*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)
Before we can understand the repercussions of Taisho’s health on the Japanese monarchy, we first must step back and understand the country’s transformation under his father’s rule. Emperor Meiji took the throne in 1867 and within a year found himself the leader of a country embroiled in revolution. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, for two centuries Japan had been under the control of a military style government, and the emperor was not the ultimate source of power. Under this style of leadership, Japan was a feudal country, made up of set social classes where the majority of the population rented land from the wealthy and worked it to earn a living. A system like this made it effectively impossible to break out of your respective class, particularly for peasants.
The revolution of 1868 turned Japan’s political and social system upside down and, most importantly for our story, restored power and authority to the emperor. The revolution also opened a door that had previously been shut tight – the door to the West. With this door now open, Western ideas began to find their way into the minds of the revolutionaries and so Meiji was compelled to order the creation of a constitution (someone should have told them that the political system of the West isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…) This constitution was completed in 1889 and “established a bicameral parliament, called the Diet, to be elected through a limited voting franchise” (Britannica). It also adopted the Western practice of electing a prime minister. Emperor Meiji was now the center of authority in Japan, but he could potentially be influenced by this new Western-style government.
These Hoes Ain’t Loyal
This was the new world that Taisho inherited when he took the throne in 1912 at the age of 33. Right smack dab between the Russo-Japanese War that ended in 1905 (with our good friend Tsar Nicholas!) and the impending Great War (what we know today as WWI). Japan could no longer ignore the world around it and would require a strong leader to navigate it through the 20th century. Pretty much immediately upon taking the throne, and perhaps even before, Japan’s political leaders had decided Taisho was probably not going to be the guy they needed. In fact, Bix suggests that there was a belief among government elites that Taisho was so incompetent and his health so poor that it was best that they begin to take matters into their own hands. Admiral Yamamoto Gonbei, a future Prime Minister, went so far as to say that it was “loyal not to obey the emperor’s word if we deem it to be disadvantageous to the state” (Bix, 40). Barely a few days on the job and Taisho already had a loyalty problem.
So was it true that Taisho was too sickly and incapable of performing his duties as emperor? Much about Taisho and his life has been lost to history or purposefully buried, but a few stories managed to survive over the years that give us a little insight into just how his peers saw him. One such popular story describes Taisho reading a speech at a meeting of the Diet, rolling up his paper and looking through it as if he were a child with a telescope. It sounds quirky at best, but these were the kinds of stories that circulated during and after Taisho’s rule, perhaps in an effort to undermine the emperor and make him seem foolish. Hara Takeshi, a history professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo who remembers hearing this story as a child, argues that there is no real evidence that this incident actually ever happened. The reality is, according to Takeshi, “for the 12 years from the time of his marriage while crown prince until his succession to the throne, [Taisho] was in relatively good mental and physical health”. He even spent much of his time traveling throughout the country and interacting with the Japanese people. There is nothing that I read that indicates Taisho was a man suffering from poor mental health and, more importantly, the kind of poor mental health that would prevent him from carrying out his duties as emperor. So why the hate?
Stick to the Status Quo
It might surprise you to know that people in power tend to want to hold on to that power for as long as possible. This was the predicament for Japan’s political leaders in the early 1900s – after the Russo-Japanese War they were feeling the heat “from a series of public campaigns, waged mainly by [other] politicians, journalists, and intellectuals, to demand universal male suffrage” (Bix). The country had made strides under Meiji, but the people weren’t satisfied. In addition to demands for expanded voting rights, there was also a desire for legitimate and established political parties, as opposed to de-facto ruling groups that had existed under the old feudal system. This movement eventually came to be known as “Taisho democracy” because it picked up speed in the beginning years of Taisho’s rule. For those interested in maintaining the status-quo, none of this was good news, and the contrast between the leadership styles of Emperor Meiji and his heir was startling to some.
Meiji had been a grand figure who conducted his business and personal life like most of the monarchs we have followed here at ULTC – with pomp, circumstance and tradition. But from the little we know about Taisho, it appears that he was not an exact mold of his illustrious father. In fact, he reminds me a lot of the Romanovs who were criticized for their desire to live a simple life out of the spotlight. Tsar Nicholas and Taisho sat on their thrones at exactly the same time, and as we learned, this was a period of great change in Russia as well. Nicholas was condemned for not being a strong leader when his empire needed him the most. The same appears to be true of Taisho. He was a simple man who had no interest in the flashiness of being the emperor – his exact words were, “Emperor Meiji did things in his own way during his era, but I would like to keep them as simple as possible” (Takeshi). The nerve!!
Unfortunately, we know that things didn’t turn out well for Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and sadly the same is true for Taisho (although thankfully nothing nearly as tragic). Much of the literature I have read suggests that only after Taisho became emperor did he show signs of increasingly poor health, though the specifics of his illness are unclear. It became more and more obvious to those outside of the royal family that Taisho was a leader more in theory than in actual practice – he sat on the throne but the strings were being pulled from those in power behind the scenes. According to Takeshi, Taisho’s physical and mental decline were mostly likely due not to lingering effects of the illness he had experienced as a newborn, but actually due to the strain and demands of life as the emperor. Where he had once been lively and enthusiastic, Taisho seemed to shrivel under the constraints of his leadership role. Even one of his sons claimed that his father was a completely different person once he became emperor. In 1920, leading government officials decided that it was time to start planning for a different future, one that would star the son instead of the father.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Taisho’s oldest son Hirohito was 19 years old when he was sent abroad on what was essentially a smoke and mirrors tour meant to highlight Japan’s bright future and distract from the man that many considered to be a national embarrassment. It was time to show that the Japanese monarchy was strong. It was a successful trip, but the celebrations after Hirohito’s return did not last long. On November 4, 1921, Japan’s Prime Minister was assassinated by a political dissenter, convincing government leaders that change was needed now more than ever if they were to get a handle on the volatile situation. It was time for an emperor who could take charge. Three weeks later, Hirohito was announced as the new regent, who would rule in his father’s stead because Taisho was too “unwell” to fulfill his duties. The public was told, that “his majesty’s decline of mental faculties seems to be aftereffects of the brain illness he suffered in childhood” (Takeshi). We know that Taisho was actually sick at this point, but we don’t know what was ailing him or how serious it was. Based on the fact that Taisho had been functioning normally for so many years, able to finish school, get married, father children and travel Japan, it is hard to believe that the effects of neonatal meningitis had suddenly rendered him unable to function forty years later. Takeshi claims that Taisho actually refused to retire, further giving credence to the theory that he was forced off the throne prematurely. But the Japanese people knew that Taisho had been sick as a child, and he had been increasingly withdrawn from society as of late, so it was not far-fetched for them to imagine that the years had finally taken a toll on their emperor.
For the next five years Hirohito continued to act as emperor in place of his father and Taisho’s “retirement” marks a distinct end to the limited information I was able to find on the former emperor. He seems to have disappeared from public life and, as a result, from the records of history. What we do know is that in 1926 the palace announced that Taisho was seriously ill and he subsequently passed away on Christmas Day that year. I have access to information and answers to questions about monarchs that lived 500+ years ago but I can’t tell you how or why Taisho died at the young age of 46. But with his death, his son Hirohito officially became emperor of Japan and beckoned a new chapter in the country’s history. Gone were the days when Japan worked overtime to convince the rest of the world that it was run by a strong leader – Hirohito left no doubt that he was the one calling the shots. And those shots included one of the most poignant moments in American history – the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. As we know, this attack brought the United States into the fold of World War II and it was also Hirohito who would make the decision to surrender to the Allies in 1945 following the atomic bombings of two major Japanese cities. There is much debate as to how much of a role Hirohito played in Japan’s decisions leading up to and during World War II, but what is clear is that Hirohito was a military man with great influence and it seems unlikely that as the center of power and authority, he did not play some kind of significant role.
Taisho In the Middle
Following Japan’s surrender, the monarchy once again transformed, this time coming to resemble what we now see with the British monarchy – it is more symbolic than it is actually authoritative. Despite the crimes committed by Japan during the war, Hirohito remained on his throne until 1989, even becoming the first reigning Japanese monarch to take a foreign trip (remember, he was still just a prince when he went abroad as a 19 year old). And so, both Taisho’s father and his son are two of the most notable Japanese monarchs in history – yet the man in the middle will forever be remembered as a weak and incompetent ruler who was counted out essentially at birth. Much like we saw with Diana and have heard recently from our Queen Meghan Markle, it seems like the constraints of the throne stole his spirit and did not endear him to his peers. But Taisho’s ascension to the throne marked a critical point in Japanese politics and culture as the country turned its eyes to the West and the possibilities that lay beyond its borders. So put some respeck on his name.
Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. HarperCollins, 2000.
History.com Editors. “Hirohito.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/hirohito-1.
Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan Meiji and His World. Columbia University Press, 2002.
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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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