Songo-ikken (The Honorary Title Incident) (尊号一件)

Songo-ikken was a case of dissension between the Imperial Court in Kyoto and the Edo Bakufu (Japanese feudal government, headed by a shogun) in the later Edo period of Japan. It is also referred to as the Songo-jiken (Songo Incident).


The hundred and nineteenth Emperor Kokaku, was the son of the Imperial Prince Kaninnomiya Sukehito. However, when the Emperor Gomomozono (who had no sons) passed away, Kokaku was adopted and ascended to the throne, which gave him a higher rank than his own father. The Emperor Kokaku was disgruntled about the fact that the emperor's father had to show respect the line of regents and advisers who were the subordinates of the emperor. This was because under "Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto" (a set of regulations that applied to the emperor and the Kyoto nobles) the rank of Imperial prince was lower than that of regents and advisers. However, "Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto" were the progenitor law for the Edo Bakufu, as ordained by the first Shogun, Ieyasu TOKUGAWA. It was obvious that any amendment of this law would get rejected as it would affect the dignity of the Bakufu itself. This is why the Emperor Kokaku tried to give the honorary title of Daijo Tenno (the Retired Emperor) to his real father, the Imperial Prince Sukehito.

The Course of the Incident

In 1788, when court nobles, including Naruchika NAKAYAMA, notified the Bakufu about the situation, Sadanobu MATSUDAIRA, the Shogun's councilor, opposed it as an unprecedented case of providing the imperial title to a person who had not ascended to the imperial throne. The Imperial Court brought up an old case from before the Tokugawa Period to counter Sadanobu, who justified his opposition with Shushigaku (Neo-Confucianism based on the teachings of Zhu Xi and his followers), and so this developed into a scholarly dispute between the Imperial Court and the Bakufu. In December 1791, the Emperor held the 'Gungi' (multitude of opinions), and achieved a determination for the enforcement of the imperial proclamation, of the honorary title, by gaining the approval of 35 out of 40 nobles who had ranks higher than Sangi (government advisor).


A person who was concerned with this state of affairs was the ex-chief adviser to the Emperor, and the real younger brother of the Imperial Prince Sukehito, Sukehira TAKATSUKASA. Sukehira thought this would invite an all-out confrontation between the Imperial Court and the Bakufu, and so the Imperial Prince Sukehito, his brother, would be in danger if the situation was left as such. He explained what was happening to Sadanobu and demanded an improvement of conditions in return for renunciation of the honorary title. Sadanobu reprimanded the nobles, including Naruchika NAKAYAMA and Kinaki OGIMACHI, as well as punishing Hikokuro TAKAYAMA, an imperialist who was active in Kyushu. The pro-Imperialist Mito-Tokugawa clan agreed with Sadanobu. The Emperor was convinced by Sukehira and the Retired Emperor Gosakuramachi, and reluctantly withdrew from the Songo-ikken. As compensation for the Imperial Prince Sukehito, Sadanobu also conducted an improvement of conditions measure, including an additional 1000-goku.

At a similar time, within the Bakufu, the 11th Shogun, Ienari TOKUGAWA was trying to give the honorary title of 'Ogosho' to his own father Harusada HITOTSUBASHI. However, Sadanobu had to reject the Shogun's attempt since he had rejected giving the honorary title to the Imperial Court. As a result, Ienari was offended, and Sadanobu MATSUDAIRA was ousted after the incident and so became the remote cause of a resignation.

However, 'a case for giving an imperial title to a person who had not ascended to the imperial throne' existed before this one, such as Gotakakurain or Gosukoin.
Of course, the great scholar Sadanobu knew of them, and said 'these cases were caused by emergencies, such as the Jokyu Rebellion or Shohei-Itto, and were not a precedent for the piping time of peace.'
Hence, the rule was not just adherence to the precedent. While Sadanobu was hastening a reformation of the shogunate system through the Kansei Reform, he also set out the 'Kansei Igaku no kin' (the ban of Kansei's illegitimate learning) and 'Shoshiodan no kin' (the ban of non-officer crossing) to protect the Shushi-gaku which was the root of the ideology.
The Shushi-gaku was a school sect within Confucianism which honored 'loyalty' to a just cause or masters and 'the separation of ruler and ruled.'
Especially in Japan, it was emphasized more than 'filial piety' which was essentially honored mostly as a virtue in Confucianism.
This issue was, so to speak, a conflict between 'loyalty' and 'filial piety.'
It may have led the shogunate to take stern measures to suppress the activities of anti-Confucianism (which could trigger an anti-shogunate system) such as Yomei-gaku (neo-Confucianism based on teaching of Wang Yangming), Kogaku (classical study) and Sonno-ron (theory for the advocate of Imperial Rule). It was also said that there was the angst regarding the political ambitions (Ogosho politics) of Harusada HITOTSUBASHI who joined forces with Okitsugu TANUMA once, and later brought down Harusada.


The Imperial Prince Sukehito was given the honorary name of the Emperor Keiko (also called Keikoin) and the honorary title of Daijo Tenno in 1884, because he was a direct ancestor of the Meiji Emperor (the Meiji Emperor was the great-great-grandson of the Imperial Prince Sukehito).

Regarding the Songo-ikken, the story of Naruchika NAKAYAMA, who went down to Edo at an early age as an imperial envoy, protesting squarely in front of the shogun at the Edo Castle became a legend. Novels such as "Nakayama Togeki" and "Nakayama Denki" (Nakayama biography) were written in secret - both not long after the actual incident. There also is a manga mentioning the course of this incident, called 'Fuunji tachi,' by Taro MINOMOTO.