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The Imperial family: celebrities or deities?


At a press conference to mark his 68th birthday last December, Emperor Akihito surprised reporters by saying that he felt a strong “kinship” with Korea.

The “kinship” itself wasn’t what surprised them, only the fact that he mentioned it. The comment was reported positively in South Korea and may help repair the latest rift between the two countries due to the still touchy textbook issue. Ironically, but at the same time not surprisingly, the comment went almost unreported in the media here.

Quoted in this newspaper Tuesday, a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, the only vernacular daily to discuss the ramifications of the comment, said that most of the Japanese media were simply following the wishes of the Imperial Household Agency, who preferred to keep a lid on it.

Of course, Japan’s historical relationship with the Korean Peninsula, not to mention theories about the Imperial family’s roots in Korea, are hardly the stuff of conspiracy theories. There is plenty of respectable literature on the subject. The Emperor himself referred to a book written in the eighth century that said the mother of one of the emperors came from Korea.

But the meaning of the remark goes beyond Japan-Korea relations. Why, exactly, did the Emperor make a point of mentioning it? If, in fact, the IHA asked the press not to report it, then what does that say about its infamous control over the statements, activities and movements of the Imperial family? Could we infer from his remark that the Emperor was actually challenging the IHA?

Though it may seem unlikely, it’s definitely worth considering, especially since the Imperial family seems to have faded from most people’s radar. The birth of Princess Aiko last December was greeted with cheers, but it doesn’t seem to have lifted people’s spirits in the long run the way it was supposed to. TV specials devoted to the birth received notoriously low ratings, and after a week everyone went back to worrying about the economy. The predicted “controversy” over the possibility of a female successor never materialized, either in the media or among the citizenry.

One could discern desperation in the previews for TBS’s two-hour special about the Imperial family broadcast on March 8, what with guarantees of “footage never shown before” and computer colorization of familiar scenes from the past. Nevertheless, it worked. The show pulled in a respectable 18.4 percent viewer share and was ranked 16th overall for the week.

I wonder if viewers got what they expected? At least an hour was devoted to royal courtships — the Emperor’s of Michiko and the Crown Prince’s of Masako — but those tales have been told 100 times. Colorizing doesn’t make them any more interesting.

What made more of an impression was how determined the producers were to bring the Imperial family not only down to earth but also somewhere near your house. The “exclusive” footage was unexceptional in every way except for the fact that it was shown. We heard Michiko speaking English. We saw the Emperor slip and fall in Ireland. We saw a 20-year-old film of the Imperial family taking their first ride on a subway. We saw and heard the Emperor and the Empress singing along to a children’s song, and very badly. But, then, that seemed to be the point.

Even the padding was designed to show how normal the Imperial family is. There was a boring 20-minute history of the heating system used for the Imperial villa in Hayama and an interview with a drug-store owner who lives across from the villa and who has a huge collection of personal snapshots of the family.

Of course, before the war, commoners could not even gaze upon the Emperor, much less photograph him, and the main message the program conveyed was that the royal family is middle class just like you (their favorite food, according to the show, is curry rice). It’s just that their house is bigger and they have to plan way ahead for dinner guests.

But the deeper message of the show is that the Emperor is, in a sense, irrelevant. Much was made of the Imperial family’s celebrity and almost nothing of its place in the scheme of things. The Emperor’s job seems to be not that much different from your average TV talent’s.

It was exactly this type of image that Mitsuhiro Kimura, leader of a rightwing group called Issui-kai, railed against in an interview in the Feb. 20 issue of DaCapo. Though Kimura admits that the members of the Imperial household do have personal feelings, he finds it “unacceptable” that they express those feelings in public.

The danger, he feels, is that once the Emperor’s opinions are reported, his statements can be used by anyone to mean anything. “They can be used for evil purposes,” he says, “meaning politics.”

As not only the symbol of the Japanese people, but the vessel for all that Japan stands for, the Emperor, Kimura believes, should be removed completely from the public eye and confined to the former Imperial Palace in Kyoto, where he would presumably live in a velvet vacuum, conducting rituals and writing poetry.

Kimura, however, does raise an interesting point. Since the Emperor’s media image as the nice ojisan who lives next door makes him an uninspiring symbol, and the taboo against him having anything to do with the substance of the state prevents him from making his opinions known, he has little real purpose. He might just as well be installed in Kyoto as a kind of totem. But, based on his comment about Korea, I’d like to think he wouldn’t go willingly.