July 30th 1912: Emperor Meiji dies
On this day in 1912 the Emperor of Japan, Emperor Meiji, died in Tokyo aged 59. He ascended to the throne on February 3rd 1867 upon the death of his father Emperor Kōmei. Meiji ruled for 45 years, and during this time Japan transformed dramatically. The year after he came to the throne the Tokugawa Shogunate, the samurai who had led Japan since around 1600, officially handed power back to the emperor, thus beginning the Meiji Restoration. The period that followed saw Japan undergo significant modernisation from a feudal, samurai system to a state that more mirrored its Western counterparts. This Westernisation was a popular movement that was personally championed by Meiji and included a new school system, dismantling of the feudal class system and adoption of the new Meiji Constitution. A growing impetus for change came as a result of the end of Japan’s sakoku policy of seclusion where the country was closed to foreigners. The policy ended in 1853 with the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry and the forcible opening of the country to trade with the West. The subsequent Westernisation policies of the Meiji Restoration were welcomed by many, but not by the former samurai; figures such as Saigō Takamori fought what they saw as the eradication of their way of life. As well as overseeing this Westernisation of Japan, Meiji was emperor during both the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 and Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5. When Emperor Meiji died in 1912 and his son took over and became Emperor Taishō, he left Japan a very different country than it was when he first ascended to power.
February 19th 1942: FDR approves interning Japanese Americans
On this day in 1942, 70 years ago today, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 which allowed the military to relocate Japanese Americans to internment camps. The order allowed the military to declare certain areas ‘military areas’ which were used to intern Japanese Americans who were considered a national threat since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour which prompted the USA to join World War Two. Other groups were also interned, but it was Japanese Americans who were mostly targeted, with 120,000 being held in camps. The victims eventually received an official government apology and reparations in the 1990s. The executive order was repealed by President Gerald Ford on February 19th 1976.
On this day in 1970, Yukio Mishima (pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka), the Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor and film director, committed ritual suicide by seppuku at the Japan Self-Defense Forces headquarters after a failed coup d’état. His suicide was an act of protest against what Mishima saw as Japan’s thralldom to the West. Mishima had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times and was internationally famous and is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. His avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change.
He attempted to incite the armed forces to stage a coup d’état to restore the powers of the emperor. When this failed, Mishima committed seppuku (the traditional ritual suicide of the samurai by disembowelment) in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita. His second (kaishakunin), a 25-year-old named Masakatsu Morita, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed; his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga. Morita then attempted to commit seppuku himself. Although his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and he too was beheaded by Koga.
On this day in 1868, Gichin Funakoshi, the ‘father’ of modern karate was born. He was born in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration (restored imperial rule to Japan), in Okinawa to a samurai family. Funakoshi was a frail child, and began learning the martial art of karate from reknowned teachers Itosu and Azato in order to strengthen him.
Funakoshi went on to introduce karate to the Japanese mainland in the 1920s, and founded the Shotokan style of karate. ‘Shotokan’ meaning ‘hall of shoto’ in Japanese, with ‘Shoto’ being Funakoshi’s pseudonym. Whilst the original Shotokan dojo in Tokyo was destroyed by bombings during World War Two, the Shotokan tradition lives on and remains a major style of modern karate. He is also the man who changed the meaning of karate from ‘China hand’ to ‘empty hand’ reflecting both the lack of weapons and the Zen Buddhist concept of the inherent emptiness of all things. Funakoshi is the man who introduced karate to the world, and his legacy lives on in every dojo around the world.
March 9th 1945: Bombing of Tokyo begins
On this day in 1945, the Bombing of Tokyo by the United States Army Air Forces began; the raid is one of the most destructive in history. There had been raids by B-29 bombers since November 1944. The raid on the night of March 9th saw 334 B-29s take off in Operation Meetinghouse, with 279 of them dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. 16 square miles of the Japanese capital were destroyed, around a million were left homeless and around 100,000 people died as a result of the firestorm. Tokyo saw many raids such as this, with over 50% of Tokyo being destroyed by the end of the Second World War. However the firebombing on the night of March 9/10th was the single deadliest air raid of the war; the immediate deaths were higher than seen at Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as single events. Curtis LeMay, the American general behind the firebombing campaign, remarked:
"Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”
(Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu - founder of the Tokugawa shogunate)
On this day in 1868, the abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate (the feudal regime of Japan ruled by the Tokugawa family) fuels the Meiji Restoration. The era of the shogunate was known as the Edo period, and ruled from 1603 to 1868.
The Meiji Restoration was the period of renewal which restored imperial rule to Japan and marked the transition from the Edo to Meiji periods. The abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate was a definitive step towards modernisation and restoration of imperial rule in Japan. Its abolition paved the way for the Emperor to take back control and ushered in the new Meiji era.
On this day in 794, Emperor Kammu of Japan moved the capital of Japan from Nara to Heian-kyō (present day Kyōto), thus ending the Nara period and beginning the Heian period of Japanese history. The Heian period was the last division of classical Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. Kammu moved the Imperial Court there from nearby Nagaoka-kyō in order to remove the capital from an area with influence from the powerful Buddhist clergy who had become involved in the affairs of the Imperial government.
Heian-kyō remained the chief political center until 1185, when the samurai Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan in the Genpei War, moving administration of national affairs to Kamakura and establishing the Kamakura shogunate. Thus, the Heian period is noted for the rise of the samurai class, which took power and started the feudal period of Japan.
Even after the samurais took power and later, the seat of Imperial power was moved to Tokyo in 1868, Heian-kyō remained the official capial. In fact, since there is no law which makes Tokyo the capital, there is a view that Kyōto legally or officially remains the capital even today.