Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Reflections on the Emperor System – The Need to Reveal Japan’s True Past
KAWATO Akio / Former Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

June 25, 2019
Emperor Akihito has abdicated his throne, in what is being treated as a special one-time case. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on Japan’s Emperor System.

“Heads of State” vary from country to country. For example, in the United States and France, it is the President, who is chosen through direct election and wields the supreme power. In Germany and India, the post is given to a President elected by representatives of the Federal or State assembly. And then there are monarchs who inherit the throne by birth, as in the United Kingdom.

The history of the Japanese emperor goes back to the seventh century, when the ruler of the land – who until then had been resigned to his status as the “King of Wa (the name by which the ancient kingdom was known)” – began to call himself “Tenno.” The choice of this title – “heavenly sovereign” – was perhaps a sign of defiance and a declaration of complete independence from the custom in which the kings of Japan were authorized by the Emperor of China. It is reminiscent of the way Western monarchs in the early modern period upheld the “divine right of kings” to rebuff the authority of the Vatican. From then on, the Japanese Imperial House is said to have maintained an unbroken lineage that continues to this day, without any change in dynasties as in China or Europe (though it should be noted that various conflicting views exist on this point). In any case, the Emperor is a unique existence that has come to convey Japan’s identity to the world.

Yet, the Emperor’s status has repeatedly been at the center of turbulence since the end of the Edo period, through the Meiji Restoration, defeat in World War II and under the new Constitution. This has caused distortions that remain unattended, with the Emperor himself bearing the brunt. He has no choice but to become Emperor due to his lineage and is given next to no privacy. He is placed on a pedestal as the “symbol of the state,” and while he plays a role in “affairs of the state” by formally appointing prime ministers and promulgating laws, such acts require the advice and approval of the Cabinet, which is ultimately held accountable. And since the Constitution does not allow him to “have powers related to government,” he must strictly refrain from taking actions or making comments of a political nature. It is quite a tough position to fill.

Let us reflect on the historical background. During the Edo period ruled by the samurai class that lasted from 1603 to 1868, the Emperor was stripped of almost all power. However, as Japan opened its doors to the West towards the end of the period, the authority of the Emperor took on a significant meaning. The dominant clans of Satsuma and Choshu allied with the Emperor and overthrew the shogunate under the Imperial Standard, thereby launching the Meiji period.

The Satsuma-Choshu alliance went on to justify their rule by championing the monarchy under the Meiji Constitution, which took effect in 1889. Consequently, the Emperor wielded actual power as the “head of the Empire, combining in himself the rights of sovereignty." On several occasions, he ordered the dissolution of the National Diet (parliament), which was in constant disarray since it was established in 1890.

The Imperial Rescript on Education issued in 1890 laid down the principles of an authoritarian regime under the Emperor. Sovereignty did not rest with the Japanese people, who were to serve the Imperial state as the Emperor’s loyal subjects. Religious rituals handed down by the Imperial Family were refined into Shintoism and placed above religion as the state ideology. The traditional syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism came under review, and Shinto shrines around the country were reorganized under the Ministry of the Interior to create the equivalent of a state church.

Japan’s defeat in World War II destroyed this authoritarian structure and brought the power of the Emperor closer to what it was during the Edo period. General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the postwar occupation of Japan, needed the Emperor’s authority to facilitate his government, while Japan’s ruling elite needed the Emperor to protect the “national polity” – in other words, the basis of their control and vested interests – from a communist revolution. Retaining the Emperor System was in their mutual interest. Yet, as we have seen above, the status given to the Emperor under the postwar Constitution is incomplete, and the conclusion of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials put an end to any questions concerning the Emperor’s responsibility in the war.

Consequently, the Emperor has continued to exist with inadequate protection for his human rights under the new Constitution. Then again, if he were given any real authority –the ability to refrain from signing laws that are deemed unconstitutional, for example – it would immediately place him at the center of a political dispute between various conflicting factions on the left and right, causing a division within Japanese society.

Nevertheless, I believe the Emperor System is mired too deeply in past constraints to make it a convincing institution for new generations of Japanese in the 21st century. Why not begin by authorizing major excavations of ancient tumulus? These are burial mounds found around the country that are mostly attributed to members of the Imperial House. Allowing excavations would shed light on the true history of Japan. Otherwise, the early history of Japan will continue to be limited to accounts compiled by those in power in the eighth century that contain myths.

Until now, it has been difficult to obtain approval for excavating the tombs of the Imperial House. We should do away with this taboo. Artifacts recovered during recent excavations of tumuli in the Nara region have amply demonstrated the strong ties that existed between Japan’s ancient dynasty and the Eurasian continent. Excavations on an even grander scale will no doubt reveal the true picture of Japan’s past.

It should enable people to take a more dispassionate view of Japan’s place in Asia based on facts, instead of the narrow-minded, arrogant understanding based on myths. And unless our sense of intimacy and respect towards the Emperor and the Imperial Family are based on facts rather than myths, the institution is unlikely to survive into the 22nd century.

Akio Kawato is a former Japanese ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

天皇制について想う — 日本の真の過去を明らかにすることが必要
河東 哲夫 / 元駐ウズベキスタン・タジキスタン大使

2019年 6月 25日











一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Reflections on the Emperor System – The Need to Reveal Japan’s True Past