Read CHAPTER V - The court of the Mikado of Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, free online book, by J. M. W. Silver, on

The spiritual Emperor of Japan is supposed to be a direct descendant of the gods, and as such enjoys the adoration, as well as the fealty of his subjects. Unfortunately, his divine attributes deprive him of the free exercise of his human functions, as his feet are never permitted to touch the ground out of doors; nor is he allowed to cut his hair, beard, or nails, or to expose himself to the rays of the sun, which, would detract from the excellency of his person. His principal titles are, ‘Zen Zi’ ’Son of Heaven;’ ‘Mikado,’ ’Emperor;’ and ‘Dairi,’ or ‘Kinrai,’ ’Grand Interior:’ the latter denoting the perpetual seclusion of his person. It is said that his ancestry can be traced in an unbroken line from nearly 700 years before the Christian era.

The Mikado never goes beyond the precincts of the Imperial residence, which occupies a large portion of the city of Miako, comprising numerous palaces and gardens; and connected with it are the schools alluded to in the last chapter, which are established on the plan of a university, and are much resorted to by the children of the nobility.

Whenever this great personage wishes to take an airing, he is carried by fourteen men in a large norimon with latticed windows, through which he is able to see without being seen; and even when granting an audience he is said to be concealed from view by bamboo screen-work. His court consists of the members of his own family and certain great officers of State appointed by the Tycoon, who nominally receive and promulgate his commands; but, in ordinary times, he has no real power in the temporal affairs of the empire, and only refuses to confer legality on the acts of his lieutenant under the pressure of intrigue, or of undue family influence.

To relieve the wearisome monotony of his life, as well as to prevent the possibility of the sacred race becoming extinct, he is allowed twelve wives, who are chosen from the most beautiful daughters of the chief princes of the empire. These ladies occupy separate palaces in the immediate vicinity of his, where they are attended by their own retainers; but only one of them enjoys the rank of empress, although they are all treated with the deference due to royalty. He is also said to have an unlimited number of concubines, who reside within the bounds of the Imperial establishment.

The distinctive mark of the members of the Mikado’s court and of the ladies of his family consists of two black patches placed on the forehead, and in the arrangement of the hair, which is gathered up in a long cue and curved over the head by one sex, and worn dishevelled and without any kind of ornament by the other. Though the Mikado has little influence in the secular affairs of state, his authority in religious questions is supreme; but it is doubtful if he personally takes any part in the solemnities which are constantly occurring at Miako.

The subject of illustration represents one of these sacred observances: the procession is coming from the Mikado’s palace, which, properly speaking, is a temple, being full of idols and effigies of the ‘Kamis,’ or ‘canonised saints.’ The principal figure is the third minister of state, and from this circumstance the white dresses worn by the ‘Kargardhee,’ or ‘fire-bearers,’ and the presence of some of the Imperial children, it is probably a midnight pilgrimage to some neighbouring shrine, in honour of the manes of a departed member of the family.

The early education of the Mikado’s children is entrusted to the ladies of the court: the sons, while still young, are sent to different religious fraternities; and the daughters, on attaining a suitable age, are bestowed in marriage on the nobles of the country, except the eldest, who is appointed chief priestess of the temple of the Sun at Issie, which contains the shrine of Ten-zio-dai-zin, to which all Japanese are supposed to make a pilgrimage once in their lifetime.

The Mikado is said to spend the greatest portion of his time in the society of his wives, who contribute to his amusement by singing, dancing, and theatrical entertainments. The latter sometimes take place in the open air, as in the scene depicted opposite; on which the ‘Grand Interior’ and a select party are supposed to be looking down through the jalousies of the palace. The vocal, instrumental, and theatrical talents of the performers, are here called into play, the arena for the latter being the ‘Mekoshee,’ or movable stage, in which a female figure may be noticed declaiming her part. The long-handled, fantastically-coloured umbrellas, belong to the Imperial attendants taking part in the theatricals, whose hair, it will be noticed, is arranged according to court etiquette.

The men whose features are concealed by their broad hats are ‘Ninsokee,’ or ‘public singers.’ Generally speaking they belong to the aristocratic class, and are reduced to earn their livelihood in this manner in consequence of some misdemeanour, on account of which their property has been forfeited to the state. Their occupation is in itself a punishment, as Japanese gentlemen never sing, regarding that accomplishment as derogatory to their dignity. A certain class of criminals also wear a disguise of this nature, as shown in the woodcut.

The band here represented is much stronger than those that generally figure in Japanese orchestral and theatrical entertainments. Music is not used, as with us, to fill the interval between the pieces, but accompanies the performers throughout; the louder instruments being energetically struck as the singing becomes impassioned or the actors declamatory.

The butterfly dance is another specimen of the amusements with which the ladies of the Mikado’s court while away their monotonous existence. As here shown, it is a private performance, of which the Empress and her principal attendants are the only spectators. The insects are personated by two of her ladies, who mimic their motions and sing praises of the different flowers they pretend to alight upon, to the accompaniment of a band of fair musicians. But the most interesting part of the affair is a spirited dialogue, in which they cleverly criticise, under floral appellations, the different ladies of the court, in a manner equally gratifying and flattering to their royal mistress.

The Mikado is always waited upon by the ladies of his court, and is said never to eat twice from the same vessels, which are broken to pieces as they are removed. An intelligent yaconin, however, on being questioned about this point, was much amused; and, though he professed ignorance of the subject, was evidently very sceptical on the matter of the dishes.