(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Donald Keene’s massive Emperor of Japan offers its readers a full, detailed account of the man publicly known as the Meiji Emperor, who ruled as Japan rapidly transformed from a closed, medieval state to an industrialized world power that defeated the Russian empire. The reader with a special interest in the subject will be delighted at the wealth of source material that Keene has made available through his diligent translation from the Japanese and his industrious research. A general reader, however, may feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of detailed information regarding the players in numerous court intrigues, political maneuvers, and elaborate official ceremonies.

Occasionally, the reader feels as if Keene presents both too much and too little information. The burial of Meiji’s father Kōmei, or his marriage to the well-bred and nobly educated Haruko, is retold in a style as elaborate as the original ceremonies. The same is true for the many palace plots involving the leaders and followers of the two rival factions called “sonnō jōi—Respect the emperor and drive out the barbarians!” and “kōbu gattai, the union of aristocracy and military,” who fought for power at the imperial court of the 1850’s and 1860’s. Yet there is little by way of a more summary background information guiding a general reader.

For all but the specialist readers, it can be feared, Emperor of Japan mirrors the style of the official court record of Meiji’s reign, Meiji tennō ki (record of the divine emperor Meiji), used by Keene, which amasses a wealth of detail without providing any summaries or narrative commentaries quickly ordering the reported events. Keene mentions the interesting pragmatism of the Japanese aristocracy that solved, for example, marital problems of the imperial family. Since Meiji’s mother Nakayama Yoshiko was not the wife of the emperor, the real empress was made his official mother. The same happened a generation later with Meiji’s son and crown prince Yoshihito, who “expressed surprise and dismay” when he learned that his true mother was not Meiji’s wife Haruko. To make her a bit younger before their marriage, Meiji had also changed Haruko’s birthday by one year. Yet in spite of all of Keene’s meticulously reported research, readers must often discover general principles uniting different events for themselves.

There is also the unfortunate fact of an apparent lack of editorial work. Even with the confusion arising from the traditional Japanese custom of counting a baby as one year old when it is born, it is still a rather embarrassing oversight when Keene’s first chapter misdates the year of Meiji’s birth as 1851, when the subtitle as well as most subsequent references has the correct year of 1852. Similarly, there is a confusion of dates when Keene has Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi arrive at the imperial court at Kyoto on April 21, 1863, but has him announce on April 7, clearly the wrong date, that he wants to leave Kyoto now. It is a pity that no editor has caught these unnecessary errors.

The huge number of individuals populating the narrative of Emperor of Japan has the potential to intimidate anybody who may have wished for a stronger focus on Meiji himself. A few of them manage to impress themselves strongly on the reader’s imagination. There is Japan’s last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who resigns his powers to the emperor in 1867 only to have a change of heart and take up arms against imperial soldiers in 1868. Defeated, he is treated with uncharacteristic leniency, and allowed to live out his life, to die one year after Meiji in 1913.

Emperor of Japan chronicles both the personal and the political events of Meiji’s significant reign. There is Japan’s initial opposition to opening the country to Western foreigners, or “barbarians,” fiercely hated by Meiji’s father Kōmei. The conflict begins with the visit of the American commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853. Once foreigners are reluctantly allowed into Japan, Western accounts of their adventures in Japan are used by Keene to complement his Japanese sources. The first state visit of a Westerner to see the Japanese emperor personally, for example, leads to a well-documented attack. Two assassins fall upon the procession of Sir Harry Parkes and try to kill the hated British. Defeated with the help of their Japanese escort, one assassin is killed immediately, while the second begs for a speedy execution. Parkes, who is not hurt, has to reschedule his visit,...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)