Japan's postmodern "emperor"

Or, what to call the symbol of an image

By William Wetherall

A review of two books

Jerrold M. Packard
Sons of Heaven
(A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy)
London: Macdonald, Queen Anne Press, 1988
xiii, 400 pages, paperback
First published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987

Kiyoko Takeda
The Dual Image of the Japanese Emperor
Basingstoke (Hampshire): Macmillan Education, 1988
xvi, 183 pages, hardcover

Drafted as shown 3 January 1989
First posted 1 February 2006

A version of the review of Takeda 1988 appeared as
"How the emperor-god was seen" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol 143, No. 5, 2 February 1989, page 43

A balanced, reliable, and readable study of Japan's imperial family and emperor system has yet to be written. Instead one gets expedient publications like John Packard's Sons of Heaven and Kiyoko Takeda's The Dual Image of the Japanese Emperor. And the reader must take a chance that their errors of fact, omission, and interpretation are trivial. Unfortunately they are not.

Sons of Heaven

John Packard, a writer and historian, has written three other books on royalty or its equivalent: The Queen and Her Court (A Guide to the British Monarchy Today), American Monarchy (A Social Guide to the Presidency), and Peter's Kingdom (Inside the Papal City). Judging from his attempt to add Japan's imperial elite to this list, however, Packard is no scholar.

Sons of Heaven is a sloppily told story based mainly on popular English-language sources. A careful undergraduate student could have made better use of the books and articles that Packard troubled himself to list in his bibliography but failed to cite in the text.

From the very first page, it is clear that Packard's linguistics cannot be trusted. The book is even mistitled because his English gloss of its key word--tenno--is wrong. He claims that this literally means "Son of Heaven", but it really means "ruler/sovereign of heaven" hence "emperor/empress" or "king/queen" with nuances of sacredness. "Son of heaven" is translationese for tenshi, which is more commonly associated with Chinese emperors.

The first chapter is on the enthronement of Emperor Hirohito. Packard sides with Shinto purists when he includes as part of the enthronement ceremony the daijosai, an agricultural rite that changes the new emperor into a manifest deity and ordains him as the native religion's head priest. In fact, the ceremony has been carried out only when there has been enough time and wealth. The only rite which has been essential to the confirmation of accession is the passing of the sacred mirror, sword, and jewel to the new emperor--a simple act which takes only a few minutes and is performed as soon as possible (within two hours after the deaths of Meiji and Taisho this century).

Packard's story runs from totally uninformed speculation (which he calls an "hypothesis") on the demographic prehistory of East Asia, to politically naive pronouncements on the function of Japan's monarch, which he concludes "is simply to be, and by being to remind his people of all that has gone before." Japanese royalists will like Packard's book because he fails to raise politically nasty questions about the accountability and even legitimacy of Japan's constitutional monarchy.

The book is marred by errors in Emperor Meiji's name (Mutsohito should be Mutsuhito) and the site of the 13th century Mongol invasion of Japan (Inland Sea should be Korea Strait or China Sea). The four maps in front are poorly done, and only one is possibly useful. Most of the three dozen black-and-white photos are blurred as though they were copied from other books. The appendix is a curious mix of a list of emperors from Jimmu [Jinmu] to Showa (Hirohito), a list of the descendants of Emperor Taisho, and English versions of Emperor Meiji's Imperial Rescript on Education, the 1947 Imperial House Law and Imperial House Economy Law, two World War II surrender documents, and the foreword to one of Hirohito's scientific papers. Criteria for inclusion of words in the three page glossary are equally unclear.

The Dual Image of the Japanese Emperor

The Dual Image of the Japanese Emperor is also mistitled, contains nothing new, and fails to toe a critical line. At half the size and twice the cost of Sons of Heaven, it is four times more expensive, but its more reliable information is fully documented.

A better title would have been a translation of the title of the Japanese edition of the book, first published in 1978: Tennokan no sokoku: 1945-nen zengo [Conflict over the emperor's image: before and after 1945]. The bulk of the book is not about the emperor's "dual image" (authoritarian deity versus constitutional monarch), but is a summary of the many different images in five, including (by chapter) the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and China. Two more chapters cover Japan's surrender and the post-war occupation.

Takeda, an historian at International Christian University, in Tokyo, states that "In the English edition I have omitted details which may confuse the non-Japanese reader; in general I have shortened the text, but added explanations where necessary." What could possibly interest a Japanese reader that would confuse a non-Japanese reader? As it is, the reader of the English edition, who knows how royalist conservatism works in Japan, will be confused by Takeda's conclusion:

After a shaky forty years since the Occupation, at the present stage, the constitutional status of the emperor seems to be assuming a stable position in the minds of the Japanese people. However, it is also true that a number of the [sic] people in Japan have deep reservations about the continuation and sanctification of the emperor and the emperor system because of the tragic historical past which was brought about in his name.

As a Christian scholar who is personally opposed to the Shintoist emperor system, Takeda may be hoping that an anti-royalist movement is just around the corner. But her wishful thinking results in a failure to warn that Japan's emotional politics could go otherwise.

While Takeda cites recent opinion polls which show that over 80 percent of all Japanese people support the emperor's symbolic status, she omits mention of the fact that 80 percent also believe that the Japanese "race" is superior. This means that at least 60 percent believe both. And so over half of the Japanese population is vulnerable to the populist dogma that Japan's imperial line, "unbroken for ages eternal", both embodies and nurtures the country's "racial" traditions and destiny.

What's in a title?

Calling Japan a "constitutional monarchy" is just a fancy way of saying that, in fact, there is no monarchy -- at least not today. Calling the reigning tenno "emperor", though, creates other problems.

Absent in both books is a discussion of whether "emperor" has ever been an adequate English tag for "tenno". Certainly now, when Japan is no longer an empire, at least not in name, the term creates all manner of confusion. No one who knows nothing about Japan could be blamed for assuming that anyone called an "emperor" must be more than a mere "symbol" of the country, and that the country might well be an "empire" even today.

There were movements in past, and there are people today, in favor of "Tenno" rather than "Emperor" in English. The pros far outweigh the cons.

On the other hand, Japan is sometimes said to have always been more postmodern than modern. And the ultimate symbol of a postmodern state would be an "Emperor" who is not.