In This Review

Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912
Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912
By Donald Keene
Columbia University Press, 2002, 922 pp

The huge size of this book should not scare off readers. Keene, a world authority on Japanese literature, is a master at giving life and substance to Japanese customs. Histories of the Meiji Restoration generally focus on the remarkable social, political, and economic transformation of Japan from a feudal system to a modern industrial society, but the personage of Emperor Meiji hardly ever emerges. Here Keene has rectified this neglect by bringing together every scrap of evidence about the life of Japan's greatest imperial ruler. He tells the story of the restoration in terms not of abstract forces challenging the feudal order but of the motives and calculations of individuals. Japan's opening had a rich human dimension, including the emperor's amusing visits from Russian Crown Prince Nicholas and the king of Hawaii. Emperor Meiji apparently enjoyed his martial uniforms, but he was such a man of peace that he opposed declaring war on China in 1894 and took no pleasure in Japan's victory over Russia at Port Arthur in 1905. One comes away from Keene's lively account with the feeling that one person made an extraordinary difference in Japan's history.