Western ideas are pervading Japan, the most picturesque of Oriental lands, from the palace to the cottage. The Empress herself is the social leader of the movement which aims at the higher education of Japanese women and the general improvement of their position.
This gracious little lady, around whom hovers the glamour and mystery of the East, has been able by her example and gentle influence to accomplish much for the women of her nation. Etiquette forbids her to travel in other countries, and she has to obtain her knowledge from those of the Imperial household who have visited Europe and America and observed the lives of Western women. But the Empress has an enlightened and receptive mind, and many-years ago took as her great exemplar our revered monarch, Queen Victoria.
The Example of Queen Victoria
An English lady who had the entree to the palace at Tokyo told me that the Empress often requested that a "Life" of Queen Victoria should be read aloud to her. From it she learned the surprising fact that a woman could rule a mighty Empire, perform duties in public, and yet remain a devoted wife and mother, and the most womanly of women. This greatly encouraged the Empress to emerge from her seclusion and interest herself in matters of public import, particularly with regard to women's education and the care of the sick in hospital and on the battlefield.
The Empress was the Lady Haruko, third daughter of Prince Tchigo Tadaka, and belonged to one of the five noble families of Japan whose daughters are eligible to be Imperial consorts. She was brought up strictly under the old regime in her father's palace at Kyoto, near to the ancient Imperial abode. The future Empress-knew no more of the outside world than if she had been a cloistered nun. She was well drilled in the "womanly obediences" and "womanly virtues" proper to a high-born Japanese maiden, and acquired all the grace and charm and sweet submissive ways of the typical Japanese lady. The higher education now taught in the Peeresses' School in Tokyo had not then dawned in Japan, and the education of the Lady Haruko was exclusively artistic. She excelled in music and painting, the arrangement of flowers, and was passionately fond of poetry, and in course of time herself became a poetess.
She was married December 28, 1868, to the Emperor, then little more than a boy, who had recently succeeded to the throne of his fathers.
The young Empress stood on the threshold of a re-awakened country. The makers of new Japan were the trusted advisers of the Emperor, who had thrown off the power of the Shogunate and was determined to become the actual ruler of his people. The sleep of centuries was over, and Japan opened its doors to the foreigner and looked to the Occident for its models of a reformed social state and a constitutional government. The Empress had to widen her outlook and try to grasp the startling changes seething around her.
There were more important things for her to consider now than the etiquette of the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, the all-absorbing studies of her girlhood. Her natural inclinations were towards graceful culture. She played sweetly upon the koto and loved to weave her poetic fancies among the cherry blossoms in her garden. Her heart was attuned to the beautiful, but she was a devoted wife and a patriotic daughter of Nippon. Emperor and country ruled her horizon.
The New Order.
One is inclined to think that the womanly "obediences" enjoined by Japanese custom were severely tested the day that the Empress laid aside her graceful kimono and arrayed her dainty figure in her first Paris gown. But the Imperial fiat had gone forth that European dress was to be worn at Court on ceremonial occasions, and it behoved the Empress to set the fashion. She now ordered her toilettes from Paris and London, and adopted the Court dress of our country. But in the privacy of her own apartments she still wears the picturesque dress of old Japan.
She has a sweet and tender nature, and is loved by the people as the incarnation of charity. As public work was demanded of her, she was eager to espouse the cause of the sick and suffering, for there at least was a field of activity in which she could engage without doing violence to her womanly feelings.
She took a keen interest in the founding of the Red Cross Society of Japan and gave generously towards the support of the scheme. It is said that the Empress reads all the reports of the society. She attends the annual general meeting in Tokyo, and encourages the members by her gracious words. The gathering affords her the greatest pleasure, and she has been described on these occasions as like a "mother speaking to her children." The Empress has indeed reason to be proud of the fine development of the society, which from very small beginnings has become, by the admission of so distinguished an authority as Sir Frederick Treves, the most highly organised of all the Red Cross societies.
The Empress's favourite institution is the Central Red Cross Hospital in Tokyo. She often visits the free patients in the hospital, and gives an annual sum of 5,000 yen (over £500) for their special relief and to provide the necessitous with clothing.
During the Russo-japanese war she made bandages for the wounded and ministered to some of the suffering soldiers with her own hands. She also provided artificial limbs for some of the maimed soldiers irrespective of nationality.
During the war period the Empress gave no entertainments, and made it known that so long as the war lasted neither she nor any of the ladies of the Imperial household would spend money on luxuries or amusements. She gave her patronage to the Japan Women's League founded by Madame Okumura with the object of arousing the patriotism of her sisters on behalf of the soldiers and sailors of the Empire. "Save even so little as the cost of your scarf," she appealed, "and give it to the nation." The league adopted a scarf for its badge, and numbers a million members. The Empress gives it an annual grant.