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(Friday Night History) Episode 32: Emperor Tobu, Part One

Aug 13, 2021

Also available at Anchor.fm.

It is an axiomatic fact of history that the Meiji Restoration is named for Emperor Meiji, whose reign began in 1868-- Meiji 1. But what if I told you that there was a rival claimant in 1868-- one who went on to fame for entirely different reasons. And the reign name this claimant reigned under was Taisei. Thus, 1868 was Meiji 1, but also Taisei 1.

So let's back up and lemme explain.

In Chinese history the idea of dynastic turnover is not so strange, because of the Mandate of Heaven (天命 in both Chinese and Japanese) which justifies the emperor's rule. This can be gained by a prospective imperial dynasty or lost by a ruling dynasty, and it is what undergirds dynastic turnover in China-- what justifies it. But this is not the case in Japan.

In Japan, though, there's only ever been the one dynasty-- though this was not without its challenges, especially through the early Heian era, though that's a story for another time, perhaps. However, within the Yamato dynasty, there have been rival claimants to the imperial throne. Perhaps the most famous case of this was during the Nanbokucho (Northern and Southern Court) era, when there was a rival court with rival claimants based at Yoshino, south of Kyoto, one set up in 1333 by Emperor Go-Daigo, who after having tried to restore direct imperial rule, was chafing at the control exerted by Ashikaga Takauji, who went on to become the first Muromachi shogun. A compromise was eventually negotiated by the later shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, in 1392, by which the final southern claimant returned to Kyoto and voluntarily surrendered his claim, thus restoring rule by one line. Interestingly, though, during the American occupation of Japan there emerged a greengrocer from Nagoya named Kumazawa Hiromichi, who was a rival claimant that came forward to the Occupation authorities in September of 1945, calling himself Emperor and claiming the regnal name of Daien 大延. Curiously, had the documents to prove his descent from the Yoshino court. Tried for lese-majeste by a Japanese court, the self-proclaimed Kumazawa Emperor was acquitted because, by Japanese law, you can't put the emperor on trial-- thus, tacitly recognizing his claim, even if his claim ultimately went nowhere.

Long story short, rival claimants to the imperial throne are not unusual or new in Japanese history. Which should offer some idea of what happened in 1868 with Prince Yoshihisa, who went on to become Emperor Tobu. He was known by a number of names in life, but in the interest of being consistent, I'm going to call him by this name-- it was his adult name on coming of age, and became his name again after the Boshin War. He was born in 1847 to the family of Prince Fushimi-no-miya Kuniie, who was an adopted son of Emperor Kokaku, the grandfather of Emperor Komei, who reigned when Prince Yoshihisa was born. As with many sons of the imperial line, Prince Yoshihisa-- a ninth son-- went off to become abbot of one of the major Buddhist temples affiliated with the imperial family. Upon taking the Buddhist tonsure, he took the priestly name Kogen. The temple in question was the historic monastery of Kan'ei-ji, in the Ueno district of Edo. This was, and is, a Tendai Buddhist temple that had a long and close connection not only to the imperial house but also to the Tokugawa shogun's family-- together with Zojo-ji in Shiba district, it is one of the Tokugawa family's funerary temples. There was even a branch of Tosho-gu, the shrine of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, on the temple's grounds.

Prince Yoshihisa in his later career as an Army officer. (image in PD)

The prince would've had a comfortable if quiet life as the abbot of Kan'ei-ji, had circumstances not intervened.

In 1868, Abbot-Prince Yoshihisa watched as the young prince Mutsuhito ascended to the imperial throne and became Emperor Meiji, and how despite a nominal restoration, he was clearly under the control of Satsuma and Choshu and their courtly allies, who had instigated the outbreak of war and were systematically shooting down all attempts at a negotiated peace. Add to that the lack of clear settlement for the ex-Shogun's family, in the wake of the war's outbreak, and how that angered Tokugawa vassals to the point of armed confrontation around the prince's temple in Ueno, in the early summer of 1868, and the prince's displeasure is all the more understandable.

But what's especially harrowing to consider is the treatment the abbot-prince received when he went to negotiate for peace on behalf of the retired shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Having lost the battles outside Kyoto, Yoshinobu had wasted valuable time and let the initiative pass to the new imperial army, which was hell-bent on conquering Edo and destroying the Tokugawa clan by force. This is the period in which Oguri Tadamasa, forward-thinking Tokugawa vassal who'd been in charge of some of the Shogunate's military and political modernization projects, screamed at Yoshinobu "My lord! WHAT WILL YOUR COWARDICE ACCOMPLISH?!"

In command of those imperial forces was a different imperial prince, Arisugawa-no-miya Taruhito. The abbot-prince had intended to go to Kyoto, but was instead intercepted at Odawara, not too far west of Edo, and ordered to demilitarize his procession-- and so the abbot-prince continued to run the gauntlet through swelling numbers of imperial troops the rest of the way to Shizuoka, the castle town where Prince Taruhito set up his command post. These troops were actively hostile to the abbot-prince, but somehow he managed to arrive in Shizuoka safely, where he met with Taruhito and his staff several times, petitioning them for leniency toward Yoshinobu. The conditions for leniency were eventually set as surrender of castles and the Shogunate Navy, and while the abbot-prince had meant to continue on to Kyoto, Prince Taruhito ordered him to turn around and return to Edo to deliver the news in person ahead of the imperial army's arrival.

Prince Arisugawa Taruhito. (image in PD)

Historian Donald Keene is of the opinion that this experience hardened the abbot-prince Yoshihisa's resolve to cooperate with those standing against the nascent imperial army-- and I am inclined to agree with his assessment, here.

Abbot-Prince Yoshihisa returned to Ueno and his temple, and remained there while a new organization, the Shogitai, coalesced in the neighborhood of the temple. Comprised of disaffected Tokugawa retainers who were unhappy about the lack of clear settlement with regard to the Tokugawa family even after the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle, it originally patrolled the city on the ex-shogunate's behalf, but eventually resorted to looting and armed acts of provocation. The imperial army, which eventually made it to Edo, was positioned to begin an attack on Ueno, but the abbot-prince's presence stayed their hand for a time.

While Ueno fell to open combat in the Battle of Ueno, the prince and his modest monastic entourage fled, and when they found out that the imperial army was looking for him, they chose to leave by boat, boarding one of the Shogunate Navy warships that gave them passage by sea to the north. They fled right into the open arms of the house Date of Sendai and the Northern Alliance it led. The Alliance, which was originally a council aimed at negotiating matters of regional import had been provoked into open war owing to the escalationism of the imperial agents sent north.

Ueno shortly after the battle. (Image in PD)

Given that Sat-cho had seemingly unbeatable clout due to control of the emepror, with the uncle of the new emperor now in the north, there was a strategic advantage. And so, Prince Rinnoji no miya declared himself Emperor Tobu. I say "declared himself" but the fact of the matter is I'm not clear on the exact specifics-- did he do it himself or was he forced? I don't know for sure. But considering that he took an active role in national politics by his own volition, I think he did so of his own accord. When also considering the harrowing experience of going to negotiate with fellow prince Taruhito and getting harassed the whole way out and back, and then having had to escape Kan'ei-ji on the eve of combat there, I can easily see him feeling justified in taking drastic measures.

Word of this bold action-- and the establishment of a new court in the north-- did not escape the attention of the international community.

And for that, we will pick up the story again next week.


  • Han Cheung. "Taiwan in Time: The prince who became a god" Taipei Times May 26, 2019 http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2019/05/26/2003715796 Accessed 12 August 2021.
  • John Dower, Embracing Defeat (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 306.
  • "History" Toeizan Kan'ei-ji http://kaneiji.jp/about4 Accessed 12 August 2021.
  • Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002),  pp. 148-155.
  • RHP Mason and JG Caiger. A History of Japan: Revised Edition (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997), p. 139, 141-142.
  • Mori Ōgai, Yoshihisa-shinnō Jiseki. ed. Tōinkai. (Tōkyō: Shun’yōdō, 1908), p. 1.

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