JAPAN'S IMPERIAL FAMILY: ITS ROLE AND MEANING IN MODERN JAPAN. (Critical Essay)
Abstract: The author examines the changing public and political roll of the Emperor of Japan. Information on public perception, history of government, and emperor's political aspirations is provided.
When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the tragic Paris car crash of 31 August 1997, thousands of Japanese knew more about her life than they did about the everyday happenings of their own royal family. Yet public opinion polls, like that of the Asahi Shimbun, still register a rating of 85 per cent of uyamai (esteem) and aijo (attachment) for and to the Emperor and Empress largely because of the Emperor's position in Japanese society. The fact that the polls never reflect the 'affection' felt by some members of the British public for individuals within the British royal family is a significant difference.
In modern Japan the Emperor is no longer considered to be a kami, a divine being, but within living memory the current Emperor was brought up in the belief and public perception that he was heir to his father's status of a arahitogami (a living god) and a direct descendant of Amaterasu-Omikami, Goddess of the Sun. Although, strange to tell, nowhere in the modem Japanese Emperor's political persona, as first defined in the Meiji Constitution of 1889, is there mention that the Emperor is a god. Yet after a childhood of belief under that hybrid constitution of Japanese tradition and modem western (for which read Prussian) ideas that had been hijacked by the nationalist-militarists as a new emperor cult, Emperor Akihito succeeded to the Takamikura (Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan) on 7 January 1989, the day his father died having been for decades the most internationally reviled Japanese monarch ever. Posthumously dubbed Emperor Showa, the dead sovereign was known to hundreds of thousands of POWs as Emperor Hirohito of World War 11. Showa, with brutal irony in this World War I1 context means 'enlightened peace'; Emperor Akihito chose the name Heisei ('to achieve peace') as his new Imperial Era.
Emperor Akihito, the 125th Emperor of Japan, was born in Tokyo on 23 December 1933,the fifth child and first son of his parents. A younger brother and sister are still alive. He was educated at the Gakushuin (then the Imperial Household Ministry School), and from 1946-50 was under the personal guidance of his American Quaker tutor Elizabeth Gray Vining. In the year he became Kotaishi (Crown Prince) and came of age, 1952,he entered the reformed Gakushuin University's faculty of Political Science and Economics. Academically the Emperor has followed his father's footsteps in an enthusiasm for biological science and marine biology writing many papers on the subject.
One who knows him well describes Emperor Akihito as 'low-key, rather methodical, very polite, and doesn't use the old-fashioned court language. Talking to him, you feel as if you were speaking to an ordinary person. He is shy, but takes his duties very seriously'. Remembering how Emperor Akihito, as a small child, was taken from his parents and handed over to imperial chamberlains to be brought up in virtual isolation, the intellectual commentator Kunihiro Masao notes: 'There was a plot at the end of the war to kidnap him, take him to a remote location and continue the war in his name. You can imagine the effect this knowledge had on a small boy'. The most readily apparent effect was to make Emperor Akihito very appreciative of family life.
While still Crown Prince, Akihito, married Michiko Shoda (born Tokyo, 20 October 1934) daughter of the businessman Hidesaburo and Madam Fumiko Shoda, and they set up home in the Crown Prince's official residence of the Togu (Eastern Palace). The imperial couple have three children. Prince Naruhito (Hironomiya -Prince Hiro: born, 23 February 1960), married diplomat Masako Owada in 1993. Prince Fumihito (Ayanomiya -Prince Aya: born, 30 November 1965), married Kiku Kawashima in 1990. And Princess Sayako (Norinomiya- Princess Nori: born, 18 April 1969) who is unmarried. Official press handouts emphasise that the children were brought up 'in the bosom of a loving family'.
Enthroned in the great ceremony known as Sokui Rei Seiden no Gi in the Matsu no Ma (State room) of the Kyujo (Imperial Palace) in November 1990,Akihito thus entered the tennosei (Emperor System) with his life of protocol ruled by the 1500-member Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency) attached to the Prime Minister's Office. He has a dual role as constitutional monarch under the post-war constitution of 3 November 1946,but with no powers related to government. He is also chief priest who performs Shintorites to guarantee 'a bountiful rice crop for the nation every year'. These duties are largely performed away from the press cameras of the western media. He appoints the Sori Daijin (Prime Minister) when the candidate is designated by Japan's government, the Diet, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court's appointment is also within his remit when such a designation has been made by the Naikaku (Cabinet). As a 'symbol of the State and of the unity of the people', notes the Gaimusho (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), he performs such acts in matters of state on behalf of the people as promulgation of laws and treaties, convocation of the Diet and awarding honours'. Thus under the postwar constitution Emperor Akihito is not designated as Head of State.
As his reign develops Emperor Akihito's state responsibilities have increased. For instance the number of foreign ambassadors whose credentialshe receives has grown to in excess of 124. The reception of overseas VIPs and his own visits outside Japan have expanded with the myriad national state functions.
The Emperor and Empress have chosen to support certain groups like environmental protection associations and spend time with people such as the handicapped. They are keen supporters of the Paralympic Games and make a point of handshaking or touching the disabled in a society where handshaking is not the norm.
The popularity of the Emperor and Empress amongst the majority of the nation which is middle class, is founded on four main factors. The Emperor is seen as symbolising democracy; he is perceived as a denizen of progress in science and technology; he is deemed to represent the modernity which has brought Japan prosperity; and, he is believed to incorporate all the factors that make the middle-class feel safe in their pursuit of their aspirations. His role is very much as the head of the perceived kazoku kokka (the family state).
In a modem world where Emperor Akihito perceives himself as a true constitutional monarch at the head of a forward-looking nation, his life and role is hedged with imperial paradox. For instance in April 1998 -before the Emperor and Empress set out on a visit to Europe -an imperial messengerjourneyed from the Kyujo at Tokyo to the eighth century imperial capital at Nara to inform the deified spirit of Tenno Jimmu -Japan's mythical first emperor -at the sacred Unebiyoma tumulus of the Emperor's itinerary and overseas business. On 3 April each year Emperor Aluhiro personally gives veneration to Jimmu at the Koreiden (State Hall) in the ceremony known as Jimmu Tennosai, within his role as the nation's high priest. Thus he emphasises his mythical genealogical roots back to the Sun Goddess, the Great Foundress of the koshitsu (Imperial House).
On 23 November too, Emperor Akihito, clad in shimmering white and purified in body and spirit, approaches the Shinkaden (Deity Venerating Hall) to give veneration to the Sun Goddess and parade her sword, jewels and mirror, the Imperial Regalia. The Emperor then communes with the goddess in mystic ritual and a sacrament of rice and rice wine. This is the sacred ritual the Daijosai. In this way the Emperor and the nation are deemed invigorated for a year in body and spirit. And herein is the paradox; although the Emperor celebrates all this in private he juxtaposes his democratic, constitutional and state roles with the supernatural.
Emperor Akihito comes under regular pressure from three socio-political groupings. First there are those, largely within Japan's main political parties, who wish to manage him for political advantage. The ex-Liberal Democrat Sori-DaijinYasuhiro Nakasone (who was Premier 1982-87) is a good example to cite in this connection. He is amongst those who believe that all 'American influence' should be removed from the constitution. They consider the idea (as stated in the 1946 Constitution) that the Emperor derives his position from the people with who resides sovereign power' is not the true Japanese way. Their opponents counter that to expunge this concept would compromise the Emperor's position.
More radical in thought is the second pressure group which wishes to reverse Japan's current position completely and go back to the pre-war status wherein the country was the nationalistic 'Land of the Gods'. Within this group are those who believe that Japan has nothing to be ashamed of concerning their behaviour in World War I1 and they jockey for the reinstatement of the Koshitsu tenpan, the strict rules relating to attitude to and function of the Imperial Family. They also wish to have the old national holidays reinstated along with certain state shrines. Among the shnnes is the Yasukuni-jinja which contains Japan's foremost war memorial. Since 1959 the names of Japan's war criminals have been inscribed at the shrine's rolls of honour, and this group wishes more to be made of 'Japan's glorious military past' to invigorate the country's national pride.
In terms of national holidays, the country's 'Foundation Day' was reinstated in 1967 to commemorate the founding of Japan by the mythical Jimmu in 660 BC. The 'Emperor's Birthday' (23 December) is also a prominent national holiday as is November's 'Labour Day' which coincides with the Sun Goddess ritual.
The third pressure group has less influencebut is voluble in its demands to remove all imperial ceremonial activity which they say violates the constitution and propitiates militarism linked with state religion. The group includes such as the left-wing Chukaku-ha.
Public critics of the Japanese monarchy are in a minority, yet include religious groups, left-wing associations and groups of survivors of World War Two. 'Royal bashing' has not been a consistent Japanese press sport mainly because the Imperial Household Agency has not encouraged the public to be curious about the Imperial Family or expansive in press handouts. The Imperial Household Agency retain a tight reign on the compliant Japanese press corps, allowing only a small group of vetted correspondents access to the Kyujo. The function of the corps is to reproduce (without comment) the press releases of the Imperial Household Agency 'newsroom'.Thus Japan has no horde of paparazzi dogging imperial footsteps.
For a while the American 'laid back' approach to life encountered during the (largely US) Occupation of Japan (28 August 1945-28April 1952), forced protocol to slip and Emperor Hirohito was photographed more than he had ever been before and was even pressured to sign autographs.Eventually the 'Chrysanthemum Curtain' descended once more and any thoughts of the Imperial Family taking on aspects of a 'Scandinavian monarchy' were quashed.
As the 1990s have evolved prominent Japanese publications like the Sunday Mainichi and the Shukan Bunshun have run a critical eye over the Imperial Family accusing them of 'spite, trivia, wanton-waste and self-importance'. A resentment has grown over the lack of co-operation from the Imperial Household Agency and their insistence that all questions for the Imperial Family (for rare press conferences) be kenson shite (humbly) submitted in advance for seikaku-na (accurate) answers. Certain publications countered by 'attacking' Empress Michiko dubbing her a petulant shutome (mother-in-law) who henpecks her husband. The monthly publication Takarajima 30 went full tilt at the Empress and her supposed demanding nature. They averred: 'The Empress has a hysterical side, her shrill voice can often be heard around the palace and she once rebuked a chamberlain for an hour for a minor misdemeanour'. The comments, anti others, were taken to heart and the Empress (through the Imperial Household Agency) issued an unprecedented public plea for 'forgiveness'.
Events prompted one Minoru Hamao, an erstwhile Imperial Chamberlain to comment publicly: 'The media have generally been too soft on the Imperial Family. Now they are being plain nasty. This is not a good trend.'
Recently the press have changed track and following the enormous public interest in the marriage of the Crown Prince and Princess have turned their attention to Masako Owada who gave up a great deal to become Crown Princess. The subtleties of her position can be pieced together by looking at how foreign commentators view the situation.
The international perception of Emperor Aluhito and his family is an amalgam of confusion, puzzlement, misconception and unrecognition. Writing in 1998,on the occasion of the visit to Britain by the Emperor and Empress, a former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St James wrote: 'Another misconception about the Imperial Family, that of the "captives in the chrysanthemum cage", alleges that taboos, restrictions and deliberate policy have stunted and stifled their individuality and left them languishing listlessly in the rarified milieu of the Palace. That this is completely false can be grasped immediately by observing the real living persons of the actual family. Far from being recluses, members of the family are responsible personages immensely active not only in official duties of their own or in support of the Emperor and Empress but also in their particular chosen fields.'
This statement is true as far as it goes, but it is still a gloss over a very restrictive life. For instance Crown Princess Masako, on marriage, entered 'a life of stifling Victorian values for a brave modem woman' said one international correspondent. Princess Masako, a former diplomat of definite, strongly voiced opinions and a taste for the racy social life in America', sacrificed great personal liberties to become Crown Princess. Movement in public for her is strictly circumscribed by the Imperial Household Agency as are her public utterances. Public statements on such things as the environment, architecture and society -as well as off-the-cuff comments by the British Royal Family are looked upon with incredulity by the Japanese public, horror by the court, and blank disbelief by the Gaimusho.
The Crown Prince and Princess have increasingly become a prey of Japanese magazines who wish to break royal protocol. The non-appearanceof a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne is a main source of comment and might just escalate into more public assessments of the role and relevance of the Imperial Family in modern Japan.
When he came to the throne Emperor Akihito expressed the desire to try to de-mystify his position and set himself up as a constitutional monarch in a ‘realworld’. Since the death of his father there has been an erosion of protocol but observers dismiss this as only small democratic touches. Now the Emperor’s motorcade stops at traffic lights, and he has allowed direct-line telephones to be used at the Kyujo. Commentators dismiss these as trivial and may be correct. It would seem that if Emperor Akihito wishes to fulfil his wishes expressed at his accession then he must not fiddle with minor protocol but reconstruct his Imperial Household Agency with its ossified structure of old aristocrats; that way he can begin to build the first steps to redefining his wished for role for the twenty-first century.
Raymond Lamont-Brown is an author, broadcaster and Japanologist. His most recent published volume is the bestselling Kempeitai: Japan’s Dreaded Military Police.
Contemporary Review, Sept 1999 v275 i1604 pl18
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