The life of Empress Shôken

Each year on 11 April, the anniversary of the death of Empress Shôken, the grant allocations for Red Cross Red Crescent peacetime activities are announced. Now, 100 years on, the Empress Shôken Fund still benefits from the generous contribution of the Empress and her desire to promote Red Cross services.

The Empress married Emperor Meiji whose name refers to a glorious era in modern Japanese history. The wedding ceremony in 1869, however, took place during a period of turbulence. At the time of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s affairs were complicated, both diplomatically and domestically, and the imperial household was in dire circumstances after the death of Emperor Meiji’s predecessor, Emperor Komei, the previous year.
Born in Kyoto in 1850, the Empress Shôken was the youngest of three daughters of Tadaka Ichijo, a nobleman at the imperial court of Japan, who later bore the title of prince. She was first named Fukhi-himée, then Sue-himéa, and during her husband’s reign, she was called Haruko. She was the first imperial consort to receive the titles of nyōgō and kōgō (literally, the emperor's wife, translated as ‘empress consort’), in several hundred years.

It soon became clear that Empress Haruko was unable to bear children. As was the custom in the Japanese royal family, she adopted Yoshihito, her husband's eldest son by a concubine. Yoshihito became the official heir to the throne and on Emperor Meiji's death, he succeeded him as Emperor Taishô.

Throughout the turbulent Meiji period, the Empress was perceived as an “outstanding woman in action and a determined character”, who was responsible for initiating a reform of the imperial court. In the diplomatic field, the Empress hosted foreign guests during their visits to Japan. On occasion, she also attended the Emperor's meetings and accompanied her husband on his official visits to schools and factories, and even on army manoeuvres.

One of her main concerns was women’s education, which led her to support a teacher training college for women. In a book entitled Model Women, the Empress paid tribute to all women, in Japan and elsewhere, who over the centuries have imprinted their personality and their aspirations on successive generations. The Empress inspired Japanese women to seek emancipation.

“Prosperity or lack of it is the basis of either the progress or the stagnation of human society. Consequently, we must realize the importance of the responsibilities incumbent on women.”

The new political agenda to modernize Japan was pursued at the expense of the country’s most vulnerable and poor. Government-led social work was limited to the bare minimum despite the enormous need for it. The imperial household played an important role in assuaging the hardship faced by the people of Japan, with the Empress herself embodying the sense of solidarity between the imperial household and the people.

The Empress assumed first the presidency of the Patronesses’ Committee of the Jikei-kai Hospital, which gave free medical care to the poor. She also gave her patronage to its charity bazaar and frequently donated money to improve the hospital. She sponsored and supported hundreds of orphanages across the country. Signficantly, the Empress was a strong supporter of the Japanese Red Cross Society and contributed to the National Society both at national and international level.
The Empress died on 11 April 1914, two years after her husband. As is the custom in the Japanese royal family, she was given the new, posthumous name of Empress Shôken, which means ‘sparkling and lively’. She was buried in the East Mound of the Fushimi Momoyama Ryo in Kyoto next to Emperor Meiji. Her soul was enshrined in the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo.