Christmas at last…A day for feasting, resting, and whatever else. Willam Bradford forbade game playing in the Massachusetts Bay colonies on Christmas 1621–guess that didn’t take. Scholars tell us that the earliest possible date for any Christmas observation is 337 AD; and that 352 is the earliest date that it was known to have been celebrated–but how anyone would have figured that one is a mystery to me. A surprising number of people were born on Christmas Day, and not just the one we celebrate: Isaac Newton in 1642; Clara Barton in 1821; Conrad Hilton in 1887; Anwar Sadat in 1918; Rod Serling in 1924; and the World Wide Web in 1990. 25 December is also National Pumpkin Pie Day. But today we talk about the death of the Taisho Emperor of Japan, and about Christmas.
…it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government…
Traditionally, the rulers of Japan are the oldest continual royal line in human history. The Taisho Emperor (Taisho-tenno) Yoshihito was born on 31 August 1879, and contracted cerebral meningitis three weeks after he was born. Consequently, he was a sickly child, unable to finish any sort of formal education. As the boy grew, even though he could be charming, and sprinkled French words into conversation with foreign diplomats, it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government. Ten of the Meiji’s children died in infancy before Yoshihito, and afterwards the Meiji produced only daughters (who could not by law ascend in their own right) from Lady Sachiko, there appears to have been little choice but to hope for the best, or for very good counselors, when he ascended.
Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline.
In a country beset by civil war and breakneck industrialization, it seems odd that this choice was made by the painfully pragmatic Meiji, probably the one Emperor with the most influence on Japan’s history. After Yoshihito’s birth and illness (and we may never know why the Meiji let him stay in the succession), the Meiji surely could have found another “solution” somewhere without much difficulty. Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline. Yoshihito married in 1900 and was the father of four healthy sons before his ascension, and one of whom would succeed him, much to the relief of the palace and the government.
His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921.
Yoshihito became the Taisho Emperor, the 123rd emperor of Japan on 30 July 1912, when the Meiji Emperor died. The Taisho’s enthronement in 10 November 1915 was a private matter that was celebrated with the Emperor out of the public eye: indeed, due to his neurological condition that worsened as he aged, he was rarely seen in public. After 1919 he was unable to perform any public duties. His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921. During this period, the “Taisho Democracy” of relative political stability and a drawdown of military budgets flourished in Japan, marred by rice riots in 1918, the Siberian Expedition that nearly ruined the economy in 1922, the Great Kanto Earthquake on 1 September 1923, and the rise of the fear of communism and other “non-Japanese” elements that would rend Japanese society into pieces in the 1930’s.
In early December 1927, when the Taisho was barely 47, he contracted pneumonia. At that time, pneumonia was far more dangerous than it is at this writing, and with a patient whose health was already lousy it turned out to be, mercifully perhaps, deadly. On Christmas Day 1927 the Taisho died, and Prince Hirohito became the Showa, the 124th Emperor of Japan. The Showa’s reign was remarkable because of its dynamic range of fortune: he inherited the ninth largest economy in the world, and the third largest navy. After less than twenty years of his reign (1945), Japan had neither an economy to speak of nor a navy, but by the end of his life (1987), the Japanese economy was once again one of the most influential on Earth.
One of the biggest problems with writing this far ahead (early October) is that it is difficult to tell what may happen in the intervening months…or if I’d even be around to see them. The biggest headlines today were a mass shooting in Las Vegas and more Trump/Republican bashing; next month may be another disaster, and the next month yet another, or the Emperor Akihito may become the Heisei Emperor (he is 83 at this writing). If my remarks here are in bad taste for present realities, my apologies.
But one of the best things about writing this blog is the research, and in my studies of Japan before 1945 I get to run into phenomenon like the featured image. This card image dates from about 1900, I’m told, so late Meiji period. Now, most people’s impression of Japan does not extend to Madonnas like this one because 1) Christianity in Japan is thought to be marginal and, 2) because…well, it’s Japan. But the fact is that about 1% of Japan professed to Christianity (Catholic and Protestant being the largest denominations) since the “liberalization” of religious practice within the Empire under the Meiji. While Christianity was not officially encouraged before 1945. it was not suppressed as it had been earlier. Since the 1990s, more couples have opted for Christian ceremonies instead of Shinto, leading to a boom in wedding chapels in Japan.
But I want to pass to you a verse we would all do well to heed:
Once in Royal David’s City stood a lonely cattle shed,
where a mother held her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.
–Ian Anderson, “Christmas Song,” 1972
This is one of the least known Christmas songs in English, and one of the least copied Jethro Tull tunes (Anderson actually adapted it from a 19th century poem). Since most of us want our Christmas carols and hymns to be somewhat more upbeat, its lack of popularity is hardly surprising. But, the lyrics are worth thinking about, if only briefly.
This is my last blog for the calendar year, and here’s to hoping only good things to you and yours for this holiday season. May your days be bright, you hang-overs mild, your gifts meaningful, your bills few, your snow-shoveling short, and your heart light. See you next year.