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The institution of Emperor in Japan

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The institution of Emperor in Japan

There are kings and queens elsewhere in the world and they are called royals but not an Emperor. This makes Japan’s Imperial system unique, writes Rajaram Panda

Japan is a special country in several ways. For centuries, it remained isolated and disconnected with the outside world. But once it opened itself up to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 by the use of force by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States Navy, Japan has never looked back. In little over two and half centuries since then, Japan’s history has traversed through tumultuous journey, leading to the perilous course of war, militarism, expansionist foreign policy, colonialism till its final capitulation in 1945 following the announcement of surrender by the Showa Emperor Hirohito.

During the next seven decades, Japan has proudly leapfrogged from a nation in ruins and ravages of war into a modern and developed country to emerge as the world’s second largest economy until it was overtaken by China in 2011. This is in short Japan’s amazing story.

But what is more amazing is that in the midst of this transformation to modernism, the nation has kept a beautiful blend with its traditional values and culture. The advent of modernism has not been allowed to overwhelm the aestheticism and serenity of Japan’s traditional culture manifested by such as ekebana, matsuri, manga, film, bonsai, painting, tea ceremony and many more, which are truly authentic Japanese. There is beauty in all these. These have shaped the mind-set and thought process of the Japanese people. Amidst all these the institution of the Emperor stands tall, which is revered by all Japanese, barring some negligible extremist elements with deviant ideological indoctrinations.

Japan’s Emperor is believed to be the descendent of Amaraterusu, the Sun God which retains a sense of divinity in the eyes of the Japanese people through thousands of years of its being. Though the role of the Emperor in the affairs of the State in the historical period dating back to centuries remains in obscurity, historical narratives are flush with roles of shoguns and daimyos, the various warlords fighting for power and so on, until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the subsequent dramatic transformation of Japan as a nation.

What is the Meiji Restoration and what does it mean in the context of Japan’s history? In 1868, the Tokugawa shogun (great general), who ruled Japan in the feudal period, lost his power and the emperor was restored to the supreme position. The emperor took the name Meiji (enlightened one) as his reign name and this event was known as the Meiji Restoration.

After the death of Emperor Komei in January, 1867 his son, Prince Mutsuhito, then only 15 years old, ascended the throne as Emperor Meiji. Powerful clans such as Satsuma, Choshu and others toppled the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and handed power over to the young emperor. But in May 1868 some two thousand adherents of the old Tokugawa shogunate tried an up-rise but were defeated in a bloody battle at the site of today’s Ueno Park in Tokyo. In November 1868 the young emperor moved his official residence from Kyoto — where his ancestor had been kept for centuries in a golden cage — to Tokyo, the new name for the old shogun’s capital Edo. The institution of the Japanese emperor had lost control over Japan some 800 years ago. This path-breaking event is called in Japan’s modern history as Meiji Restoration.     

In 1868, Japan was primarily an agricultural country with a weak military and little technological development. The country was controlled by hundreds of semi-independent feudal lords. The Western powers — Europe and the United States — had forced Japan to sign treaties that limited its control over its own foreign trade and required that crimes concerning foreigners in Japan be tried not in Japanese but in Western courts. When the Meiji period ended, with the death of the emperor in 1912, Japan hada highly centralized, bureaucratic government, a constitution establishing an elected parliament, a well-developed transport and communication system, a highly educated population free of feudal class restrictions, an established and rapidly growing industrial sector based on the latest technology, anda powerful army and navy.

The Meiji era came to an end with the death of the emperor in 1912 (1852-1912). It was followed by the Taisho period coinciding with the reign of the Emperor Yoshihito (1879-1926), posthumously known as Taisho, dating from July 30, 1912, to December 25, 1926. Emperor Taisho was a sickly man, which prompted the shift in political power from the old oligarchic group of elder statesmen (genro) to the Imperial Diet of Japan and the democratic parties.

Thus, the era is considered the time of the liberal movement known as the “Taish democracy” in Japan; it is usually distinguished from the preceding chaotic Meiji period and the following militarism — driven by first part of the Meiji period, during which Japan fought and won two big wars with China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05), heralding hope for an Asian renaissance. With the death of Emperor Taisho started the Showa era when Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne. This is one of the longest periods of an emperor’s reign in Japan’s known history (64 years); it lasted till 1989 when Emperor Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, at the age of 89. Simply put, the Showa period is a term used to identify the years between 1926 and 1989 under the reign of Emperor Hirohito. In accordance with Japanese customs, Hirohito was posthumously renamed the 124th Emperor Showa on January 31, 1989.

The Showa period is followed by the current Heisei (peace) period, which started on January 8, 1989, the day after Emperor Hirohito died, and his son Emperor Akihito acceded to the throne as the 125th Emperor in Japan’s history. The current Emperor’s reign is in its 29th year. Aged 83 and having health issues, the current emperor expressed his desire in July 2016 to abdicate as he is finding it difficult to discharge his national duties. This has created a buzz in Japan’s political establishment — how to deal with a new situation if the Emperor abdicates as according to the Imperial Household Laws, there is no provision for abdication. This issue shall be dealt in a separate article. 

Except in Japan, nowhere in the world, there is an Emperor system; there are Kings elsewhere and they are called ‘Royals’ but not Emperor and that makes Japan’s Imperial system unique. Believed to be the direct descendent of Sun God (a mythical concept), there was an element of divinity attached to the Emperor. For the Japanese people, the Emperor is seen as next to God.

The element of divinity that the emperor personified was surrendered when Emperor Hirohito renounced it after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Since Japan fought the War in the name of the Emperor, many soldiers committed seppuku in front of the imperial palace with a sense of guilt that they could not win the war for the emperor.

Seppuku was a ritual form of suicide used by samurai warriors to avoid surrender or atone for a shameful act. Ritual suicide by disembowelment carried out by samurai literally means “stomach cutting”. The role of the Kamikaze pilots also needs to be understood from similar perspective. During World War II, about 3,860 kamikaze pilots died, and about 19 per cent kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. Kamikaze aircraft were essentially pilot-guided explosive missiles, purpose-built or converted from conventional aircraft.

After defeat and announcement of Japan’s surrender by Emperor Hirohito who was appalled by the suffering of his countrymen following the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a demand in some of the Allied powers to bring the Emperor for trial on charges of war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. General Douglas MacArthur was matured and far-sighted enough to understand the importance of the institution of the emperor, which if tampered would result in nation-wide revolt in Japan and rejected the demand to bring the Emperor before the ‘Tokyo trial’. That was definitely a well thought-out decision. Japanese people then and now cannot digest any thought of dishonouring the Emperor as they attach sanctity and purity to this institution. 

This brings me to the last part of this article — the Imperial Palace, which is very well preserved. The East Garden of the Imperial Palace (Otemon) adjacent to the palace is open for public viewing every day for a specified time. The Sannomaru Shozokan, the Museum of the Imperil Collections, which displays the collection of 9,500 pieces of pottery and artefacts including the articles left by the deceased Empress Kojun, Princess Chichibu and Princess Takamatsu is also open to the public. There are ways to participate in public events at the Imperial Palace and to visit the Palace and other establishments.

During my present stay at Reitaku University as the ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor, I was privileged to join a group of 25 students and two professors (including me) for a guided tour and some activities to the Imperial Palace, the official residence of the Emperor and Empress and the Akasaka Palace, the official residence of the Crown Prince, the future Emperor. The program was for five days from February 20 to 24, 2017. What struck me was the discipline and organisational fineness of the programme which was minutely planned in clock-wise precision to get the maximum benefit and understanding.

During my several previous visits to this great country, I never even knew that such a programme existed to visit the Imperial Palace till my colleague in the University casually told me and I volunteered to join. In a total gathering of 160 participants drawn from other Prefectures such as Iwate, Sendai, Fukushima, Tokyo and others, I was the only foreigner and thus easily identifiable. The students had made prior arrangements for our stay at International Youth Hostel in Idabashi, close to the Imperial Palace. The enthusiasm seen in the youth reflected their reverence towards the emperor. One can smell the fragrance of peace and serenity when one sees the shrines inside the Imperial Palace dedicated to the souls of all ancestors of the Imperial family dating back to Amaraterusu totalling some 2,000 and to all Gods and Goddesses of Japan.  

Photography inside the Imperial Palace was prohibited, though official group photograph for each group was arranged by a professional photographer, both in the Imperial Palace and the Akasaka Palace. Though police checked the identity of each one of us by asking for our identity cards, the police never cared to check our bags, implying the element of trust and honesty that the police reposes on the people, something unthinkable in India.

The high point of the programme was the audience of the six groups with the Emperor and Empress in a hall on February 21 where both met each group and had two-three minutes’ chats with the group leaders, the whole thing lasting for around fourteen minutes. The same thing was repeated at the Akasaka Palace on the following day, on February 22, when the Crown Prince and future Emperor Naruhito met us for the same duration of time. Though I had seen the Emperor and the Empress at Jawaharlal Nehru University (I was a guest faculty then) in New Delhi when they visited India in December 2013, this time was an occasion when I saw both within the distance of few feet. Given the exalted status the Emperor enjoys in Japan, this experience makes it extremely special. 

The lesson learnt is that the Emperor is going to remain a strong unifying force for Japan. It has been in the past and it is going to remain so even in the future years. The sense of patriotism that the Japanese people draw from the institution of the Emperor is something like nectar that Japanese people crave to possess. That makes Japan unique and special.  

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either that of the ICCR or Government of India




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