The Showa is over

Paying their last disrespects to Emperor Hirohito

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 143(4), 26 January 1989, pages 38-39

Itami Juzo's 1984 film The Funeral shows Japan as a country of people who face dying and death in many living ways. Levity and even cynicism are never far beneath the mask of solemnity. This also was seen in popular reactions to the prolonged and very public illness of the late Emperor Hirohito.

"No one wants him to die, but he's old and sick," said a middle-aged man in a barber shop in October last year, a month after Hirohito began to be treated in his own palace for massive intestinal bleeding. The man, who turned out to be a prefectural policeman, had used the common word for death, good for the masses and their dogs, rather than one of the more respectful expressions.

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

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

Everyone laughed at the pun on the word shocho. As written in Japan's Constitution it means symbol, but in different Chinese characters with the same pronunciation, it means small intestines.

In the privacy of their barber shops and other off-camera places, some Japanese were joking about the emperor as they might any other imperfect human being. Popular books and magazines, also, were telling emperor jokes, new and old, thus showing that it was now possible--in ways that would have been unthinkable in Japan's recent past--to talk about Hirohito as just another man who happened to avoid baths, left stubbles of beard on his face when he shaved, and ordered pants with buttons rather than a zipper on their fly.

Trouser flies are called shakai no mado (window of society) in Japanese. And one popular Hirohito biography has punned that TV had been a shakai no mado for the emperor, who had depended on the tube for glimpses of the outer world from which he was sheltered by the Imperial Household Agency if not by his own reclusiveness.

Japanese humour favours puns, the earthier the better. Emperor jokes are somatic in general, and scatological or sanguine in particular. In one joke, the emperor and empress are walking in the Imperial Palace. He passes gas. She says: "Heika?"

Heika is the legal title of address for the emperor or empress. But in dialect it means: "Was that a fart?"

Until the end of the war, talking about the emperor this way was grounds for arrest. In the December 1988 issue of Sekai magazine, the psychiatrist-novelist Kaga Otohiko recounted how his generation of children had learned not to joke about their sacred tenno (emperor) in the presence of a royalist teacher.

"Tenchan's a human being," one child might say. "Nonsense," another child would counter. "He's a god. If he were human, he'd pee."

"He does, of course."

"You idiot. [How's a god] gonna do such a thing?"

One day a teacher who heard the children talking like this asked who had just said tenchan. All the children had been saying it, but Kaga admitted that he had started it. His first "emperor experience" was the pain he felt when the teacher thrashed him. "My eyes came open," Kaga said. "[I learned] that if I said tenchan things could get very serious."

Tenchan is a diminutive form of tenno, but dubbing Emperor Hirohito "Emp" is like calling Queen Elizabeth II "Liz"--cute to some commoners, but sacrilegious and disrespectful to fanatic royalists.

When Hirohito's grandfather Mutsuhito (Meiji) was dying in 1912, and when his father Yoshihito (Taisho) was dying in 1926, the (then) Imperial Household Ministry reported body temperature, pulse, and respiration at regular intervals, just as they reported the details of Hirohito's condition. Only blood pressure was new on Hirohito's list.

Some Japanese took to playing doctor with Hirohito's vital signs, which the media tabulated and put into graphs like stock averages and weather forecasts. The emperor's chronic bleeding began on 19 September, almost exactly one year after he underwent surgery to bypass a duodenal obstruction caused by a pancreatic tumour. Most of the blood he lost in the last months of his illness passed through his rectum. Hirohito's court physicians have called this geketsu, which has become the key word in "wet" jokes. Geketsu, a clinical term meaning literally "lower blood", refers to any rectal discharge of blood from injuries inside the digestive tract.

NHK, Japan's semi-public broadcasting network, reported in mid-December that about 60 percent of the people who had called in since the emperor began bleeding had objected to the excessive and repetitive TV coverage, and they wished that the network would refrain from using geketsu on its mealtime news programmes.

As a new household word, geketsu has inspired all kinds of puns. Some adults have turned Japan's classic ghost story anthology, Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), into "Geketsu monogatari" ("Tales of Rectal Blood"). Popular novelist and critic Nosaka Akiyuki, writing in his regular column in the 16 December 1988 issue of the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine, poked fun at the mixing of such raw medical terms with the standard deferential idiom. The single word geketsu has "really brought the image of the emperor system down and put a big crack in its foundation," Nosaka said.

"It is deplorable," he concluded, "that nowhere in the Imperial Household Agency are there human resources suitable for Imperial line maintenance." This was Nosaka's tongue-in-cheek way of saying that if rectal bleeding is the best that the agency's linguists can come up with, then no one need worry that the emperor will be deified again.

Covering the drama leading up to X-day--a Japanese circumlocution for the day Hirohito would die--has been hard on journalists, at least one of whom died on the job. The suffering of security police and their families also became the butt of jokes about the emperor's bleeding. The semi-monthly magazine Hoso Repooto also claimed that a certain TV network received a call from the young wife of a rural police officer. "I haven't heard from my husband since he was sent to Tokyo to guard the Imperial Palace," she said. "I'm worried because he has AB blood, the same type as the emperor's."

Another key word in emperor jokes is jishuku, or self-restraint. Uttered by public officials in the context of the emperor's condition, jishuku calls for voluntary refraining from pleasure or criticism, or from printing nude photos in magazines or showing films which question the emperor's role in World War II. It also calls for cancelling book bazaars, festivals, school athletic meets, and TV entertainment programmes, and even postponing weddings and pregnancies.

One event that was cancelled, but only after Hirohito died on 7 January, is the imperial poem recital which is held annually at the Imperial Palace in January. One royalist intellectual said that this poem fest epitomises the emperor's role of protecting Japan's "ethnic" (racial) culture. Another scholar has claimed that all people in Japan are classless before 31-syllable verse in the way that Euro-Americans are equal before the law.

But the 1988 recital drew fewer than 30,000 entries, down from more than 40,000 two decades ago. This means barely two poems per 10,000 people in Japan's 122 million population--hardly evidence of interest in the imperial family's version of Japanese culture. And on 26 December 1988, the Imperial Household Agency announced that it had received less than 20,000 poems for the 1989 recital. The drop is probably because the submission period coincided with the first and most alarming reports of the emperor's condition, when the "unofficial" call for jishuku was strongest.

The barber, revisited by this writer in mid-December last year, said that his business had not been affected by the "self-restraint" that had already triggered some suicides. The emperor's death might even bring more business, he said, "because some people will want to feel particularly well-groomed" when mourning: a fresh haircut heightens the sense of purity, an essential part of nativist Shinto rituals.

The barber thought that the self-restraint mood had been hardest on Japan's tekiya, the itinerant men who make their living hawking souvenirs and food and running dubious games at local festivals. The world's most famous tekiya is the square-faced, sleepy-eyed Torasan of Otoko wa Tsurai yo (Being a Man Is Tough) film fame. The 40th sequel in the world's longest film series made its debut on Christmas Eve last year.

In late November, Sato Sanpei's comic strip Fujisan Taro, which is featured in the morning edition of Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's major national dailies, showed Torasan going home as the successful movie formula has had him do at the start of every story. This time, though, he returns because everywhere he looks for work there is a sign announcing that the local festival has been cancelled.

A collection of crude but funny graphic parodies was rushed to press just one month after Hirohito began bleeding. It is entitled Shoo wa owattennoo, a pun on Hirohito's reign (Showa) and title (tenno), meaning "The show is over." But royalists already are trying to fashion the just-installed Emperor Akihito, the 55-year-old son of Hirohito, into the hero in the 125th sequel of the world's longest-running and politically most protected and censored imperial serial.

Like the British, few Japanese seem to doubt that their monarchy is here to stay. Ehara Takeru, the Japanese translator of the most recent editions of Sir Ivor Jennings' The British Constitution, wrote in the December 1988 issue of Seiron magazine that he once asked Jennings what the future holds for the world's monarchies. "The number of monarchs will gradually decrease," explained the knighted scholar, borrowing from the late Egyptian king Farouk, "but five will be around to the end: the four kings in a deck of cards and the English monarch."

"What about Japan's monarchy?" Ehara asked. "Sorry," Jennings apologised. "Make that six."