Originally published for Fountains Magazine

Much of the modern history of Japan can be understood through the lives of certain central figures who played fundamental political roles. From the Edo period moving on into the Meiji Restoration, the perspective of the Imperial family is key as many of them were crucial in the changes that came about during this time. In Kyoto particularly, which was the capital until 1868, the restoration of Imperial rule in Japan with the West on its doorstep (and the end of two centuries of rule by the Tokugawa Shogunate) was a transformation that defined the nation as it moved into the 20th century and opened up to the world. While the dynamics of this transition is generally well-known in history, a more meaningful understanding can be attained by examining the lives of notable individuals in the Imperial family. 

Japan had been in turmoil up until the year 1600 when the Tokugawa clan emerged as from the Battle of Sekigahara as the country's central authority among the previously nation's warring states. Social stability was established during this period and a strict hierarchical class structure was imposed. Generally speaking, if you were a merchant, it was because your father was a merchant; peasants descended from peasants, and so on. The Imperial family were still the country's legitimate rulers, but the military might - and essentially ultimate control - lay with the shogun. When foreign powers arrived on Japan's doorstep seeking trade, the shogun monopolized that as well amassing huge financial gain and galvanizing shogunal control. Nevertheless this new foreign influence was an unknown X factor representative of a new uncertainty, creating an opportunity for the Imperials to seize back the power over the nation that they saw as rightfully theirs.

Emperor Kokaku ascended the imperial throne in 1780, a time when conditions were ripening for change. He was not born into the main Imperial line himself, but rather into one of the four shinnoke (or branches) in place should the main line die out. When he was a child it was anticipated that he would join the priesthood at Shogoin Temple, but when the relatively young Emperor Go-Momozono was on his deathbed in 1779, he adopted Kokaku (then called Tomohito-shonno) who then became his successor. Emperor Kokaku's significance in Japanese history cannot be understated, as he is often said to be the one to take the first initial steps towards the Meiji Restoration, due in large part to his attempts to reassert Imperial power over the shogun during this time.  

Somewhat of a scholar, Emperor Kokaku's cultural interests were apparent in the Imperial Court, reestablishing festivals at both the Kamono and Iwashimizu shrines. His relief efforts during the Great Tenmei Famine in 1782 both highlighted the inadequacies of the shogun in looking after the people, and restored much faith and respect for the Imperial throne among the masses. Few Emperors remained in power past middle age, as most either died young or were forced out of power in time leading up to his rule. But Kokaku would rule until 1817 when he moved aside to make way for his son, who would become Emperor Ninko. The Tokugawa shogunate's power weakened even more during Ninko's reign (from 1817 to 1846) but it wasn't until the Emperor's son succeeded him that the the tide really began to change in the balance of power between the Imperials and the shogun.

Emperor Komei, the fourth son of his father, Emperor Ninko, was the 121st emperor of Japan. He ascended the throne after Ninko's sudden death in 1846.  Komei's philosophy vehemently opposed any foreign influence from the then incoming Western powers seeking trade with the island nation. This was a stark contrast to the policies of the shogun Tokugawa Iemochi who dealt with foreign demands in a far more friendly manner, in large part due to the fact that trade was extremely profitable. But the Japanese people we generally displeased with changes brought about by Western influence and this created a dangerous and vulnerable situation for the shogunate. Moreover, there was a widespread feeling of shame surrounding the shogun's unfavorable treaty with Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Many Japanese genuinely feared the the West and the uncertainly that came with change to the previously isolated nation. 

Surprisingly the shogun's delegation often came to Emperor Komei for advice on how to handle the foreign nations at to Japan's door, resulting in a steady flow of messengers traveling the road between Kyoto and Edo for many years during his reign. The threat that foreign powers represented to the shogun prompted Emperor Komei to take a more active role in state affairs, thus the Imperial Court regained far more significant influence in the political sphere. When the shogun personally traveled to Kyoto in 1863 to see Emperor Komei, it marked a publicly visible shift in the Japan's political structure. Emperor Komei espoused a 'Expel the Barbarians' ideology, which created even more danger for the shogunate from both the Imperials and from Westerns as they were being expelled from Japan. Komei's policy also won him much popular favor with the masses, many of whom were opposed to opening up Japan. As the shogun's power gradually declined, Komei's power conversely grew - and unlike previous Imperial rulers he assumed more personal responsibility in governing the land.

The half-sister of Emperor Komei, Princess Kazunomiya was the youngest of Ninko's eight daughters. She too had an important role in the Imperial family. Kazunomiya was skilled in the arts, and is known to have been accomplished in both calligraphy and poetry. Having been engaged to Prince Arisugawa Taruhito, that commitment was subsequently broken off when it was arranged by Council elders that Kazunomiya marry shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in an effort to strengthen ties between the shogunate and Imperial courts. After her move to Edo in 1862, along with her mother Kangyouin and a number of attendants, life became much more difficult for her. Not only did she have a strained relationship with her mother-in-law, but she did not bear Iemochi an heir. The subsequent deaths of her own mother (1865), Tokugawa Iemochi (1866), and then her half-brother Emperor Komei (1967) made for even more trying changes for the young Kazunomiya, now known as Lady Seikanin. But she still would still factor into how events unfolded in the years that followed.

Emperor Ninko's adopted son, Prince Yoshiaki (later known as Prince Komatsu Akihito) was another member of the Imperial family who greatly assisted in the Imperial quest to regain power. In his youth he had been sent to the Buddhist priesthood and served in Ninna-ji, in Kyoto. A decade later Prince Yoshiake would begin service in the Imperial Japanese Army, the start of a distinguished military career that would eventually last until 1895. He would prove instrumental in neutralizing numerous samurai rebellions in the years that followed, developing a reputation as an ingenius strategist and ascending quickly though the military ranks, eventually becoming chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff.

After Komei's sudden death due to illness, his successor Mutsuhito took the throne. Of course he would be known as Emperor Meiji, the name synonymous with the era during which he rules. In 1868 the shogunate attacked the castle, and in the ensuing conflict (known as the Boshin War) the Imperials eventually took the upper hand. Marching north to Edo, Imperial forces and their supporters had the shogunate at their mercy. Here Lady Seikanin, along with her mother-in-law, assisted in negotiating the shogunal surrender at Edo Castle. The Tokogawa family, and indeed maybe even herself too, might very well have all been killed had their efforts not been successful. It was after this that Lady Seikanin's would return to Kyoto for a short while, but when the new Emperor Meiji relocated to Edo, she too returned to take up residence there. Sadly she would fall ill and succumb to a serious nervous system affliction in 1877, just 31 years old at the time of her death.

Under Emperor Meiji, Japan would go on to adopt a more open policy seeking greater knowledge from the outside world in order to strengthen the island nation. Prince Komatsu Akihito would go on to fill a diplomatic role under the Meiji government, traveling abroad numerous times as a representative of the Emperor Meiji. He unfortunately died without any heirs, though his final years saw him involved in a number of philanthropical endeavors. Emperor Meiji's reign would last for 45 years, during which time Japan would modernize and emerge as a power on the world stage, the first of Asia's industrialized countries. 

Supplementary material: Kyoto Places of interest

Miyawaki Baisen-an

Old Kyoto tradition remain intact at this renowned fan store. Its history dates all the way back to 1823, when an individual took over a fan business from a merchant by the name of Oumiya Shinbei. The Shinbei name subsequently remained intact for the next three generations. Influenced by the work of many artists at the time, the name was later changed to (Miyawaki) Baisen-An. The establishment's ceiling is famously painted by 48 famous Kyoto artists, including Tessai, Seihou, and Chokunyu. The store also houses 12 famous original fan paintings. Still very much in the same condition as years gone by, Miyawaki Baisen-an is an excellent place to revisit the Kyoto of the past.

Tominokoji-nishi-hairu,Rokkaku-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto TEL : 075-221-0181 www.baisenan.co.jp


Located in Kyoto's famous Gion district, Yuzuki is one of the most well-known producers of traditional Nishijin textiles. With an amazing selection of handbags and other clothing made in the Nishijin style, this is a must see for any woman looking to add some Japanese flavor to her bag collection. Having just opened in December of 2009, Yuzuki offers specialized tailoring to patrons, continuing a long-standing ancient tradition alive in a the current times. The second floor is home to an assortment of Kimono, the perfect souvenir from Japan to cherish for a lifetime.

570-120, Gion-machi-minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto TEL : 075-533-7100 www.yuzuki-net.jp/gion-mise

Fukujuen Kyoto Flagship store

One the most famous tea companies in the city of Kyoto, this tea store - specializing in Uji tea - has over two centuries of history. Fukujuen's workshop and interpretive center allows you to learn and practice the art of tea making by hand under expert instruction, brewing it from completely fresh leaves yourself. There are an assortment of Kyoto speciality goods for sale here, including green tea sweets, tea sets and accessories. For your convenience, a restaurant is available on the third floor should you wish to grab a bite as well.

Shljo Tominokoji, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto city, Kyoto TEL : 075-221-2920 www.fukujuen-kyotohonten.com


Specializing in 'wagashi', or Japanese sweets to be served with tea, Suetomi looks every bit like a genuine throwback to the Heian period. A perfect balance between new and old, Suetomi produces delicious Japanese tea munchies using a modernized kitchen, but yet still guided by the aesthetic principles that stay true to the old traditions. An essential part of Japanese tea culture, these wagashi are intended to complement the sometimes bitter taste of green tea. A stop for tea at Suetomi is indeed an illuminating glimpse into the flavor of old Kyoto.

Muromachi-Higashi-Hairu, Matsubara-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto TEL : 075-351-0808

Hosomi Museum

The Hosomi Museum is centrally located in Kyoto not far from Okazaki Park, offering the best of Japanese art as well as a place to rest and take tea. The Kokoan Japanese tea room is a wonderful example of traditional sukiya architecture, with regular events and tea ceremonies scheduled throughout the year. The art collection housed here includes over 1000 pieces of various styles and time periods, and makes every effort to explain their significance and meaning to those who might find Japanese art a little confusing. Stop off at the ArtCube Shop before you leave for a wide selection of souvenirs and Japanese art books. 

6-3 Saishoji-cho Okazaki Sakyo-ku, Kyoto TEL : 075-752-5555 www.emuseum.or.jp English: http://www.emuseum.or.jp/eng/index.html