Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.
Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.
This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.
Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.
As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.
Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.
Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.
On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.
All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)