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The people’s Emperor speaks truth to power


Special To The Japan Times

Emperor Akihito began the new year with a statement that pointedly referred to two major controversies: war memory and nuclear energy. His thoughts on these demonstrate why he is so admired by the public and underscore the crucial role the 81-year-old monarch plays in contemporary Japan.

Since his reign began in 1989, the Emperor has weighed in on sensitive issues numerous times and in doing so has repeatedly repudiated the agenda of right-wing nationalists. Of course his words are carefully vetted and are sufficiently ambiguous to avoid an explicit political stand, but in the context of his remarks and gestures over the years, his choice of topics represent a powerful message to all but the most obtuse.

In the aftermath of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election last month, and his Liberal Democratic Party’s commanding position in the Diet, there is considerable media speculation about his intentions. While his hollow victory was more an indictment of a pathetic opposition than an endorsement of the LDP, and the record-low voter turnout suggests little enthusiasm for Abe or his policies, this doesn’t really matter because he is on the cusp of accomplishing much of his bucket list.

Abe has affirmed that he wants to gain the public’s understanding about revising the Constitution, indicating he is aware of strong opposition, and pass legislation that will lift existing constraints on Japan’s military forces. This is related to the new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines, which are aimed at expanding Japan’s military role in the two nations’ alliance. Abe’s aspiration to become deputy sheriff is opposed by a majority of the public because they are anxious that Japan will be dragged into some conflict at Washington’s behest, and few believe Abe’s reassurances that Japan is only signing on to a regional security role precisely because there is no such restriction in the draft guidelines.

Polls conducted by the staunchly pro-Abe, pro-constitutional revision Yomiuri Shimbun indicate that support for revising Article 9 sank dramatically over the past decade from 44.4 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2014. On the eve of the December 2014 elections, an Asahi Shimbun poll indicated that only 3 percent of voters considered constitutional revision a priority, as voters’ minds are focused on pocketbook issues like social security, jobs and the state of the economy. Most also oppose his plans to promote arms exports.

In this context, the Emperor pointedly referred to the horrific suffering Japan both endured and inflicted from 1931-45, an anti-war message that endorses Japan’s pacifist Constitution and rejects efforts to rewrite and burnish the history of Japanese aggression.

The Emperor said: “This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which cost many people their lives. Those who died on the battlefields, those who died in the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who died in the air raids on Tokyo and other cities — so many people lost their lives in this war. I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country.”

The Emperor’s reference to the Manchurian Incident is a rebuke to revisionists who maintain that Japan was fighting a defensive war of Pan-Asian liberation against Western colonial powers. Instead, the Emperor’s comment implies that the wider war was ignited by Japanese aggression against China, and that on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat it is important to learn the lessons of this tragedy. It is hard to ignore the explicit warning about the dangers of militarism, especially when considering the Emperor’s record.

The Emperor has continued his father’s boycott of Yasukuni Shrine that began when 14 Class-A war criminals were secretly enshrined there in 1978. Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, confided to an aide that he refrained from visiting the shrine thereafter due to their presence.

Emperor Akihito has often demonstrated to the world that Japan does indeed repent for the wartime horrors it inflicted, thus rejecting the unrepentant, vindicating narrative associated with Yasukuni Shrine and the adjacent Yushukan Museum. The Emperor’s reconciliation diplomacy — visiting nations and expressing remorse — has done more than all of Japan’s politicians combined in healing the wounds of war and restoring national dignity. Alas, reactionary politicians and the jingoistic press intentionally undermine his efforts.

The Constitution prohibits the Emperor from intervening in political affairs, but this did not stop him from rebuking a Tokyo government martinet who told him it was his job to ensure that teachers stood and sang the national anthem while facing the flag. In this memorable exchange at an Imperial garden party in 2004, the Emperor remarked that, “It is not desirable to do so,” giving moral support to teachers who claimed the government was infringing on their constitutional rights.

The Emperor also stirred controversy in 2001 when he publicly acknowledged that Japan’s Imperial line descends from Korean ancestors in the hope that it would enable these “frenemies” to overcome animosities and cooperate in hosting the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Apparently the anti-Korean hate speech groups that have grown emboldened under Abe did not get that memo.

In his new year statement, the Emperor also voiced his concerns about nuclear energy. While Abe is eager to restart Japan’s idled reactors, the Emperor poignantly reminded everyone about the abject fate of Japan’s nuclear refugees.

“This is the fourth winter since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and it pains me to think that there are still so many people who cannot return to the places they used to live because of radioactive contamination and so many who face the prospect of a cold, harsh winter in temporary housing,” he said.

The Emperor’s remarks reminded me of Eri Hotta’s book “Japan 1941,” where she recounts how his father, Emperor Hirohito, confronted military advisers before the attack on Pearl Harbor, reminding them four years earlier they had promised the China campaign would be over in three months, and expressed doubts about their new promises of a quick six-month victory in the Pacific. Then as now, those in power have trouble acknowledging mistakes and so up the ante by doubling down on their bets, hoping for the best. Until March 11, 2011 — nearly four years ago — the nuclear village assured us that nuclear power was 100 percent safe and is now once again reassuring us that the reactors are safe. Perhaps like most people in Japan, his majesty has his doubts.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Richard Solomon

    It is interesting that the nationalists and PM Abe/the LDP want to restore the Emperor to the almost saintly, leadership position he had before the Pacific War. But then will they heed his words about the need to remain a pacifist nation and to avoid the dangers of nuclear power? As is commonly said nowadays, ‘I DON’T think so!’

    • rossdorn

      The saintly position will come along with putting him into complete isolation BECAUSE he is saintly….
      You do not seem to understand politics?

  • nosnurbd

    Jeff, Thanks for a good summary of Emperor Akihito’s position. What the Emperor has said is very important and his saying it shows he still has some power within the Imperial Household Agency. He travels a narrow road. In a dream I see him, maybe at the United Nations, giving a speech on the 70th anniversary of the Pacific War, expressing his and his father’s regret to Japan and the other countries so devastated by that War. After Emperor Akihito there will be no one who can speak so powerfully, or may be speak at all, for Tenno Showa. It is sad that Mr. Abe has his ears stuffed with dreams of former glory. If he expects Japan to be a world leader it must be as a Nation pursuing peace and unity.

    • rossdorn

      While I agree with you on the article itself, your commentary is a lot less inspiring… “…his saying it shows he still has some power within the Imperial Household Agency.”
      In the agency perhaps, even though they punished him for this by denying him his favorite mochi after dinner, but in the real world????

      As nice as it may be to see him in your dream, I would prefer and actually start to respect him instead of just liking him, if he actually behaved like a head proper of state who actually cares what becomes of “his” people and REALLY spoke out and stopped this insane development “his” country is following at present.

      • JimmyJM

        Much like Great Britain’s Monarch, the Emperor is not now and never has been the “Head of State”. The PM is the Head of State. While this is a good situation as some Monarchs are not up to the task (the Emperor Taisho comes to mind), in this case, I think the current Emperor would set Japan on the right track and reign in the politicos. The Crown Prince is however, a question.

      • Not to be overly pedantic, but you both misunderstand the term ‘head of state.’ The Emperor of Japan is the head of state, as is the Queen of the United Kingdom. They are not, however, head of government.

      • nosnurbd

        Hi Andrew. It is difficult, unless one is a compilation of the Japanese mind, to know how the Japanese feel about their Emperor. The Japanese are in essence still a tribe. During the Pacific War, Hirohito was “kamisama”. Sorry. I am sure you already know this.

      • What’s your point? We can’t be sure that he qualifies as what we call ‘head of state?’ His face is the first picture you see on the Wikipedia page for the term.

      • nosnurbd

        “qualifies?” You are stuck on a position of “head of State”? Akihito is the Emperor of Japan. Millions worshiped the Emperor during the Pacific War. Now, a different person, but a direct descendant, in the same position, and millions still consider the Emperor the spiritual leader of Japan. He certainly doesn’t need the mundane title of “head of State” to speak for the Japanese people!!!!!

      • I still have no idea what the hell you’re on about. It’s a simple lexical error that I was pointing out: that the ‘head of state’ is the cultural/spiritual/traditional/symbolic/whatever leader of the country and not necessarily the ‘head of government’ who holds political control, or the Prime Minister in the case of Japan.

        You’re either trolling, or you’re a crank. In either case, this isn’t worth my time.

      • J.P. Bunny

        As Jimmy JM has stated, the Emperor is not the head of state and hasn’t been one since before the Nara Period. Constitutionally he is not allowed to give his opinion on how the country is run. And, if he somehow managed to get an opinion out, we can be sure that he will suddenly be “unavailable” to the public. Taisho Tenno spent years at a private retreat due to “health problems”, the previous Empress was kept out of the public eye for years as she was “recovering from hip surgery “, when it was later obvious that her mental condition was not up to snuff. I agree that it would be nice if he could give his honest opinions from time to time, but happen it will not.

      • zer0_0zor0

        The Emperor is not permitted to make direct political statements. He is a cultural symbol and figurehead, so the path he treads in public life is somewhat narrow, due to Constitutional constraints.

        Nonetheless, he does a very good job, in my opinion.

      • rossdorn

        “The Emperor is not permitted….”

        Jesus… do you actually read what you write here? He is not permitted? By whom? By an over-God?

        And he does a good job? Consisting in what? Waving his hand? He does a lousy job, like all his predecessors did…

      • J.P. Bunny

        Actually, he is doing a very good job. Unlike his father, he speaks a language that the average Japanese can understand, he and his wife are much more relaxed around ordinary people, and can actually hold conversations with people he meets. Daddy was so out of touch with the common people that his tours around post war Japan were known as the “Ah so deska” tours, as that was his usual response to statements made to him.

        He is a figurehead and a symbol of the country, and, considering the Constitution and the Imperial Household agency, he is doing a rather good job.

      • nosnurbd

        I feel Emperor Akihito is strong and under great pressure and must walk a narrow line. The fact that he has said as much as he has, indicates that there is pressure, a need, and a force, to “clear the decks”, to make things right for his country, Japan with his neighbors and the world. PM Abe is headed the wrong way and maybe he will get the message, but will likely misinterpret it.

      • rossdorn

        Another of these wise comments….

        “Emperor Akihito is strong …. and must walk a narrow line”

        Can you give me a hint, WHY?

        Would “they” dipose him, or poison him, and replace him by someone else?

        And how is it possible to write a sentence like this:
        “Abe is headed the wrong way and maybe he will get the message”

        You actually believe he does not know what he is doing?

        You people really live in phantasy land…

  • soudeska

    I seem to recall someone (probably Suga Kanbochokan) opining recently to the effect that the emperor should stfu.

    I also read Eri Hotta’s book and remember coming away with the feeling that no one, least of all the emperor, actually wanted to go to war with the U.S. But it was like they had already slid too far down the slippery slope and no one could find a way out. Studying the history starting from the Manchurian Incident means examining the “slippery slope” and recalling that in 1931, probably no one anticipated where it would lead.

    • Richard Solomon

      As I recall, Hotta’s point about the lead up to WWII was that no one, except for Admiral Yamamoto, would stand up in opposition to the plans formulated by mid-level military planners in 1941. Even Yamamoto gave in to the con census mode of decision making.

      The Emperor did not insist that the army pull back from Manchuria in 1931. He was in theory the only one in government whom the Constitution gave the authority to over rule the military. Unlike Western democracies, the military was not under civilian rule in early 20th century Japan.

      It is far too easy for leaders to let the military lead them down the slippery slope. Witness LBJ in Vietnam or Bush in Iraq/Afghanistan. Those were disastrous wars which the military had claimed it could ‘win.’

      • soudeska

        Yes, I remember that as well. It was so frustrating how clearly nobody wanted to go forward with the war plans but nobody was willing to say anything. If they had, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but I still found it extremely vexing to read.

        If Emperor Hirohito had insisted that the army pull back, someone would have just told him to stfu, I suspect.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        A very intelligent man I used to teach said Japan suffers from a “Titanic mentality”, in which, despite the future disaster being plainly obvious, the course may not be changed because it’s pre-planned. Deviation from the plan is anathema.

  • zer0_0zor0

    in 2001 when he publicly acknowledged that Japan’s Imperial line descends from Korean ancestors

    That is stretching the truth, as there is only one “Korean ancestor” that the Emperor mentioned, as I recall. She was the grandmother (great grandmother?) of Kanmu Tenno, and her father had been a prince in the Kingdom of Paekche who was forced to seek refuge in Japan due to turmoil on the peninsula.

  • Starviking

    I think Jeff Kingston is reading more into the Emperor’s words than he actually says:

    “This is the fourth winter since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and it pains me to think that there are still so many people who cannot return to the places they used to live because of radioactive contamination and so many who face the prospect of a cold, harsh winter in temporary housing.”

    There is nothing in there that I would disagree with, and I am pro-nuclear.

    However, Jeff seems so intent in reading an anti-nuclear message in the word of the Emperor, that he misses a key point in his words:

    “and so many who face the prospect of a cold, harsh winter in temporary housing.”

    As I have said in the past, the people whose lives were washed away in the tsunami would be forgotten in the rush to hype anti-nuclear fears. Articles like Jeff’s prove my point.