The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part I: In The Shadows [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 21 September 2004

As a new contributor on Geraldine’s site, I thought my first column should follow Etoile’s new focus on world monarchies. In that spirit, I’ll be discussing the Japanese Imperial Family, the succession crisis facing the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the furor caused by Crown Prince Naruhito’s remarks earlier this year, remarks which some expert commentators think have triggered the biggest constitutional crisis in Japan since its defeat in World War II.

To those who are familiar only with Western monarchies, the situation currently facing the Japanese monarchy is incomprehensible unless one first understands the role and unbelievable power of a little-known government agency called the Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”) or Kunaichou. Accordingly, Part I will explain the IHA’s function and the scope of its power. Part II will examine the Emperor’s historical role before and after WWII, the impact of the Shinto religion and how those factors impact the IHA’s policies. Part III and Part IV will conclude by discussing Crown Princess Masako’s situation, analyzing the Crown Prince’s confrontation this past May with the IHA, and trying to decipher the rationales underlying the IHA’s actions.

The origins of the IHA go back over a thousand years when the Imperial Household Ministry, its precursor, was created by statute to look after the Imperial Family’s needs, household and image. In 1889, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was promulgated, along with the Imperial Household law. According to the IHA’s website,

[t]he former established the constitutional monarchy while the latter dealt with the internal matters of the Imperial House. They were both supreme rules in their respective spheres and established was the principle that internal matters of the Imperial House were decided by the Imperial House itself without any procedures in the Diet. The Imperial Household Ministry, which was independent of the Cabinet, was to deal with the Imperial House’s internal matters and… assisted the Emperor in all matters concerning the Imperial House.

One should not be misled by the agency’s title into thinking that the Imperial Household Ministry was a glorified housekeeper. The organization was comprised mainly of aristocrats from powerful families and, to paraphrase an old idiom, those close to the center of power get a power all of their own. In old Japan, that center was the Emperor who had a uniquely powerful role, even if it was occasionally more symbolic than actual. As I’ll explain in greater detail next week, the Emperor was considered a living God who could trace his roots back in a direct, unbroken line to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. His status as a living, walking deity was even a fundamental part of the state religion, Shinto, of which he was the head. As guardian and protector of a living deity, the huge 6,000-plus Imperial Household Ministry thereby became incredibly powerful, both politically and nationally.

All that changed after World War II. The Imperial Household Ministry – now renamed the Imperial Household Agency – lost its national influence but, significantly for our tale, it was given official, concrete power over the Imperial Family itself. In 1949, the IHA was placed directly under the control of the Prime Minister who was now more powerful than the Emperor himself. Although the agency’s bloated bureaucratic structure was slimmed down from its pre-war size of 6,000 to a relatively small 1,500, those officials had become even more powerful than before when it came to the lives of the Imperial House.

As I will explain in further detail in Part II, under the American-imposed Constitution of 1946, the Emperor became a symbolic figurehead with a purely ceremonial role. In addition, the Imperial Family’s extensive estates and personal property were confiscated. The scope of the family’s loss was enormous. In 1945, the total assets of the Imperial House were made public; that sum, based on deliberately and “grossly understated figures provided by the Imperial Household Ministry,” was more than 16 billion yen. (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, HarperCollins 2000, p. 552.) If the understated amount in 1945 terms was that much, one can only imagine how much it would be at today’s rates! Emperor Hirohito’s personal wealth had made him the nation’s biggest landowner and wealthiest individual but Chapter VII of the new 1946 Constitution gave it all to the Japanese parliament (or Diet) to control, along with all imperial palaces and assets. The nationalization was essentially punishment by the victorious Americans who strongly suspected Emperor Hirohito of being a driving force behind Japan’s militaristic ambitions and not the symbolic, uninvolved figurehead the Japanese government was claiming. Id.

In my opinion, the Imperial Family’s loss of financial independence is one of the greatest, concrete reasons for the IHA’s power. The Imperial Family has to rely on a budget which is controlled by the IHA. Any private wealth accrued by the Imperial Family is therefore recent in origin and the result of laborious efforts. It’s also extremely small in comparison to other royal families. For example, when the late Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, he left personal property that reportedly was worth only £11 million.

The budget allocated to the Imperial Family is a relatively small one. Every year, the IHA receives almost 18 billion yen (approx. $160 million) but the lion’s share of that money goes to the agency itself. In 2004, 10.83 billion yen was allotted to the IHA for its expenses and 6.30 billion yen went for palace upkeep, palace-related expenses and cost associated with official royal duties, such as ceremonies and state banquets. What’s left over was given to Imperial Family for their personal use.

In all fairness, recently released information shows that the Imperial Family is hardly living a Spartan existence. In The Imperial Family Purse, Yohei Mori, a former royal correspondent for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, discusses the Emperor’s incredibly extravagant lifestyle. According to a review in the British newspaper, the Telegraph, Mori claims:

[Emperor Akihito’s staff] includes four doctors on call 24 hours a day, five men who attend to his wardrobe and 11 who assist him in Shinto rites. In all, Japan’s royal family commands a legion of more than 1,000 people, including a 24-piece orchestra, 30 gardeners, 25 cooks and 78 plumbers, electricians and builders.

The main imperial palace, in Tokyo, home to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, requires 160 servants to keep it running – partly because of rules like one that a maid who wipes a table cannot also wipe the floor [… .] Meanwhile the emperor and his family run up a monthly water bill of £50,000.

… [I]n addition to the emperor’s own doctors, his palace has a £2 million-a-year clinic with 42 staff and eight medical departments, but only 28 visitors a day. The room in which Crown Princess Masako gave birth to Princess Aiko two years ago was redecorated beforehand at a cost of £140,000.

A special 961-strong police force guards the imperial family and their residences at a cost of £48 million.

The emperor spent £140,000 building a new wine cellar, which stores 4,500 bottles of 11 types of white wine and seven types of red. When President Mbeki of South Africa visited Japan in 2001 he was served Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982, which today costs more than £300 a bottle, and Dom Perignon 1992 champagne.

While these expenditures seem lavish, one should remember that the family itself gets only 1/28th of the overall sum given to the IHA. The magnificent surroundings therefore hide the fact that a family with a millennium-plus tradition of considering itself the living embodiment of a God is beholden to bureaucrats for money like some discarded pensioner.

Financial power isn’t the IHA’s only source of dominion over the Imperial Family; it also controls the family’s access to the outside. As noted earlier, access can be power; and no-one has access to the Imperial Family unless the IHA says so, not even family members. For example, Crown Princess Masako may not see the Emperor unless the IHA has previously approved her request. The restriction has nothing to do with the Emperor’s role as head of the Imperial House because Masako may not visit her own parents without requesting and obtaining permission from the IHA. The fact that such parental visits have been few and far between since she married Crown Prince Naruhito speaks volumes in my opinion about the IHA’s power, even if the situation is framed in terms of protocol requirements and administrative difficulties. Those technicalities and excuses can’t hide the princely couple’s complete helplessness in the face of the IHA’s agenda which, as I will explain in Part III, is to obtain a male heir to the throne at any and all costs.

Even more tightly controlled than small trips within Japan is overseas travel. For example, the Crown Prince and his wife have made only five trips together outside the country since they got married eleven years ago. Requests to make other trips have been denied under some excuse or another. Similarly, Prince Akishino, the Crown Prince’s younger brother, and his wife have been permitted only to make four official visits abroad since their wedding in 1990. One of those trips — to attend the wedding of Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands — allegedly required approval from Parliament, although the IHA seems more likely in my opinion.

The scope of the IHA’s power is so great that it seems to extend to even the smallest aspect of the royals’ daily activity. Some people have alleged that the Emperor may not take a walk in his gardens without obtaining the IHA’s consent. If that claim seems a bit extreme, another allegation is even more so: that the Imperial Family couldn’t make private, direct-dial telephone calls outside the palace. It’s uncertain if that restriction still exists today; it’s equally uncertain who or what imposed that rule. One Japanese expert, Raymond Lamont-Brown, seems to imply it was the Emperor when he states that Akihito “allowed direct-line telephones to be used at the Kyujo.” (hereinafter cited just as “Lamont-Brown.”) But another commentator still insists that “the imperial family reportedly does not even have access to a private phone.” Whatever the truth, and the IHA refuses to answer any questions on the matter, one can only wonder at a situation where a simple telephone call is the subject of debate and a symbol of great change.

The IHA’s restrictions on the Imperial Family aren’t limited solely to what they may do but, also, to what they may say. The agency strictly circumscribes all public utterances by members of the Imperial Family. Public statements by British royals “on such things as the environment, architecture and society- as well as off-the-cuff comments are looked upon with incredulity by the Japanese public, horror by the court, and blank disbelief by the Gaimusho [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].” (See, Lamont-Brown.)

The IHA’s power does not stop there. The agency also places suffocating constrictions on the press vis-à-vis the Imperial Family. In today’s media age, that can be a considerable cudgel to wield. For example, the IHA stage-manages all purported “press conferences” down to the smallest detail: a small, hand-selected group of pliant journalists are invited; the invitations are accompanied by seven pages of protocol requirements which address things as minor as the colour of the cameramen’s suits; the reporters must submit a list of questions weeks in advance for vetting and approval; then the IHA presumably gives approved answers to the royal in question to use as his “reply” during the conference; follow-up questions are unofficially prohibited under threat of future exclusion from royal events; and an informal rule frowns upon a female royal speaking half as long as her husband.

As one AP journalist noted, “It is easier to interview the head of the K.G.B. in Moscow or the N.S.A. in Washington than to get time with these people [… But if] we did a story interpreted as lèse-majesté it would hinder our colleagues in the future.” Id. The reporter was wrong; the ramifications for not playing along with the IHA’s oppressive rules can be much worse than that. The IHA allegedly was able to get a photographer fired for taking an “unauthorized” photo of the Crown Prince at his wedding. The photograph supposedly showed a more “human” moment between the newlyweds and was therefore unacceptable to the IHA.

The IHA’s power over the press is so great that it even stops the media from reporting on matters of great national importance, matters which are impossible to conceal in Western democracies or monarchies. For example, it was a well-known fact among the press corps and other observers that the late Emperor Hirohito was dying of cancer. The IHA did not want the public to know. Accordingly, news broadcasts at the time merely mentioned the Emperor’s blood pressure, heart rate and other minor details. It was only after he died in January 1989 that the public was told that he had pancreatic cancer.

One Japanese expert explains the pliancy of the Japanese media towards the Imperial Family as follows:

‘Royal bashing’ has not been a consistent Japanese press sport mainly because the Imperial Household Agency has not encouraged the public to be curious about the Imperial Family or expansive in press handouts. The Imperial Household Agency retain a tight reign on the compliant Japanese press corps, allowing only a small group of vetted correspondents access to the Kyujo. The function of the corps is to reproduce (without comment) the press releases of the Imperial Household Agency ‘newsroom’.

             (See, Lamont-Brown)

If I’ve portrayed the IHA as an archaic, oppressive tyrant from another time and age, it’s because I think it is precisely that, if not worse. As I will try to show in Part II, Part III, and Part IV,  I see the IHA not only as a misogynistic bully but also as the unofficial occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne. Even more significantly, I see it as the heir to and protector of the ancient Shinto religion, a state religion which was more of a cult and which clearly played a role in Japan’s pre-war military ambitions. In my opinion, the IHA is the last remaining government bastion of the arch-conservative beliefs which led to WWII, beliefs which the IHA will fight ferociously to protect against such modern iniquities as gender-blind succession and female Empresses. I would even go so far as to say that the IHA is the unofficial, political arm of powerful, conservative elements in Japanese society. But all that’s a story for another day and time. Until then, I bid you adieu.