Without the Emperor, What is Left of Old Japan?

Akihito has signalled that he is ready to abdicate, leaving a hidebound nation whose identity is still defined by its ancient imperial hierarchy

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Akihito’s televised address: Only his second ever, it made reference to his health and advancing age, but did not mention the word abdication (© Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

When Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor for 63 years, died on January 7, 1989, his youngest brother, the then 73-year old Prince Mikasa, may have been the only person alive who had seen and participated in the enthronement rites for a new monarch. Over the next two years, until December 1990, the new emperor, Akihito, or his representatives participated in no fewer than 30 separate events marking his ascension to the throne, each one an interpretation of a supposedly ancient ceremony, newly choreographed based on records of the most recent coronations kept in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

While Akihito’s formal enthronement (Sokuirei) in the Imperial Palace, in November 1990, received the most public attention, two other ceremonies stood out for their symbolic connection to the very earliest memories of the Japanese nation. On the evening that Hirohito died, taking with him the last direct leadership link to Japan’s disastrous Second World War, his then 56-year-old son stood stiffly in the throne room of the Imperial Palace to receive the ancient Imperial Regalia, along with the State and Privy Seals. The regalia, mentioned in Japan’s oldest chronicles, the early 8th-century Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) and Nihongi (“Chronicles of Japan”), are comprised of a sword, a jewel, and a mirror. The new emperor received the first two of these, the mirror being kept in the imperial shrine in Ise.

Almost a year later, and ten days after his formal enthronement on November 22, 1990, the emperor participated in the more mysterious and controversial Daijo-sai, the Great Thanksgiving Festival. In a newly constructed enclosure in the Imperial Palace he first offered specially grown and harvested rice to his ancestors and the gods of the imperial family. Then, draped in pure white robes, he retired entirely alone to a sacred couch inside a primitive thatched roof shrine where, according to tradition, he communed throughout the night with the spirit of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.

The Japanese imperial clan traces its lineage back to the 7th century, making it the world’s oldest dynasty, if not monarchy. Pruned dramatically after the Second World War by the American occupying forces headed by General Douglas MacArthur, the institution remains at the spiritual core of Japan. Yet despite continued controversy over 1940s-era war guilt and the occasional divinity question, the decades of peaceful postwar history has dulled any serious opposition to their continued existence. There is no republican movement in Japan, nor calls to reduce the expenditures of the imperial family. With only three emperors in the last century, the clan quietly continues along, avoiding scandal and entering the spotlight only in the most controlled of environments. As patrons and scholars in their own right they have been model constitutional monarchs, with the extended family dutifully performing their functions, much like the vast majority of their subjects.

In a recent 10-minute televison address, Emperor Akihito, now in the 28th year of his reign, dropped a broad hint that he was considering abdication in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, because of his age (82) and his poor health (he has undergone heart surgery and  recovered from prostate cancer). Yet his announcement, carefully telegraphed beforehand, has raised no questions or doubts about the future of the imperial system. As anachronistic as it is, it is also an indelible part of contemporary Japan, the imperial family rescued from centuries of virtual imprisonment and elevated by the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to be the symbol of a modernising nation that had overthrown 700 years of feudal rule. It is this straddling of past and present, of manufactured tradition and political impotence, of unique roles and dutiful service, that explains the perseverance of the imperial family and its near-universal acceptance by the Japanese people.

The ambiguous role of the imperial family perhaps explains, or even mirrors, the continued tension in Japan between tradition and modernity. Unlike British monarchs, who touch ancient tradition only when crowned, Japanese emperors are surfeited with ceremonies on a near-daily basis that purport to reach back to the beginnings of the Japanese nation. Far more than other nobles, the imperial family continues in a private yet well-acknowledged capacity to intercede between their people and the gods. Like their foreign counterparts, though, they too cut ribbons and attend exhibitions. Such juxtapositions, extending to religious and philosophical syncretism of widely divergent systems, has long fascinated and perplexed Western observers of Japan.

From one perspective the most advanced of nations, Japan is also among the most hidebound, at least from the standpoint of the post-modern, liberal West. What many Westerners take for granted, an inviolable sense of individual autonomy, is a more complex question in Japan. The great question of modern Japanese history is deceptively simple: what does it mean to be Japanese? 

If aspects of pre-modern Japan linger in its culture, or are hidden in small villages and city side streets alike, then perhaps there is some connection with the continued existence of the imperial system. As a reminder of a pre-modern era, one that Japanese often mythologise as “purer” or simpler, the imperial family plays a cultural and moral role, in a way as the conscience of a nation forever reinventing itself, at least on the surface. The self-identity of the imperial family itself is hard to pin down. Is it the ancient and sacral representative of the Japanese people, or an executive arm of the central government? The answer seems to be “yes” on both counts.

When low- and middle-ranking samurai spearheaded the overthrow of the 265-year-old Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, thereby setting in motion a train of reforms that would soon result in the disappearance of their own social caste, they self-consciously proclaimed it a “restoration” of imperial power. This harking back to a past that had not existed for close to a millennium was not meant to be an actual guide to political power. Much as before, the emperor would be powerless, but now would serve as the very public symbol of state. Harnessing the power of the indigenous religion, Shinto, into a state-run system controlled by a militaristic government completed the sacro-political modernisation of the nation. The ultimate result was the emergence of ultra-nationalism in the 1930s and the tragic decision to wage an unnecessary and unimaginably destructive war in the emperor’s name.

For decades before that, however, the Japanese struggled with the question of their post-feudal identity. To begin with, until the Meiji Restoration made it a conscious project, there was at best only a tenuous national identity. The overlay of a centralised, nationwide political structure on what had been for centuries autonomous feudal domains meant a radical redefinition of the sense of local belonging into an undifferentiated “Japanese-ness”. Perhaps even more traumatically (or liberatingly), hierarchical caste structures were abolished, theoretically freeing up individuals to choose their own life path. Material culture too began changing rapidly as major cities replaced wood with brick, Western attire displaced the kimono, beef appeared on dinner plates, and the dance hall and movie theatre led to the decline of traditional theatre.

The debate over modernity was encapsulated in geographic terms, with proponents of the new urging “out of Asia, into Europe” (datsu-A nyu-O). This was the era of Japanese “enlightenment”, with the rapid translation of Western novels and works on politics, economics and philosophy. Corresponding to the last half of the Victorian era, Japanese modernisers eagerly saw themselves as the vanguard of a new Asia, feeling more at home in London than in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, they were opposed, and sometimes cut down in the streets, by those fighting against Westernisation and the loss of traditional identities.

Through those fraught decades, the Japanese government crafted images and messages that transferred supposedly ancient cultural practices and ways of living into a modern medium. The face that Japan presented both to itself and to the world deliberately merged the traditional and the avant garde. Thus, kimono-clad maidens were pictured riding on steamships, while the Japan Tourist Bureau assured foreign visitors that they could encounter the unchanging charm of feudal Japan from the comfort of first-class railway carriages.

Japanese participation in various World’s Fairs during the late-19th and early-20th centuries sent the same message, an Asian twist on Henry Adams’s “The Dynamo and the Virgin”, as traditional Japanese craftsmen sat side by side with the newest mechanical equipment produced by the fledgling imperial power. More significantly, far older forms of social hierarchy, religious practice and cultural expression remained alongside the new, all under the somewhat stern gaze of imperial portraits hung in every schoolroom, office and house. More so than the turning of Gallic peasants into Frenchmen during the 19th century, the national project of creating modern Japanese struggled with the cultural default of syncretisation, in other words, of attempting to make traditional and modern coexist.

If there was a moment when the imperial system was most at risk, it was in the wake of the catastrophe of World War II, known in Japan as the Pacific War. The very tension between modernity and tradition that had resulted in the unprecedented emergence of Japan as a world power, and which responded equally to continued European colonialism in Asia and the ravages of the Great Depression, destroyed oligarchic control of the government, and allowed ultranationalist militarists to plunge the Pacific into conflict.

The death of at least 4 million Japanese in the war (against still-untold tens of millions in Asia), and the destruction of most of the country’s cities and industrial capacity, culminated in the atomic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After a war in which Japanese casualties often died with the emperor’s name on their lips, it would have been tempting to tear up root and branch the inspiration for such devastation.

Yet, when General MacArthur landed in Japan just days after the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay, it was the words of Emperor Hirohito, played to the nation on a recorded disc, that ensured  the Japanese laid down their arms and accepted the occupiers. Quickly discerning in the emperor a tool to ensure compliance with American wishes, MacArthur neither forced him to abdicate nor abolished the imperial system wholesale. The resulting stain on Hirohito personally and on the position of the emperor shadowed the succeeding decades of his reign, providing fodder for Asians and left-wing Japanese to label him a war criminal and call for the dissolution of the imperial system.

No longer is the imperial family or the emperor a serious object of attack for Japan’s past actions. Whatever moment for radical transformation of Japan’s self-identity may have existed in the summer of 1945, it was lost during the US occupation. The quiet, steady reigns of Hirohito and his son Akihito instead served as an accompanying symbolic note to Japan’s reconstruction and emergence as an economic superpower. Postwar pacifism was firmly embedded in the country, the fruit of an alliance between both the Left and Right, but Japan’s essentially conservative social and cultural structures also remained intact, except for large-scale landowning, a victim of the occupation. Against all odds, the imperial family became identified as a fundamental element of stability anchoring a country once again rapidly modernising.

In a society where hierarchy remains largely unquestionably accepted, there is a tendency to view Japan as an interconnected totality. The ubiquitous phrase ware-ware Nihonjin (“we Japanese”) reflects this sense. From that perspective, Japan’s post-1945 rise to economic superpower status is also viewed as a national achievement to which all elements of society contributed, including the imperial family. They remain, therefore, a core ingredient in Japan’s postwar identity, as well as an irreplaceable reminder of the uniqueness of the Japanese historical tradition and nation. As a well-educated Japanese told my mentor decades ago, “If the emperor does not perform his ceremonies, then what is Japan?”

A visitor to Shinjuku, in Tokyo, on a frenetic Saturday night might wonder whether much tradition is left in Japan. Indeed, seeing the crush of modern architecture on an urban plan that still largely adheres to Tokyo’s 17th-century spatial arrangement is often one of the most jarring of experiences for a visitor. Although increasingly disappearing, beneath office blocks and glass-and-steel buildings there still cower ramshackle, traditional wooden dwellings. Even the newer must give way to the newest, and progress is never allowed to be stopped by the physical remnants of the past. Hundreds of miles to the west of Tokyo, near the industrial city of Nagoya, is an open-air architectural park filled with nearly 70 buildings from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) saved from demolition, most of them early examples of Western architecture, which themselves replaced pre-modern structures during the dynamic decades of the latter-19th century. Even the most famous symbol of Tokugawa-era Japan, the legendary Nihonbashi (Bridge of Japan), the Milliarium Aureum from which all distances were measured, could not escape the steamroller of modernity, and lies in permanent shadow under a multilane expressway thrown up over Tokyo’s main canal in preparation for the 1964 Olympics.

But material culture is merely a superstructure over more durable elements from the past. Thus, when the topic of discussion turns to the imperial system, the default mode is to defer to the ostensible weight of centuries of tradition, and argue that there can be no other way for the emperor to play his role.

Perhaps unexpectedly, then, debates over the imperial family serve as proxies for larger national questions. Thus, until the birth of a baby boy to the emperor’s younger son in 2006 (the first male born in the imperial family in 41 years), the possibility of changing the Imperial Household Law to allow females to inherit the throne engendered numerous debates over the role and status of women in Japan. The argument that Japan had several female emperors (the most recent in the late-18th century) used an often-forgotten past to challenge a tradition of male-only imperial succession that originated in the 19th century. That this discussion went on contemporaneously with present Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to increase the number of women in the workforce, and open up greater opportunities to them, his so-called “womenomics” policy, only gave more prominence to the odd role of the imperial family as a national mirror.

Nor should one read of the emperor’s intention to step down and think that centuries of tradition are at risk of being upended. Akihito’s supposed desire to abdicate itself has roots in Japan’s past. During Japan’s fraught medieval period, when local strongmen and some central aristocrats alike were evolving into the great samurai clans, the court was often under the control of outside forces. In order to keep a pliable monarch, abdication was forced on any emperor who showed initiative or seemed eager to slip the leash of warrior control. At times, infants or toddlers were put on the throne, and forced to take the tonsure when they came of age. The result sometimes was two retired monk-emperors at a time, and the more energetic among them discovered how the release from ceremonial obligation afforded the chance to build a power base of their own.

No such dramatics will attend this potential turnover of the throne. The 82-year-old monarch has maintained a heavy schedule of ceremonies and events, many of which in the past year have focused on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His carefully scripted public remarks have buttressed the expressions of remorse offered by Abe, though the prime minister’s oft-expressed patriotism has led to more scepticism about his sincerity than his emperor’s. With Akihito’s heir now the same age as he was when he ascended the throne, there is a logic to a new reign that hopes to begin with the ghosts of the past largely laid to rest.

Perhaps there is more to Akihito’s desire than simply taking a well-deserved break. The emperor may be a keener observer of Japan’s condition than his anodyne public image would suggest. Still struggling with a quarter-century economic slump, with a declining population, and having been eclipsed by China, the triumphant image of postwar Japan is a fading memory. Although the country remains socially stable and still boasts a high standard of living, worries about Japan’s future are voiced ever more openly by citizens across the spectrum. The traditional social structure that gives Japan so much of its steadiness is the same thing that prevents the type of risk-taking, innovative socioeconomic dynamism that still marks Britain and America. The very timelessness represented by the imperial system may, however unintentionally, serve as a de facto justification for social and cultural rigidity. Squaring the circle of freeing up individual energy while ensuring that larger patterns of society stay intact is the great challenge facing the Japanese.

Akihito’s abdication might just send a signal that it is okay for Japan’s system of seniority occasionally to give way to younger generations. The meritocracy that marks the competition to get into schools and careers still settles in to a steady progression up the ranks based on years of service, and not necessarily competency. Thus, an emperor who leaves his throne while still in fairly good health, in favour of a clearly capable successor, could lead to a more general acceptance of the need to shake things up once in a while. That could well benefit Japan, as long as the country was assured of maintaining its bedrock social stability and sense of solidarity.

And if the Imperial Household Agency needs any help in planning the complicated accession ceremonies, they can call on Prince Mikasa, Hirohito’s youngest brother, who turned 100 this year and is the only living person who has participated in not one but two imperial enthronements.