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Revere the Emperor! Expel the Barbarians!

Undoubtedly the most famous Japanese political slogan ever, sonnô jôi is usually -- and quite correctly -- glossed as "revere (尊) the Emperor (皇 or 王), expel (攘) the barbarians (夷)". But don't worry if your grandmother is heading to Kyoto next week, it's been quite a while since this has been actively advocated...

Revering the emperor and expelling the barbarians became a national priority after Commodore Perry's black ships forced The Opening of Japan in 1853. The populace was not only dismayed that barbarians were coming in and dictating the terms of their treaties, but that the impotent Tokugawa Shogunate was bending over and giving in to all their demands.

Prior to this, Takenouchi Shikibu (竹内式部) had already advocated the theory of absolute loyalty to the Emperor (尊皇論 sonnôron), getting himself arrested for the trouble since, under the Shogunate, the Emperor was sidelined and only the Shogun had real power. Coupled with a desire to expel meddlesome barbarians, this was now adopted as the battle cry of the rebellious provinces of Choshu and Satsuma, and the Imperial court in Kyoto -- showing some spine for once -- actually ordered the Edo bakufu to sonnô jôi in 1863. Masterless samurai (ronin) rallied to the cause, assassinating bakufu officials and Westerners, and culminating most famously in the murder of the British trader Charles Richardson (as popularized by James Clavell's Gai-Jin). (Do note that Richardson made the mistake of passing by a daimyo without the proper obeisances and was cut down on the spot, so this was not exactly a terrorist action.)

But this turned out to be the zenith of the sonnô jôi movement, since the Western powers responded by demanding heavy reparations and then pulverizing Satsuma capital Kagoshima when they weren't forthcoming. While this incident served to further weaken the shogunate, permitting the rebel provinces to ally and overthrow it in the Meiji Restoration, it also clearly showed that Japan was no match for Western military might. Not that the leadership had ever been particularly serious about expelling barbarians, Satsuma in particular had at the same time happily bought guns, artillery, ships and technology from the West.

So after the tennô had been raised to a sufficiently sonkei-able position, the slogan was quietly dropped and replaced with another: 富国強兵 fukoku kyôhei, or "rich country, strong military", the rallying call of Japan's wildly successful Meiji Era and the seed of its megalomania during World War II.

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