The Demise of Emperor Meiji

How the world's press saw Japan in 1912

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Passing of an era: How world press viewed Japan in 1912" in
The Japan Times, 4 January 1989, page 17


Emperor Mutsuhito, better known today by his reign name Meiji, died on 30 July 1912 after a period of publicized suffering. One year later, "On the occasion of the first anniversary of the late Emperor's decease," The Liberal News Agency, in Tokyo, published a large, 500-page volume entitled The Late Emperor of Japan as a World Monarch.

Compiled and edited by ex-M.P. Kotaro Mochizuki, the book has 171 features from newspapers in 27 countries and places: Britain, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, Poland, Canada, America, Hawaii, Philippines, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Australia, Africa, Turkey, Persia, India, Siam, Saigon, and China. Some of the features, 76 of which are in English, consist of more than one article, obituary, or editorial.

The following excerpts, from 10 of the English features and from Mochizuki's impressions of how foreign journalists saw Japan, suggest how little the world has changed despite the wars and revolutions, the shifts in political boundaries and diplomatic arrangements, and the development and spread of electronic media and air transportation. While reading them, envision yourself in world that has just heard of people like Marconi and the Wright brothers.

William Wetherall
17 October 1988

National images

"Journalism is a good mirror for reflecting the intellectual attainments of all peoples," Mochizuki wrote in his preface. "Where culture is high the papers will betray it in thought and opinion; and where it is less advanced the papers will be less intellectual. In other words, we shall be able to discern the mental qualities of each particular people by what they observed about His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Meiji." . . .

"The British people, an ancient monarchy where 'the ties that bind the sovereigns to their peoples are so close and so strong' well understands our relationship with the Emperor, and, being an ally of ours, says remarkably correct things in elegant language about our nationality; the whole utterance sounds, as it were, like that of a crowned magnate."

"The French who, by virtue of their bloody revolution are prepossessed with an idea of the compatibility of monarchy with constitutionalism, and who consequently naturally pin their faith to democracy, seem to have finally understood our beliefs about the divine character of the Throne. . . ."

"Of highly philosophical disposition, the journalism of Germany, and especially Austro-Hungary has delved into scientific and analytical research of our people, while the Russian publicist, though melancholy and sceptical, understands the peace-loving nature of his late Majesty."

"With the Americans, the case is somewhat different; their national organisation different from ours, they did not understand our relationship between Emperor and subject and made merry at the expense of our established orders, just as a boor would smite a treasure with his huge ax. Yet soon as they probed matters to the core, they were struck by the beauty of our institutions, as if that boor were astonished at the valuable treasures he had scattered about . . . ."

"The South American nations, though republics, extolled, out of genuine admiration, his great personality, together with the devotion of his people and the wonderful growth of national vitality . . . ."

"The Emperor Meiji, moreover, receives the highest and sincerest of all encomiums in the press of Turkey, Persia, India, Siam and Africa, the inhabitants of which constitute the 'so-called coloured' races. To them, he is 'saviour and benefactor of all Asia' and his departure the most irreparable bereavement and misfortune which ever visited them. They all declare in unison that he was a rampart against the pushing European Powers who used to look down upon them and treat them as inferiors."

"The European Press in the Orient has one advantage. Geographically, it is nearer to Japan and is very well acquainted with her conditions, and at the same time knowing the high status of its home countries, compares it to that of the Asiatic States. With this comparison, the European journals view the performance of his reign, and brooding over all sorts of things, are overcome with worry and restlessness. . . ."

"Lastly, in looking over the comments from the minor European States, Canada and Australia, I find much optimism, pessimism, doubt, perplexy, anxiety and apprehension about the future of Japan; 'many men many minds.' Yet, thanks to the pressmen, there is something in them which should call for the serious reflection of our people."

Great Britain

The Times
28 July 1912

"Extraordinary scenes were to be witnessed to-night in the spacious grounds outside the private gate of the Palace, to which thousands of people had been drawn by the alarming reports with regard to the Emperor. In front of the railings were crowds of men, women, and children crouching and praying. These, after brief orisions, would rise and depart and give place to new-comers, who poured up from all directions. The few electric lights on the gateposts and the paper lanterns which were borne by half a dozen persons in the crowd cast but a feeble light on this almost weird spectacle, which testified impressively to the place that the Emperor holds in the hearts of the people, and to which a momentary touch of modernity was added by a flashlight photographer."

"Behind the assembled crowd there wended a stream of carriages and rickshaws, through straggling rows of white-uniformed policemen bearing paper lanterns. These were conveying inquirers to the gate leading to the [Imperial] Household Department. Even after midnight thousands of people were still to be seen offering prayers for his Majesty's recovery, kneeling on the hard gravel, some of the women with children on their backs, others sobbing."

"Extra editions of the newspapers were distributed free to the crowd which gathered in groups round the lamps of the policemen and the lanterns to read. A row of priests kneeling at the railings led an all-night vigil."

The Times
30 July 1912

"By the death of the Emperor Mutsuhito Japan loses a monarch venerated almost to the point of worship, the world one of its most remarkable men, and Great Britain a faithful and trusted ally. The semi-divine attributes with which the bulk of the Japanese were wont to invest their late ruler are not difficult to understand, even in the West. . . . To the Western nations the late Emperor has always seemed something of a mystery. It has been commonly supposed that instead of moving in a fierce light, like the monarchs of Europe, he lived behind a veil. . . . If Japan continues to be guided with the wisdom and prudence manifested throughout the reign now closed, the Emperor Yoshihito can look forward to the future without fear."

The Morning Post
30 July 1912

"The English people will sympathize with their good allies in the great loss they have sustained by the death of their Emperor, since we, like they, are devoted to monarchical principles. To the Japanese indeed the Emperor is more than a King -- he approaches a god. He leads the great national services in honour of the ancestors, in thanks-giving for peace, for seasonableness of weather, for the blessing of a good harvest. His person enshrines the long tale of Japanese history, for there has been only one Royal line, and it has always reigned, its origin being lost in the mists of time and legend. . . ."

"How far the modern Government of Japan is constitutional and the exact share in it taken by the Sovereign are subjects on which it is difficult to find conclusive evidence. . . . Yet it is doubtful if Constitutionalism has made any deep impression on the life or mind of Japan. The probability is that the real power will remain as at present in the hands of a small and able group of the representatives of great families devoted to the person of their Sovereign and the traditions of their caste and country. As far as parliamentary rule has been tried it has not been successful, and the Japanese no doubt see that even in the West Parliamentary institutions are more and more falling into disrepute. . . ."

United States

The [Chicago] Tribune
20 July 1912

"The gap between orient and occident is still so wide that the illness of the Mikado cannot appeal to us on the personal side as vividly as would the illness of the British king, the German kaiser, the Austrian emperor, or the king of Italy. These monarchs are also men in our imaginations, where the ruler of Nippon still abides to a great extent within the mystery of heroic kingship. The democratization which has brought even emperors into the public ways and taught us to see their humanity has left him almost untouched."

"Yet Mutsuhito, like George of England and William of Germany, is a man. More than that, he is a great man. During his enlightened rule his people have astonished the world, springing to a place among the greatest of the world powers. However much this remarkable advance must be credited to the genius of the Japanese people and to the receptive intelligence and constructive abilities of their statesmen, much must be ascribed to the wisdom, and foresight, and patriotism of the Mikado."

"There is no east or west in the honor which men pay to these high virtues, and the American nation will hope sincerely for the prompt and complete recovery of this enlightened ruler of a friendly nation, sharing, meanwhile, sympathetically in its anxiety and rejoicing or sorrowing sincerely as the outcome ordained by Providence may be fortunate or fatal."

The News York Times
30 July 1912

"Whatever may be the popular opinion of the dead Mikado of Japan, there can be no doubt that in the matter of accomplishment he was one of the great rulers of his time. He may have had an origin and heredity that made the lineage of George of Great Britain, dating from the great Alfred and the heroic Robert Bruce seem modern, but no one will question that he was the greatest of his line and well worthy of the homage with which his subjects greeted him. It was his destiny to ascend the throne when the fight between the modern and the antique was reaching its climax in Japanese history, and it was during his reign, he having happily chosen the better, the modern, part, that his empire suddenly expanded and became one of the great powers of the world. His victory over China first [1894], and then his great and spectacular triumph over Russia [1905], opened the eyes in the world to the might that remained in the arms and the brains of the long-despised Asiatics, and transformed the long-obscure nation into one of the greatest of this world's peoples."

"Mutsuhito did not do it all. He had a people of unflinching manhood and unfaltering loyalty to fall back on. But that he was a keen student and judge of human nature his selection of generals and admirals proved to the judgment of the world, and his instinct never failed. Japan may well mourn his death as the downfall of a god, and the world may well pray that his son may prove a worthy inheritor of his prowess. . . ."

The [San Francisco] Chronicle
31 July 1912

"In the minds of a large number of persons of the Western world, Emperor Mutsuhito was somewhat of an unknown man, a man of mystery. He was the titular head of the Japanese nation during a period when in an inconceivably short space of time it made the broad jump from barbarism to civilization. Yet in that time few foreigners had seen him, and a popular belief had grown up that perhaps it was his Ministers who were the real progressive force in the nation. . . ."

"We are accustomed to refer to the achievement of the Japanese leaders to the genius of the Japanese people, whereas it may certainly be affirmed that in no other country is the interval between leaders and people so wide. It is not intimated, of course, that this gap signifies opposition or misunderstanding, or that there exists an open tyranny of the leaders and a latent rebellion of the people. The nation's patriotism, or sense of nationality, guarantees its essential homogeneity, and the people repose with confidence on the ability and worth of their higher statesmen."

"But there are, nevertheless, two Japans -- the Japan of the Japanese leaders and the Japan of the Japanese people. They meet on a plane of patriotism, and there are, ultimately, only slight differences of social habit in the everyday life of the two. Yet in political and religious ideas, in thought and in method the differences are every [sic] great. . . ."

"A question of the future may be, which of the two Japans is to hold the balance of power? That of the leaders, numerically far less important, has up to the present easily controlled the levers of power; but the transference of these levers to the Japan of the people may follow changing conditions and the accession of a new ruler. Much will depend for the present on the qualities displayed by the new Emperor, Yoshihito."


Philippines Free Press
27 July 1912

The report received in Manila this week that the emperor of Japan, Mutsuhito, was dying, can but arouse a feeling of wonder as to changes that many occur in the japanese empire and the Far East in case of his death. It has been an eventful period during which he has reigned. he has been the rising sun of the new Japan, for is reign has been coterminous with the Japan's modern development. . . ."

"Japan, dominant in the Orient, as Great Britain is dominant in Europe, will be on trial before the nations of the world when its emperor dies."

"Occidentals, confident in the progress of trade, are too prone to overlook the sentiment of the unhurrying East. The rising of a new sun may bring with it totally different day. A question asked, but not answered, is: Will Japan continue to reign supreme among the nations of the Far East, supreme as controller of Oriental destiny, or will it suffer eclipse and change? Siberia with its increasing millions, undiscovered China, and even the distant Philippines are seeking a reply. The nations of the world may well observe the sunset."


30 July 1912

"The death of the Great Mikado, Mutsuhito, has caused a void, which will not be filled for a long time, not only for the Japanese Empire and its enterprising people but for the whole of the Asiatic world. It is impossible to describe in detail, in one or two columns of a newspaper, the vast changes which had taken place in Japan as well as in the whole of the civilised world since his accession in 1868. . . . During his reign, Japan has succeeded in placing itself at the head of Asiatic States and in the front-rank of the great European powers by rapid strides in arts of war and peace and in trade and commerce. . . . It is true that japan's brave sons had a hand in crushing one of the foremost of the European powers who used to pride themselves on their superiority over Asiatic nations . . . . The Russo-Japanese war was one of the causes of Japan's rise . . . ."

"But Japan's most important political move in the Mikado's reign was the check of the onward rush of the European Powers into Asiatic dominions. Japan not only checked the rush, but has brought to their senses the European Powers who, considering themselves unconquerable, used to look down upon and treat slightingly the figh[t]ing powers of the Asiatics. Nay more; Japan, by her rapid rise and advancement, has awakened the whole of the Asiatic world for improving its status and taking its proper place among the civilized nations of the world. Yet more; the European nations have learnt the wisdom of conciliating black, yellow and dark nations by allowing them freedom in the government of their countries. In short, the hand of Japan's great ruler is directly or indirectly discernible in the glorious part of the Japanese empire has played in the world's history during the last half century. It is natural therefore that the removal of such a distinguished sovereign should create a wide spread feeling of regret throughout the nations of the earth. . . ."


The China Press
31 July 1912

"With the death of the Emperor of Japan, the Meiji Era closes, -- a period which stands out in the long history of Japan as the most illustrious and most enlightened and represents an evolution and progress unequalled in a similar time in the history of any other nation. It has witnessed the transformation of Japan from a hermit island empire, under provincial feudal rule, to a world power of the first class. It has been an era of glorious victories, and, above all, of unparalleled advancement. . . ."

"To the Chinese at this critical period, the record of Japan's progress should hold one great lesson, the same as that proclaimed at the birth of the American Republic. 'In Union there is strength.' The great factor in the success of the late Emperor's reign was the loyalty of his people and the singleness of purpose which dominated them throughout."


The Ban[g]kok Daily Mail
30 July 1912

"The death of His Majesty Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan, in the 60th year of his life and the 44th year of his reign, will doubtless have a very far reaching effect upon the peoples and politics of the Far East if not upon those of the entire world. For it was during his august reign that Japan not only opened her gates to the peoples and commerce of the world, but fairly entered into the comity of nations. . . ."

[ Note: The Japan Times version ended here ]

"It would be impossible within the scope of an article such as this to enumerate the many directions in which progress has been made in Japan during His late Majesty's reign. They will be recorded on the scroll of history. the rulers of Japan of old, the Shoguns, had vast and magnificent shrines erected to their memories, but the sovereign for whom Japan to-day mourns will require none of these mundane memorials. Like to the famous architect of old, his epitaph will be found throughout the length and breadth of the Japanese Empire in the simple word 'Circumspice!'"

"The late Mutsuhito will be succeeded to the throne by his son Yoshihito . . . ."

"His Majesty the new Emperor was married in 1900 to the Princess Sadako and has a son and heir, the Prince Hirohito . . . ."