“We were all equal, in the end.”

This wonderful Pink Floyd lyric expresses a basic truth about death — except in Japan, where if you were good, the government may reward you with a posthumous rank expressing your notional proximity to the Emperor based on a system dating back to the seventh century. If you are still alive you might get a medal instead, though that will also probably involve some sort of grading.

Japan is famously — almost boastfully — egalitarian, and it is de rigueur for foreign commentators to mention this aspect of its society, whether generally or in specific contexts, such as the comparatively small gap between the compensation of corporate presidents and their underlings. Yet few have noticed that this supposedly inherently Japanese trait is missing from the nation’s system of honors, possibly because it largely ignores the contributions (heh heh) of foreign commentators.

Honors to the living are generally doled out on Nov. 3 and April 29. That these dates were the birthdays of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Showa (1926-89) emperors, respectively, is not a coincidence. Bestowing honors is one of the symbolic roles accorded to the Emperor under Article 7 of the Constitution, though the real decisions are made by the Cabinet and government institutions below it.

Historical hierarchies

Honors have a long, complicated history. Having in 1868 toppled the well-established samurai-led class structure of the Tokugawa period, the leaders of Meiji Japan had to establish a new hierarchy, one that balanced the interests of the newly dominant Imperial system, a new class of professional soldiers and bureaucrats, and a new hereditary aristocracy created to placate former feudal domain lords and other useful people.

The largely decorative character of honors today belies their importance in helping establish this new sociopolitical order. Conferral of ranks was one of the first things to be declared an exclusive prerogative of the Meiji Emperor.

In developing this new hierarchy, the government looked to the Imperial past and the ikai system of ranking Imperial princes and court officials, a system attributed to the mythical prince Shotoku Taishi and based on models of government adopted from China in the 600s. The Meiji version of the ikai system had 16 tiers of ranks that could be awarded to suitably important or studious citizens.

These ranks were not hereditary or formally tied to status or government service, but they were a reward for government service. Regulations established a concordance assuring that members of the aristocracy received ranks appropriate to their status. The bottom ranks were numerous and not terribly important, but thanks to such a system everyone invested with a rank would know where to sit at a palace garden party.

Nineteenth-century diplomatic practice meant Japan also needed honors to bestow upon Western dignitaries. Interestingly, it was the Ryukyu Kingdom, not Japan, that awarded the first such honor to a Western country. This historical oddity arose when Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Japan’s last shogun, sent a delegation to represent Japan at the International Exhibition of 1867 held in Paris. The rebellious Satsuma domain sent people too, but was at the time busily trying to bring down the Tokugawa regime and pursue its own foreign policy. In Paris it doled out medals to the Emperor Napoleon and other French luminaries, stealing a march on the Tokugawa delegation, which had not prepared any such baubles. Satsuma had no standing to bestow honors on behalf of the Japanese nation, however, so instead did so in the name of the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern Okinawa), which had been under the Satsuma domain’s control since the 17th century.

A separate system of military honors with grades and medals was also developed to motivate and reward soldiers and sailors. Significantly, these honors came with generous lifetime pensions, meaning that brave — or reckless — behavior was financially rewarded at all levels of the military. The financial burden of Japan’s expanding conflicts resulted in the pensions being replaced with lump-sum payments in 1940.

Abolition and resurrection

During the postwar Occupation the aristocracy was abolished by the new egalitarian Constitution and giving medals and ranks to the living was also suspended for being undemocratic and smacking of militarism. The system of awarding posthumous ranks based on the 16-tier ikai system remained and quietly continues to this day, the rankings being announced in the official gazette.

Such honors didn’t do much for the living, though, and a major typhoon in 1953 provided the impetus for reestablishing a system of awards for the limited purpose of acknowledging those contributing to disaster relief. In 1961 a bill was submitted to the Diet that, had it become law, would have revived parts of the old system of honors for the living. But it died in committee, a victim of the political upheaval over the renewal of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

In 1963 the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda took matters into its own hands and reactivated the nonmilitary, nonaristocratic part of the prewar system of honors through a Cabinet order. For law nerds this is interesting because it is the only example of the Cabinet using such an order to execute a provision of the Constitution without being first given authority to do so by the Diet, an anomaly that makes some constitutionalists grumpy.

The revived system of honors (kunshō) for the living involved traditionally exalted decorations such as the Collar of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum and the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, which are only sported by luminaries such as the Emperor, other members of the Imperial family and foreign heads of state (Dwight Eisenhower got one!). Japanese prime ministers get one occasionally, though usually only posthumously. (Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is the only person to have received this award inter vivos in the postwar period.)

For mere mortals there were the Order of the Rising Sun, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and, just for the ladies, the Order of the Precious Crown, all with different grades. In the past the orders came with numerical designations from one to eight, resulting in a clear hierarchy with a total of 28 levels, with the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum at the top. On top of this is the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers, awards of which are rare (one was made this cycle).

Most honors ended up going to former public servants, both bureaucrats and the elected kind, as is still the case and a perennial source of criticism. Ever since the system’s revival, efforts have been made to open it up to others so that instead of medals and pensions for soldiers, honors were used to motivate corporate warriors. This opened what had previously been the sacrosanct domain of government (and military) service in the name of the Emperor to money-grubbing and heavy industry in the name of Japan Inc.

Shaping society and shifting it

While probably impossible to quantify or confirm, some commentators have suggested honors have had an impact on Japanese economic development and even corporate governance. Industry leaders seeking the highest possible honor strived for similarly simplistic numerical results: Make the most loans, produce the most cars or print the most newspapers and you could expect a higher level of medal than your competitors’ presidents. Honors may have caused some industry captains to stick around boardrooms past their sell-by dates while clinging to positions at industry associations, a fig leaf of public service being part of the honors equation.

In government too, honors seem a quiet but identifiable motivator. As long as one avoids embarrassing failures, achieving a certain level in government service — becoming a chief judge of a high court or head of a ministry bureau, for example — means you can expect to receive an honor of a particular level. After retirement, that is — the general rule being that honors are awarded to people after they turn 70.

The system also ensures that anyone hoping to receive an honor is suitably pro-establishment, since recommending someone for most types of honors is a prerogative of governmental fiefdoms, with recommendations for top-level awards coming from the prime minister, top Diet officials, the Supreme Court, then down to individual ministries and prefectural governors for the less prestigious honors, the recipients of which number in the thousands every year.

In response to criticism, the government eliminated the numerical rankings from the principal honors in 2003 and replaced them with elegant names that nonetheless remain part of a readily apparent hierarchy (see table below). It also established the practice of awarding lower honors to former members of particularly dangerous public service jobs such as police, fire-fighting and Self-Defense Forces personnel. A system enabling members of the public to make recommendations for honors was also introduced.

Numbers in parentheses indicate female recipients. Representative examples of recipients and titles/roles are given for each grade of award. Since virtually all awards are received after the recipient reaches the age of 70, titles/roles indicated are former ones.

GRADE Order of the Paulownia Flower
(awarded to individuals for exceptional accomplishments) Order of the Sacred Treasure
(awarded primarily to ex-public servants) Order of the Rising Sun
(awarded to individuals for contributions to society and the public good) TOTAL NUMBER OF RECIPIENTS Grand Cordon 1 (0)
Satsuki Eda, Diet member, speaker of House of Representatives, justice minister, environment minister 0 (0) 7 (0)
Supreme Court judge
Chief Cabinet secretary 8 (0) Gold and Silver Star None 34 (0)
Vice minister, Ministry of Defense
Director, Japan Patent Office
Chief judge, Osaka High Court
Chancellor, Hokkaido University 17 (0)
President of NTT
President of Asahi Beer
Chairman, JR West
President, Daiwa Securities
Parliamentary vice minister, Ministry of Justice 51 (0) Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon None 257 (4)
Head, Tokyo Labor Standards Bureau
Dean, ASDF Air Staff College
Chief judge, Naha District Court
Vice-governor, Kagoshima Prefecture 43 (0)
Vice-chairman, Japan Federation of Bar Associations
Mayor, Nasushiobara
Chairman, Sanyo Electric Railway Co. 300 (4) Gold Rays with Rosette* None 701 (8) 200 (6) 901 (14) Gold and Silver Rays* None 998 (125) 560 (26) # 1,558 (151) Silver Rays* None 1,137 (207) 100 (13) ## 1,237 (220) TOTAL 1 (0) 3,127 (344) 927 (45) 4,055 (389)

* Recipients of the lower three grades of both main categories of awards include an extremely broad range of people who have made contributions to public service. According to the Cabinet Office, recipients for these levels are announced by prefecture and include a broad range of persons making a contribution to public service. Order of the Sacred Treasure recipients at these grades may include public high school principals, former lower-level national bureaucrats, summary court judges and so forth. Order of the Rising Sun recipients at the same levels include municipal and prefectural assembly members, lawyers, industry and professional association leaders, and a smattering of figures from the world of sports and culture.
# Does not include an additional 1,758 recipients (only one of whom was a woman) of this honor separately awarded to former police, SDF and other public servants for service in particularly dangerous roles.
## Does not include an additional 1,860 recipients (including six women) separately awarded to police, SDF, etc. as per preceding note.


The 2003 changes also eliminated the distinction between honors for men and women, thereby rendering the female-only Order of the Precious Crown unnecessary (though it has been retained for awards to Imperial princesses and foreign female heads of state). Despite this step toward gender parity, honors recipients are still overwhelmingly men, a problem the government finally seems to be starting to address. While the fall 2016 honors may show a seemingly dismal imbalance between male and female recipients, they actually represent an improvement compared to prior years.

This fall, 96 foreigners were among those honored. Most were ex-diplomats and foreign political, business and cultural leaders. Being abroad seems to help your chances: Only two of this cycle’s foreign recipients live in Japan (Monte Cassim, former president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, and missionary and prison chaplain Mark Maxey). Posthumous ikai rankings are for Japanese only.

Yoshinori Ohsumi: cell biologist, Nobel laureate
Yayoi Kusama: artist
Mitsutoshi Nakano: literary scholar
Tomoko Ohta*: geneticist
Yumie Hiraiwa: novelist
Hiro Fukuda**: composer
*Despite this being the name under which she developed her professional reputation, the award is in her legal name, Tomoko Harada.
** Working under the pen name Toru Funamura.


As for the much larger number of Japanese recipients, most are probably anonymous old men. An exception may be those receiving the Order of Culture, some of whom are actually famous (including Japanese Nobel Prize winners, who essentially are automatically awarded this honor). The Order dates back to 1937, when it was established to accord greater recognition to writers, artists and scholars. A handful of people receive it in the fall honors cycle, with Nov. 3 being Culture Day (see table).

The Order of Culture (Bunka Kunsho) is also the only honor that still comes with a small lifetime pension — sort of. The pension actually comes from being first named a Cultural Contributor (bunkakōrōsha). Recipients of the Order of Culture are then chosen from the ranks of Cultural Contributors. This two-step process supposedly circumvents a constitutional prohibition on special privileges inuring to awards or honors.

Name of medal Given for Number of recipients (women in brackets)
Medal with Red Ribbon Saving lives in difficult circumstances 6 (1)
Medal with Green Ribbon Freely contributing to the betterment of society 46 (21)
Medal with Yellow Ribbon Working hard to provide a model encouraging others 226 (15)
Medal with Purple Ribbon Contributions to scholarship, art, invention or other creative endeavors 30 (11)
Medal with Blue Ribbon Making significant contributions to the public good either individually or through collective enterprise 484 (131)
Medal with Dark Blue Ribbon Contributing funds to the public good None*
Total 792 (179)**
* Since this medal can essentially be bought by contributing the proper amount to a suitable good cause, it is announced when awarded rather than as part of the fall and spring honors cycle.
** Unlike other honors, medals can also be received by organizations and corporate entities, in which case a certificate rather than a scroll is awarded. The total includes 20 certificates.


Below the kunshō honors are medals (hōshō). These can be received for saving lives or meritorious service in a broader range of activities, though the surest way may be to donate a suitable sum of money to a good cause, like a public-interest foundation. Fortunately the same government bodies that recommend people for honors have an ample roster of these handy.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Law of the Land usually appears in print on the second Monday Community Page of the month, but Nov. 14 is a press holiday. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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