Sunday, October 16, 2016

Emperor Meiji, Meiji Shrine, and the Modernization of Japan

-- Susan, every other Sunday

I leave for Japan nine days from today, and I'm looking forward to this particular trip for many reasons. Among them: I'm going alone, seeing places I've never seen, traveling at a time when Japan is at its most spectacular (at least for those of us who like autumn foliage and fall cuisine), and I'll be out of the country during the last few weeks of the Political Insanity Which Shall Not Be Named. (Yes, I got my absentee ballot, and in the immortal words of Forrest Gump "That's all I have to say about that.")

Today, as my thoughts turn increasingly toward Japan, I thought I'd take you on a tour of Tokyo's Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine built to honor the (deified) spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

The entrance to Meiji Shrine

In Japan, the emperor is revered as a divinity, because according to tradition (some would say history, others legend - feel free to take your pick) the Japanese imperial line descends directly from the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, supreme deity in the Shinto pantheon.

The central shrine complex (yes, it rained the day we visited).

Emperor Meiji lived from 1852 to 1912. At the time he was born, Japan remained a feudal society, ruled nominally by the emperor but in fact controlled by the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, whose military power overshadowed the emperor's rule.

Emperor Meiji (public domain image)

After his father's premature and unexpected death, fifteen year-old Emperor Meiji ascended the throne in 1867. On November 9 of that same year, the last Tokugawa Shogun, Yoshinobu, resigned, and on January 4, 1868, Emperor Meiji issued a formal declaration resuming control of Japan. After hundreds of years, the rule of the shoguns ended and the period known as the "Meiji Restoration" began.

The Emperor changed the name of his capital city from Edo to Tokyo ("Eastern Capital") and began instituting various reforms that resulted in Japan's rapid and dramatic transformation from a feudal society to a modern, industrialized nation.

Meiji Shrine: a traditional oasis in the middle of one of the world's most modern cities

Japanese people take great pride in Emperor Meiji and the Meiji Restoration, and with good reason. Emperor Meiji was an intelligent, educated man whose poetry and private writings indicate a strong dedication to pacifism and peace. He cared deeply for the welfare of his nation and his people.

The entrance to the main shrine complex.

He negotiated treaties with many foreign nations, opened Japan to trade, and opened the way for the modernization of Japan's industry and society. After his death in 1912, the Japanese government constructed Meiji Shrine to commemorate the Emperor's life and his role in the Meiji Restoration.

The shrine was constructed from Japanese cypress, in the traditional Shinto style, and enshrines both the emperor and his wife as deities. The shrine includes a museum (open to the public) with treasures and artifacts that belonged to (or commemorate) the Emperor and his wife. The shrine's grounds cover 170 acres, much of which is covered with enormous trees.

One of the many lovely paths through Meiji Shrine

Paths lead through the complex, allowing visitors to enjoy the grounds as well as the shrine's many buildings.

A view back out through the shrine's entrance torii

Although the original shrine was destroyed by air raids during World War II, the shrine was entirely rebuilt (through public fundraising efforts) in 1958.

A display of wooden amulets, each representing a prayer to or on behalf of the emperor and his wife

As you can see from the images above, the shrine is both breathtakingly beautiful and a lovely, peaceful retreat located at the center of one of the world's most modern capital cities.

A fitting tribute to Emperor Meiji, indeed.


  1. One also wonders how history would have changed (vis-a-vis WW II) had the Restoration and modernization not occurred. It was, undoubtedly, inevitable that the modernization would happen sooner or later, and once it happened, the imperialism of the warlords would most likely have exhibitied itself anyway, but the timing would likely have been very different. It's fun to think about "alternate histories."

    Have a great trip, Susan!

    1. Alternate history has always been a fascinating topic to me - and I've wondered quite a bit about how it would have impacted World War II if the Meiji Restoration had never happened. Japan would have remained in a state where many of the common people suffered far more, but a lot of the suffering others experienced outside of Japan might not have happened (and, of course, the nuclear bombings most likely would not have occurred, either). It's an interesting problem to consider - and one I'm glad I don't have to make a decision about, for certain!

      Thank you - I'll post lots of photos when I return!

  2. You done did do them proud! Enjoy the trip, and thanks for bringing us along in your inimitable style....I'm talking to you, Susan, not EvKa.

    1. Whew. There for a second I thought you were slipping...

    2. LOL! Thanks Jeff! I'll be IN Japan when my next post rolls around, and I have something special planned "from the road"...

  3. There are so many amazing parts of Japan, often in the middle of the hustle and bustle of cities.

    1. It's one of my favorite things about the country. I adore the countless opportunities to find something amazing right around the next corner, often where it's least expected (at least from my Western point of view!)

  4. There are so many amazing parts of Japan, often in the middle of the hustle and bustle of cities.