Studying Keene’s Emperor Meiji

Much of my Meiji Japan course is taken up with Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World, 1852-1912. It’s been a pretty good experience, but I probably won’t do it again. I’ve enjoyed reading it1 and my students do seem to be getting a great deal out of it, but it is too long and really fails to answer some of its own critical questions. My students are in the process of writing about it now, and I thought it was time to share some of my own reactions.

As part of the reading process, I created a page of short chapter highlights: one of Keene’s quirks is that the book’s sixty-three chapters are neither titled nor listed in a table of contents. The book is arranged almost entirely chronologically, so it’s not too hard to find what you’re looking for if you know when it is, and it has an index (with definitions of Japanese language terms, so it doubles as a glossary), but it still seems deliberately perverse — or perhaps novelistic — to have such fine-grained divisions without explanation.2

He frequently cites Meiji’s poetry as evidence of maturing sensibilities and personal opinions. Being tanka, there’s not a lot of room for exposition, but some of it is clearly on point. My favorite of the poems of Meiji:

minahito no
miru niibumi ni
yo no naka no
kakazu mo aranan


How good it would be
If in the newspapers that
Everybody reads
They didn’t write such falsehoods
About doings in this world (p. 551)

There are other problems, which relate to the nature of the question. Take an example noted by one of my students: on page 323 Keene discusses the 1879 abolition of the jiho [advisor] positions. At the head of one paragraph Keene writes “the emperor abolished the office,” but at the head of the next paragraph is “The emperor seems not to have welcomed this decision.” Keene tries to bridge the gap with “This was not the only instance of a decision by the politicians that displeaesd Meiji, although they always insisted that their actions were intended to carry out the imperial will.” Keene’s narrative often gets lost in this distinction: it’s a problem of his sources, of course, and there are times when he does clarify the motivations and active persons and times when he does not. Perhaps the most egregious example comes in the chapters on the 1880s: Of 1880, Keene writes “This was the first year in which Meiji might be said to have routinely exercised his powers as emperor.” (331) And this seems sustained through 1881, but he then goes into eclipse (probably due to illness) for most of the rest of the 1880s. When he recovers fully in the 1890s, the narrative cites his public actions, but rarely examines them in enough detail to clarify whether he was ratifying decisions of his advisors or actively applying his own judgement. When he does, as in the chapters around the Sino-Japanese War, it is almost always a case of relaying or confirming decisions. There are whole chapters in which Meiji disappears (e.g. chapter 47): some of them are exposition of different strains of the past (e.g. Chap. 60 on the career of Kōtoku Shusui, Chap. 51 on Hoshi Tōru) which really could not be effectively integrated with the narrative until a moment of resolution; some, like Chap. 46 or 59, detail international affairs. Keene never articulates any kind of standard by which he picks the material to be detailed, other than in the subtitle of the book — Meiji and his World — leaving the reader well informed, but still a little in the dark.

There are other places where events themselves disappear, as they move out of Meiji’s attention. There’s a substantial section on the 1881 visit to Japan of Hawai’i’s King Kalakaua: one of the stated goals was to promote Japanese immigration to Hawai’i, but Keene fails to mention Japanese migration to Hawai’i at all, even in the context of the overthrow of the monarchy and abrogation of the labor migration treaty which raised considerable concern in Japan, even to the extent of sending a Japanese gunboat to reinforce the protection of Japanese rights in the islands. Around the same time, there was discussion of reverting to land tax in kind in order to ease the impact of inflation: Meiji intervenes to prevent both a foreign loan or reversion to rice collection, but Keene never once mentions the ensuing Matsukata Deflation which has such an impact on the health of the state and lives of the people.

Keene’s problem attributing intention and emotion to actions has, perhaps, its purest expression in the chapter on Korean Annexation. In the space of two pages (pp. 676-677) Keene speculates (because he has little evidence) on the thoughts of the Emperor Meiji, the Emperor Sunjong, “Koreans who believed that the union would result in mutual prosperity,” “Japanese who sincerely believed in the professed aims of their country,” concluding that “everyone involved in the decision to join Korea to Japan was seriously mistaken.” (676)3 As if inferring intent from action wasn’t hard enough, Meiji himself seems to have been terribly inconsistent at times, or perhaps Keene is simply unaware of the degree to which he’s over-reading events: From 1905 to 1907, for example, barely more than a dozen pages separating them in the book, Meiji goes from “the emperor had come to dislike receiving foreign guests. He was always in a bad mood before an audience, and he often rebuked members of his staff for arranging it” (p. 634) to “These attentions from foreign governments undoubtedly pleased the emperor.” (647)

Part of my problem with the book comes from the apparent lack of a sustained argument of any sort. Keene clearly has some strong themes — Meiji’s active governance, rising nationalism, Imperialism — but rarely assays anything like a thesis, nor does he take the opportunity at the end to reveal any of his conclusions on the critical questions. Perhaps that’s in the nature of the biography-and-milieu survey to leave answers as an exercise for the reader and future scholars; I’m certainly taking advantage of it to require my students to discern Keene’s thesis on their own as one of the writing assignments. Keene does provide a sort of character sketch in the epilogue, but it’s frustrating: some of it’s entirely obvious stuff — stoic, strongly tied to Shinto, undisturbed by modernization but very attached to ritual — and some of it is pretty out of the blue — sadistic humor, preference for traditional entertainments.4 There are huge gaps in the epilogue, as well: Meiji’s poetry, his relationships with his wife and concubines5 , his aristocratic biases.6 It would be possible to write an entirely different epilogue, and Keene also fails to suggest any new avenues of investigation, the potential to answer further interesting questions. The impression he gives is that the sources have been exhausted.7

I enjoyed reading the book — it’s ambition and detail are remarkable — but I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t assign it again. It’s not a real history of the Meiji period — and why don’t we have one of those in English, I’d like to know — nor is it a really effective character study of the Meiji Emperor. It’s too long to justify on the grounds of an interesting historiographical exercise, and there’s an odd sort of lack of self-consciousness to the writing.8 Keene never engages directly with other scholarship on the issues — nationalism, politics, modern mythology, cultural change — and rarely seems to use secondary sources except to mine them for details. Attention to primary sources isn’t a vice, but the work has a sort of timeless quality, more of a chronicle than a history9 and very vague in terms of its position in the literature. I could see assigning bits and pieces of it, perhaps, and there’s critical material here which needs to be integrated into our understanding of the Meiji period. Still, Keene has left a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of guidance for those of us who will have to do it.

  1. I read through it last year along with my directed study students, but I was doing the directed study on top of a four-course, four-prep semester, so it was a perfunctory read.  

  2. Another moment of perverse traditionalism comes from the pages of untranslated French on p. 707 recording thoughts on Meiji’s reign by the late Itō Hirobumi, Suematsu Kenchō and an “astute” French journalist and p. 709 recording “the sorrow of the Japanese people.” I will add translations of those to the summary page when I have them.  

  3. He then goes on to say that “After long years of laxness under their own rulers, the Koreans were getting an early taste of Japanese efficiency.” (p. 677) The absurdity of this passage is breathtaking: Koreans hadn’t entirely managed their own affairs since the 1880s at least, and hardly managed them at all since 1905; the idea that pre-’45 Japanese were known for “efficiency” seems like a serious anachronism, though it might be mitigated somewhat — only 10-20 years premature — if Keene is merely likening Japan to the so-called efficient imperialists of Italy and Germany. The fact that the Japanese took their own civil and criminal codes and applied them willy-nilly to Korea might be ‘efficient’ in the sense of ‘quick’ but hardly elegant or appropriate solutions.  

  4. He cites kemari [Court kickball] and archery, but oddly omits horseriding, which certainly wasn’t a traditional Imperial pasttime. He mentions kemari once or twice in the text, archery not at all that I can recall, but spends chapter after chapter detailing Meiji’s obsessive riding as his primary source of exercise.  

  5. He mentions them only to point out that these women would never tell us anything historically useful about Meiji  

  6. Keene cites Meiji’s concern for commoners and strong ties to Itō as evidence of his broad-mindedness, but omits his stated concern for the continued role of the court nobility in ruling Japan and his strongly negative view of samurai as politicians  

  7. Certainly the reader has been at this point, or so my students tell me  

  8. On the other hand, it’s a fantastic counterpoint to Hane’s Peasants, Rebels, Women and Outcastes, which was also on the reading list this semester.  

  9. which is why my chapter by chapter summary is actually pretty true to the spirit of the work.  


  1. Wow, you assigned that? A brave man indeed. I am most certainly not going to use it when I do Modern Japan next semester, but are there any points or chapters that stuck out as good for a reading assignment?

  2. I never would have assigned it myself if it wasn’t a specifically Meiji-era class. It was a bit brazen, nonetheless.

    The Chapter summaries might help you: many of them are pretty self-contained, though some background and continuing stories might intrude. I was quite struck, actually, by the Korea-oriented material — Chapters 47, 58 and 59, on the protectorate and annexation. Some of the “digression” chapters contain nice capsule histories of neglected material: Chapter 51 on politician Hoshi Toru, or chapter 60 on Kotoku Shusui and the Great Treason Incident. Chapter 36 gives kind of a kaleidescopic tour of imperialism in international law. Chapters 27 and 28 give a nice overview of the Satsuma uprising. Chapter 23 is a good one: captures some of the chaos of the early Meiji and presages some of the long-term issues, plus also highlights Meiji’s growing relationship with his people. Chapter 30 covers the Okinawan seizure, which hardly anyone talks about much. Foreign visits are good, often vivid: Chapter 31 on Grant’s visit, Chapter 34 on Hawai’i’s King Kalakaua, Chapter 42 on Russia’s Prince Nicholas.

  3. I really didn’t create it as a study guide; more of a teacher guide, really, making it easier to plan around it. Let me know if you get any feedback on it, please.

    I should probably go back over the early chapters and give them a bit more of the detail I put in the later ones, but I don’t know that it’s going to be a high priority anytime soon.

  4. Hello,
    I started to use this book for my thesis about Meiji emperor and the construction of the Japanese nation. But I gave up completeley.
    From the restoration chapters on, it seems as if Donald Keene is trying to defend something that it didn´t happen: that the
    Meiji emperor was the actual ruler of the country. I´m sure that the protectors of the imperial house will be very happy with this
    book but from the point of view of a historian it lacks rigour. Just follow the Meiji Tenno Ki doesn´t make sense. For example, reading about
    the junkô or imperial tours as if the emperor wanted to travel around the country because he was concerned about the Japanese people
    without saying anything about the political meaning of these kind of measures (that he did not take) is unbeareable.
    And telling how happy the people was because they could see the emperor as if it were some kind of a natural reaction of the people
    is quite dissapointing.
    Thank you for the review about this book! I was trying to look for one in the net but was quite difficult.

  5. I was actually quite surprised at what seems to be a real lack of reviews of this work. Academic reviews take time, of course, but this is a major work by a founding scholar of modern Japanese studies. There were reviews in Monumenta Nipponica and JAS (both quite substantial, though I tend to agree with Large more than Colcutt on this) but not a lot of fanfare.

    I think the scope of the book — and the generally slow pace of Meiji-era studies, not the hot topic it used to be — means that it’s taking time to absorb it into the canon.

    I don’t think Keene was trying to prove definitively that Meiji was the “actual ruler” but to provide enough evidence that his role — which varies widely over the years of his reign — could be evaluated. I do agree that Keene’s narrative style leaves little room for critical analysis, and assumes things that really need to be addressed separately in future scholarship (or have been addressed, in some cases!).

  6. As for reviews: _Emperor of Japan_ was the front page book of _The New York Times Book Review_, Sunday, August 18, 2002. The author of the review was Professor Dennis Washburn of Dartmouth. Professor Washburn is generally laudatory: “His book is a history that revels in detail but remains accessible, leading us through the complexities of court life , political intrigue and international affairs.”

    This is written the day after the William-Catherine marriage. We Americans joined in the hoopla to a rather greater extent than I would have predicted. But we’re really not prepared to have “theses” about monarchs. Washburn captures the problem in his concluding sentences: “By the middle of the 19th century the political ground of imperial legitimacy had become routinely symbolic — a situation in which power flowed from the charisma of an institution rather than an individual. Meiji remains just beyond the biographer’s grasp because his life was lived at that vanishing point where the public image of the emperor and the private life of the man become indistinguishable.”

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