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Japanese emperors: Between the people and the gods

by Hugh Cortazzi

ENIGMA OF THE EMPERORS: Sacred Subservience in Japanese History, by Ben-Ami Shillony, Global Oriental, 2005, 312 pp., (cloth).

This well-researched and scholarly study by Ben-Ami Shillony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will interest not only students of Japanese history but also all those concerned for the future of the Imperial institution in Japan. The book, which evolved out of earlier research first published in Japanese under the title of “Haha Naru Tenno,” covers the political, cultural and religious background to the “emperor” system in Japan from mythological times down to the present day. I have put the term “emperor” in quotes as whatever else they were, Japanese emperors were never equivalent to emperors in China or Russia. Nor were they ever emperors in the Roman sense of the term “imperator” or generalissimo.

Shillony emphasizes that “The political weakness of the Japanese emperors was balanced by the extraordinary stability of their dynasty. The effete emperors occupied an unchallenged throne. An emperor could be deposed, exiled or even murdered, but his institution could never be abolished and his family could not be replaced.”

He concludes that the “strange survival” of the dynasty was due to the fact that Japanese emperors combined sanctity with passivity to such an extent that they were “too subservient to rule, but too sacred to be deposed.” These conclusions are based on his study of how the emperors behaved over the centuries.

The author has much to say about the divinity of the emperors. He points out that in Japan the “kami,” which is generally translated as “god,” were transcendental beings. The term could be applied to any dead person, object or natural phenomenon. He notes the differences between the divinity ascribed to Japanese emperors to that ascribed to the pharaohs in ancient Egypt and notes the stress laid in Europe on the “divine right of kings” resulting from their claim to be God’s representative on earth carrying out His orders.

The emperor in Japan was not the representative of the kami but “an intermediary between the people and the gods.” He was venerated but not worshipped. However his body was regarded as “sacred and neither knives nor scissors could be applied to it.” This seems to have been one of the causes of the high rate of infant mortality in the imperial family down to the 20th century.

Shillony discusses in detail the occasions during which women were ruling empresses. There seem to have been shaman queens in early times but the first person to hold the title of “tenno” (The Emperor) was the Empress Suiko in 593. Between that time and 770, six women were titular empresses, but the last of these, Koken-Shotoku, was a controversial figure and there no titular empresses until the Tokugawa Era. One reason for this was the influence of Confucian attitudes adopted by the Japanese; these gave precedence to men and led to male chauvinism, which is still a strong element in Japanese culture today.

We tend to think that Japanese emperors since the end of the 6th century have always been called tenno but as Shillony points out, various different terms have been used over the ages. The old Japanese title for emperor was “sumera mikoto.” According to the Yoro code of 718, “tenno” was to be used in imperial rescripts, “tenshi” in ceremonies, “kotei” in correspondence with “barbarians”‘ and “heika” in addressing the emperor. At the beginning of the Meiji Era, the term “mikado” was in general use when the English title of “emperor” was adopted to give the Meiji Emperor an equivalent status to that of the sovereigns of China, Russia, Germany, France (at the time of Napoleon III) and Britain (Queen Victoria had been proclaimed Empress of India).

Shillony points out that the continuation of the Imperial dynasty depended on the birth of sufficient sons in the family. “To avert biological extinction, the emperors had to have access to many noble and fertile women.” Even so sometimes the succession was remote, although the ancestral chain was never apparently broken. The Meiji Emperor had 15 children by various concubines but only five survived. The Showa Emperor was not prepared to follow his grandfather’s example and the practice thus ended in the 20th century. After World War II, the collateral branches of the Imperial family, which could provide a successor, were abolished.

In the last 40 years there have been no male children born into what has become a very limited Imperial family. This has made it necessary to consider the possibility of a female eventually once again becoming the tenno. This would not require a constitutional amendment but it would require a change to the Imperial House Law. At present Imperial princesses cease to be “imperial” when they marry, and for some Japanese the adoption of a matrilineal line of succession instead of a patrilineal could be a sticking point. It would also lead to the end of the unreasonable pressure apparently still being placed by Imperial Household officials on the Crown Princess to produce a male heir.

Shillony considers that the most important issue for the continuance of the Imperial institution is to ensure its continued relevance for Japanese people. In 1977, while he was Crown Prince, the present Emperor declared: “When we look at the tradition of the Imperial family, we see that it is mainly a tradition of gakumon (learning) and not of bu (fighting). Very few emperors donned military uniforms. I would like to continue this tradition . . . The phenomenon of symbol emperors is not a postwar creation. In my view, the emperors have been symbols since antiquity.” This may well be the case, but at least the emperor should be accepted by the Constitution as “head of state” as in practice he has been by foreign countries to which he has paid state visits.

A “symbol” also needs to be able to fulfill a meaningful role and not be totally hedged about by Imperial Household bureaucrats. Shillony thinks that the Imperial family might regain relevance through its support for the protection of the environment and he suggests that: “The archaic rites of the Japanese emperor [e.g. in relation to Japan's rice culture], which for a long time have been a source of embarrassment to modern-minded Japanese, may in the future appear as a symbolic ceremony of paying tribute to mother nature.” Perhaps so, but while we do not need or want to see the Imperial family becoming a more frequent source of scandal and gossip as has happened to the royal family in Britain, Japan’s Imperial institution would benefit from a more open culture.

A beginning was made when the present Crown Prince stayed in Britain as a student at Oxford from 1983-85. This showed him how ordinary people lived and enabled him to gain a better understanding of the world around him. His memoir “Thames to tomo ni,” which will be published in English later this year under the title “The Thames and I,” reveals his natural human charm and sense of humor. Perhaps it was this fact that led the Imperial Household to delay for many years permission for a translation.