir and that meant he needed a wife to continue the family line. For a time, royal doctors could not decide if Yoshihito was in good enough health to begin a family – he was often too thin or recovering from various undocumented illness. Then in early 1900, at the age of 21, Yoshihito was informed that he was engaged to be married. (Side note: can someone please inform me that I am engaged to be married?) The lucky woman was Sadako, the future Empress Teimei, daughter of a nobleman. The choice of the future empress was critical and much debated, as there was understandably fear that any possible health issues she had would be exacerbated by the prince’s poor health, compromising their future children. It turns out Sadako was the woman for the job and in April 1901 Yoshihito’s first child was born – a son, who would eventually take the name Hirohito. To the relief of the nation, Hirohito appeared strong and healthy, unlike his father before him. Three more sons would follow for Yoshihito and Sadako.
How To Lose A Guy In 9 Years
On July 30, 1912, at the age of 60, Yoshihito’s father Emperor Meiji passed away. It was Yoshihito’s time to shine. He took the name Taisho, but the new emperor’s reign would be brief compared to that of his father’s – a mere blip in Japan’s history. Only 9 years after Taisho was crowned Emperor, his son Hirohito was named as regent. As we have seen from our posts on monarchs such as George III and Juana of Castile, a regent was named to rule in the place of the king or queen (or emperor) in the event that they were unable to – for a multitude of possible reasons. From what we know of Taisho and his health struggles, it may not surprise us to hear that he was unable to continue carrying out his duties. But was that really the case? What exactly was wrong with Emperor Taisho and where did he go when he stepped down? Stay tuned, because not is all what it seems…
Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. HarperCollins, 2000.
Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan Meiji and His World. Columbia University Press, 2002.
“Meiji Restoration.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/event/Meiji-Restoration.
Takeshi, Hara. “Emperor Taishô–Image vs. Reality.” Japan Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, Apr. 2001, p. 56. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=f5h&AN=7696724&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
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