Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'The Japanese Empire' (Part Two)

This is second part of the published excerpts of a lecture by S. Wells Williams delivered in Shanghai on October 26, 1858 to the Royal Asiatic Society. These were subsequently published in Honolulu’s Pacific Commercial Advertiser under the headline ‘The Japanese Empire’ in its March 22, 1860 edition. For the sake of historical authenticity original spellings featured have been retained.

The government of such a people as the Japanese presents a very interesting topic of inquiry to us, owing in a great measure to their isolation, and the persuasion that every feature is of native growth, modified slightly if at all by the institutions of other countries. Like that of the early Chinese dynasties, it took the form of a feudal monarchy, there being an emperor, supposed to be of divine origin, and sixty-six princes, each acknowledging him as their sovereign, but retaining the power over their dominions. Of these sixty-six principalities, five were the peculiar possession of the emperor, the remainder were grouped into seven do, or circuits, but no general authority over the do seems ever to have existed. In process of time, and in consequence of the decay of imperial power and course of revolutions, the pure feudal form of government became modified, and the authority centralized at Yeddo in the person of a lieutenant-general or lord high constable. From him it has since gradually passed into the hands of a council. The government might be called now a feudal monarchy, or federal oligarchy, according as we ascribe the real power to the Siogoun or to the council, though it still retains many of its characteristics, that it is undoubtedly the most feudal government on earth. The semi-independent princes retain much power in their own fiefs, while the interest of each in the politics of the whole empire is made safe by the sense of security from attacks by his neighbors, or of absorption by the sate.

The earliest monarch dates B.C. 667, and there have been 126 sovereigns up to the present one, who began to reign in 1853, some of them have been females. His court is at Miyako, (a word which means the capital, like king or tu in Chinese,) a large city near the center of Nippon, about forty miles from Ohosaka. He is regarded as the descendant of the Sub-Goddess, though he does not arrogate such odolatrous titles as his compeer at Peking. His common titles are mikado, a term analogous to the ‘Lord of the world,’ and dairi, which corresponds to our word “court.” He is often called the spiritual emperor, in distinction from the siogoun, who has been styled the temporal emperor, but both these terms convey erroneous ideas, when used in this connection.

In the eyes of the Japanese, though his power is reduced to a cipher, he is still their emperor de jure, and his sanction is necessary to legalize certain acts in religion, etiquette and succession. His court is now the abode of a large number of titular officers, whose pursuits are of a literary character, and give an air of refinement to their society. The arts and manufactures are carried to a high degree of excellence in this region, and many articles are described as of Miyako work to show their superiority, even though they may not be actually made there. The siogoun has his agent at the city, and the Mikado also sends a yearly envoy to Yeddo in return for the same compliment paid to him.

The office of siogoun (in Chinese tsiang lien, or commander in chief) was known in ancient times, and in its duties corresponded to the maire du palais of the early French kings; but it was in A.D. 1286, that Yoritomo, then holding the office, made himself independent of the emperor as Pepin d’Heristel had done in Paris six centuries previously, and established his court at Yeddo. This title is still retained, but the more common appellations are cuo-saipa, which means “Lord of the Palace,” and tenha-sama, of “Lord of the Empire.” In the treaties lately negotiated he is called Ti-goun, or Tycoon, i.e., Great Ruler, an appellative, which may be of recent origin.

The power and titles of the siogoun became hereditary in the family of Yoritomo, and the influence of the mikado gradually diminished during the next three hundred years. In the latter part of the 16th century, a man known afterwards as Taikosama, arose, who by his talents and prowess overthrew the family of Yoritomo, completely subduing all opposition of the emperor and princes, and engrossed the sovereignty in his own person, though he allowed them to retain their titles and fiefs. He consolidated his power in 1603, but was unable to bequeath it to his son, for his coadjutor and intimate friend, Iyeyhsu, whom he made guardian of this youth, usurped the station, and founded the present family of the siogoun, taking the title of Gongihb. With him the present system of government commenced, and in its prominent features has been maintained to the present day; though by reason of the inherent weakness of the hereditary power, dependent entirely on personal character, much of the real authority has slipped away from the hands of the siogoun into the grasp of his council, and he is now little more than a function in the state, like the Mikado, an effigy rather than a reality.

This council is composed of thirteen members, five of whom are chief ministers, and eight of secondary rank. At the formation of the council in 1603, they consisted of the friends of Taikosama, and the dignity has since remained in their families. In this we see a resemblance to the council which Darius Hystaspes formed of his friends; but in the functions and power of the Japanese council, there is perhaps more similarity to the Venetian senate. It has a president, who carries on the government while he holds that post; he is responsible to the council for his acts, and for carrying out its orders. It perpetuates itself –a feature in its organization which accounts for the energy, and partly for the equity of its courses during these last two centuries. The members have each a department, whose duties are performed according to the prescribed code.

Laws are enacted or changed by the Council, and the result submitted to the siogoun, who like the king or queen of England, in most cases ratifies the decisions of the councilors. If, however, he vetoes their enactments, the question is not sent back to them nor is it dropped, but is referred to his three nearest relations, one of whom is the heir apparent. If they sustain him, the councilors must resign in disgrace, or commit suicide, which is supposed to save their character from disgrace; if they disagree with him he abdicates his seat, and one report says, sometimes puts an end to himself.

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