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Emperor’s apparent liberal leanings jar with Japan’s right wing


In the media debate about the state secrets bill, much has been said about the public’s right to know. Participants in a democratic society must be informed to make decisions in their interest, and critics of the bill, which ostensibly protects matters of national security, believe it will be used to keep people in the dark about anything the government doesn’t want revealed or discussed openly.

But even before there is a law limiting the dispersal of official information, Japanese citizens operate with a built-in filter that controls what an individual believes he or she has a right to say. According to documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, this self-censorship function is a holdover from the prewar regime’s effort to monitor the hearts and minds of the populace, and its main tool in that effort was emperor worship.

In an interview published in the Asahi Shimbun on Nov. 27, Mori talks about the recent controversy surrounding rookie lawmaker Taro Yamamoto, who handed Emperor Akihito a letter during the annual autumn garden party at the Imperial Palace. The actor-turned-politician wanted to draw the Emperor’s attention to the plight of those affected by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, but by personally giving him a note without obtaining prior permission he was violating protocol. The reaction was swift and hard, and came from across the entire political spectrum.

Yamamoto was admonished by the Diet. Mori thinks his action revealed a “lack of common sense,” but he did not break any laws, regardless of what the ruling Liberal Democratic Party implied. Mori asked a group of university students for their opinion of the incident and everyone said Yamamoto had been “rude,” even “blasphemous.” One student seemed deeply offended by the fact that Yamamoto used “only one hand” to present the letter.

What struck Mori was that all of these young people were born during the current Heisei Era, and yet their approach to the Emperor was effectively no different from the public’s reverence prior to the end of World War II, when Hirohito was considered a deity. He concluded that the “emperor system” (tennō-sei), which was once inculcated by the government, has become “internalized.” All Japanese people carry it with them, as if it were hard-wired into their consciousness. Though they no longer think of the Emperor as a god, they believe he possesses special rights and is cocooned within a matrix of taboos. As a result, he said, they are “docile in the face of authority.”

When the interviewer points out that the Emperor, whose role is defined in the Constitution as being symbolic, is not supposed to be “used” for political purposes, Mori says the Emperor cannot avoid politics. The United States decided not to remove Hirohito after the war so as to make it easier for the Japanese people to accept its authority during the Occupation. He was used by the American military to achieve its goals, just as the wartime Japanese government used him for its own purposes. Though there are still arguments regarding Hirohito’s complicity in the war, blame was borne by Class-A war criminals whose prosecution, most historians agree, was arbitrary.

In April last year, the government celebrated the 60th anniversary of the end of the American Occupation with a ceremony attended by the Emperor and Empress. Since the LDP was sponsoring the event, it was politically “using” the Emperor, and when the Imperial couple left the stage, shouts of “Banzai!” — a remnant of emperor worship — erupted from many members of the audience, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Recordings on government websites eventually cut this portion of the ceremony, but not before Mori saw it. When the shouting started, Mori said, “The Emperor looked much more perplexed than when he received the letter from Yamamoto.”

It’s not the first time the Emperor has resisted, passively or actively, the role that some want him to fill. In 2001, during a press conference to mark his birthday, he remarked that he felt close to the Korean Peninsula, since he understood his ancestors came from there. Rumors persist that he wants to visit South Korea but that the government won’t let him, saying it doesn’t want the Emperor to be used politically by South Koreans. But isn’t preventing him from going also motivated by politics?

Mori, who once planned a documentary about the imperial system, likes the Emperor because he appeals to his own liberal leanings, which is why genuine right-wingers, such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, aren’t interested in the Emperor as a person. Their agenda really has no use for the kind of open-mindedness the Emperor occasionally demonstrates.

Another progressive pundit, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, said the same thing in a recent interview on Videonews.com, expressing admiration for the Emperor for something he said during the 2004 autumn garden party, which didn’t receive nearly as much attention as the Yamamoto faux pas. Shogi player Kunio Yonenaga, a member of the Tokyo municipal government’s educational committee at the time, proudly told the Emperor that it was his job to make sure all public schools sing the national anthem and raise the flag. The Emperor responded — and everyone heard it clearly — that he hoped Yonenaga wasn’t forcing them to do it.

As Miyadai points out, the administration of Keizo Obuchi had already stated that schools could not be legally compelled to sing the anthem or salute the flag, even if local governments like Tokyo’s have done exactly that, so the Emperor was clarifying the law in front of Yonenaga. What the shogi player said may not have been a breach of protocol, but it was definitely the espousal of an illegal act. And yet he received no criticism in the press or from the government. In contrast, Yamamoto, by handing the Emperor a letter, was advancing an agenda that he not only had the right to advance, but also the responsibility, since it was the basis of the platform on which he had been elected.

“If I had to explain to a foreigner why Yamamoto’s action was a problem,” Miyadai said, “I don’t think I could do it.”

  • Hillel Weintraub

    thank you Philip Brasor, thank you Japan Times – for writing and publishing articles that attempt to show a bit more of the whole story – of emperor control, of the hypocrisy of the LDP, of another side to the Yamamoto action – than the general media. If only more Japanese could be exposed to these ideas! Publishing links to other articles in the Japanese media that we can share with Japanese friends is one way to help (as you have done in this article).

  • This is a great essay on the role of the Japanese emperor and it has significance for Westerners in several respects, because:
    1. Westerners in fact are complicity in retaining the state-emperor authority
    2. Constituents of Western societies are indolent in the face of government not so much so because of a lack of self-importance, but a lack of personal power. i.e. Westerners would never challenge the tax office authority. In fact various tax authorities have adopted the idea that they are voluntary organisations. Their power rests upon the moral ambivalence of the great majority.

    • rontokyo

      Apologies, but I’m afraid I don’t follow your points *at all*.

  • rontokyo

    I have long appreciated your Media Mix column and have recommended it often to my university students. This column, in particular — in addition to being very informative — was bold and courageous.

    You’ve also provided me with next week’s lesson plan.

  • jeremy

    I think you are making too much out of this. How different would this be if there was a breach of protocol by a British member of parliament towards the Queen. The reaction would be identical. Also the same would be true if there was a similar incident with President Obama.

    You may want to argue Japanese people are more diffident in the face of authority, but you stretching this example too far in trying to make the point.

  • Padro

    It is hypocratic to forget Uncle Sam is still occupying heaps of army bases.

  • Sarah Morrigan

    The problem with Japan is that now the Emperor is no longer a “god” (kami, not to be confused with “God”) but is now he is not even a human being in the eyes of law. He does not have a legal status of a human, and accordingly the Japanese constitution does not even recognise the same degree of rights as his imperial subjects do possess. The basis for one’s legal human existence in Japan is the family registry, and the imperial family is excluded from it. Accordingly the Emperor is a slave and a prisoner of the State. This system, imposed by Douglas MacArthur as a compromise of sort, as an alternative to execution, is doing a disservice to Japan. One might find it shocking that the Japanese schoolchildren do not learn that Japan is a monarchy but is a constitutional democracy, or even a republic. The Emperor is merely a “symbol,” and the “real” head of state is the Prime Minister. Given how frequently the premiership changes hand in Japan, many people cannot even answer who their Prime Minister is. No wonder why the Japanese people are deracinated and culturally decayed, devoid of any genuine pride in their own nation and heritage.

    It’s time to revisit the roles of the Crown in Japan as the de jure head of state. He must both reign and rule, as the final safeguard against the excess of democratic government. No other monarchies on earth has such a disempowered and humiliated monarch. At least in technicality, the Queen of England (and by way of Governor-General, of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) can veto any legislation as a matter of her sovereign prerogative. The British monarchy, despite being a subject of tabloids, is at least human. The Japanese monarchy, on the other hand, is a powerless and voiceless idol whose public image is carefully constructed and dictated by the State and self-censoring mass media. It’s about time that the Emperor spoke and provide some moral guidance for the ailing nation.