Contention over the tenno system

New essay collection questions the roles and responsibilities of Japan's emperors


This collection of 14 essays by 12 scholars, ranging from academic, journalistic, speculative, to advisory, makes an excellent introduction to the scope of arguments presently made about tenno, Japan’s “emperors.”

THE EMPERORS OF MODERN JAPAN edited by Ben-Ami Shillony. Brill: Leiden, 2008 348 pp., $148 (cloth)

With the exception of the first essay, by Akira Imatani, which is a quick historical rundown — from the latest archaeological findings to a forecast — the articles deal with the four most recent tenno, from the Meiji Emperor to the present one, Akihito.

Why so much interest in tenno? Partly it may be because the tenno house is “the oldest dynasty on earth today,” as the editor of this book, Ben-Ami Shillony, puts it. A student of Japanese history, Shillony contributed two essays of his own, and has written a survey of all tenno in “Enigma of the Emperors” (2005).

But the interest mainly derives, we may assume, from the role Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) is supposed to have played during World War II and his postwar survival. Because of the war, he was equated with Hitler and Mussolini, but he neither killed himself nor was killed by a mob. Worse, soon after Japan’s defeat, he transformed himself, with deceptive ease, from the awesome commander in chief of the “most savage” modern army, as some American writers have called it, to a benign marine biologist.

It was the 124th emperor’s survival and metamorphosis that led Herbert Bix, to indulge in guesswork to prove that, yes, Hirohito was actively involved in the war. His tome, “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” (2000), won a Pulitzer. Similarly, the same turn of events lured Julia Adeney Thomas, one of the 12 contributors to the book, into relying on photo analysis and psychobabble to judge that Hirohito was a man of “dishonesty and prevarication.” Her article is titled “The Unreciprocated Gaze.” A similar article of hers won a prize.

If the Emperor Showa indeed was an active war leader, he was an anomaly in the long line of “heavenly sovereigns” (which is what tenno, a Chinese word, means). The unusual longevity of the dynastic family that “does not even have a name” derives from “the combination of sanctity and weakness,” Shillony rightly notes.

But sanctity here, if you accept the view of the great folklorist Shinobu Orikuchi (1887-1953), has to do with the privilege to perform a set of animistic rites, rather than with the seemingly forbidding political personage suggested in Article 3 of the 1889 Meiji Constitution: that the tenno is “sacred” and therefore “shall not be violated.”

The weakness of the tenno dynasty came about because it abandoned its “power and authority (kenpei),” allowing others to pick it up,” as Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), the promoter of Western-style “civilization,” bluntly put it a mere seven years after the tenno house was “restored,” in 1868. The loss of power was what the 1882 Imperial Rescript to the Soldiers frankly admitted. The rescript nonetheless went on to become a curse on Japanese soldiers.

Yes, the Meiji Constitution created issues that have flummoxed both Japanese and non-Japanese assessors of the tenno institution. In “Axes to Grind,” Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi deals with the most direct consequence of the main articles of the constitution. Given the powers specified in them, should not the Emperor Showa have been indicted for war crimes, felt “war guilt,” or else taken “war responsibility?”

The constitution also spawned the “collateral” question of kokutai, usually translated as “national polity.” Yukichi Fukuzawa, clearly annoyed by nationalists’ orotund arguments in his time, simply defined it as the way the people of a given country are supposed to be, applying the English word “nationality” to it.

But, as Susumu Shimazono details in his somewhat disorganized article, “State Shinto and Emperor Veneration,” the notion of kokutai went on to acquire a mythical importance. In the end, “the preservation of kokutai” became the final sticking point in Japan’s acceptance of surrender, creating more slaughter. Knowing Japan had decided to surrender, the United States sent 1,000 warplanes to bomb and strafe Tokyo on Aug. 14, 1945. I remember Gen. MacArthur’s aide-de-camp Faubion Bowers once saying that some of the bombers had not yet returned to their bases when Hirohito was broadcasting his surrender speech.

When it comes to the Emperor Showa’s crime and guilt, the most fascinating essay in this collection may be one of Shillony’s, “Conservatives’ Dissatisfaction with the Modern Emperors.” As what the writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) called the “martial (bu)” role of Hirohito as tenno was increasingly downplayed in favor of his “literary (bun)” role — Mishima’s lament: Hirohito even refused to review the honor guards! — the nationalists have lost interest in talking about the man and the tenno institution.

The situation is worse with his son Akihito, the current emperor, who is not loath to voice liberal, pacifist views, Shillony points out. Equally damning for him and his wife, in the eyes of nationalists, is that the two indulge in luxury food and luxury accommodations when the proper tenno is supposed to lead an austere life. I remember from the 1950s a magazine story about a cook for the Imperial Household. He was described as taking ritual ablutions each time he prepared a simple meal for His and Her Majesty.

Two articles in “The Emperors of Modern Japan” are of contrasting value. “The Emperor and the Left in Interwar Japan,” by Rikki Kersten, analyzes what in retrospect is an unlikely proposition: what to do with the tenno institution in “the next revolution.” The question split the communists already weakened by harsh government policy. “Ise Jingu and Modern Emperorship,” by Rosemarie Bernard, describes the changing role of the Ise Shrine — the residence of the Sun Goddess who is supposed to have started the whole tenno line.

The only thing some readers might miss is one or two accounts by people who have actually dealt with Mutsuhito, Yoshihito, Hirohito, or Akihito. But the compiler may have decided not to include any such item because there are already many books of reminiscences.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.