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A monarchy for the masses


THE PEOPLE’S EMPEROR: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy 1945-1995, by Kenneth J. Ruoff. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Ma., 2001, 331 pp., $45 (cloth)

This intriguing and rewarding monograph examines the manner in which the Emperor system has been reinvented in postwar Japan to reflect and reinforce democratic values. Kenneth Ruoff successfully challenges some prevailing myths and stereotypes about modern Japan and helpfully unravels distorting monolithic images about rightwing politics. His interesting discussion of constitutional controversies and key issues that expose cross-cutting political cleavages provocatively recasts the political landscape, clarifies some of the paradoxes of the polity and demonstrates that civil society is neither as anemic or stagnant as some writers suggest.

How did the absolute monarchy of pre-World War II Japan become intrinsic to its postwar culture of democracy? The era of popular sovereignty established by the new Constitution forced the Imperial Household to make significant adjustments and concessions, although the author demonstrates that at times constitutional constraints have been breached and some habits have persisted. By stripping the monarchy of all of its wealth and assets, the Occupation authorities made it dependent on public funds and thus beholden to taxpayers and their representatives. Surviving the transition into the era of popular sovereignty meant that it had to reach out to the masses and search for a new and meaningful role that justified its existence.

The popularization of the Imperial Family began under the Occupation, although Ruoff argues that it is only under Emperor Akihito that this has been fully possible, as Emperor Showa was ill-suited to “selling” the institution and labored under the burdens of his wartime legacy. Having officially renounced his divinity at the insistence of the Occupation authorities, he toured around Japan, met with the masses and somewhat awkwardly “pressed the flesh,” not quite like a politician on the hustings, but at least trying to bring the throne closer to the people.

The marriage of Crown Prince Akihito to a commoner in 1959 and the media frenzy focusing on the celebrations accelerated this process. The growing middle class could identify with Crown Princess Michiko, who assumed some of the typical duties of a housewife, used the same electric appliances and broke with Imperial tradition by raising her children herself. Her cool relations with her mother-in-law may also have resonated with women. The subsequent marriage of Crown Prince Naruhito to a young career woman, public debate about whether she made the right choice, a prolonged “baby watch,” and subsequent controversy over permitting a female heir to assume the throne further pulled back the curtain on the monarchy and rendered it an item of mass consumption.

Emperor Showa’s death in 1989 opened a Pandora’s box of issues and controversies that lay dormant during much of the post-World War II era, but in terms of the monarchy marked a liberation from its tainted history. Demonstrating that individuals can make a mark on institutions, Emperor Akihito moved quickly and resolutely to put the legacies of war to rest by offering apologies to neighboring countries for the destruction Japan visited upon them and accepting that Japan was responsible for the outbreak of war. Certainly his words were carefully calibrated and did not go as far as some observers hoped, but the implications were clear and represented a tectonic shift.

Oddly, both the left and right agreed that he had overstepped his prerogatives as a symbolic emperor. Leftists raised concerns about the constitutionality of what amounted to political intervention in conducting foreign policy, arguing that the Diet was the proper place for dealing with these issues. Conservatives, dismayed by the apologies and acceptance of responsibility for the war, also invoked the Constitution and asserted that as a symbolic monarch he should stay out of the fray, especially when undercutting the agenda of supporters who regularly invoke his name to ratify their reactionary agenda.

Thus, for different reasons, a consensus emerged across much of the political spectrum embracing the reinvention of the emperor as a symbolic monarch. Conservatives even portray this as a return to Japan’s true tradition and repudiate the greater political role foisted on the emperor by the Meiji oligarchs. By embroiling the emperor in the political fray, and invoking his name to lend legitimacy to their policies, these founders of the modern Japanese nation state veered from historical precedent and in so doing recklessly brought the country into disrepute and to the brink of collapse in World War II.

In looking at how an amalgam of rightwing groups have lobbied for desired reforms, Ruoff shows how democratic means have been employed by fundamentally antidemocratic groups to push reactionary agendas. He notes that they don’t always get what they want, but they have chalked up some successes, notably in reviving the Feb. 11 Foundation Day national holiday (controversial because of its strong associations with Japan’s Imperial past) and gaining legislative approval of the reign-name system. More recently, they have also successfully lobbied for legal ratification of the national anthem and national flag.

The rightwing portrayed in “The People’s Emperor” is more varied, divided and realistic than the monolithic images that are usually invoked in journalistic accounts. Tactics and goals are often divergent and it is unclear to what extent the more mainstream lobbying groups, or indeed their Diet supporters, maintain connections with the extreme right “boys in the buses” and their underworld sponsors. Nonetheless, Ruoff improves “our understanding of Japan during the past half-century by showing the right’s plurality and fluidity and by muddling accepted divisions between the left and the right.”

He argues that the phenomenon of far rightwing organizations going through the normal channels of civil society, mounting petition drives, holding public meetings and spinning their views in the national media is a healthy sign. So is the significant reaction against their reactionary agenda. He writes, “far right groups on occasion have exerted (influence) through legitimate channels, but readers nonetheless should bear in mind that precisely because groups such as the Association of Shinto Shrines stood to the right of the mainstream, many of their campaigns have failed. This was especially true of the attempt to re-establish lese-majeste as a crime.”

The author likens their presence and political activities to the Christian Coalition in the United States, both maintaining ties with conservative mainstream political parties that sometimes endorse and other times obstruct their agendas. One of the interesting conclusions presented here is that Japan’s nationalism is rooted in democracy and as such not nearly as threatening as the mass media sometimes warns. The monarchy has been part of this process, embracing democratic values and popular sovereignty in a way that makes it difficult for any but the most extreme rightwing groups to repudiate or ignore democratic processes.

Emperor Akihito’s progressive inclinations are also problematic for the right and he hardly conjures up a talismanic aura for them to rally around. Does Japan really have a monarchy of the masses? How can one accurately gauge public perceptions about the reinvention of the emperor? As intrinsically fascinating as the debate is over the symbolic monarchy and its role in the democratization of Japan, do the people really care? Finally, is the author correct in asserting that the popularity of the monarchy has allowed it to retain its social influence in the 21st century, and what is the nature of that influence? Conclusive answers to these questions remain elusive, but certainly the mass media has projected the modern Emperor system into even the most remote hamlets and thus endows the contemporary throne with far more potential influence than its predecessors. Conservatives may gnash their teeth at the crass populism and the erosion of mystery, but it is precisely the commodification of the monarchy that has enabled it to survive. Having survived, what will it do for an encore?