The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part III: Post-War Japan & a Royal Love Story [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 05 October 2004

As shown in Part I, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the postwar changes was the Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”). Despite a reduction in size, it was given almost complete control over the Imperial Family and a huge budget to support its power. However, there seems to be little to no evidence regarding the Agency itself, in such areas as its structure and membership, or its attitude towards the Emperor’s loss of divinity. This extremely secretive agency loves living in the shadows and reportedly responds to most direct questions regarding its wards, the Imperial Family, or about itself with a cold, final “no comment.”

Yet, one can glean a lot about the IHA by studying the political institutions and events around it because a few things can’t be hidden, even by the IHA. For one thing, the IHA is closely intertwined with the political powerhouse and ruling party of the past 50 years, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a party which has been described as being neither Liberal nor Democratic. For another thing, the IHA’s political attitudes can be inferred by closely studying Japan’s political history since the end of WWII, since many of the groups with which the IHA is involved, whether political or bureaucratic, have an almost unbroken connection to the prewar, traditional conservatism.

The years after the end of the war would have led many a disinterested observer to think that Japan’s old political system and traditions had suffered a severe setback. They had not. In many ways, things continued on just as they had before. For much of the 1940s and part of the 50s, the Emperor was regarded with the same sort of reverence as he had been before the war. In the immediate postwar years, his tours of the country — made ostensibly to view damaged areas — were more like victory parades. In fact, the huge crowds almost trampled upon officials from the Imperial Household and the police in their desire to get close just to the Emperor’s car. The banned “rising sun” flag was flown from the rooftops and thousands upon thousands of people literally cheered the Emperor wherever he went. By the end of the 1950s, that incredible enthusiasm lingered mostly among the older generation, while the rest of Japan regarded the Emperor with increasing disdain and indifference.

Not so the Japanese government, a government that was increasingly composed of conservative groups with ties to prewar institutions. For example, in 1952, the Americans released 892 war criminals who had never made it to trial and many of them returned to power in the government. Some of them rose swiftly to the highest positions of power in the postwar government. Links to Japan’s prewar political system didn’t stop there. Almost the entire civil service – a group from which the IHA drew (and continues to draw) a portion of its members – was the same as before the war. In fact, there “was considerable continuity–in institutions, operating style, and personnel– between the civil service before and after the occupation, partly because MacArthur’s staff ruled indirectly and depended largely on the cooperation of civil servants.”http://reference.allrefer.com/country-guide-study/japan/japan234.html Thus, the American policy planners either failed to see or else conveniently minimized the civil service’s role in Japan’s militarism, something which would benefit the conservatives in subsequent decades.

The government continued to treat the Emperor as it had before the war, and for much of the same reasons too. Throughout the 1950s, conservative groups tried repeatedly to amend the new Constitution to explicitly name the Emperor as head of state. “Their aim was not to revive the prewar or wartime “emperor system.” Neither was it to educate future generations in the old imperial-nation view of history rooted in mythology. Rather, conservatives sought to bolster the emperor’s authority so they could use it for their own purposes.” (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins 2000, at pp. 654-655). Although they failed, their efforts were significant in showing the institutional stubbornness that marks Japan’s political system.

Attempts to change Japan’s Constitution were not the only ways in which the political elite rejected the new changes. Under the new Constitution, the Emperor was to have no role whatsoever in political matters; he certainly was not to be advised of the latest developments throughout the country and he was definitely not expected to give any advice to political officials. Yet, throughout the 1950s, numerous Cabinet ministers, along with the head of the Metropolitan police and the Governor of Tokyo, met secretly with the Emperor to give him political briefings on the state of the government and country.

Clearly, the almost unreformed imperial system made it hard for the old-school elite to shake traditional views, particularly when it came to the role of the Emperor. For the same reason, the government looked the other way while Emperor Hirohito made official visits to Yasukuni, the main Shinto shrine which had been set up as a memorial to the “heroic” war dead and was also the burial place for many individuals classified as “war criminals.” The government upheld the prewar conservative ideology in other ways too. For example, it ensured that all school textbooks had a whitewashed version of Japan’s actions in WWII, as well as the Emperor’s involvement. It tried, less successfully, to get schools to display the banned “Rising Sun” flag and to bring back the nationalistic pledge of allegiance. And it didn’t give up until it achieved its goals, even it if took until 1999.

Japan’s ultra-conservative approach to politics can be explained by the fact that only one party has run the country for the past 50 years: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A 2001 article in the Guardian described it as follows:

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is the most successful money- and vote-gathering political machine in the postwar world. As unyielding as any of the cold war communist regimes, it is neither economically liberal nor politically democratic, but has ruled for all but one of the past 46 years. Inside the party, a Byzantine factional system has ensured that power is exercised behind the scenes by a handful of “shadow shoguns”. Prime ministers have been mostly puppets, elderly time-servers who give a higher priority to loyalty, secrecy and consensus than to principle, debate and leadership.

The LDP is usually described as a conservative party; for most of the past 46 years, it has been almost the antithesis of a democratic organisation. Constituencies are gerrymandered, kickbacks from public works are channelled back to the party through yakuza gangsters and key policy decisions are made by party elders behind closed doors.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/japan/story/0,7369,546140,00.html

If the LDP seems a lot like the IHA in some ways, it’s because the two groups are very closely knit. The IHA deals almost daily with the government, a government which sets its budget, gives it orders regarding the Imperial Family, and makes the final decision about all imperial duties. In addition, the IHA is staffed by officials from various government agencies, as well as the civil service, both of which are drawn heavily from the LDP and, thus, infected by their ultraconservative values.

Take, for example, the latest tutor to Princess Aiko, Crown Prince Naruhito’s only child and the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Her fifth “chamberlain” or tutor has a background that is based purely in the government and in various public ministries. While the “tutor” to a toddler is unlikely to come from the highest government echelon, it’s equally unlikely that the hidebound, conservative IHA – and the ultra-nationalist LDP from which it takes its orders – would permit a progressive liberal to be in charge of someone as important as Princess Aiko.

The extent of the government’s incredible conservatism and of its archaic views regarding the Imperial Family is best demonstrated by the situation involving the Yasukuni Shine. Yasukuni is a Shinto monument to Japan’s war dead and is closely linked to emperor worship and militarism. As recently as 2001, a new exhibit at the Shrine continued to espouse the revisionist line regarding the war and the emperor’s role therein:

The slick, Shinto-oriented rewrite of history… denies that Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity in 1946, as most westerners and Japanese believe. … It is at the vanguard of the revisionist movement. The 4bn yen (£22m) renovation and enlargement of the shrine’s museum, completed last month, goes to new lengths to roll back changes made during the allies’ postwar occupation. A walk around the exhibits is a moving experience. Many visitors sob as they look at the photographs and letters of kamikaze pilots. Their sacrifice – made in the name of a divine emperor – is lauded by the museum, which blames the United Statesfor prompting the war. It dismisses claims that the spiritual status of the emperor changed after defeat.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/japan/story/0,7369,778007,00.html

The IHA has been careful not to comment on the Shrine’s interpretation of the Emperor’s role but it doesn’t need to; several Japanese prime ministers have been happy to do so in its place, both implicitly and explicitly. Since 1945, numerous prime ministers and cabinet officials have visited the Shrine, in an official capacity, and paid their respects to the “heroic” war dead and the Emperor in whose name they acted. Making matters worse, several of them have done so in an official capacity, and just a day or so before August 15th, the date of Japan’s surrender in WWII. http://tinyurl.com/4tctz These attempts to honour the nationalistic past, and the imperial role, continue to the present day. As recently as 2000, the former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, proposed renaming the Greenery Day national holiday–Hirohito’s April 29 birthday–as “Showa Day” in honor of the wartime emperor. The plan was dropped due to its controversial nature but Mori wasn’t dissuaded. At a speech to Shinto religious leaders and groups, he declared that Japan was “a divine nation” with the emperor at its center. After a firestorm of angry responses, Mori finally apologized for any misunderstanding that his comments may have caused but he never retracted the comments themselves.

The current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has gone even further. An ardent nationalist with a cult-like status, Koizumi is at the forefront of the revisionist movement: he has called some of the Class-A war criminals buried at the Yasukuni Shrine “martyrs;” he has paid actual homage at the shrine in his official capacity as a government official; he has refused to make any changes to the new school textbook giving the most inventive explanation for Japan’s actions during WWII; and he’s intent on amending the Constitution to permit a military. In fact, under his tenure, the Japanese parliament has begun a debate on revising the Church and State portions of the Constitution, a debate which has clear implications for the Shinto religion and, thus, for the Emperor with which it’s connected. It’s doubtful that Koizumi seeks to return the Emperor or the Imperial Family to their prewar status but it cannot be denied that any change in the separation between religion and state will indirectly impact the emperor’s role, especially under an ultra-conservative party intent on managing the monarchy for its own political purposes. Seehttp://tinyurl.com/4nxbm.

One may ask how the LDP’s quasi-shogunate or the nationalism shown by various Prime Ministers has to do with the IHA. Quite simply, the IHA is tied at the hip to the LDP and, while Prime Ministers may come and go, the IHA always stays the same. It’s an organization not subject to the vicissitudes of elections or public scrutiny. Yet, it shares the same political traditions, systemic stubbornness towards changes, and conservative ideology. The fact that the IHA is made up of officials who come from the LDP and the LDP-filled Civil Service — two groups with an almost unbroken tie to the prewar political system and its accompanying political ideology — merely strengthens the Agency’s ultra conservative approach towards the Imperial Family.

It’s unlikely that the IHA seeks to return the Emperor to the position that he once held but it’s equally unlikely that it favours a democratic, populist approach to the monarchy. There is probably no greater abomination for the IHA, short of the monarchy’s complete absolution, than a populist, bicycling monarchy like that of the Dutch. On second thought, a populist, informal monarchy probably wouldn’t be as horrific as the possibility of having the previously divine monarchy treated like the British royal family. One can only imagine how the IHA views the situation experienced by the Windsors, where voracious paparazzi and media intrusions permit the public to salivate over such personal details as the monarch’s breakfast, the sex life of royal children, and royal lovers.

While the IHA may not believe in a return to a supposedly absolutist monarchy, it is still institutionally, politically and ideologically incapable of ignoring the Imperial Family’s traditional role. It’s an organization which sees its wards – the Imperial Family – as the living remnants of a history and tradition that Japan must keep alive. One of the ways of achieving this goal is to protect the monarchy’s mystique by isolating the royals from excessive public access, scrutiny or knowledge. Another more important method is to ensure that the unbroken line of descent going back to the goddess, Amaterasu, is maintained by having an heir. A male heir.

While there have been eight empresses on the Chrysanthemum Throne, they were essentially regents who did not pass power or rule to their own descendents. These empresses were either unwed or widowed and, upon their death, the throne reverted back to the next male in the line of succession. Thus, the principle of male succession remained intact. To the ultra royalists who make up the IHA, this principle must continue to remain unbroken. Breaking that rule would be breaking Japan’s imperial traditions, history and legacy. To a great number of ultra-conservatists, even worse than that heresy is the possibility, in their minds, that a reigning empress signals “the end of history.” http://tinyurl.com/4x3ba

Ironically, the Japanese public shares none of these perspectives. In fact, the postwar generation is at the opposite political and ideological spectrum from both the IHA and the political elites. They have been for a long time. Things had changed dramatically from the late 1940s when waves of screaming hordes greeted Emperor Hirohito on his purported disaster tours. The younger generation viewed Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal and had little interest in his successor. In fact, in the early 1990s, the majority of the public couldn’t tell you the name of the Crown Prince (Naruhito) and they certainly didn’t care about the new Emperor (Akihito). Postwar events, cultural changes among the young and the IHA’s attempts to maintain the mystique of the Chrysanthemum Throne by keeping the Imperial Family aloof from the public had only made the people indifferent to the monarchy. Many were frankly hostile. The extreme conservativism of the political elite was, thus, at a total variance from the pacifist, non-monarchial, modern approach of the Japanese people themselves.

It’s within this context that the new Crown Prince fell in love with the epitome of a modern, successful, professional woman. His search for a suitable bride had taken more than seven long years, so long that — in a complete break from palace protocol — his younger brother had gotten married ahead of him. But the Crown Prince only wanted one woman and he was determined to wait for her. Ms. Owada Masako was the daughter of a senior diplomat who had traveled the world with her parents since she was a child. She went to kindergarten in Moscow, attended high school in Boston, graduated from Harvard both Phi Beta Kappa (National Honours Society for the top 10% of all students nationwide) and Magna Cum Laude, and then attended the prestigious Balliol College, Oxford. Fluent in numerous languages, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was a career diplomat with a promising future when she met the Crown Prince at a party. The Crown Prince fell in love there and then, and he refused to consider anyone else.

Masako, in contrast, was distinctly less enthused. She knew very well the stresses and difficulties caused by marrying into the Imperial Family. It was a well known, though little publicized, fact that Empress Michiko, Naruhito’s mother, had barely survived her induction into the Imperial Family. The Empress, the first commoner ever to marry into the Imperial Family, had had such a difficult adjustment that she’d had a nervous breakdown and even lost her voice for 7 months. It’s unclear if she couldn’t speak or if she simply didn’t want to but, either way, one thing was clear: marriage to the imperial heir was a Herculean task that could break even the strongest woman.

Masako’s qualms didn’t stop the Crown Prince. It’s unclear how long Masako held out and how long he waited for her but some say he refused to consider anyone else for as long as several years. Time after time, he rejected the suitable brides paraded before him until, eventually, his parents asked him what the problem was. He finally confessed his love for Masako. After much discussion, and the Crown Prince’s insistence that his feelings would not change, he obtained his parents’ permission to court her.

That was just the first step. The Crown Prince also had to convince the IHA officials that she was a suitable candidate, even though her grandfather was a mere businessman. Then, he had to convince Masako herself. The latter proved to be the most difficult task. Masako refused him three times but still he persisted. Finally, he said, “I promise to protect you with all my power as long as I live.” Those must have been the magic words because she agreed to marry him.

In hindsight, those words may seem prophetic but I think Masako knew exactly what she would be facing and what was necessary if she – and an Imperial marriage – were to survive. Masako was a child of the Establishment, with a father who was high up in the Diplomatic Corps. She grew up in a world and family which would have given her much insight into Japan’s political system. Her family was also sufficiently high up for her to have heard not only the truth about the Empress’ breakdown but also about the reality of life behind the palace walls. She would have known exactly what she faced as Naruhito’s bride, and she was strong enough to hold out for her suitor’s express promise to stand by her side against any bureaucratic bullying.

There are other ways of looking at this famous promise. One possibility is that Masako was influenced by such royal marriages as that between Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew, The Duke of York. One school of thought argues that the Yorks’ marriage failed because the royal spouse did not sufficiently intervene with the notorious “Grey Men” of Buckingham Palace to protect his wife. While Masako was no impulsive Fergie, perhaps she had learnt from that unsuccessful marriage and felt that she’d need her future spouse to actively protect her against the palace mandarins.

Another possibility is that Masako simply had no more excuses to hold out once the Crown Prince made that oath. Some people have alleged that she would have continued to refuse Prince Naruhito’s offer but her father was promised a significant promotion in his diplomatic postings if Masako accepted the Prince’s proposal and she was sold into the marriage for the family’s prestige. According to these cynics, the fact that Masako’s father received a more prestigious diplomatic assignment almost immediately upon his daughter’s engagement and marriage is proof positive that Masako was coerced or sold into marriage against her wishes. As a romantic, I prefer to think that the marriage was based on real love, even if there was some natural perturbation on Masako’s side. After all, what modern, independent, successful career woman would jump into the Imperial Family without even a second’s hesitation, especially if they already knew of the IHA and its incredible power?

Once the engagement was announced, there was a huge swell in popular interest in the Imperial Family. Or, to be specific, in the future Princess Masako. People who couldn’t name half the main members of the Imperial Family knew every detail of Masako’s upbringing. The country was delighted not so much because the recalcitrant Crown Prince had finally chosen a bride but because Masako seemed to negate the image of the fusty, boring, hidebound, conservative, aloof Japanese royals. In fact, Masako seemed the epitome of a modern woman; her marriage, the ultimate love story; and the Japan’s new, populist “Princess Diana”, a complete antithesis to the rest of the Imperial Family. In other words, Masako was popular for being the exact opposite of everything that the IHA stood for and was intent on protecting. Like the “grey men” in some other monarchies, the IHA were completely out of touch with what the Japanese people cared about, an issue which bode ill for the future Crown Princess.

The couple married on June 9, 1993. And Cinderella woke up from the dream almost right away. Almost as if on the stroke of midnight, all festivities ended right after the wedding. The cream of international society and royalty left. Masako’s elegant, designer, Hanae Mori wedding gown with its full white-brocade skirts, plunging neckline and matching petal-design jacket was put away. The royal jewels went back into the vaults. And Japan’s new Crown Princess discovered what her new life was really going to be like.

In this Japanese royalist version, the wicked stepmother was alive and well in the form of the IHA, and they weren’t going anywhere. To the contrary, they had certain expectations for Japan’s new fairy princess, expectations that had their roots in Japan’s imperial history and the ruling elite’s political ideology. Woe betide the woman who could not satisfy those demands….

We’ll explore that situation and the various issues involved in the succession crisis next week in Part IV.

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