Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Decline of the Mikados

Our journey through Japanese history now takes us over a wide leap, a period of nearly a thousand years, during which no event is on record of sufficient interest to call for special attention. The annals of Japan are in some respects minute, but only at long intervals does a hero of importance rise above the general level of ordinary mortals. We shall, therefore, pass with a rapid tread over this long period, giving only its general historical trend.

The conquest of Corea was of high importance to Japan. It opened the way for a new civilization to flow into the long isolated island realm. For centuries afterwards Corea served as the channel through which the arts and thoughts of Asia reached the empire of the mikados. We are told of envoys bearing tribute from Corea of horses, and of tailors, and finally a schoolmaster, being sent to Japan. The latter, Wani by name, is said to have introduced the art of writing. Mulberry-trees were afterwards planted and silk-culture was undertaken. Then came more tailors, and after them architects and learned men. At length, in the year 552, a party of doctors, astronomers, astrologists, and mathematicians came from Corea to the Japanese court, and with them a number of Buddhist missionaries, who brought a new religion into the land.

Thus gradually the arts, sciences, letters, and religions of Asia made their way into the island kingdom, and the old life of Japan was transformed. A wave of foreign civilization had flowed across the seas to give new life and thought to the island people, and the progress of Japan from the barbarism of the far past towards the civilization of the present day then fairly began.

Meanwhile, important changes were taking place in the government. From the far-off days of Jimmu, the first emperor, until a century after Buddhism was introduced, the mikados were the actual rulers of their people. The palace was not a place of seclusion, the face of the monarch was visible to his subjects, and he appeared openly at the head of the army and in the affairs of government. This was the golden age of the imperial power. A leaden age was to succeed.

Shuzenji village


The change began in the appointment by Sujin of shoguns or generals over the military departments of the government. Gradually two distinct official castes arose, those in charge of civil affairs and those at the head of military operations. As the importance of these officials grew, they stood between the emperor and his subjects, secluding him more and more from the people. The mikado gradually became lost to view behind a screen of officialism, which hid the throne. Eventually all the military power fell into the hands of the shoguns, and the mikado was seen no more at the head of his army. His power decayed, as he became to the people rather a distant deity than a present and active ruler. There arose in time a double government, with two capitals and centres of authority; the military caste became dominant, anarchy ruled for centuries, the empire was broken up into a series of feudal provinces and baronies, and the unity of the past was succeeded by the division of authority which existed until far within the nineteenth century. The fact that there were two rulers, in two capitals, gave the impression that there were two emperors in Japan, one spiritual and one secular, and when Commodore Perry reached that country, in 1853, he entered into a treaty with the shogun or "tycoon," the head of the military caste, under the belief that he was dealing with the actual ruler of Japan. The truth is, there has never been but one emperor in Japan, the mikado. His power has varied at times, but he is now again the actual and visible head of the empire, and the shoguns, who once lorded it so mightily, have been swept out of existence.

This explanation is necessary in order that readers may understand the peculiar conditions of' Japanese history. Gradually the mikado became surrounded by a hedge of etiquette which removed him from the view of the outer world. He never appeared in public, and none of his subjects, except his wives and his highest ministers, ever saw his face. He sat on a throne of mats behind a curtain, even his feet not being allowed to touch the earth. If he left the palace to go abroad in the city, the journey was made in a closely curtained car drawn by bullocks. To the people, the mikado became like a deity, his name sacred and inviolable, his power in the hands of the boldest of his subjects.

Buddhism had now become the official religion of the empire, priests multiplied, monasteries were founded, and the court became the chief support of the new faith, the courtiers zealously studying the sacred books of India, while the mikado and his empress sought every means to spread the new belief among their people.

An emperor thus occupied could not pay much attention to the duties of government, and the power of the civil ministers and military chiefs grew accordingly. The case was like that of the Merovingian monarchs of France and the Mayors of the Palace, who in time succeeded to the throne. The mikados began to abdicate after short reigns, to shave off their hair to show that they renounced the world and its vanities, to become monks and spend the remainder of their days in the cloister. These short reigns helped the shoguns and ministers in their ambitious purposes, until in time the reins of power fell into the hands of a few great families, who fought furiously with one another for the control. It is with the feuds of these families that we have now to do. The mikados had sunk out of sight, being regarded by the public with awe as spiritual emperors, while their ministers rose into power and became the leaders of life and the lords of events in Japan.

First among these noble families to gain control was that of the Fujiwara (Wistaria meadow). They were of royal origin, and rose to leading power in the year 645, when Kamatari, the founder of the family, became regent of the empire. All the great offices of the empire in time fell into the hands of the Fujiwaras: they married their daughters to the mikados, surrounded them with their adherents, and governed the empire in their name. In the end they decided who should be mikado, ruled the country like monarchs, and became in effect the proprietors of the throne. In their strong hands the mikado sank into a puppet, to move as they pulled the strings.

But the Fujiwaras were not left to lord it alone. Other great families sought a share of the power, and their rivalry often ended in war and bloodshed. The most ancient of these rivals was the family of the Sugawara. Greatest in this family was the renowned Sugawara Michizané, a polished courtier and famous scholar, whose talents raised him to the highest position in the realm. Japan had no man of greater learning; his historical works became famous, and some of them are still extant. But his genius did not save him from misfortune. His rivals, the Fujiwara, in the end succeeded in having him banished to Kiushiu, where, exposed to dire poverty, he starved to death. This martyr to official rivalry is now worshipped in Japan as a deity, the patron god of literature and letters. Temples have been erected to him, and students worship at his shrine.

At a later date two other powerful families became rivals for the control of the empire and added to the anarchy of the realm. The first of these was the Taira family, founded 889 A.D., whose members attained prominence as great military chiefs. The second was the Minamoto family, founded somewhat later, which rose to be a powerful rival of the Taira, their rivalry often taking the form of war. For centuries the governmental and military history of Japan was made up of a record of the jealousies and dissensions of these rival families, in whose hands lay war and peace, power and place, and with whose quarrels and struggles for power our next tales will be concerned.