Naturally speaking

Hirohito's unharmonious legacy

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Japan Quarterly, 36(1), January-March 1989, pages 45-49

In Japan, Emperor Hirohito's battle for life has stirred a variety of opinions about both the man and the entire emperor system among people of all nationalities and religions. A perusal of current books and magazines, along with some eavesdropping and personal query, reveals a range of views that epitomizes a country which throughout its history has been as socially complex and politically unsettled as Japan. The most striking point about this mosaic of reaction is the contrast between the illusionary and even dishonest attempts of establishment intellectuals to romanticize the emperor system, if not glorify Hirohito, and the more candid voices of apathy, amusement, concern, discontent and open rage toward both the system and the dying man who has been its longest living and reigning figurehead. Finally, there are the words and deeds of Hirohito himself.

By mid-October, one month after Hirohito was hospitalized for intestinal bleeding in the intensive-care ward of his own palace, some Japanese were growing tired of waiting for their "symbol of unity" to die, or "decease" as the Sino-Japanese word used in the Imperial House Law for the "demise" of an emperor can be translated into English.

"No one wants him to die, but he's old and sick," said a middle-aged man in a barber shop, who turned out to be a prefectural policeman. He used the common word for death, good for the masses and their dogs, roaches and car engines, and not one of the more indirect and respectful words for death.

"I don't have any special feelings about him, but he's the symbol of Japan," said another man, who could have been a schoolteacher, a taxi driver or an appliance store clerk.

"Which symbol?" asked the barber. "The one next to the big intestine?"

Everyone laughed at the pun on the Japanese word shocho. As written in the Constitution of Japan, it means "symbol," but in different Chinese characters with the same pronunciation it means "small intestines." Hirohito underwent abdominal surgery in 1987.

"Speaking symbolically, the Imperial Palace is a primeval forest," Umehara Takeshi, director of the International Research center for Japanese Studies, said in the November 1988 issue of Chuo Koron magazine. He explained that the significance of the emperor system is great because "nowhere [else] in the world is there an emperor surrounded by a primeval forest." Umehara, a controversial scholar, is widely known as the "cultural brain" of former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, who was weaned on Yamatoism, a nativist ideology which holds that Japan's moral superiority is both confirmed and sustained by the homogeneity of the Yamato race, Japan's ethnic majority, and the continuity of the imperial family.

Umehara, a self-styled philosopher who trespasses on anthropology, has long been championing two ideas that he is now using to vindicate the emperor system. First, he feels that Western civilization is in decline after causing the world to suffer from the debilitating side effects of industrialization and materialism, which the West is alleged to have spread. And second, he believes that the Japanese spirit was purest during Japan's Jomon stone age, when Japanese people are supposed to have lived in absolute harmony with nature, before being corrupted by outside cultures. Umehara thinks that as the environment continues to perish in the wake of the Western world's efforts to control nature, Japanese "should earnestly reconsider Japan's emperor system, which is based on natural principles."

This tendency to regard the emperor system as something natural has been sharply criticized by Tokyo University of Foreign Studies anthropologist Yamaguchi Masao, who likened the emperor system to acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Mikado to seikimatsu: Oken no ronri (The Mikado and the End of the Century: The Logic of the rights of Kings). Just as AIDS destroys the body's autoimmunity and brings about many morbid changes, the emperor system has "stolen into the thinking of Japanese" and rendered many of them unable to think objectively about the emperor system.

Tanaka Hiroshi, an Aichi Prefectural University scholar widely known as a human rights advocate, said in an interview with this writer that he was disturbed by Umehara's use of the word "natural." Attributing naturalness to the emperor system is dangerous, he said, because the salient social traits of the system, for instance sexual discrimination (women cannot become emperors), can then be seen as natural.

Tanaka is also upset by the "self-restraint" that is unofficially expected of organizations and individuals during Hirohito's fight for life. Many festivals and other events sponsored by government, school and business organizations have been canceled in deference to the ailing Hirohito. Tanaka said that the unstated pressure creates a mood in which people who don't wish to wear a mask of solemnity are condemned as non-Japanese. He also thinks that the government's covert planning of postmortem rites, such as the succession ceremony of Crown Prince Akihito and Hirohito's funeral, bypasses the public deliberation, and commotion, that efforts to publicly sponsor Shinto rituals would cause. To make the public privy to plans about Shinto ceremonies would lead to constitutional scrutiny about the separation of religion and state. Tanaka said that the government's extralegal subterfuge is evidence that Japan has yet to achieve true statehood.

All of this is ironic because Hirohito, while appearing to be a staunch supporter of the constitution, which forbids the state from privileging any religious organization, is also a propagator of the myth of mutual trust between the people and the imperial family. On New Year's Day 1946, Hirohito issued an imperial rescript that is dubiously known as his "human declaration." While Hirohito did deny that he was a manifest god, the disclaimer was only one part of the rescript. As published in a 1949 report issued by General Douglas MacArthur's occupation headquarters, the disclaimer reads:

We stand by the people and we wish always to share with them in their moment of joys and sorrows. The ties between us and our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.

Some historians claim that Hirohito had been thinking of making such a disclaimer. True or not, he quickly agreed to make one in response to an informal suggestion broached by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Harold G. Henderson through Dr. R.H. Blyth, a British scholar with imperial family connections. But in the course of preparing the Japanese version of an English draft, Hirohito insisted on the inclusion of the five articles of the Meiji charter oath, which had celebrated the restoration of imperial power in 1868. A Japanese party to the preparation of the final version of Hirohito's rescript has said that the articles were put first because they could not be worked into the rest of the rescript. As published by MacArthur's headquarters, the articles read:

1. Deliberative assemblies shall be established and all measures of government decided in accordance with public opinion.

2. All classes high and low shall unite in vigorously carrying out the affairs of State.

3. All common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall be allowed to fulfill their just desires so that there may not be any discontent among them.

4. All the absurd usages of old shall be broken through and equity and justice to be found in the workings of nature shall serve as the basis of action.

5. Wisdom and knowledge shall be sought throughout the world for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the Empire.

Article 5 describes the behavior of Japan's current economic system with a precision that might make Emperor Meiji proud. Other English versions of the oath differ slightly, and it may be argued that all versions are too liberal in the way they flesh out the terse Japanese original. But more important than the articles is why Hirohito wanted them in his rescript. Asked precisely this question at a 1977 press conference, he replied:

The first objective of the declaration was the oath. Divinity was the second issue. . . . It was greatly necessary to show that the adoption of democracy [in Japan] was the will of the great Emperor Meiji, and that democracy was not something imported. . . . I publicized [the articles] to show the great Emperor Meiji's splendid thinking, so as not to let [the people] forget [their] pride in Japan.

The splendid thinking that Hirohito attributes to his grandfather was in fact the work of a number of lower-ranking samurai advisers who were hostile to the old aristocracy. Emperor Meiji was only 14 years old when he was asked to issue the oath. Hirohito undoubtedly knew this. He may also have known that almost immediately after the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868), laws were introduced enabling the government to suppress antiroyalist thinking. So why should Hirohito have wanted to stress the imperial origins of democracy in Japan?

Hirohito's true feelings about his place in Japan's socio-political order seem clearer in what he said next at the 1977 press conference. As part of his answer to the same presubmitted question about his human declaration, he described the role of the imperial family by way of defining the term kokutai. Meaning "national corpus" or "the main substance of the nation" (but commonly translated as "national polity" or "national essence"), kokutai had been the keyword of imperialistic Yamatoist propaganda until 1945.

What [we mean by] kokutai is that Japan's imperial family has, from antiquity, protected [its] 10,000-generation single line [bansei ikkei] with the trust of the people [kokumin]. [This] is shown in [acts like those of] the commanders Mori Motonari [1497-1571] and Oda Nobunaga [1534-1582], who made enormous presentations to the imperial family at the time of the Warring States Period when the imperial family was weak, and venerated the imperial family. The imperial family also came to think of the people as [our] infants [sekishi], and that is the tradition of the imperial family. I, too, immediately resolved [to follow that tradition].

After the press conference, in consultation with the Imperial Household Agency, the word sekishi, which means "infants" but was once used to refer to the people as imperial subjects, was changed to wagako (our children). The expression bansei ikkei is straight from Article 1 of the 1889 Meiji Constitution, which in the standard English version reads: "The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal."

The emperor's acknowledgment of Nobunaga's loyalty is echoed in an article by Sakamoto Taro, emeritus professor of Japanese history at the University of Tokyo. In Furuhashi Nobuyoshi's Tennosei no genzo (The Proto-image of the Emperor System, 1989), Sakamoto wrote that, contrary to some interpretations, neither Nobunaga nor his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), had used the emperor in their bid to unite Japan. Rather, their acts had been motivated by "a pure revere-the-emperor spirit that had been born naturally before the stage of such calculation."

Again, the word "natural" comes from the pen of an intellectual whose views are appreciated by Japan's conservative government and bureaucracy. One of Sakamoto's manuscripts on the emperor system was chosen for translation into English by the International Society for Educational Information, a foundation partly financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In The Japanese Emperor Through History, 1984, Sakamoto writes: "The fundamental characteristics of the [early Japanese people], formed over the ten thousand years of the pre-pottery and Jomon periods, were not basically changed even by the later introduction of wet rice cultivation and metal implements. The unity of the emperor and his subjects stemmed from this basic ethnic homogeneity."

In October 1988, the Foreign Press center, another foundation with foreign ministry roots, organized a lecture to present foreign journalists with a "correct" understanding of the emperor system. One of the speakers, the prolific critic, playwright and Osaka University Professor Yamazaki Masakazu, stated that the emperor protects the "ethnic culture" of Japan, as represented in the annual poetry recitals held by the imperial family at the beginning of each year. This, he said, was proof that the emperor is the ultimate symbol of Japan's cultural and aesthetic values. "It is a historical fact that the Emperor has been a symbol of the unity of Japanese culture, so we are not creating any mythology here at all," Yamazaki said, according to The Japan Times, Dec. 7, 1988.

How many Japanese are interested in imperial poetry? This question was answered the very same month by Tokyo poet Uchino Mitsuko, who argued in her 1988 book, Tanka to tennosei (Short Poems and the Emperor System), that the cultural fur of the annual imperial poem fest continues to have a political stripe. Her figures show that over the past two decades the number of entries has fallen from a scant 40,000 to a scantier 30,000. This means barely two poems per 10,000 people in Japan's 122 million population-hardly evidence of popular interest in poetry, much less in the imperial family's version of Japanese culture.

If the emperor were to walk into a neighborhood barber shop, the customers might get down from their thrones long enough to say hello. But they would be disappointed if they wanted to shake the emperor's hand. In 1947, a union official who extended his hand "for the sake of workers throughout the country" was politely rebuffed.

"Let's do it Japanese style," the emperor said, bowing slightly and moving on.

Despite the emotional distance that is artificially kept between Japan's imperial family and the people, and the readiness of royalist intellectuals to say that this is natural," some Japanese can joke about imperial symbolism in the privacy of their barbershops. They, at least, know that the emperor is human.

William Wetherall is an independent scholar who writes on social issues, popular culture, and archaeology.