Can monarchical systems survive?

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has recently claimed that his copyright was infringed by a popular newspaper that printed extracts from his diary about the handover of power in Hong Kong in 1998. The diary revealed the prince’ distaste for the Chinese leaders whom he described as “appalling old waxworks,” not exactly a complementary phrase but not necessarily inappropriate. The prince has been rightly critical of Chinese oppression in Tibet.

The queen has been scrupulous in keeping out of controversy and above politics in her role as a constitutional monarch and many believe that Charles as the heir apparent should be equally scrupulous. But others ask if it is reasonable to expect someone who holds strong views on such subjects as organic farming, genetically modified crops and climate change to refrain from expressing his views to ministers and in public.

The prince claimed that the journal was never intended for the eyes of more than a few close friends and that he was entitled to the same privacy as a private citizen.

This controversy raises the question of whether Charles will one day be able and willing to follow his mother’s example and keep his political views to himself. Most observers expect that he will. No one doubts that his views are sincere and that he is conscientious.

There is very limited support in Britain, even on the left, for the adoption of a republican system of government. Hardly anyone would like to have a president in the mold of George W. Bush or, for that matter, Jacques Chirac, and the selection and election of a titular head of state would be fraught with difficulties. So we shall probably muddle on with the present system for years to come, but there will be increasing pressure for the monarchy to dispense with some of the flunkies and junior royals who have little role to play. The British monarchy is not that expensive, but it might have a longer life if it were to adopt the simpler life styles of Scandinavian monarchies.

I believe and hope that the Japanese will retain the emperor as symbol of the state within a democratic system, but the title of emperor, which the Japanese adopted to ensure that Emperor Meiji had equal status with the emperor of China, the czar of Russia, the kaiser of Germany and Queen Victoria (then the empress of India) is anachronistic. Unfortunately an alternative, namely mikado, immediately recalls the operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan and would not be acceptable today. Perhaps tenno should be used in both Japanese and English.

The future of the emperor system is dependent on succession and on ensuring that the Imperial family is seen as relevant to the Japanese people. Neither of these can be taken for granted.

While we must naturally welcome the news that Princess Kiko is pregnant, it strikes foreign observers as highly regrettable that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has decided not to press on with amendment to the Imperial Household Law to provide for a female to succeed.

The opposition of Shinto priests and rightwing politicians to the changes recommended by the high-level panel of experts suggests that Japan is still in thrall to nationalists who harp on Japan’s uniqueness and racial superiority, and who are male chauvinists. This is probably an exaggeration, but it is also disturbing to read of suggestions, even from an imperial prince, that imperial princes should take concubines or even divorce in order to increase the possibility of producing a male heir. Such suggestions should be condemned as both immoral and unjust.

As seen from abroad, it is also unfortunate that many young people in Japan are not apparently much interested in the Imperial family. One problem appears to be that the “imperials” so often seem invisible. Undoubtedly they perform their duties conscientiously, but do the Imperial Household bureaucrats allow them sufficient opportunities to meet ordinary people and undertake projects that would give them greater visibility?

Professor Ben-Ami Shillony, author of “Enigma of the Emperors,” suggests that the Imperial family might regain relevance through its support for the protection of the environment. Might they not also be given an increased role in promoting charitable giving, something that plays a rather lesser role in Japan than in the United States or Britain?

The Showa Emperor was a renowned marine biologist and his scholarship was recognized by his election in 1971 as a Fellow of the ancient and prestigious Royal Society in Britain. The present Emperor is also a scientist who has done much valuable work, but few Japanese seem to be aware of the extent of his research.

While he was at Gakushuin University, the Crown Prince did research on transport systems in medieval Japan. He continued his research at Oxford from 1983-85 and produced a thesis about transport on the Thames in the 18th century, which was printed by Oxford University press and regarded by his supervisor, the eminent professor Peter Mathias, as a valuable contribution to historical knowledge.

Unfortunately, this thesis, titled “The Thames as Highway” was not given the recognition it should have had in Mathias’ opinion. There seemed to be some reluctance in the Imperial Household about the appropriateness of publishing such a work by the Crown Prince. I encountered a similar reluctance in trying to get bureaucrats’ endorsement to publish in Britain the Crown Prince’s memoir of his two years at Oxford, which I translated. It has now appeared as “The Thames and I” (published by Global Oriental).

I could not help wondering whether official reluctance stemmed from a feeling that the memoir showed the Crown Prince, a future emperor, enjoying himself as a normal student might do.

He should surely be given every opportunity to demonstrate Imperial patronage of Japanese sporting heroes and teams, of the many excellent Japanese soloists, conductors and orchestras as well as of the outstanding research being conducted in Japanese universities in every discipline from science to history.