Is Japan’s Monarchy Anti-Democratic?

  March 29, 2009 at 8:50 pm by

Emperor Akihito at New Year

Click the image to see the photo at ANP Beeldbank

“The monarchy is a brake on any hopes of deepening Japanese democracy and making it real. As long as it exists, democracy has quotes around it.” This is the opinion of Herbert Bix who has written a book about Emperor Hirohito that won the Pulitzer-prize. As Bix is an expert concerning the Japanese monarchy, his words are certainly well worth to be taken into careful consideration, disagreeable as their implications may seem.

There cannot be any doubt that “State Shinto” with its ceremonial head, the tenno, became a powerful instrument in the hands of early 19th century militarists, who used it to glorify their policy of aggression that, finally, led to World War II. As the tenno, at the time, was supposed to be a divine being (the Japanese emperors claimed descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu), his will was seen as capable of justifying even the most atrocious crimes – a god is not obliged to abide by the moral laws of common mortals, he is beyond them.

After Japan’s surrender to the Allies, there were, consequently, some thoughts of completely eradicating the monarchy. But General MacArthur felt that he needed the emperor to legitimize the Allies’ occupational reforms. Therefore, the monarchy was preserved. But the new Constitution of 1947 reduced the emperor from the status of a living god to that of a mere national symbol and, furthermore, contained detailed rules to narrowly limit his powers and make them almost entirely ceremonial. The first eight articles of the constitution dealt exclusively with the emperor and the monarchy, leaving no doubt that he has no “powers related to government”. And to be quite safe from any recurrences of the past, the Allies further added the famous Article Nine that denies Japan the right to maintain armed forces and the state’s right of belligerency. Additionally, in article 20 it is stated that “The state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” which was meant to prevent the ancient Shinto religion from becoming ever again a political instrument to ensure national support for chauvinistic political measures.


Click the image to read the article at Japan Focus

But fool-proof as these provisions seemed, they could, obviously, only have the intended effects if adhered to… And that was exactly what, in many respects, did not happen. After the defeat, the emperor was, at least by most people belonging to the older generation, regarded with the same sort of reverence as he had been before the war. And although the rest of “commoner” Japan was beginning to show increasing disdain and indifference towards the emperor, the same could not be said of the Japanese government, a government that was increasingly composed of conservative groups with ties to prewar institutions. The government continued to treat the emperor as it had before the war, and, throughout the 1950s, conservative groups tried repeatedly (although in vain) to amend the new constitution to explicitly name the emperor as head of state. The emperor who was, according to this very constitution, to have no role whatsoever in political matters, was – in secret – regularly briefed by numerous Cabinet ministers, along with the head of the Metropolitan police and the Governor of Tokyo, on the state of the government and country.

There is also reason to doubt – to this day – that Shinto ceremonies are really solely a matter of private religious sentiments. For example, the reconstruction of the famous shrine of Ise (that takes place every twenty years) is usually attended by the economical elite – whose financial support makes the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) economically independent from its members. (The LDP, one has to know, has ruled Japan for all but one of the past 54 years and has been described as being neither liberal nor democratic.) And concerning one of the most important Shinto ceremonies, the daijosai, held on occasion of a new tenno being enthroned, one may ask if this is nowadays really just a private ceremony, held by the Imperial Household. At least, in 1990, Emperor Akihito’s enthronement ceremony was treated as an important “public” ceremony with expenses covered by the court budget. Accordingly, in January 1992, citizens of Tokyo filed a lawsuit, demanding the return of the public funds used for both the daijosai and the enthronement ceremony. They argued that the ceremonies violated the principles of the sovereignty of the people, freedom of thought, and the separation of religion and state. But their appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court. (Read an article: JapanFocus )

So, we have to state that none of the rules imposed by the Allied Forces in order to prevent any recurrences of Japan’s prewar politics have ever been strictly observed – neither the rule of the emperor refraining from taking part in politics nor that of keeping religious matters private. And, last not least, concerning the famous Article 9, the no-war clause, we have to mention that there have been moves made in 2005 to revise it. (Read an article: JapanFocus). Summing all up, we have to admit that the Japan of today still bears considerable political resemblance with prewar Japan. And: that its monarchy is at the core of this resemblance.

But, disagreeable as this conclusion may be, there is still another important side of the matter to be considered. Although the emperor and the imperial family as an institution may serve as token figureheads for nationalist and even militaristic purposes, this does not mean that the individuals who happen to occupy these positions would, themselves, willingly support chauvinistic or antidemocratic opinions. Rightists have opposed Emperor Akihito visiting Pearl Harbour, saying that such a visit might “constitute political exploitation” of his person. What they, not surprisingly, fail to mention, is that they themselves could be accused of politically exploiting the members of the imperial family and of making unfair use of their obligation to refrain from speaking their mind in public.

Japan has a longstanding political tradition and history of sidelining the emperor, while others control power from behind the throne. Sloganeering about being loyal to the tenno was widespread, and sometimes used by both of two inimical groups that were fighting for power. Too often, a closer look would have revealed that the tenno to be supported was not the individual who was actually occupying the throne but the legendary first tenno Jimmu who had set up the ideal of “hakko ichiu” – “the whole world under one roof”. (“Hakko ichiu” expresses the idea of Japanese racial superiority and orders the Japanese people to conquer the whole world in order to endow it with the supreme blessing of the unique Japanese national spirit that the tenno embodies.)

Crown Prince Naruhito

Click the image to see the photo at ANP Beeldbank

It is very probable – although Japanese traditionalists will, of course, contradict it – that the difference between the tenno as an idea and the real individual occupying the throne has already, at least once in history, led to murder. The great-great grandfather of the present tenno, Emperor Komei, was poisoned in 1867, shortly after his recovery from smallpox, as he opposed attempts to open the country to foreigners (or, rather: to face reality and admit that there was no chance to uphold Japan’s “splendid isolation” any longer): “If such developments occur during my reign, I will be regarded as a disgrace to the country by posterity. How can I apologize to Amaterasu?” The tenno stood in the way of necessary political changes, and, after his welcome sudden death, his fifteen-year-old son, Emperor Meiji, was put on the throne who would hopefully be too young to question the advice his minders gave him. Knowing this background, it becomes very clear why Crown Prince Naruhito’s remarks in May 2004 by which he strongly criticized the way in which his wife had been treated by the establishment had caused such furore and why some expert commentators think them to have triggered the biggest constitutional crisis in Japan since its defeat in World War II.

Japan’s ultra-conservative elite will be always joyfully shouting “Sonno” – “Revere the Emperor” – as long as this emperor keeps his mouth shut. And it is to be supposed that they are, secretly, rather relieved that the present crown prince has no son to follow after him. Undoubtedly, his powers to trigger change are small, as he and the other imperial family members – also Emperor Akihito has, several times, frustrated the right wing’s agenda, although to a lesser degree – are not only constitutionally but also “technically”, by their isolated lifestyle, prevented from connecting with a broader public. But the prince has shown, at least for this once, that, if he deems a matter to be sufficiently important, he is not afraid of speaking up and is not to be intimidated either by the prospect of the scandal he may cause. What the present heir to the chrysanthemum throne may be capable of doing in defense of Japan’s democracy is probably a matter to fill the worst nightmares of many right-wing activists who still call the tenno Japan’s “spiritual core.”

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