Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor (明治天皇) (3 November 1852-30 July 1912) was the 122nd Emperor of Japan. At the time of his birth in 1852, Japan was an isolated, preindustrial, feudal country dominated by the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Daimyo, who ruled over the country's more than 250 decentralized domains. By the time of his death in 1912, Japan had undergone a political, social, and industrial revolution at home and emerged as one of the great powers on the world stage.

The Emperor Meiji was the surviving son of the Emperor Kōmei by the lady-in-waiting Nakayama Yoshiko (1834-1907), the daughter of Lord Nakayama Tadayasu, sometime minister of the left (sadaijin) and a scion of the Fujiwara. He was born eight months before the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the U.S. squadron of "black ships" in Edo Bay and two years before the first of the so-called unequal treaties which the Tokugawa shogunate signed with Perry. Originally titled Sachi no miya (Prince Sachi), the future emperor spent most of childhood at the Nakayama household in Kyoto, as it was customary to entrust the upbring of imperial children to prominent court families. He was formally adopted by Asako Nyōgō (later Empress Dowager Eishō), the principal consort of Emperor Kōmei, on 11 July 1860. He also received the personal name Musuhito, the rank of shinnō (imperial prince, and thus a potential successor to the throne) and the title of Kotashi (crown prince) on the same day. Crown Prince Mutsuhito ascended to the throne on 3 February 1867 at the age of fifteen, taking the title of Meiji, or “enlightened ruler”.

On 11 January 1867, the Emperor Meiji married Lady Haruko (28 May 1849-19 April 1914, the third daughter of Lord Ichijō Tadaka, sometime minister of the left (sadaijin)). Known posthumously as Empress Shoken, she was the first imperial consort to receive the title of kogo (literally, the emperor's wife, translated as empress consort), in several hundred years. Although she was the first Japanese empress to play a public role, she bore no children. Emperor Meiji had fifteen children by five official ladies-in-waiting. Only five of his children, a prince born to Lady Naruko (1855-1943), the daughter of Yanagiwara Mitsunaru, and four princesses born to Lady Sachiko (1867-1947), the eldest daugther of Count Sono Motosachi, lived to adulthood. They were:

The Meiji Emperor was the symbolic leader of the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokugawas were deposed by Imperial forces. The Charter Oath, a five-point statement of the nature of the new government abolished feudalism and proclaimed a modern democratic government for Japan. Although a parliament was formed, it had no real power, and neither did Meiji. Power had passed from the Tokugawa into the hands of the Daimyo who had led the Restoration. Japan was thus controlled by an oligarchy, which comprised the most powerful men of the military, political, and economic spheres.

The Meiji Restoration is a source of pride for the Japanese, as it and the accompanying industrialization allowed Japan to become the preeminent power in the Pacific and a major player in the world within a generation. On the other hand, it is a source of shame, as it was the beginning of Japan's imperialism in the Pacific and prepared the nation to join the Berlin-Rome Axis in the thirties.

Meiji's role in the Restoration is debatable. He certainly did not control Japan, but how much influence he wielded is unknown. It is unlikely it will ever be clear whether he supported the wars against China (1894-1895) and Russia (1904-1905). One of the few windows we have into Meiji's own feelings is his poetry, which seem to indicate a pacifist streak, or at least a man that wished war could be avoided.

Preceded by:
List of Japanese Emperors Succeeded by:
Yoshihito, the Taisho Emperor