The second half of the 19th century was the last grand age of monarchy in Europe and Asia. In England, Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. In Germany, Wilhelm II was the last kaiser of the German Empire, proclaimed in 1871. In China, the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi dominated Chinese court politics from 1860 until her death in 1908. And in Japan, Mutsuhito reigned as tenno, or emperor, from 1867 until his death in 1912. Like Victoria, Mutsuhito became synonymous with his place and time, but while Victoria bequeathed her name to an era, Mutsuhito inherited his name from his. He is thus known as the Meiji Emperor, or even more simply as Meiji, "enlightened rule."
Little is known about Meiji's inner life and thoughts because he kept no diary and few of his letters survive. But his biographers have worked around this silence in the historical record. Like all good stories, the narrative of modernity requires a beginning, and it is common among historians of Japan to begin the story of Japan's modernization with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a coup d'etat engineered by disgruntled daimyo, or feudal lords, from the western provinces who claimed to be acting in the name of the teenage emperor.
The young monarch, thus, personifies the young state. At first, they both were rooted more in the past than in a future whose outlines were only dimly discerned. But, as Meiji grew in stature and wisdom, so did Japan, which at his birth was made up of little more than the islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku and by the time of his death could lay claim to an empire that included Hokkaido, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan and Korea. The erstwhile conservatives who initially surrounded Meiji came to embrace reforms that cloaked the feudal polity in the garb of a modern nation-state, much as in public appearances Meiji himself shunned the traditional robes of his imperial ancestors for Western military-style garb. Juxtaposing the modern and rational Meiji period against its Tokugawa forebears, Meiji emerges as the physically vigorous enlightened paragon of a militarily robust and scientifically and technologically advanced nation-state.
Recent biographers are also attracted to Meiji for a more practical reason: A 13-volume official chronicle of his life was published in Japan from 1968 to 1977, yielding a treasure trove of information on the day-by-day activities of Japan's first modern monarch. We know such details as which well provided the water for his first bath; when Meiji first used chopsticks, tried painting or used a microscope; who were the first Europeans he saw face to face (his father had never seen a European); when he first saw the sea and Mt. Fuji; when he first drank milk, tasted beef, listened to a phonograph or looked through a microscope; how often he indulged his passion for horseback riding; whom he honored by pouring sake with his own hand; and how tall he was--but not how much he weighed, about which he was sensitive--at the time of his death.
We also know that he was a heavy drinker and an avid observer of military maneuvers despite an apparent dislike of war, cared deeply about his subjects' well-being, was indifferent to his personal comforts and had an aversion to doctors.
We encounter poignant reminders of how different Meiji's world was from our own. For example, it is said he refused to allow electric lights in his private quarters in the palace, owing to his concern over fire. And we learn that in his personal life, Meiji had 15 children by five women, none of whom was his wife, and that of the 15, only four daughters and a son survived infancy.
This sea of detail notwithstanding, as Donald Keene repeatedly reminds us in his definitive account of Meiji's life and times, "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912," it is remarkable how elusive Meiji the man remains. There are no more than a handful of surviving photographs of him, despite his being by far the most public Japanese monarch in more than a millennium, and almost nothing in his handwriting survives, despite there being 100,000 poems attributed to him.