The Beginning of It All

The year 1882 was key in Japanese military history because of an official document issued by Japan’s fledgling modern government.

Mutsuhito, twenty-nine years old and the first modern emperor of Japan, held that document in his hands on the fourth day of the new year, in a red-carpeted hall of the Imperial Palace. As with so many other things in the nascent state, the palace in which the emperor and his select audience gathered was makeshift. The official residence—the previous one had burned down some years before—was still under construction. Dressed in a black military uniform and wearing a pair of ceremonial white gloves, Mutsuhito, like a well-trained gymnast, stood bolt upright behind a podium covered in heavy gold-threaded fabric fit only for such pageantry. Conspicuous in the mostly Western-style setting was the traditional hibachi charcoal burner placed behind him to warm His Majesty’s imperial backside.

By the standards of his time, Mutsuhito was tall, five feet six. (The Japanese would experience a growth spurt due to a Westernized diet that included meat and dairy introduced under his rule.) He had a stern expression, glaring eyes, and a thick black beard. On the other side of the podium stood Army Minister Oyama Iwao. A pudgy man ten years older than Mutsuhito, Oyama shared with the emperor a weakness for Western epicurean pleasures, especially beefsteak and fine French wines. Affectionately known among his peers as Toadie, Oyama was also clad in a dark Prussian-style uniform (copied, along with other institutional arrangements, from the Prussian army at the height of its power). When the moment came for him to accept the imperial document, Oyama extended his arms with all the ceremonious solemnity he could muster. He then bowed deeply to the emperor. With great pomp, the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, the emperor’s decree on how to become a good soldier, descended from the hands of the heavenly sovereign into those of his humble subject. The ceremony was meant as much for the outside world as for the domestic audience, to drive home the message that Japan took the business of modernizing seriously and that it would not be satisfied with the unequal treaties that had been forced upon it by the great powers of the West.

Some Western witnesses scorned Japan’s initial efforts at state pageantry. Most famously, the French sailor and novelist Pierre Loti lampooned the Japanese in his Madame Chrysanthème, an autobiographical story of a brief marriage of convenience between a French naval officer and a Japanese woman that would inspire Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. His lesser-known Un Bal à Yeddo (A Ball in Edo) describes a night at the Rokumeikan, a two-story building in Tokyo with a ballroom that opened in late 1883 to entertain foreign guests. This is how Loti depicts Japan’s newly modernizing gentlemen and their ill-fitting Western clothes: “The suit of tails, so ugly even on us, how strangely they wear them! … It is impossible to say why exactly, but it seems to me they all somehow resemble monkeys.”

A ladies’ man, Loti is a little more charitable to the opposite sex:

Oh! and these women! … young unmarried girls stuck on chairs, or their mothers lining the walls like tapestries, on close observation they are remarkable creatures. What is it that is wrong with them? Search as I may, I cannot define it precisely: it is probably that the hoops are too much or insufficient, their position too high or too low, or that the curve-inducing corset is unknown. But their appearance is neither vulgar nor common, with their tiny hands and their costumes imported directly from Paris.… No, they really are strange, in spite of everything—they remain unconvincing, smiling, with their narrow eyes, pigeon-toed, and flat nosed.

The self-consciously lavish soirées at the Rokumeikan, which began after the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, were part of Japan’s national project, a demonstration of the newly modernizing state. Designed by the young British architect Josiah Conder, the Rokumeikan, which looked neither completely Western nor Eastern, was meant to be the site of impressive bashes. But it was not only the condescending Loti who was taken aback by the strangeness of it all. The uneasiness extended to the Japanese themselves. Many women were reluctant to dance, out of either decorum or embarrassment, which was why men far outnumbered women at these balls. But nothing kept some patriotic Japanese from literally dancing for modern Japan. Okura Kihachiro, an eccentric and fun-loving hotelier who cofounded the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo as well as the Rokumeikan, described an odd couple he witnessed on the dance floor one evening:

The partners were both men, one with the huge build of a sumo wrestler, the other an especially skinny fellow; the couple was dancing in all seriousness but since their contrast was peculiar it created a commotion among the spectators, who were trying to determine their identity. On closer observation, the huge man turned out to be Oyama, Japan’s minister of war, and the skinny man was the then governor of Tokyo.… Now on this occasion Oyama was in formal Western military attire while his companion was in Japanese kimono and hakama, and they were earnestly engaged in dancing, at which neither was very good.

For Japan, the so-called Rokumeikan epoch represented an era of profound transformation. The Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors was a critical initial step in this. Together with the Imperial Rescript on Education, issued in 1890, it would come to define the very character of modern Japanese nationalism and the Meiji state. (Meiji, meaning “enlightened rule,” was the name given to Mutsuhito’s reign after his death.) It constituted not simply a code of military conduct but also an imperial order to military men, who were expected to nurture and retain an essential Japanese spirit even in the fast-modernizing world. The preamble of the rescript stated that the emperor was the supreme commander of the armed forces, made up of military professionals as well as draftees serving compulsory three-year terms of military service, which were instituted in 1873. The men were to cherish five virtues—loyalty, courtesy, bravery, honor, and frugality—as their guiding principles. The most significant virtue of all was loyalty, which stressed the military man’s absolute deference to the emperor (rather than to any elected government). “We are your Supreme Commander-in-Chief,” the rescript began, and continued:

Our relations with you will be most intimate when We rely upon you as Our limbs and you look up to Us as your head. Whether We are able to guard the Empire, and so prove Ourself worthy of Heaven’s blessings and repay the benevolence of Our Ancestors, depends upon the faithful discharge of your duties as soldiers and sailors.… The soldier and sailor should consider loyalty their essential duty.… Remember that, as the protection of the state and the maintenance of its power depend upon the strength of its arms, the growth or decline of this strength must affect the nation’s destiny for good or for evil; therefore neither be led astray by current opinions nor meddle in politics, but with single heart fulfil your essential duty of loyalty, and bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather. Never by failing in moral principle fall into disgrace and bring dishonor upon your name.

Despite the wording, the exact relationship between the government and the armed services would prove highly difficult to define.

The Meiji Constitution, which went into effect approximately eight years afterward, did not clarify the matter, failing to mandate that the military was answerable to the government. This left far too much room for right-wing politicians and radicalized officers half a century later to claim that they were free to pursue separate policies by “advising” the emperor and to invoke the notion of the independence of the supreme command. That is why the 1882 imperial decree could be considered one of the latent underlying causes of Japan’s militarization of the 1930s and, eventually, its attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the beginning, the rescript served the immediate purpose of consolidating the new regime’s fledgling armed forces. It was drafted by the leading military and intellectual figures of the time, most notably the architect of the Imperial Army, Yamagata Aritomo. It was meant, above all, to assuage feelings of discontent brewing in certain segments of the new and open Japan. In 1882, many disenfranchised samurai remained dissatisfied with the regime that had replaced the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. Having lost their social privileges as a warrior caste, they bore a grudge against the Meiji state and yearned for the old order.

Beyond such mundane resentment, there were very good reasons to be unhappy with the new government. Progressive-minded people, typically idealistic young men from the educated samurai class, felt that the Meiji reforms did not go deep enough. In the 1870s, such sentiments gave rise to Japan’s first mass freedom and popular rights movement, which spread to all social and economic classes. Inspired by the writings of Western liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, democratic activists attacked the oligarchic tendencies of the new regime and called for the establishment of a constitution and an elected representative legislature. They also made pioneering efforts in promoting general social welfare and individual rights, including those of women and social outcasts historically discriminated against for their hereditary association with “tainted” professions, such as tanning and butchery.

By 1880, this had become a powerful, sometimes subversive mass movement. As would any government whose newly attained power was anchored in force, the new regime reacted at first by resorting to repressive measures. This approach had limited success. With surprising flexibility, the government then switched course, acknowledging the extent of the movement’s success by promising in 1881 that there would be a national assembly in ten years’ time.

When the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors was issued soon after that, the democratic activists were less than happy with the emperor demanding categorical loyalty and obedience. But the 1882 decree was tenuous. Japanese emperors could boast the longest continuous monarchical line in the world, but they had not exercised much earthly power for centuries. Certainly, on the eve of the birth of modern Japan, the Tokugawa shogun was a much more obvious leader of Japan than was Mutsuhito.

For a long time, the task of centralizing and reigning over Japan, in a political sense, had been left to samurais, with emperors relegated to supporting roles, giving the warrior rulers their blessing. In 1603, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the victor in the bloodiest power struggle to unite Japan, and rulers from his family governed Japan for more than 250 years. A sophisticated system of hierarchy and patronage was installed to prevent internal rebellions. The Tokugawa rulers took precautions against the influx of disruptive foreign ideas and influences, the most threatening of which, they believed, was Christianity. Although Chinese and Koreans could still enter Japan, the Tokugawas allowed only a handful of Dutch merchants (the least proselytizing of all Westerners) to establish a tiny trading post on Nagasaki Bay.

To its credit, the imperial institution had proved its resilience by repeatedly adapting to changing times. In the age of competing warlords, the emperors barely preserved their position as the guardians of Shintoism, an animistic and syncretic religion based on nature and ancestral worship. But thanks to the Tokugawa rulers, who looked to emperors to legitimize their claim to temporal power, the court went through something of a renaissance. By according imperial sanction to the Tokugawa family to rule Japan, the emperors revived their legitimacy as ultimate and inviolable kingmakers endowed with heavenly power. The symbiotic relationship was not unlike that of some European monarchs and the Vatican.

When young reformers replaced the Tokugawa government in the Meiji Restoration, they, too, looked to the emperor for his blessing. But they went even further. They made the fifteen-year-old Mutsuhito the public rallying point for Japan’s rebirth as a modern power. A year after the restoration of “direct” imperial rule over the country was declared in January 1868, the imperial family completed its move from Kyoto, where it had traditionally been housed, to the old Edo Castle in Tokyo, which the last Tokugawa shogun had only recently vacated. For the first fifteen years of his life, the boy-emperor had been hidden from the view of his subjects. Now his portrait was displayed in public spaces and private homes.

In the early years, Mutsuhito was paraded across the country—271 times in the first decade of his reign—in order to connect him with his subjects, who did not even know that they had an emperor. Erwin von Bälz, a German physician who came to Japan to teach Western medicine, noted in his diary in 1880 that it was distressing to see “how little interest the populace take in their ruler.” People had to be coerced to celebrate Mutsuhito’s birthday: “Only when the police insist on it are houses decorated with flags. In default of this, houseowners do the minimum.”

The Mutsuhito who ceremoniously issued the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors was a modern emperor, one who looked, behaved, and spoke like the antithesis of the kimono-clad adolescent he had been in the ancient capital. The emperor’s Western clothes and full facial hair were now admired as signs of civilization, modernity, and enlightenment and emulated by common men. Proving their appetite for new things, Japanese soon started embracing the meat-based diet that Mutsuhito endorsed, and sukiyaki, a soy-sauce-based hot pot of sliced beef, quickly became a popular national dish.

Mutsuhito took to his new role with ease, though being Japan’s first modern emperor was fraught with contradictions from the start. The emperor was meant to represent the ancient and sacred imperial institution, yet he also embodied a new Westernized monarchy. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 made Shinto into a quasi state religion, and Mutsuhito was its high priest. Having studied European powers, the founding fathers of Meiji Japan knew that Christianity provided those nations with a spiritual linchpin, and they thought Shinto could serve that purpose for their country. They also understood that secular governments are an important aspect of successful parliamentary systems and that Japan should stick to the modern European concept of separating church and state. As a result, Mutsuhito’s position had to become more symbolic, the constitution establishing that the throne was sacred and sacrosanct and above politics, even though the emperor remained the supreme military commander. The glorification of the emperor as the essence of Japan’s national polity proved to be a highly efficient way of inventing a modern Japanese identity. By the 1930s, Japanese society consisted of people who grew up steeped in the cult of emperor worship. In 1882, however, many things about the new Meiji state and the role of the emperor were unclear. It was a government without a solid foundation, either spiritual or practical. The Meiji Restoration had left fresh emotional wounds to be healed and institutional deficiencies to be worked on.

The Meiji Restoration came about because of an 1866 military alliance between the two southern feudal domains of Satsuma and Choshu. Traditionally anti-Tokugawa and therefore second-tier domains, both Satsuma and Choshu had long been dissatisfied with the shogunate. In the late 1860s, a series of political missteps by the Tokugawas allowed idealistic and ambitious samurai from those two domains to finally seize the day. Thanks to its connection with Britain, Satsuma possessed modern war technologies (though the Tokugawa shogunate, too, started quickly modernizing its army under the auspices of French military advisers after 1867). After securing the imperial blessing, the forces of Satsuma and Choshu gradually worked their way north to topple the shogunate supporters. The Boshin War of 1868–69 was a civil war that consolidated their seizure of power.

The lower-ranking young samurai from those victorious domains came to dominate the new government and were later given aristocratic titles. Some were corrupted by the spoils of their hard-won power. But many more were exceptionally driven, talented, disciplined, and imaginative men who longed for Japan to become a powerful nation-state.

Army Minister Oyama was one of them. A Satsuma man, he was the first cousin of the so-called last samurai, Saigo Takamori, the famous Boshin War hero noted for his enormous physique and simple yet magnetic personality. Oyama himself was very much a part of that revolutionary war and of Japan’s search for a modern identity. He was impressed with the display of British arms technology in the Anglo-Satsuma War of 1863 (which was more of a skirmish than a full-fledged war). As a result, he became an avid student of Western firearms. (Satsuma, looking ahead to the future, had then decided to cultivate contacts with Britain.)

Oyama’s professional career was closely intertwined with the growth of the Imperial Army itself. After helping to suppress rebellions against the new regime during the early years of the Meiji government, he set out for Europe to deepen his knowledge of Western arms technologies. He witnessed the Franco-Prussian War and attended a course in strategic studies in Geneva in the early 1870s. Celebrated as an able commander in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, he successively held the posts of army minister and home minister, acquiring the noble title of prince along the way.

THE UNITED STATES HAD no part in Japan’s wars of the Meiji era. But some of the tight and important links, often of a personal nature, that had developed made a future confrontation between the two countries seem inconceivable. The pioneering ethos of the new Japanese state was actually rather American.

In the summer of 1882, the year the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors was issued, a tall and slender beauty with a perfectly oval face stood on a college auditorium platform in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was one of the select few in the graduating class asked to deliver a valedictory address based on her dissertation. Yamakawa Sutematsu stood out among her classmates at Vassar. She was class president, graduated magna cum laude, and was a member of several prestigious societies. She behaved like a perfect Western woman, but beneath her soft, elegant appearance and impeccable manners lay a will of steel. She was the first Japanese woman to be awarded a bachelor of arts degree.

Having lived in the United States since the age of eleven, Stematz (as she spelled her name for the benefit of her American peers) was a product of the successful social engineering undertaken by the young Meiji government, with help from goodwilled Americans. She was one of five girls sent to the United States on government stipends to become prototypes of the modern Japanese woman, an idea originally conceived by the samurai-turned-statesman Kuroda Kiyotaka, who was in charge of developing Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The minister was impressed with the American women he saw on a trip to the United States in 1871. He was especially impressed with the sturdy ladies he saw tilling the soil of the frontier alongside their men. Just as the American West was pioneered by both men and women, Kuroda reasoned, Japanese women, as wives, mothers, and even hard laborers, should play their part in the birth of Japan as a great nation.

The Yamakawas, a venerable old samurai family, were in the service of the lord of Aizu. In the Japanese civil war, Aizu backed the declining Tokugawa shogunate and, along with several other northern domains that did the same, was branded an enemy of the imperial court. In August 1868, in one of the final and fiercest battles of the war, Stematz, eight years old, fought together with the men and women of Aizu, who were under siege by enemy forces. She was in charge of preventing explosions in the domain’s castle by covering unexploded cannon shells with futon mattresses. Those shells were fired by a Satsuma battalion led by her future husband, Army Minister Oyama.

The northern rebel domains proved utterly powerless in the face of the British-backed technologies of the southern forces. With the fall of Aizu, the fortunes of the Yamakawa family declined as well. Something drastic had to be done to regain social respectability. Education was the best, and often the only, way to recover one’s status. At the time, the government was calling for applicants to study abroad, urging young people to acquire knowledge in the West. Many young men from the formerly well-to-do families of those fallen domains took on the challenge. Although very few families were willing to send their daughters so far away for so long, the Yamakawas, in dire straits, decided to send theirs.

Stematz thrived in the home of Leonard Bacon, an abolitionist clergyman in New Haven, Connecticut. Growing up with his fourteen children, she attended local schools before enrolling at Vassar. Her best friend was Bacon’s youngest daughter, Alice Mabel, who would help establish a women’s college in Japan many years later. Unlike some other Japanese students, who assimilated to the extent of almost losing their mother tongue altogether, Stematz, determined to keep her Japanese language skills, wrote letters home every day.

In the early summer of 1882, Stematz’s loyalties were many: to the new Japanese government, which enabled her to study in the United States; to her family, who tried to clear its rebel name; to the Bacons, who raised her as one of their own; and to Vassar, which enabled her to become an independent-thinking woman. She was eager to be of use in the real world.

Stematz’s homecoming at the end of 1882, after eleven years abroad, would be something of a disappointment. She was overeducated and overqualified for the jobs available to women in Meiji Japan. Then she married one of the most powerful men in the Meiji government. Oyama Iwao was a widower eighteen years her senior. He was also the general responsible for bringing down her family’s feudal domain. This would have been a union unimaginable in less enlightened circles. After the marriage, Stematz was able to initiate various philanthropic and educational enterprises.

The story of Prince Oyama and his Vassar bride was an example of how individual innovation, industry, grand ambition, and imagination could overcome the historical wounds that divided Japan. It was a union in which Japan’s future enemy, the United States, was a prime inspiration. Both Japan and the United States were emerging powers coming into their own just as the world itself was going through profound change. In the words of one historian, it was “a world of empires gained and maintained by military power,” and yet it was also “an internationalizing world; a world yearly more conscious of its one-ness” owing to economic interdependence, peace movements, and mass media (though the term “globalization” had not yet been coined). In a world of competing agendas and great uncertainties, Japan looked to the United States as a sympathetic mentor. “To catch up to and surpass the West” was the mantra of Japan’s national quest. And more often than not, the West meant the United States, not old Europe.

In the following decades, Oyama took the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors to heart and shied away from being invested with too much political power, preferring to live as an army man. Self-made successes in both their public and private lives, however, the Oyamas were entrenched in the heart of the Meiji establishment. Through their son, who married a younger sister of Prince Konoe Fumimaro, they even became closely tied to an ancient aristocratic family. The innovative Meiji spirit gradually disappeared into this new version of the old order.

The Meiji era ended in 1912 with the death of Emperor Mutsuhito. His rule had lasted forty-five years (superseding the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England by one year). Japan, starting as an isolated feudal country on the periphery of Asia, had become a powerful industrial state. It now boasted institutions of higher education, efficient railway service, and a superior postal system. Meiji’s greatest pride, though, was its modern army and navy, which won two wars in succession, against Qing China and czarist Russia. By the end of the Meiji era, the new Japan was looking more and more like an old power, or at least a superior imitation of one. And the pioneering ethos and individual initiatives of the United States that so impressed the builders of the Meiji state began to feel more and more like a threat to the glorious imperialist future of Japan, obstructing its bid to lead the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan under Emperor Mutsuhito’s son, Yoshihito, is often characterized by its positive and creative energy. The period witnessed the rise of a flawed but vibrant parliamentary system. Abroad, Japan was securing its status as an emerging great power. A hope-filled time known as the Taisho Democracy had commenced. (Taisho, meaning “great righteousness,” is the name given to Yoshihito’s reign, which lasted from 1912 to 1926.)

It was not just the stirrings of democratic institutions that characterized this period. Japanese life became freer in many respects. Especially in cities, more people enjoyed for less money the pleasures of dance halls, cafés, department stores, theaters, and cinemas. As one poet observed, the mark of civilization was that anyone could get a cup of coffee in the morning and afford a newspaper every day.

Alas, Yoshihito was hopelessly unfit for the job. Lacking in personal charisma and physical strength, he was, in his formidable father’s eyes, an unsatisfactory heir to the throne. He was emperor by default, since all his elder brothers had died in infancy. He had suffered from meningitis as a young boy, and his increasingly frail physical and mental health led the statesmen around him to conclude, around 1921, that his imperial role should be a passive one. Above all else, his first son, Hirohito, should take over the throne sooner rather than later.

In anticipation of his greater role, from March to September 1921, Hirohito made a grand tour of Europe, during which he visited Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy. He learned proper Western table manners aboard the Katori, on whose deck he also enjoyed practicing his golf. No Japanese crown prince had ever been to Europe before. Hirohito, who turned twenty during the trip, returned home a great Anglophile. He had received an enthusiastic welcome in Britain, partly owing to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902—an alliance of equals. A Japanese documentary film proudly reported that the British monarch, King George V, attended to the young crown prince with “fatherly kindness.” The bespectacled crown prince appeared reserved yet unquestionably cheerful. He exuded a pleasant air of boyish curiosity.

One of the highlights of Hirohito’s trip was his stay, at the invitation of the Duke of Atholl, at Blair Castle in Perthshire. The crown prince was genuinely moved by the Scottish nobleman’s life of simplicity and frugality. Toward the end of a ball thrown in Hirohito’s honor, common folk from the estate flooded onto the dance floor. “Let me show you how we Scots really dance,” the duke reportedly said as he and his wife joined hands with the tenant farmers. Hirohito’s astonishment turned to appreciation, and he concluded that as long as aristocrats and wealthy people lived a simple life, there would be no concern about class struggle. In addition to acquiring the lifelong habit of having a traditional English breakfast every morning, Hirohito appeared to be strongly drawn to the British monarchy’s “reign but not rule” dictum. That preference would loom large for the rest of his life.

Soon after his return to Japan, because of his father’s rapidly declining health, Hirohito was made the regent, a virtual sovereign, exercising comparable authority to the emperor. Hirohito was now commander in chief of Japan’s armed forces. Forty years after the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, the Imperial Army and Navy had grown into formidable institutions.

Hirohito had strong views on military matters. He had come back from Europe convinced of the horrors of war. After salmon fishing in the Scottish Highlands, he was taken to the infamous battlefield of Ypres, in Flanders. Three years after the end of the Great War, those bleak fields were still filled with the remnants of bloody battles that had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. Numerous broken shells and bullets were scattered about, as if they were a permanent fixture of the landscape. The English poet Laurence Binyon, who would teach at Tokyo Imperial University in the late 1920s, famously memorialized the war dead in his 1914 poem “For the Fallen”: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” It was not simply the business of dying young that so impressed the impressionable crown prince, but also the continued mourning. The Belgian army officer who acted as his tour guide broke down in the middle of explaining something to Hirohito. When he learned that the man’s son had perished on that field, the crown prince’s eyes welled up.

Hirohito’s monarchical philosophy and his aversion to war would soon be tested. In late 1923, a young anarchist revolutionary tried to assassinate him. (This would be followed by another assassination attempt by a Korean nationalist in 1932.) Hirohito’s confidence in garnering popular support by mingling with ordinary people was dented. Because of the paradoxical ambiguities of a divine commander in chief who chose to reign but not rule, Hirohito’s imperial role and his personal responsibility would become ever more complicated. He reigned over both the government and the armed services, and on several occasions he chose to exercise his power over them, but it was not customary for him to do so. Still, during that short time of tranquillity in Japan that followed World War I, Hirohito seemed to be as much at ease as anyone who was essentially lonely and anxious could be. He had carefully prepared himself to ascend to the imperial throne and to maintain and preserve what had been achieved since the time of the grandfather he worshiped. In December 1926, Yoshihito died at the age of forty-seven, and Hirohito officially became Japan’s emperor.

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