Democratic pretension vs. airs of entitlement


NEW YORK — “I was honestly dumfounded,” Akira Ueda recently wrote, “when I learned that the gold medalist judoka Satoshi Ishii told the Emperor, ‘I fought for you, Your Majesty.’ ” Ishii made that statement when Olympic medalists and others were invited to tea at the Imperial Palace by the Emperor and Empress.

“Athletes in the Olympic Games may fight for their own countries, but for the Emperor? Was Ishii daring or dumb or what?” wrote Akira, who until a dozen years ago worked for a Japanese restaurant in New York.

My friend’s bemusement brought to mind Yukio Mishima, the writer who, before ripping his stomach open, shouted, “Long live the Emperor!” That in turn made me think, first, of the debate over Japan’s imperial system that raged in the immediate postwar years, and then of George W. Bush and the U.S. presidency.

Mishima, who became intent on dying after a certain point in his life, sought to justify his intended act in some intellectual way. One result was his notion of “the emperor system as a cultural concept.”

To explain what he had in mind, he wrote “On Defending Culture” three years before his death. By defining culture in all-inclusive fashion — from “The Tale of Genji” to martial arts — he posited that Meiji Era oligarchs created the emperor as the embodiment of both the chrysanthemum and the sword.

The dichotomous metaphors of the flower and weapon come, yes, from Ruth Benedict, but the two opposing ideals came naturally to Mishima. Before the American anthropologist’s thesis reached Japan, Mishima had characterized Japanese literature as composed of femininity (tawayameburi) and masculinity (masuraoburi).

Mishima contended that after Japan’s defeat in World War II, bureaucrats in foreign affairs and cultural matters focused only on promoting the “gentle and unthreatening” side of Japanese culture, “the chrysanthemum.” The task for the proper Japanese was to restore the other vital component, “the sword,” in the person of the emperor.

Brilliant intellect as he was, Mishima was murky and unconvincing in this argument. The emperor may have been the ultimate source of Japanese aesthetics such as miyabi (courtly elegance) before the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but once he was turned into commander in chief of all armed forces under the new constitutional monarchism, whatever influence he may have had as a cultural source was overwhelmed. Instead, anyone who wanted to promote a cause in the name of patriotism gladly took advantage of the masculine authority of the emperor.

After the Japanese nation was crushed, a wholesale review of what had gone wrong became a necessity. On the emperor system, the question was: How could it have been so abused as to lead the country to utter destruction?

Among those who contemplated the question, philosopher Osamu Kuno proposed that Meiji oligarchs devised the constitution in such a way as to endow the emperor with two fatefully contradictory attributes: exoteric (kenkyo) and esoteric (mikkyo).

Exoterically, the emperor was put forward as absolute monarch with boundless authority and power. The aim was for policymakers to control the governed. Esoterically, he was a monarch with severely circumscribed authority and power. The aim was for policymakers to control the emperor himself.

But what does all this have to do with Bush? Well, Bush, the man caricatured as the emperor without clothes in some exasperating moments, has flaunted the monarchic aspect of the U.S. presidency in the silliest ways. As Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has explained, the American president is expected to serve both as prime minister and as “monarch and moral exemplar.” He is a public servant in a democratic country, who nonetheless is allowed to behave like an emperor and demigod.

In his recent essay in Harper’s, “Democracy and Deference” (June 2008), Mark Slouka recounts the infamous encounter between Bush and Senator-elect Jim Webb and expresses disgust with commentators who faulted the former secretary of the navy, rather than Bush. These included not just supercilious advocates of manners but also a professor of governance.

For all the democratic pretensions, there has always been a good deal of ambivalence about removing aristocratic elements from the American presidency. John Adams spent the first days and weeks in his office pondering and debating the question of how to endow the highest office of the land with “dignity and splendor.” He was convinced that the mere appellation of president was unacceptable because there were “presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs,” historian David McCullough tells us.

One of Adams’ proposals was to address George Washington as “His Majesty the President,” and one title proposed along similar lines was “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”

Luckily, such royalty-smelling titles and forms of address were shot down by crusty senators. Unluckily, the smell has remained redolent. So Bush taunts reporters who do not preface their questions with “Mr. President,” even as he addresses all of them by first name.

I recall a prewar governor of Osaka. He happened to be holding his hands behind his back when photographed with the Showa Emperor. He was forced to resign. Yes, lese-majeste.

Following “the imperial presidency” of Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter tried to cut down on the royal trappings of his office by abolishing, among other things, the playing of “Hail to the Chief.” His popularity plummeted partly as a result. This may be because of “the universal desire to defer,” as Slouka puts it. Yet, without getting rid of that part of the president’s dual role Dahl speaks of, the United States, the vaunted promoter of democracy throughout the world, will remain “democratically challenged.”

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”