Meiji Jingu Museum: For What You Are About to See

A magnificent new museum has opened on the south approach to Meiji-jingu shrine in Tokyo. 

The young Emperor Meiji is transported from Kyoto to Tokyo in a one-man palanquin. LE MONDE ILLUSTRE, FEBRUARY 20, 1869; PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Imperial Procession went ahead as re-scheduled on November 10, 2019. Tens of thousands of people lined the route from the Imperial Palace to the Akasaka Imperial Residence to congratulate the new Emperor, who made the short inter-palatial journey in a bespoke, open-top version of Toyota’s most luxurious limousine. Seated alongside Emperor Naruhito on the white leather back seat was his wife and consort, Empress Masako, her tiara sparkling in the afternoon sunlight.

A little over 150 years earlier, when Emperor Meiji made the first Imperial Procession of modern times — the long trip from Kyoto to the new “Eastern Capital” of Tokyo following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 — he did so concealed within a tiny one-man palanquin. According to one roadside observer1, as the palanquin approached,

a great silence fell upon the people. Far as the eye could see on either side, the roadsides were densely packed with the crouching populace … As the phoenix car … with its halo of glittering attendants came on … the people without order or signal turned their faces to the earth … no man moved or spoke for a space, and all seemed to hold their breath for very awe as the mysterious presence, on whom few are privileged to look and live, was passing by.

This first Imperial Procession was quickly followed by other circuits through various parts of the country, but as the new Meiji government found its footing, its leaders’ need to magnify the persona of the emperor — to deflect suspicion in the erstwhile feudal domains from which they hailed — soon began to fade. Centralization in Tokyo, with the Emperor taking on a more visible and stately role as the nation’s figurehead, would prove an uncontested success. And, as the American Orientalist William Elliot Griffis (1843–1928) observed2, 

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken depart the Imperial Palace in a horse-drawn carriage after the Promulgation of the new Meiji Constitution, February 11, 1899. UTAGAWA KUNISAWA IV, 1899; PUBLIC DOMAIN

Gradually, the mystery play of medieval and musty Mikadoism gave way to modern reality. The new god now descended to the earth and came out of his box shrine into the air. When [the Meiji Emperor departed the Imperial Palace after the promulgation of the Constitution in 1889] he rode not in a screened bullock cart but in an open carriage… On His Majesty’s way back the people stood as usual, gazing at their sovereign, just as civilized people do in other parts of the world. This became the rule, the Emperor and Empress going about freely like other rulers, riding side by side in the same carriage. What had once been a mysterious idol seemed now to have a human soul.

The horse-drawn carriage used by Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken on display at the Meiji Jingu Museum. COURTESY OF KENGO KUMA ASSOCIATE

The carriage to which Griffis refers is currently on display at the new Meiji Jingu Museum, which opened in the outer precinct of Meiji-jingu shrine in October 2019. The carriage is part of a larger temporary exhibition showcasing possessions and other artifacts associated with the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, whose souls were enshrined at Meiji-jingu 100 years ago this year. 

The exhibition, which runs through March, provides a fascinating insight into the life and work of the first Imperial couple of modern times, and says much for why they were so highly regarded by the Japanese people. Alongside official portraits and ritual robes, we see numerous beautifully handwritten poems by the Emperor (he is said to have composed around 100,000 waka), a pencil worn half-way down to the stub, a small writing desk, a collection of miniature dogs with silk hair, confectionery containers and so on. The exhibits demonstrate a certain restraint in the Imperial couple’s taste for material things. 

Both the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken took a keen interest in the affairs of the nation, attending lectures to learn about conditions in Japan. The Emperor contributed to the foundation of a national education system while the Empress lent her support to women’s education and charity work including the establishment of the Japanese Red Cross Society. Their engagement in society had a profound effect on the Japanese people as the nation began to embrace modern times after more than 250 years of national seclusion.

The Shrine in the Forest in the Heart of the City

The museum entrance

The permanent exhibition on the ground floor of the new Meiji Jingu Museum tells the story of the construction of Meiji-jingu shrine and the forest which surrounds it following the passing of the Emperor and Empress in 1912 and 1914, respectively. The Emperor and Empress were physically interred in Kyoto but, at the will of the people, their spirits were enshrined at Meiji-jingu, which would be constructed on land formerly barren except for an iris field the couple liked to visit.

The lobby

The project to build the shrine and surrounding forest effectively became a national movement. Some 100,000 trees of 365 species from all forty-seven prefectures were hauled in and planted in such a way as to create an “eternal sacred forest” that would grow naturally without human intervention and last forever.

The story is beautifully told through dioramas, videos, panel displays and ceremonial exhibits. The building itself is a pleasure in which to linger. Low-rise, roomy and made of wood, the structure blends into the surrounding forest both when viewed from the outside and when looking out from the ground floor inside. Designed by Kengo Kuma Associates, architects also of the new National (Olympic) Stadium, Meiji Jingu Museum is located just off the south approach to Meiji-jingu shrine close to bustling Harajuku Station. It instantly becomes an essential stop for first-time visitors to the shrine to better understand what they are about to see.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal


1. The Making of Modern Japan, Marius B. Jansen

2. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan

The new Meiji Jingu Museum, just visible through the trees, on the south approach to Meiji-jingu shrine, Tokyo. COURTESY OF KENGO KUMA ASSOCIATES



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