On Wars and Japanese Emperors

Losing The Plot

So, I was reading another article in the Japan Times, this time on a playwright who is doing a play that examines the origin myth of the Japanese imperial line (which would be the Yamato line, for those keeping track). The article is titled, Playwright Noda asks, “What is a Japanese?” We should read this as in 日本人 (nihonjin, a Japanese person).

So, let’s cut to the chase:

After Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attacks, Noda points out, most Japanese lost interest in such cults gradually and just drifted away from them. However, some remained fervent believers and some turned strongly against their very notion.

“This response fits exactly with Japanese people’s reactions after their defeat in World War II,” he says. “And when I see this phenomenon repeated, I realize how Japanese still don’t bother to question the object of their absolute beliefs — for example, we as a society have never discussed openly why we called the emperor a ‘living god.’ In Germany, the society has thoroughly confronted its Nazi past.”

So, all he’s trying to do is undermine and negate the mythological underpinning of the Japanese imperial line in the hope of confronting the existence of Emperors, the central pillar of Japan’s view of itself and of what it is to be Japanese. This is in the hopes of negating and demolishing the rallying point that was used by the WWII Japanese government to carry the nation into war, thus leading Japan to radical change in its social and governmental structure.

Hey, no big deal, right?

And no one could possibly take this the wrong way, right?

About That “Absolute Belief”

This is an excellent opportunity for me to write about one of my conclusions from much study of history. I admit, I am hardly an expert on all of Japanese history; don’t ask me about the Jomon Jidai, I will not have a clue. I am, however, decently well read on the histories of the Japanese warlords who dominated the Sengoku Jidai, with the Onin War that opened the Sengoku Jidai, and with the earlier loss of imperial authority as the samurai and the Shoguns rose to prominence.

In other words, there was once a time in Japan when Emperors led Japanese people into war, squished their enemies, had chronicles written about it, and lived good lives in more or less unified countries. That stopped in Japan a very long time ago.

Do we really think the likes of Tokugawa Ieyasu were quaking in fear of an edict by the Emperor? No, that’s not how it worked. A distinct reapolitik had taken over where the Emperors did not ask the people with real power, that is, Shoguns or dominant warlords of the day that did not technically hold that rank (say, Hideyoshi), anything that these men were not inclined to provide. Nothing was left to chance; no edict came forth unless enough ground work to sign a START treaty had already been completed.

However, due to a natural desire for prestige and legitimacy, Shoguns maintained the position that the Emperor was a living god, and that Shoguns themselves were implementing His will. Now, the Emperor can’t have been so divine he could just well, come out of his palace and whip the country into shape and rule in his own name like the old days, but this was a convenient position.

Now, obviously, the people who conducted the Meiji Restoration didn’t think that the rule of the Shoguns was serving the Emperor quite enough. Or rather, well, let’s recall the rallying cry: 尊皇攘夷 (sonnou joui), which reads like “Revere the Emperor, Cast Out the Savages.”

Incidentally, we Westerners are the savages being referred to.

So, it wasn’t just an issue of revering the Emperor. It was rallying around a specific political policy to be done in the Emperor’s name, but for the country’s benefit.

Having said this, after the Restoration, Japan went on a huge Westernization spree in terms of industrial policy, military technology, military reorganization, and all sorts of cultural areas. Let’s say the Emperor turned around and said, “You know, I really don’t like how this is going. Let’s change back to how it was under the Shogun.” How long do you think his revered position would have lasted?

Keep this in mind next time you watch The Last Samurai.

So, fast forwarding, it was the position of the ruling government in WWII that the Emperor was a living god and infallible. (It is only the “living god” technicality which makes this any different from the description of the Pope, incidentally.) This position was maintained after WWII, for very simple reasons.

This position kept ultimate symbolic power out of reach, giving the old Army and Navy one less thing to potentially fight over. After the Japanese surrender, the Americans could have undermined the Emperor and encouraged a political revolution against him (regardless of what they put on that piece of paper) by the simple virtue of having the power to do so, but they did not, because the Emperor was a check on the establishment of communism.

Now, let’s not mince words here: a lot of people think that Japan’s lack of communism represents the single overarching, overwhelming problem that Japan has, and that if Japan would ever solve this issue, it would be a much more egalitarian place. Women would be fully liberated, there would be no more rallying of militarists around the Emperor, the wealthy would be cast down and the proletariat would rise up.

The precondition of all this is getting rid of that pesky imperial tradition.

Hmm, sounds to me like what a crafty person might do is write a play that calls into question the mythological and historical underpinnings of the entire Imperial line, to breed contempt by familiarity and show that they’re really nothing but a bunch of lucky and very ordinary humans who don’t deserve any reverence, or even respect.


Misplaced Aggression

Today, the Emperor has extremely little influence on public life, and extremely little influence on private life, too.

Frankly, the Emperor of the day had very little influence on WWII. He was tremendously symbolic, yes, but that’s um, all.

Take Britain. Have you heard about The King’s Speech? It references the abdication of the King prior to the one in the movie. The United Kingdom didn’t like that King’s attitude towards the Germans and tossed him out, just like that country has, in the past, slain monarchs or would-be monarchs who tried to force Catholicism back down the throat of a now Protestant nation; it intimidated the German rooted ruling family that came in after the Stuarts into surrendering all German possessions and heretofore being a “British” monarchy only when the UK and Germany were rumbling against each other around WWI.

The only reason that sort of thing never happened to the late Japanese Emperors is that they had no un-Japanese commitments, and they didn’t try to buck the system too far.

So, again, the only real reason to kick the Emperor around when he is a powerless figurehead is precisely to destroy his symbolic role as the lynch pin of society. This done, society can be subjected to truly radical change.

Problem: What if people don’t want the radical change you’re peddling? Articles like this make dropping out of an elite school and going into theater sound like an act of heroism because it’s working to “change the country.” What if it doesn’t want to be changed how you want it to be?

Oh, let’s not kid ourselves. You’re going to push it anyway and stuff it down people’s throats, and act really shocked if anyone shows any resistance, because you think you’re peddling utopia.

I think we should give the guy a break. He hasn’t done anything to any of us personally. Revolutions without justice don’t fly with me, really.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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4 Responses to On Wars and Japanese Emperors

  1. Sean says:

    You know history like I know dog poop. You know nothing at all.

  2. CounterSpace says:

    To put it succinctly: http://www.japanfocus.org/-herbert_p_-bix/2741

    Ample evidence of Hirohito’s power and actions with a good dose of education regarding the role of the past emperors, as well as Meiji, before that of Hirohito.

    Please learn more regarding a subject, and think, before you write about it.

  3. Jeremiah Bourque says:

    I had to read that link of yours, CounterSpace, and to check out the citations – half are to the author’s own book! – to remind myself of a little relevant fact.


    You’re accusing me of ignorance, when your whole point is, who the hell cares what THIS Emperor has done, past Emperors were all jerks? Actually, and I admit I don’t have time to read every word of this article, I didn’t see one word about pre-Meiji Emperors. I think you’d have to go back to the 800’s or 900’s to find serious power vested in the personal hands of the Emperor.

    At any rate, I could cite a litany of ills by various kings of England, including ones well before the House of Windsor, or committed in their name. They “oversaw” all sorts of wars, of course. There’s not a real point citing the French monarchy. The Ptolemies of Egypt were famously incestuous as well as sitting atop a complete tyranny. I’m sure there were lots of Chinese Emperors who were jerks. And? What of it?

    One of the thing that most annoys me about Herbert Bix’s ideological crusade is his presenting the Emperor as personally appointing prime ministers “aided” by the Genro. I am a citizen of the Dominion of Canada. I have studied the systems of government of Canada and the United Kingdom. I know all about how “advice” by prime ministers works for the selection of Governor Generals, Senators or people to be elevated to the House of Lords, etc. Sarah Palin was recently accused of believing the Queen of England personally commands the armed forces of the United Kingdom. This may or may not have been true – the claimant hates her guts – but it was meant to make her once again a target of complete mockery. That should tell you something.

    If the subject is THIS INDIVIDUAL EMPEROR’S RESPONSIBILITY, then you’re way off base calling me ignorant. If the subject is THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ALL JAPANESE EMPERORS COLLECTIVELY, then it has nothing to do with what I wrote. Take your pick.

  4. Jeremiah Bourque says:

    And if your point is that Japan as it presently exists is a country of inherent evil that must be dismantled and recreated from scratch, I politely disagree. Noda above does believe that, but I’m not a participant in certain radical left-wing fantasies. I just don’t think it’s worth getting that worked up over. There’s way bigger fish to fry.