Imperial Images: The Japanese Empress Teimei in Early Twentieth-Century Newspaper Photography
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On the morning of July 31, 1912, the Asahi Shinbun (朝日新聞, the Asahi newspaper) ran a photograph of Japan’s new empress on page four of the morning edition (figure 1). This was not the first time that Empress Teimei’s subjects could gaze upon her image, but viewing the formal portrait photograph took on special significance on a day when Japan was experiencing the end of the forty-four-year reign (1868–1912) of the popular Emperor Meiji (明治天皇, 1852–1912), who presided over a national transformation, and transitioning to his unproven and often infirm son, Emperor Taishō (大正天皇, 1879–1926, r. 1912–26).
Published alongside a companion photograph of her husband, the image of Teimei represented a new generation of leadership, one that came to the throne during a time of domestic and global uncertainty. This was also the first time that the Japanese imperial family began its reign with pronouncements in the media — and with the use of photographs. Although Teimei appears timid and young, over the course of the next decade her image would be published many more times in the Asahi and would evolve dramatically as she both influenced and mirrored the changes in modern Japanese femininity. Over the coming years, the imperial family and its handlers at the Imperial Household Agency would grow increasingly adept at using photographs to construct a sophisticated portrayal of Japanese royalty.
This article will examine images of Empress Teimei (貞明皇后, 1884–1951, r. 1912–26) published in the Asahi Shinbun between the announcement of her wedding, in 1899, and her transition to empress dowager, in 1926. By detailing how the images evolved during this period, this article will explore how the emperor’s poor health and subsequent decline in public appearances around the year 1920 led to an increase in the public presence and visibility of the empress. It will also reveal how Teimei’s resulting high profile, together with political and social changes in both the role of the imperial household as well as that of women in society, enabled Teimei to take on new public roles as an imperial representative.
The Japanese imperial family holds a distinctive position at the head of society. Legend traces its unbroken lineage more than two thousand years, to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and its functions throughout history depended on the era and political circumstances. The series of laws and norms that define the modern imperial family and its role in Japanese society were put into place in the Meiji period (1868–1912) but were codified during the Taishō period (1912–1926). As such, the Taishō royalty had a great impact on the larger understanding of the imperial family and its position in society. It was during this time that Empress Teimei was on the throne.
Born on June 27, 1884, Kujō Sadako was the fourth daughter of Duke Kujō Michitaka, of the Northern Fujiwara lineage. At age thirteen she was selected to be the bride of Crown Prince Yoshihito, the sole surviving male heir to the throne. For two years she was instructed in court etiquette; then, in 1899, the imperial wedding was announced and the public introduced to their future empress. The couple married on May 10, 1900, in a Shinto ceremony, the first of its kind. The wedding was watched with fascination by many in the general citizenry, and the nuptials were depicted in lithograph prints.
The new Empress Teimei was influential in establishing a new court order and a new system for court ladies; specifically, her faithful relationship with the emperor was crucial in the general societal acceptance of marital monogamy. In addition, Empress Teimei gave birth to four male heirs. A Japanese empress had not produced a male heir in almost one hundred and fifty years; the bloodline of royal succession passed instead through the union of court consorts and the emperor.
As was, and continues to be, the custom for Japanese empresses, Teimei took on philanthropic activities during her time on the throne. She was the symbolic leader of the Red Cross, helped those with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) through donations, and provided radios to lighthouse keepers.
Teimei’s role remained constant throughout the first eight years of the Taishō reign, but in the late 1910s, her husband began to succumb to illness. Taishō’s childhood bout with cerebral meningitis left his health compromised, and complications from the disease grew increasingly worse until he had to turn rule over to his son Crown Prince Hirohito, on November 25, 1921. This period of regency began when Hirohito was unmarried and quite young. It was not until Hirohito’s marriage to Princess Nagako (Empress Kōjun), on January 26, 1924, that the newest imperial couple began to appear in the media and at public functions with greater regularity. Rather, it was still Empress Teimei who took on the primary imperial role during the early 1920s.
The Asahi Shinbun and the Media-Oriented Society of Taishō Japan
In the Taishō period, images of the emperor and empress were seen with relative frequency by the public. Pictures of the royal couple often appeared in newspapers and magazines, generally accompanied by an article documenting their activities. In the case of popular illustrated magazines, they appeared in photographic features.
In the years after 1906–1907, with the technological innovations of the rotary press and offset printing, image-heavy magazine publications became commonplace. Commemorative pictorial spreads of the imperial family were issued by newspapers—on special occasions, in dual or quadrafold inserts. Postcards and lithographs were other sources by which the public could view the imperial family. Among these varied visual representations, the most accessible and commonly viewed images were newspaper photographs. The images linked the imperial family to its subjects, providing commoners with a sense of intimacy and familiarity with their rulers.
As a major daily publication, the Asahi functions as a sample media outlet of the late Meiji and Taishō periods, particularly when considering that at the time, the newspaper had the largest circulation of all Japanese dailies. Between 1897 and 1911, the number of newspapers tripled; by 1911 there were two hundred thirty-six separate papers being published throughout the nation, and the circulation of the seven largest surpassed one hundred thousand. Furthermore, these newspapers were often shared among families, coworkers, and in public spaces: any particular edition reached many more readers than simply the number of subscribers.
Since the early Meiji period, newspapers were part of the system of social control. In the 1870s, for example, they were instrumental in educating the public about the role of the emperor in society and contained didactic articles on proper behavior when viewing an imperial procession.
Newspaper, magazine, and book publishers were held to strict censorship laws, and most papers promoted imperial and state myths. As Richard H. Mitchell wrote of Meiji publications: “Journalists, then, were foot soldiers in the state’s battle to manipulate traditional values about authority and to expand the cult of the emperor.” These laws evolved during the early twentieth century and culminated in the Press Law of 1908, which held that anyone responsible for periodical publications that were interpreted to have defamed the imperial household could be punished by up to two years in prison and levied with steep fines. It is difficult to exaggerate the severity of state media control in early-twentieth-century Japan, as evidenced by these multifarious laws and publication standards. The use of both text and photography in various publications, among them the Asahi, was crucial in crafting a positive public opinion and image of the imperial family.
Categories of Imperial Imagery in Early-Twentieth-Century Japanese Newspapers
The number of photographs printed in the Asahi Shinbun between 1899 and 1926 demonstrates the importance of Teimei in the visual culture of the imperial family. Here we will analyze the recurring subject matter found within the forty-one photographs of Teimei published in the Asahi Shinbun between 1899 and 1926. (Statistics on the frequency of representations of the empress will be addressed in the next section.) The iconography of Teimei in this newspaper exhibits a dramatic shift in how the empress was represented; in the years after 1920, when Emperor Taishō retreated due to illness, Empress Teimei’s appearance in print came to greater prominence, and her individuality was emphasized.
Noticeably, the Asahi most frequently featured the empress in a carriage or car. On eleven occasions her presence was indicated through the image of the carriage exterior or of her seated in an open-topped vehicle. This imperial iconography had roots in the Meiji period, when imperial processions and tours became commonplace. Takashi Fujitani argues for the importance of the visual role of the empress in the Meiji period: “The innovation of the imperial couple riding together, widely publicized as never having been seen in all of Japanese history, signaled the empress’ new prominence in the process of manufacturing a public image for the imperial family.”
Although in the Taishō period Empress Teimei generally appears alone or partially hidden behind the façade of the vehicle, the recurring visual theme of members of the imperial family in transit, as established only a few decades earlier, remained a popular one. For example, in an image dated May 10, 1919, the empress rides in an open carriage on a visit to Ueno (figure 2). The photograph and its accompanying article document the events of the previous day, when the city of Tokyo erupted in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the metropolis as the imperial capital. In sharp contrast to the photograph of a large crowd gathered at the park, which fills the other side of the page (figure 3), Teimei appears calm and demure. Her gaze is directed downward and is removed from the crowd that, according to the headline, is “looking up at the imperial visit” (行幸啓を仰ぎて, gyōkōkei o aogite). Her expressionless face is partially obscured by the handle of the parasol she stiffly holds, the top of which pierces the circular cutout of the image as reproduced.
The repetitious quality of her round parasol and the circular format along with the multiple horizontal lines from her hat, the carriage doors, and a graphic line inserted at the base of the image — all create a dominating frame around which the empress’s relatively small and partially hidden face is lost to the larger scene. Teimei’s face is fully seen, but the visual qualities of the image, such as the cropping of the photograph and the framing of her person with various objects, distract the viewer from her facial features. This is particularly noticeable when examining the layout of the entire page: Empress Teimei may be the central figure in the roundel photograph and may be featured as larger than the citizens in the accompanying image, but the overall effect results in her being unindividuated and not fully visible.
It was in the same year, 1919, that Emperor Taishō’s failing health became a major concern to palace and government officials. In February he was absent from Kigensetsu activities (紀元節, National Foundation Day) and he experienced multiple strokes later in the year, leaving his physical condition impaired. The text of a May 10, 1919 article informs readers that the emperor and the crown prince were present at the Ueno celebration, but they are not shown in any of the newspaper photographs; rather, it was Teimei the readers saw. This use of the empress as the primary visual representative of the imperial family was a necessity of circumstance, but it was also revolutionary in the context of the public image of the Japanese royals. Taishō’s weakened state made him unable to act as the photographic face of the monarchy, and Crown Prince Hirohito had turned eighteen only a few weeks earlier. In 1919, Hirohito was still inexperienced, unmarried, and youthful in appearance.
Another visual theme that recurs in the Asahi Shinbun is that of the empress’s leadership role with the Red Cross. Following the lead of her predecessor Empress Shōken, Empress Teimei was a strong supporter of the Red Cross in Japan and was the symbolic leader. As such, photographs of Teimei before Red Cross meetings were published in the Asahi Shinbun six times between the years 1914 and 1925. Figure 4 shows an image from the Asahi of October 28, 1914. In this two-photograph layout, as was often the case, Teimei is not visible to the camera. The image of her carriage as it enters Hibiya Park is juxtaposed with the photograph printed immediately below it, of a large crowd who face a small stage in the distance.
Although her presence in front of the masses is implied through the two images and discussed in the accompanying text, she herself is removed from the throng of commoners, by both her position in the car and her portrayal in a separate photograph. By publishing the two pictures next to each other, the viewer is provided with both the vision of the stage that was seen by the crowd and the action of the event as seen in the image of the moving carriage. The crowd is depicted as looking up at the empress on her platform; the figures on the stage, however, are too small to individuate.
The 1914 Red Cross image came at a time when the Japanese nation, and much of the world, was newly engaged in war. News from the battlefront covered the front pages of every daily media outlet. Printed on the same page as the 1914 Red Cross photograph was an image of a soldier lying on the ground, head resting on his gear, with the caption “Kyōkōgun no hirō” (強行軍の疲労, “Fatigued from the Strenuous March”).
This was Teimei’s first appearance at an event open to the general public and it came during a solemn time. Empress Dowager Shōken had passed away in April and memorial services for her were held in July, only three months before the 1914 Red Cross image. Furthermore, throughout World War I, the Red Cross organization was involved with aiding and assisting the Allied Powers. The topic of this assistance was discussed in the newspaper coverage of the 1914 meeting. The Red Cross photograph, particularly as contrasted with the image of war printed on the same page, acted as a reminder of Empress Teimei’s role as a social philanthropist interested in causes related to the care of her citizens during a time of crisis.
A similarity in the visual treatment of the empress between the photographs in figures 2 and 4 is apparent: in both, Teimei is depicted as impersonal and removed, and both images are in contrast with the crowds of subjects that gather to celebrate and view her. In both the 1914 Red Cross photograph and the 1919 carriage image, Empress Teimei is physically separated from the citizenry, as was to be expected of someone of her stature, but these examples of media representation provided an additional layer of spatial difference in the layouts: both show the empress in a photograph separate from that of her subjects on the same page.
These are among the first widely distributed photographs of a Japanese empress appearing independently before a large crowd of her citizens. Empress Shōken was depicted in print and painted form in front of large crowds, but photography imparted an air of mimesis. As a result, the selected images of Teimei in these early stages communicated a level of distance from her people, as well as visual concealment; the illusion of reality as provided by the camera necessitated compositions that maintained a respectful separation between the commoners and the royal presence.
In the years after Crown Prince Hirohito’s appointment as regent (1920), a dramatic shift occurred in the representation of Empress Teimei in newspaper photographs: Her solitary presence was emphasized, and the pictures showed her in roles not previously performed by female members of the imperial family. For example, in a 1925 photograph of her at a Red Cross meeting (figure 5), she is seen in the foreground of a closely cropped image without the crowds of followers to meet her gaze. She wears a white dress and hat similar to what she wore in the earlier photographs as she stands behind a striped railing, but this time she is accompanied by a male member of the imperial household and her face and expression are clearly visible. She no longer has a passive, downward-looking glance; instead, she makes eye contact with the camera and thus gazes at the viewer. Rather than being the removed and distant empress, she is active and engaged with the camera, and by extension with her subjects, and is shown in motion as she walks across the stage — a difference from earlier imagery, in which she stood still or was seated in a carriage.
The caption that accompanies the photograph reflects this change as well. “On hareyakana kōgō heika,” (御睛やかな皇后陛下, “Her Honorable Majesty the Empress, Beaming”) hints at her cheerful disposition, and contrasts with the passive, factual caption accompanying the earlier photograph, “Sekijūjisha sōkai gyōkei” (赤十字社総会行啓, “[The Empress’s] Honorable Visit to the General Assembly of the Red Cross Society”). This change from passive to engaged monarch became even more pronounced as time passed.
Other photographs from the early 1920s demonstrate how the depiction of Teimei was transformed in the years after her husband fell ill and show to the public her position as the lead member of the imperial household in the early regency years. In an Asahi Shinbun photograph from March 1922, Teimei appears on the deck of the ship Tenryū (figure 6), a light cruiser that was used in the Imperial Navy. We see her investigating military equipment and presumably listening to an explanation from an official. This shows her in a very active political role, something that was highly unconventional for the female members of the imperial household, and unprecedented in representations of the other modern empresses.
Coinciding with the publication of this photograph, the Imperial Army was involved in the Siberian Intervention, a military maneuver that was extremely unpopular with the Japanese public. Undertaken by the Allied Powers in an effort to support White Russian forces in their conflict with the Bolshevik Red Army in the Russian Civil War, the Siberian Intervention lasted from 1918 to 1920; the Japanese maintained military outposts in Siberia through 1922.
This photograph also corresponds directly with the return of Navy Minister Katō Tomosaburō from meetings in the United States with military officials at the Washington Naval Conference, an event that was widely covered in the press. Upon returning to Japan, in March 1922, the minister was involved in public lobbying for the adoption of negotiated treaties and the reduction of the military budget. This cut in spending was part of a larger international agreement to limit arms; Katō believed that by curtailing the size of the Imperial Navy, and thus creating an accord with the United States that contained proscriptions on U.S. forces in the Pacific, the overall Japanese naval position would be strengthened.
Both of these news events received significant reportage, and would have been topics of public discussion, debate, and concern.
Although the women of the imperial family had served a public role since the Meiji period, this is a rare image of a female member directly engaging in military affairs, which were typically male-dominated pursuits. In early 1922 the government was dispelling civil unrest over the February defeat of the Adult Suffrage Bill, and working to limit political activity with a bill for the “control of radical social movements” in March. The day after the Tenryū photograph appeared in the Asahi, the newspaper ran a picture of Empress Teimei leaving the Rokumeikan, a space for diplomatic events, after a social occasion (figure 7). The headline of the article immediately above it was “Gunjijō yori mita fusen” (軍事上より見た普選, “The View of Universal Suffrage from the Military”) and the story was written by a member of the rikugunshō (陸軍省, Army Ministry) in support of the defeat of the bill.
The contrast of the article and the photograph, combined with the Tenryū image published only one day earlier, suggests the importance of Teimei’s image as a stabilizing presence of leadership in a time of political turmoil. Coinciding with 1922 as the year during which Empress Teimei’s image received the most media visibility (see charts 1 and 2) was the revision to Article Five in the Diet, which allowed women to participate in and sponsor political activities.
In light of these various political events, the Tenryū photograph represents not only an attempt on behalf of the government and the Imperial Household Agency to counter the unpopularity of military affairs, but also the decision to portray the empress as an active stand-in for her husband at a time when women were only slowly gaining political rights. In both ways — by the association of a female member of the imperial household with the military and by the use of the empress as a surrogate imperial figure at a period of national political importance — this photograph exemplifies the blurring of imperial gender roles that had been established by the Meiji emperor and empress in the recent past.
It is important to note that in the Asahi, as well as in other media, the empress was frequently shown without her husband. Unlike the other imperial couples of the modern era, Emperor Taishō and the empress were rarely seen together after he took the throne. Most of the images of Teimei and Taishō together are from just before and after their wedding, in 1900. Even when their images appear at the same time, they are often in separate portraits, placed next to each other in the context of postcards and other commemorative mixed media. The Asahi Shinbun images are almost all separate portraits and appear only on formal occasions, such as the ascension to the throne in 1912, commemorative New Year’s editions, and on the couple’s wedding anniversary (see figure 1).
Throughout the Taishō period, Teimei’s image maintained the propriety required of the members of the imperial household. Pictures of her exhibit the air of elegant femininity expected of the imperial women, but changes in body language, setting, and entourage indicate the shift in acceptable decorum that occurred around 1920.
In 1922, for example, Teimei visited the Imperial Art Exhibition without the accompaniment of Emperor Taishō (figure 8). In the newspaper image, readers had the opportunity to view Teimei as she walked independently into the exhibition, onlookers executing deeps bows and averting their eyes from her majesty. Her posture is upright, and despite the poor quality of the image, which impedes an examination of her facial expression, there are no male figures seen with her. The empress is the principal subject: Teimei stands alone, at the center of the frame, with a female attendant following.
This is in stark contrast to a woodblock print of a similar occasion featuring Empress Shōken thirty years earlier (figure 9). In Daisankai naikoku kangyō hakurankai (第三回内国勧業博覧会, the Third National Industrial Exposition) Empress Shōken, in resplendent dress just to the center right, is closely surrounded by her attendants and the Crown Prince and gazes directly at her husband, Emperor Meiji. Shōken’s patterned clothing blends with the background as Meiji and his attendants, lined up in dark clothes and depicted in repetitive forms, are the subjects of the print.
During the Meiji period, both international and domestic expositions were an important component in the construction of Japanese national identity. As Ellen P. Conant writes, the events were part of a continuum: domestic fairs brought knowledge and ideas from the international expositions back to Japan, spurring artistic trends and technological innovations and enabling preparations for the subsequent World’s Fair. Similarly, the art exhibitions of the early twentieth century worked to fashion concepts of the nation vis-à-vis visual culture. As the exhibitions and expositions were official events that promoted state-sanctioned values, it was not surprising to see the imperial family showing public support with their attendance (as they still do).
The differences in the representations of Empress Shōken and of Empress Teimei at similar events, however, separated by only thirty-two years, are striking. The independence of Empress Teimei in the exhibition image, so unlike the earlier supporting role of Empress Shōken in the woodblock print, signals the dramatic change in empress imagery that occurred after 1920. Teimei’s representation in the regency years was a crucial component in maintaining the visibility of the imperial family during a period of uncertainty.
Emperor Taishō and the “Politics of Concealment”
We have seen how depictions of the empress evolved from that of a demure and passive woman to that of an active imperial surrogate. Here we will explore the motives for this transition and the reasons for Emperor Taishō’s disappearance from public view. The varied tactics of visual concealment and promotion used in the Taishō period provided for bureaucratic hegemony over the imperial image in an age of uncertainty, thus allowing for the maintenance of kokutai, or national polity. To explain the politics of vision during the regency period, I address a new term for Taishō visual culture, the “politics of concealment.” This refers to the strategic promotion or restraint in the use of the image of various members of the imperial household for political purposes: specifically the use of various images for the express purpose of sustaining centralized imperial power in the 1910s and 1920s.
The promotion of Teimei’s image was a matter of realpolitik, not an ideological shift. There was no attempt to usurp the male power of the throne; rather, there was the necessity of keeping the imperial family visible during the emperor’s illness.
After 1916, Taishō’s fading health became apparent. Rumors of erratic behavior were commonly reported in the media in the 1910s, leading up to the regency in November 1921, but it is difficult to know which were based on reliable sources. The most famous was the unverifiable Spyglass Incident of 1913. In this episode, Emperor Taishō was said to have appeared before a meeting of the Diet, at which time he rolled up the text he was holding, and peered through it like a telescope. It is difficult to determine if this incident actually occurred, if it was rumormongering by politicians who opposed the emperor, or if it was the product of public gossip. Even though the historical details may be suspect, it is telling that this notorious incident is one of the most oft repeated narratives from Emperor Taishō’s biography, and conspiracy theories notwithstanding, it is known that Emperor Taishō’s health was deteriorating in the late 1910s.
An analysis of statistics concerning the publication of imperial imagery in the Asahi Shinbun will be of use in further understanding the levels of visibility of the Taishō emperor and empress. In the years between 1899 and 1926, Emperor Taishō was mentioned in 14,931 Asahi Shinbun articles and his likeness appeared forty-two times. Empress Teimei received mention in 4,641 articles and her image appeared thirty-two times. These numbers provide a striking contrast in how the two foremost imperial figures were represented in the media. In examining textual descriptions alone, Teimei accounted for thirty-one percent as many mentions as her husband; concerning images, Teimei appeared in seventy-six percent as many photographs as the emperor. In other words, whereas Taishō was featured in almost three times as many articles as his wife; Teimei’s visual presence in the Asahi Shinbun was nearly as frequent as that of her husband.
The published appearances discussed to this point are those in which the emperor or empress is clearly visible and their visage recognizable (for an example of a standard of discernment of features, see again figure 2).
However, a different picture occurs when we consider images in which the imperial presence is merely indicated: in photographs of the imperial carriage, for example, or of imperial processions. Here, the presence of the emperor or empress is implied through certain trappings of royalty and noted in the accompanying text. These photographs required viewers to possess knowledge of the imperial institution and visual markers, knowledge that most citizens acquired only from repeated exposure to the visual culture of the imperial family in media, public education, and, in the Meiji period, by way of the many domestic imperial tours.
In analyzing the Asahi Shinbun photographs, Taishō’s concealed presence — that is, when he is presumably in the picture but the viewer sees only an object as a marker of the imperial — is indicated twenty-five times during the years 1899 to 1926. In the same period, Teimei’s veiled presence is seen only nine times. These hidden images account for thirty-seven percent of the emperor’s total image count and just twenty-two percent of those of the empress, showing that even in photographic accounts, Emperor Taishō was not as visible as Empress Teimei, and that his physical concealment, or invisibility, was a feature of his media representation.
Furthermore, in examining the dates of publication for these pictures of the emperor and the empress, both visible and hidden, it is clear that Taishō’s likeness peaked in the mid-1910s, whereas Teimei’s reached its zenith in the early 1920s (see charts 1 and 2). The statistics verify that as Taishō withdrew from public view in the years just prior to 1920, Teimei’s appearances in public increased.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, immediately preceding the regency period, the Imperial Household Agency published proclamations in major newspapers detailing Emperor Taishō’s health. Between 1920 and 1921 alone, it made five announcements concerning his illness. The intention of these proclamations was to put rumors to rest; as the emperor was not making public or photographic appearances, the agency was concerned with maintaining the holy inviolability and elevated status of the imperial household during a time of uncertainty. As Emperor Taishō retreated more and more from the public eye, however, these proclamations slowed in frequency and images of Empress Teimei became ever more common. 
The number of Teimei’s images in the Asahi Shinbun peaked in 1922, immediately after the start of the regency and during the time when the Imperial Household Agency slowed the reports on the status of the emperor’s health (see again charts 1 and 2). This spike in published photographs, twice as many in 1922 as in any other year, was likely a result of the need for the appearance of imperial stability
In order to fully understand the politics of concealment, it is necessary to recall that practices of secrecy have a long history in Japanese culture. In the premodern period, rulers were not widely seen by their subjects and the imperial family was traditionally cloistered away in Kyoto, out of the public eye. In both Shinto and Buddhism, as well as in shogunal culture, secrecy and practices of concealment and discretion were used to enhance authority. Many scholars, the foremost of whom is Takashi Fujitani, have studied how the Meiji rulers and bureaucrats changed the public’s expectations of the visibility of rulers and used visual culture as a means of exerting and exhibiting power.
It is also important to recall that the shoguns surrendered their system of rule only forty-four years before the Taishō period and thus just fifty-two years before Crown Prince Hirohito took over as regent. In addition, the systematic use of pageantry and visual culture to promote the Meiji imperial agenda was not established until the 1880s and did not fully take root until the time of the Russo–Japanese War, in 1904–1905, merely five years before the start of the Taishō period. Therefore, the cultural memory of the Edo period (1600–1868) and the shogunal system was still present, if not powerful, in the Taishō period.
The idea of Edo as the source of Japanese tradition was widespread in the early twentieth century, both in popular culture, as argued by Carol Gluck, and with the conceptualization of the role of the imperial family, as argued by Itō Kimio. Although the practice of imperial concealment in the Edo and Taishō periods was undertaken for different reasons and was dissimilar in its manifestation, both Gluck and Itō provide evidence that with the invention of Japanese tradition in the 1910s and 1920s, ideas of Edo, whether they were historically accurate or creations of the contemporary age, were decidedly part of Taishō philosophies.
The “iconography of absence,” a term coined by Timon Screech and which was formulated by the shoguns over hundreds of years of rule, was still resonant in the early twentieth century — the Imperial Palace was in the Taishō period, and remains to this day, cloaked in secrecy, and the rituals and daily lives of the imperial family were, and still are, hidden from the citizenry.
Despite this invisibility, the public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was somewhat cognizant of palace ritual through brief reports in the newspapers. In this light, Taishō’s reticence was a return to previous methods of rule — concealed and absent. By conducting rituals and ceremonies in private or in the company of small, select groups behind the palace walls, the emperor, and by extension the Imperial Household Agency, was asserting his position at the pinnacle of the Shinto system, one in which secrecy is used to demonstrate power. Thus, by means of strategies of concealment, combined with the public appearances of other members of the imperial family, Emperor Taishō maintained elements of imperial legitimacy, power, and control.
This historical use of the politics of concealment to establish power does not alone explain the increased visual presence of Empress Teimei in the 1920s. In the regency period, the newly absent emperor necessitated the use of alternative imperial symbols as a matter of practicality. In other words, an invisible emperor without supporting figures from the imperial family was simply too great a risk; by 1920 the citizenry was accustomed to imperial imagery, and imagery was crucial to justify and maintain imperial rule. These less conventional symbols brought about flexibility in the public image of the imperial family, as was seen in the pictures of Empress Teimei.
During most of the Meiji period, particularly in the years after 1885, the imperial family and the imperial institution were constant figures in Japanese society. In the final three years of the Meiji reign and into that of Taishō, however, the court struggled to evolve with the times and to maintain holy inviolability at a time of domestic political unrest. Concurrent with the Taishō period, revolution was rife in Europe: there was the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917; the abdication of the Prussian king Wilhelm II in 1918; and the overthrow of the Austrian Hapsburg ruler Charles I, also in 1918. Closer to home there was the complex loss of power that Puyi, the last emperor of China, underwent in the years after 1912.
We can see, then, that the surrogate role of Empress Teimei and the flexibility of the imperial family as national symbols is logical. By modifying the image of the imperial family, the Imperial Household Agency — together with its allies in the press — was responding to political upheaval both internationally and domestically, and attempting to allay any anxieties regarding Emperor Taishō’s health.
Teimei’s visibility in the 1920s coincided with appearances in public and in newspaper photographs of her son, Crown Prince Hirohito. That both Teimei and Hirohito were featured in the media does not diminish the revolutionary nature of Teimei’s public persona. Many of Hirohito’s appearances were in explicit military contexts, such as supervising training exercises, events that were outside of the realm of possibility for a female member of the imperial household. Coverage of Hirohito’s 1921 trip to Europe was extensive, but a trip of this nature was not appropriate for an empress, especially as her husband was ill.
The young Crown Prince mirrored his mother’s public appearances with parallel activities until after his wedding, in 1924, when his role as the future emperor was established and his royal comportment more mature. In the absence of Emperor Taishō, and in the days when Crown Prince Hirohito was still considered young and inexperienced, Empress Teimei was the commonsense choice to represent the imperial family.
The private, concealed lives of the imperial family make it impossible to determine who was responsible for the transformation in Teimei’s public persona. Some of the change can be ascribed to Teimei herself, who we know from written records had a strong presence in the Imperial Palace, but the photographs examined here were selected by the Imperial Household Agency.
The images of the imperial family were similar from newspaper to newspaper, as they all were subject to approval and to the strict censorship laws. Individual photographers are rarely attributed, and access to members of the imperial family was under rigid control. Although the Tenryū photograph of 1922 and the Red Cross photograph of 1925 both show Teimei in a more active imperial role, they should not be read as a usurping of imperial power. Rather, Teimei’s image pushed the boundaries of female imperial activity, something that can be ascribed to a combination of changing social roles for women, necessity of circumstance, and an empress who was willing to undertake expanded responsibilities.
All of these facets came together in the image of Empress Teimei during the regency period. As shown by the visual evidence presented in the beginning of this article, Empress Teimei performed a new role in the years after 1920. She was a visible and well known imperial symbol; in the years between the imperial wedding of 1900 and the end of the Meiji period in 1912, the familiar faces of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken were used together with Crown Prince Taishō and Crown Princess Teimei to allow the public to grow accustomed to the new monarchs. The use of Empress Teimei’s image as the primary imperial representative during the regency years can be understood as the application of a similar tactic in maintaining imperial stability; Teimei was familiar and established, and by placing her image at the fore, the public had time to grow accustomed to Crown Prince Hirohito after 1920, and to Crown Princess Nagako after the imperial wedding of 1924.
Emperor Taishō’s concealed image had its antecedents and was justified by imperial rescripts and ties to religious beliefs; Teimei’s appearance and image, however, was something entirely new. Although female rulers were not unheard of throughout the country’s history and in the Meiji period Empress Shōken played a public role, Teimei’s strong and independent visual presence was markedly different from that of her predecessor. In her appearances she served as a surrogate for her husband, something that can be attributed not just to the global and domestic political situation, but also to her own character and the changing cultural norms regarding women and appropriate feminine behavior.
Although the axis of power remained in the hands of the male members of the imperial household, we have traced in Teimei’s image a shift — one with possible implications for the future lineage of the imperial family. As debates swirl around the succession of the throne in the early twenty-first century, Empress Teimei stands as an example of a strong female presence in an age of regency, one in which she pushed the limits for what was appropriate and acceptable for an empress and reflected the changing culture that surrounded her and her family.
Alison Miller is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College. Miller's research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese art, prints and photography, and the intersections of gender studies and visual culture.
Empresses in Japan are considered the Empress Consort; they do not hold any political or religious authority. During her reign, Teimei was referred to as 皇后陛下 (kōgō heika, Her Majesty the Empress) and after her husband’s death as 皇太后陛下 (kōtaigō heika, Her Majesty the Empress Dowager). The press in the United States referred to her as the Empress of Japan and the Empress Dowager of Japan. Teimei was her posthumous name, used after 1951.
From the late Meiji period, policies surrounding ippuiissaisei (一夫一婦制, the monogamy system) were encouraged and promoted by the government. Teimei and Taishō provided a model of monogamy that strengthened the policies.
Crown Prince Hirohito made frequent public appearances in the early 1920s, but prior to his marriage (in 1924), he shared much of the visibility with Empress Teimei. Hirohito’s 1921 tour of Europe, which took place just before the start of the regency period, was well documented in news outlets, and he frequently appeared on horseback at military exercises. These appearances supplemented Teimei’s, but despite Hirohito’s parallel activities, Teimei’s unprecedented visibility and her activities in new realms for empresses was still revolutionary.
By the end of the Taishō period, the Osaka Asahi had a circulation of more than 800,000; the average circulation of the eight major Tokyo newspapers in the same year averaged some 300,000. Because the Tokyo Asahi was one of the three largest dailies, its circulation was likely much greater than average. In 1895, the Tokyo Asahi was established as the most popular of the city’s newspapers. Accurate statistics for the circulation of each newspaper in any given year are difficult to come by. For those used here and for an analysis of the circulation of various news media in the Meiji and Taishō periods, see James L. Huffman, Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 362–363, 386.
Although using only the Asahi Shinbun imagery limits the media I address here, it is important to remember that the majority of imperial images every newspaper carried were almost — the Imperial Household Agency held, and still exercises, tight control of imperial images.
Ibid., 143. After the High Treason Incident (1910–11), during which twelve people were hanged for a failed plot to assassinate the emperor, public debate and critique of the emperor system cooled. See Mitchell, 145–146.
A note on image quality is necessary. The poor quality of pictures reproduced here reflects what the public saw early in the twentieth century. Although this may be frustrating to us, the quality of reproduced photographs is a component that is important to understanding the images.
For more information about these processions and about the imperial style that accompanied them, see Ozawa Asae, Meiji no kōshitsu kenchiku: kokka ga motometa “wafū” zō [Architecture of the Meiji Imperial Household: A Nation Searching for the Image of “Japanese Style”] (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 2008); and Gyewon Kim, “Tracing the Emperor: Photography, Famous Places, and the Imperial Progresses in Prewar Japan,” in Representations, 120:1 (2012): 115–150.
At this moment in history, Hirohito’s status as the future emperor was also undecided. If something unforeseen were to have happened to him prior to Taishō’s passing, his younger brother would have become the emperor. It is likely that the uncertainty of the imperial lineage, combined with Hirohito’s youth, contributed to use of the Crown Prince’s image as a secondary imperial figure.
On the same date, a different photograph of the event was published in the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper. On page eight a picture of the empress standing on the stage before the crowd of Red Cross members and Prince Kan-in accompanies an article reviewing the event. As with other photographs of Teimei from the early Taishō period, in the Japan Times image the empress is distant and appears as a small, unindividuated figure. See “The Empress Greets Japan Red Cross,” the Japan Times, October 28, 1914, 8.
In October 2014 the nation was still in mourning for the Empress Dowager. Therefore, the national anthem was not played on the occasion of the Red Cross meeting and a somewhat somber feeling was in the air. Ibid, 8.
The articles, captions, and titles that accompany the newspaper images of the empress were generally formulaic and straightforward. Most address her activities with a neutral approach, detailing her clothing without additional editorial commentary. The title “On hareyakana kōgō heika,” however, provides a more descriptive flavor — hareyaka can be translated as beaming, bright, or sunny.
In 1888, Teimei’s predecessor Empress Shōken appeared at the ceremonial launching of an imperial ship in Yokosuka when Emperor Meiji fell unexpectedly ill. This incident, however, was not visually reproduced in the media, and was not a major event. The visit is mentioned in Julia Meech Pakarik, The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization (New York: Weatherhill, 1986), 129.
Paul E. Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918–1922 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 181. Dunscomb provides a highly detailed study of the intervention, the policies that led to it, and the aftermath..
The 1922 Adult Suffrage Bill was an attempt to greater enfranchise the Japanese citizenry, and the defeat of the bill was met with riots in Tokyo. Japanese men would attain universal suffrage in 1925. The concern over radical social movements focused on the Japanese Communist Party, which was officially founded in July 1922 but was active before that date. The primary concern regarding the Communist Party was its interest in overthrowing the emperor system. Chūshichi Tsuzuki, The Pursuit of Power in Modern Japan, 1825–1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 220.
Women were not afforded suffrage in Japan until 1945. For a discussion of the debates surrounding Article Five, in the late teens and early twenties, as well as a description of the original article, from 1900, see Sheldon Garon, Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 123–26.
Examples from the Asahi Shinbun are July 31, 1912, in which formal portraits of Teimei and Taishō appear published next to each other, and May 10, 1925, on the occasion of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, when formal portraits of the imperial couple were published, also next to each other. An exception is January 1, 1918, when a reproduced painting of the imperial couple appeared on the front page; in this image, they do appear together, but this is in a painted form, not photographic.
Ellen P. Conant, “Japan ‘Abroad’ at the Chicago Exposition, 1893,” in Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, ed. Ellen P. Conant (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 273.
In relation to Japanese studies scholarship, the phrase “politics of concealment” can be found in the work of Anne Walthall and Atsuko Ueda, but neither of these authors uses the phrase as a key concept or central aspect of her argument. In addition, the two authors use the phrase in vastly different contexts from the one used here; Walthall employs the phrase to discuss shogunal culture and Ueda examines the development of Meiji literature in her study. See Anne Walthall, “Hiding the Shoguns,” in The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 331–56; and Atsuko Ueda, Concealment of Politics, Politics of Concealment: The Production of “Literature” in Meiji Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
In his seminal biography of the emperor Taishō, Hara Takeshi attempted to determine the truth behind the Spyglass Incident (遠眼鏡事件, tōmeganejiken) by tracing the various recollections of it, as well as looking at contemporary media, but struggled to come to a verifiable conclusion. Hara Takeshi, Taishō Tennō [Emperor Taishō] (Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunshuppan, 2000), 4–11. Furukawa Takahisa, also a prominent Taishō biographer, likewise questions the accuracy of the story, and although Furukawa’s conclusions may overreach the available evidence, his article on the incident confirms Hara’s uncertainty. Furukawa Takahisa, “Taishō tennō tōmeganejiken: naze fūsetsu ga umaretanoka” [The Taishō Emperor Spyglass Incident: Why Were the Rumors Created?], in Rekishi tokuhon [History Reader] 55:8 (2010): 132–137.
In the case of the Japanese sovereigns, among visual markers of royalty are luxurious horse-drawn carriages, officials standing or on horseback holding flags at attention, temporary arches or celebratory structures, and groups of citizens, often with flags, lining the route of an imperial procession.
The absence of the imperial visage from public view is found in other media as well. For example, in searching the digitized periodical collections at the National Diet Library with the parameters of the Taishō period (1912–1926), the term tennō (天皇, emperor) came up with 428 items. Of those, 192 were related to Emperor Meiji, Taishō’s father and predecessor, and a variety of the other 236 were historic emperors or emperors of other nations. Within the search, only eleven items of the 428 found included photographs or illustrations of Emperor Taishō. This is contrasted with a search for kōgō (皇后, empress) within the same time parameter of 1912 to 1926, which came up with 121 periodicals, seventeen of which included photographs or illustrations of Empress Teimei. These figures indicate that Empress Teimei was seen in photographic magazine representations almost one and a half times as frequently as her husband. Two of these illustrated examples overlapped, showing both the emperor and the empress together. These searches were conducted on October 10, 2013, at the National Diet Library using its on-site digital collections. Although the findings are not exhaustive, they do form an accurate sample of widely distributed media; the search results included women’s magazines, such as Fujyokai and Fujyo no tomo; children’s media, such as Shonen Sekai and Nihon no kodomo; trade publications, such as Kōgyō no dainippon; and academic publications such as the journal of Kokugakuin. Comparable to the photographs from the Asahi Shinbun, the data show that the emperor had a greater amount of textual media attention bestowed on him than was devoted to his wife. Although he was frequently mentioned in text, as with the Asahi Shinbun, the image of his physical body was concealed; Emperor Taishō was once again hidden form the eyes of the public.
Steven S. Large argues that Teimei was against these proclamations. He cites the diary of the statesman Makino Nobuaki, stating that Teimei “sharply criticized the government’s frank public revelations of Taishō’s infirmities as impugning the dignity of the throne.” Steven S. Large, Emperors of the Rising Sun: Three Biographies (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997), 103. See also Itō Takashi and Hirose Yoshihiro, eds., Makino Nobuaki nikki [Diary of Makino Nobuaki] (Tokyo: Chūō Kōronsha, 1990), 20, as cited by Large.
The concept of the “iconography of absence,” as conceived by Timon Screech, is one in which reticence leads to mystery and a sense of awe and respect, Timon Screech, Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760–1829 (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 112–118. In his study of the visual culture of the Japanese ruling classes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Screech details the way in which the shoguns were hidden from the view of their subject: “This could seem an extraordinary abdication of the power of visual display. The pomp on which Western or Islamic kings relied to curry loyalty was simply not attempted. Yet shogun, daimyo, and shujo all deployed images of rule that were unshakable, only they were not predicated on revelation. They were the opposite: elites occluded themselves with an iconography of absence.” Screech, 112. Screech also discusses these ideas in “Shōgun no zuzō o utsusu” [Reproducing the Icon of the Shōgun], trans. Takayama Hiroshi, in Edo no kirikuchi [Perspectives on Edo], Takayama Hiroshi, ed. (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1994), 259–73. The “iconography of absence” is useful for understanding the politics of concealment in the Taishō period as it provides historic precedent for the use of symbols other than the person of the ruler to express power and leadership to the masses. In addition to Screech’s claim that the veiling of shogunal grandeur led to an aesthetic culture that valued the restraint of luxury, the historian Anne Walthall argues that it was through strategies of obscuring paired with calculated use of palace ritual and ceremony, visible by only select groups, that the shoguns created an aura of control and power. Anne Walthall, “Hiding the Shoguns,” in The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 331–56.
In fact, the idea of Edo as a space of cultural tradition was widely promoted in the media of the 1920s, creating dichotomies of Western/modern and Japanese/traditional. For further discussion see Carol Gluck, “The Invention of Edo,” in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, Stephen Vlastos, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 262–84.
Ibid., 272. Itō Kimio, “The Invention of Wa and the Transformation of the Image of Prince Shōtoku in Modern Japan,” in Mirror of Modernity, Stephen Vlastos, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 45.
Kadoya Asushi discusses the Three Sacred Regalia of Shinto (三種神器, sanshu no jingi, or the sword, mirror, and jewel), never seen by the public, as a means of legitimizing the emperor’s sovereign power. See Kadoya Atsushi, “Myths, Rites, and Icons: Three Views of a Secret,” in The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 269–83.
There are some contemporary scholars who argue for secrecy as a method of suppression in the study of the female members of the imperial household. I believe, however, that a long-view historic perspective contradicts that. It must be remembered that the public personas of Emperor Meiji and Emperor Hirohito were exceptions to the rule — the imperial family has never had an uncensored public stage and was cloistered more often than not. For more on secrecy as suppression, see Elisheva A. Perelman, “The Japanese Way of Silence and Seclusion: Memes of Imperial Women,” in Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 12, issue 41, no. 1, October 13, 2014.
Puyi’s case is particularly interesting, as he ruled from 1908 to 1912, was briefly restored as a figurehead by a warlord in 1917, and was placed back on the throne by the Japanese as the Emperor of Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s.