Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Noah builded an altar unto the LORD" - Meiji Emperor and Hirobumi Ito

A Gate of Imperial Palace Plaza (old Edo Castle of Tokugawa shogun), Tokyo

Meiji Emperor and Hirobumi Ito

Early in the morning of February 4, 1904, the Emperor of Japan called Hirubumi Ito.

At the time, the Imperial Government had to decide whether it should venture into war against the Russian Empire or accept expansion of aggressive Russian influences on Manchuria, North China, the Korean Peninsula, and other regions around the Sea of Japan, southeast of Siberia.  The war, if any, would be a very risky one for the Empire of Japan just in the middle of the process of its industrial revolution.  And on the very day, a supreme conference in the presence of the Emperor was to be held in the Imperial Palace, Tokyo.

Hirobumi Ito, who was then not only Chairman of the Privy Council but also the politician most trusted by the Emperor, came to curt. The Emperor wearing night clothes invited Ito into his private room. Such an invitation had never happened before; no political leaders and dignitaries as well as other people in high positions in the Empire never entered the private space of the Emperor in the Imperial Palace.  It was unprecedented.  And the Emperor just put on night clothes with the worn-out look.

Hirobumi Ito was a very special politician.  He was the unparalleled successor of the Three Great Heroes of the Meiji Restoration (Saigo, Okubo, and Kido) that had brought the imperial court back to political power through a civil war against the Tokugawa samurai regime in 1868.  Though all these Heroes had been gone due to another civil war, an assassination, and fatal illness), Ito continued to make his career to become the first prime minister of Japan in 1885.

Ito was so much trusted by the Emperor who had been just a teenager when the Meiji Restoration was carried out by the Three Great Heroes of Meiji and other radical but pro-imperial samurais, including Hirobumi Ito.  The young Emperor had been educated by ex-samurais who took over power from the Tokugawa shogun.  But old ex-samurais had gone away or became so old.  Now, Hirobumi Ito played a role of a kind of senior friend of the Emperor.  While other ministers and politicians never sat before the Emperor when they saw him in person, only Ito casually seated himself into a chair.  Indeed, it was Hirobumi Ito who had contributed to promulgation of the Constitution of the Imperial Japan in 1989, setting the foundation of the Empire and the legal basis of the position of the Emperor.    

The Emperor asked Ito how he thought about the coming war with the Russian Empire.  He wanted an honest opinion from trustworthy Ito prior to the supreme conference scheduled on the day.  The Emperor, originally having nothing to do with samurai warrior tradition, had been so much bothered about the possible war with Russia.  The Russian Empire had the world largest army and the mighty navy; how could the Empire of Japan whose modernization had started just 25 years ago fight the Russian Empire on equal terms?

Ito answered, "There is a possibility that our country will face a critical result.  In that case, your majesty has to prepare to meet your fate (you might be requested to step down from the imperial throne if the Empire of Japan should be defeated)."

In the conference, the Emperor expressed his strong concern.  He proposed that he would directly contact to the Russian Emperor as both the governments could not find a solution for peace.  The Emperor worried that many Japanese soldiers would be killed if the outbreak of war had been unavoidable.   But, top politicians, ministers and generals who attended the conference suggested that no such efforts would be too late.  The  empire was in an imminently dangerous situation, since no diplomatic negotiations had been successful while Russians looked like being determined to attack the imperial troops stationed in the Korean Peninsula that had been under strong control of the Imperial Japan for years.

Finally, Meiji Emperor under heavy tension consented to opening war with the Russian Empire.  Everybody in the room felt huge pressure in their silence.  But Ito said, "Now that his majesty has made a great decision, I will also work hard as a young samurai, which I was decades ago, neglecting my appearance and dress (as if I had been again in the war for the Meiji Restoration)."  To Ito's banter, every war leader in the supreme conference in the Imperial Palace started to laugh as they knew well Ito's past, a young and dangerous samurai without much care about his dress.

After the conference, Ito immediately sent a special envoy to the US, since it was only America that could play the role of mediator when the time came to make a truce with the Russian military.  (The UK was then allied with the Empire of Japan based on the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, providing some indirect support for Tokyo.)  Hirobumi Ito with rich international experiences knew well that the Empire of Japan could fight a full-scale war with the Russian Empire only for a few years.  Tokyo needed a strong foreign friend who would help settle the war in favor of Japan eventually.

The Japanese-Russo War was fought between 1904 and 1905.  The Empire of Japan could hold a dominant position as its army drove Russian troops from areas near the Korean Peninsula and South Manchuria and its navy destroyed the Russian fleet around the Tsushima Straits and the Sea of Japan.  US President Theodore Roosevelt helped Japan in the post-war negotiations held in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Roosevelt was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort in helping the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire conclude the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.

Incidentally, Hirobumi Ito was assassinated in Manchuria in 1909 by a Korean terrorist.  Meiji Emperor died in 1912.

Indeed, a century ago, Japan was led by ex-samurai politicians and an emperor who was just a teenager when the samurai regime fell paving the way for Westernization and at the same time restoration of imperial authority in the Japanese society.  The tragic and glorious 20th century of Japan began with such figures, good or bad.


イメージ 1
Meiji Emperor

Hirobumi Ito

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Gen 8:20 And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
Gen 8:21 And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.