The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part IV: The Princess and the “Grey Men” [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Life changed almost overnight for Japan’s new Crown Princess. A rising young star in Japan’s diplomatic corps, Masako gave up her career when she married Prince Naruhito. She did not, however, give up any of her hopes. Since childhood, she’d dreamt of being a diplomat and working in the international arena. Her marriage and her new role wouldn’t change that, or so she thought.

Masako took to heart the Prince’s pledge to protect her “forever with all his might” and thought his protection would let her become a sort of “royal envoy.” She thought she’d be permitted to travel abroad to promote international goodwill and improve ties between Japan and other nations. In fact, as the Crown Prince himself noted, she considered such trips as being crucial to her role as a member of the Imperial Family. She also believed –quite logically — that her training, background and education would make her an ideal candidate to serve as a roving, royal ambassador.

Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the IHA’s plans and expectations for her. Leaks from the palace revealed that the IHA had rebuked her “for expressing her opinions and for even having the temerity to walk in front of the prince on one early official engagement.”

“In another telling tale, at an official dinner she was seated between then-presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and chatted in fluent English and Russian with both.” (Lesley Downer, The Tale of Masako, excerpted at Instead of seeing her as brilliant, she got in trouble for her “indiscretion.” Id. According to one royal watcher, “[t]he Royal Family are not ambassadors. She doesn’t need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile.” Id.

Her job was also to breed. Preferably profusely, and preferably just boys. Since 1965, every child born into the Imperial Family has been a girl. And only a boy may inherit the throne. In the old days, Japan’s male-only succession rule wasn’t a problem because the Emperor could have concubines, thus increasing the chances for a male heir. The system was abandoned in 1947, presumably under the influence of American policy planners who reformed the Imperial House. While abolishing the concubine system, the policy planners kept the male-only succession rule codified in the 1889 Imperial Household Law and made it a formal part of the new 1946 Constitution.

Thus, under the terms set forth in Article 3, only Emperor Akihito’s two sons — 44-year-old Naruhito and his brother, Prince Akishino, 38 — are in line to succeed before the throne reverts to an elderly uncle and cousins who are likely to die before the two princes. Even without the problem of their age, “for the succession to move sideways, for either of these to become emperor, would be unthinkable to the Japanese people.  It would spark a major succession crisis and might even bring about the end of the imperial dynasty.” Id.

If Masako’s “job” was to produce a male heir, then, by the IHA’s standards, she wasn’t doing it very well. She didn’t become pregnant once throughout the first 6 years of her marriage. Her difficulties must have been difficult enough to bear on an emotional and personal level but the humiliation she suffered at the hands of those around her must have made things unbearable:

According to well-placed palace insiders, every month since her marriage the princess has been summoned to the imperial presence.  Using the politest and most formal of language, the emperor enquires as to whether she has had a period that month.  Each time she has had to lower her head in shame and confess that, sadly, she has failed yet again to conceive a child. They also point out that she has effectively been grounded until she does her duty and produces an heir.


Finally, in December 1999, the Palace announced with much relief that Masako had become pregnant. Unfortunately, a few weeks into her pregnancy, Masako suffered a miscarriage. Soon after that, Masako reportedly began fertility treatments. She became pregnant and, in 2001, gave birth to Princess Aiko.

Japan went wild; the IHA did not. Quite simply, Aiko was not a boy. So, the pressure grew on Crown Princess Masako to have another child. However, the prospects did not look good. Masako was almost 40, an age when it becomes much harder for a woman to become pregnant. She also had a past miscarriage in her history and 11 years of marriage had yielded only one child. The IHA didn’t care; it wanted Masako to keep trying for a boy and it wanted her to do so at once. In 2003, the head of the Agency, Toshio Yuasa, turned up the pressure by announcing his views publicly: “Frankly speaking, as grand steward of the Imperial Household, I want them to have another child.”

However, Yuasa was not resting all his hopes on Masako. In December 2003, he went so far as to state the Crown Prince’s younger brother, Fumihito, and his wife, Kiko, should try to have a son, in addition to the two daughters they already have. Prince Fumihito treated this arrogant demand with all the respect it deserved; he ignored it.

Unfortunately, it was the last straw for Masako. Just a few weeks later, she broke out with shingles, an agonizing ailment where the nerves become infected and large blister-like eruptions explode all over the skin. The condition is brought on by stress.

Crown Princess Masako had to be hospitalized for a month and, upon her release, announced that she was giving up all public duties due to “accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical.” With that, she vanished from the public eye.

For the next five months, there was little news about the Princess. Then, on May 10, 2004, Crown Prince Naruhito held a press conference concerning his upcoming trip to Europe. Press conferences by members of the Imperial Family are not a frequent event so the media gathered in full force. Nonetheless, no-one expected the Prince to discuss anything significant. Undoubtedly, they thought the conference was called to discuss the Prince’s schedule and his plans to attend the upcoming royal weddings in Denmark and Spain. What happened next was therefore all the more shocking.

The Crown Prince opened the press conference by saying that Princess Masako was not going to accompany him on his trip as intended; then, he went on the attack. His face flushed with anger and his facial muscles tightly clenched, the normally circumspect Prince said that Princess Masako had become ill and that she’d “completely exhausted herself” in trying to adapt to life in the imperial family. He added that Masako had hoped to use her experience as a diplomat to promote exchanges with other royal families but that the royal couple had not been allowed to travel overseas for several years after their marriage. He went on to say that there were moves to deny Masako her career as a diplomat and her personality. He concluded by saying that he felt as though he were “wrenching” himself away as he departed and that he hoped “from his heart” that she would be able to join him on future trips.

By Western standards, the Crown Prince’s comments may have seemed mild, if not insignificant; by Japanese standards, however, they were hugely significant. I’d even go so far as to say that it was, to the Japanese, what Diana’s Panorama interview was to the British: a shocking bombshell. In fact, a former chamberlain to the Crown Prince described the remarks as the equivalent to a declaration of war.

There are several reasons why Prince Naruhito’s comments caused such furor. The most obvious reason is that the Prince seemed to be attacking the oppressive and powerful Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”). The IHA has sole responsibility for determining the number of trips which Japanese royals may take, domestically or abroad. Since their marriage in 1993, the IHA has permitted the Crown Prince and Princess to travel overseas only five times, a sharp contrast to the 17 trips undertaken by Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko, or Princess Sayako’s 10 during the same period. Thus, the Prince’s statement about overseas trips was merely an indirect way of pointing to the IHA, without actually naming names. The issue of trips was also a way of symbolizing the overall restraints placed on Masako by the Agency, restraints which had turned her into a virtual prisoner within the palace walls.

Another reason why the Prince’s statements were so significant is because they broke every rule established by the IHA or inherent in Japanese culture. Let’s take the IHA first. As shown in Part I, the IHA has strict, rigid rules regarding press conferences by the Imperial Family. It is exceedingly unusual — if not unheard of– for one of the Japanese royals to call a press conference without first receiving permission from the IHA. In fact, they rarely make any public remarks whatsoever without the Agency’s prior consent. They certainly don’t make unapproved remarks regarding their own life; such statements usually come from the IHA which prefers to limit the announcements to the most impersonal of descriptions. And, at no point does the Imperial Family make unvetted statements about such personal matters as deep emotional “anguish” or the suppression of one’s personality.

Such things are not only a departure from IHA rules but they are also a break from Japanese culture as a whole. Japan is a world where obliqueness is the rule and emotions must be kept private. The concept of “loss of face” is still a powerful factor in business and politics, and one risks “losing face” by being emotional or too candid. In this world, you do not publicly discuss “emotions,” let alone something as extreme as “anguish;” you definitely don’t discuss such private matters if you’re a member of the Imperial Family. For Naruhito to have flouted all normal protocol, gone behind the IHA’s back and to have spoken so frankly to the media about private matters was therefore indicative of how serious and desperate things had become for Masako.

Finally, the Prince’s statements were significant because he was essentially making a public appeal for help. As a Japanese professor of communications has explained, “[t]he message was ‘help us’. He was talking about the princess and the whole imperial family and the appeal was as a human being, not as a prince. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is crisis time inside the agency as this appeal has to be the most shocking comment from the imperial family since the end of the Second World War.”

The public reacted quickly. Within hours of the Crown Prince’s press conference, emails deluged the IHA website expressing support for the Princess and, often, expressing huge criticism towards the Agency. After just two days, there were close to 800 emails; by the end of the controversy, those emails were said to number in the thousands.

The IHA was clearly rattled by the Prince’s statements and the public’s reaction. Going on the defensive for the first time, the IHA made a public statement just days after the Crown Prince’s statement. Grand Master Hideki Hayashida, the IHA official in charge of the prince’s household, said the IHA would look into the situation and try to improve things in the future.

Then, the head of the entire IHA, Grand Steward Toshio Yuasa, stepped into the fray. Yuasa claimed that he didn’t know what was meant by moves to deny Princess Masako her character and personality, something I find exceedingly hard to believe. For one thing, Yuasa was in charge of the IHA in 2002 when the Princess revealed how incredibly hard it had been to adjust to her new life. Yuasa not only was aware of the Princess’ feelings, he actually told a news conference, “I never realized that the princess felt so strongly about it.”

The Grand Steward nonetheless pretended he had no idea of what the Crown Prince was talking about. He said he would try to meet with the Crown Prince upon his return in order to discover the meaning but he added – rather ominously in my opinion – “[i]f those comments were directed at the agency, we have to think precisely about the contents of those comments.” Yuasa acknowledged that the Emperor and Empress had voiced their concerns about the Princess’ state but concluded that it would be difficult to plan for Masako’s treatment because her problems were “not physical.” Id.

The Grand Steward’s comments are exceedingly revealing in my opinion, not only because of his position but also because of the nature of the IHA as a whole. As noted earlier, the Japanese culture fosters a coded form of communication and that’s especially true of political figures and bureaucratic agencies. The IHA is extremely conservative and is not prone to making careless, unscripted statements. To the contrary, they carefully and deliberately examine all possible interpretations before proceeding to comment on something as important as the Imperial Family.Even then, the IHA takes great pains not to discuss anything beyond such basic information as the “who, what, when” aspects of a story; it certainly doesn’t broadcast intimate, personal details regarding the Imperial Family. For example, when the late Emperor Hirohito was dying of pancreatic cancer, it merely claimed that he had a stomach condition.

All of a sudden, the head of this same agency bluntly and explicitly announces that Masako’s problems are not physical in nature. And if something isn’t physical, then the obvious conclusion is that it’s mental. For the Grand Steward to suddenly imply that the Crown Princess is suffering from mental problems is obviously no small matter. It’s also a significant turn around from the IHA’s normally secretive discussions about the royals. The reason lies in the Grand Steward’s other significant statement: “‘If [the Prince’s] comments were directed at the agency, we have to think precisely about the contents of those comments.”

When you read those two statements together – and put them in the context of the IHA’s power, its normally secretive nature, its preference for avoiding any details about the royals’ personal lives, the coded language of Japanese bureaucrats, and the fact that just days before the normally subservient royals had launched a rare attack upon the Agency – then the conclusion is unavoidable: the Grand Steward was making a veiled threat. Quite simply, back down or we will get really nasty towards Masako.

My interpretation might seem over-reaching but the Crown Prince apparently came to the same conclusions. The very next day, he issued a statement expressly declared that his remarks were in no way directed to the present leadership of the IHA or Yuasa. He went so far as to say that he was not talking about anything which had happened since April 2001 when the Grand Steward, the former vice Minister for Home Affairs, had been named to his post as head of the IHA. Soon thereafter, the previously “concerned” Emperor and Empress demanded that their son explain himself to the IHA. He did so, almost immediately upon his return from his overseas trip. Although the media had hoped for another press conference with the Crown Prince, one where he’d give his explanation publicly, the IHA was not going to risk another uncontrolled situation with the rebellious prince. Instead, it imperiously announced that the Grand Steward would meet with him soon “and then announce what he was referring to.”

Soon thereafter, the Prince withdrew his attacks almost altogether. In a statement released by the IHA, Naruhito stated that he’d merely wanted the public to understand the current situation. While he reiterated Masako’s difficulty in adjusting to life within the Imperial Family, he refused to point fingers at anyone in particular: “I don’t think it would be beneficial to specify who was behind such moves and so I want to refrain from elaborating on details here.” (See for text of the Crown Prince’s comments.) He went on to state his determination to see conditions around Masako improve, not only for her to regain her health but also, so that she could fully utilize her career and reflect a new era. The latter comments were probably a subtle warning to the IHA that he was determined to see them loosen their grip on the Princess.

With that, the Agency clamped down on all further information about the couple. The one exception was its announcement in July that Masako was suffering from “adjustment disorder,” a term which essentially means culture shock. In Japan, the condition is commonly associated with children who grow up abroad but experience shock at the rigidity of Japanese culture when they return home. The rest of the world, however, properly interpreted Masako’s condition as depression, an interpretation borne out by the IHA’s admission that she was receiving psychotherapy and prescription medication. Id.Presumably, conditions had deteriorated to such a point that the IHA could no longer hide the situation.

Or was there a more nefarious reason for the IHA’s sudden chattiness? The same month as the IHA made its unusual announcement, suggestions of divorce were “leaked” from the IHA to the Japanese press. Hello! magazine described the situation as follows:

Longtime royal watcher Toshiaki Kawahara claimed that a palace source had suggested to him that Prince Naruhito should divorce the commoner-turned-princess. “Among people connected to the royal family there are some who have told me their opinion that Crown Princess Masako may not be appropriate as a future empress,” royal watcher Toshiyaki Kawahada is quoted as saying. “If this illness goes on for the next five or ten years, public criticism could arise,” continues the comment, “so before then, these people suggest, it would be better for the crown prince to divorce.”

If the IHA was hoping for a divorce, they must have thought that an announcement about Masako’s mental condition — replete with talk of pills and doctors — could only help their cause. After all, Japan is not as open or progressive as some Western countries in its social attitudes; if mental illnesses continue to carry a social stigma in the West, how much more so in conservative Japan? Perhaps the IHA was hoping that the impression of a mentally disturbed woman close to the throne would shift public sentiment against her. Or perhaps they didn’t care about public sentiment and were trying to send a message to the Crown Prince.

Either way, I firmly believe that the IHA intentionally tried to create the impression of a mentally disturbed woman in order to strengthen their case against the Princess. What I don’t believe is that the IHA was willing to wait 5 or 10 years before something drastic happened. In fact, they probably thought they had no time to lose because, earlier this year, the Emperor was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The law prohibits an emperor from divorcing his wife; it does not, however, prevent a crown prince from doing so. If the Emperor dies before the Crown Prince divorces, then the possibility of divorce (and thus, remarriage) is gone forever.

The IHA’s hopes soundly ignores the basic laws of genetics. The gender of a child is determined by the man, not the woman. Thus, the Crown Prince could have a hundred wives but, if his sperm only carries the X chromosome, then all his children would be female.

Even if remarriage increased the odds for a possible male heir, the fact remains that divorce flies in the face of imperial tradition. There has been only one case of divorce in the entire history of the Imperial Family and that was just a minor relative of the Emperor, Prince Kitashirakawa, who obtained a divorce over a hundred years ago.

If no heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne has gotten a divorce in over 2,500 years, I doubt things are going to change now. Not with this Prince. The IHA may be powerful but the prince is simply too much in love with his wife to bow down to bureaucratic pressure and discard her like a soiled tissue.

Furthermore, the Crown Princess herself is unlikely to agree to a divorce. The simple reason is that Masako probably wouldn’t be given much access to Princess Aiko. If Masako had to receive IHA permission before seeing her parents (and, even then, it was infrequent), it’s unlikely that the IHA would permit her to have regular visits with her daughter. And it’s almost certain that the IHA would never permit Masako to have sole custody, even if she agreed to stay in the country.

There is a solution to the entire mess and, at first glance, it seems like an easy one. The answer is to revise the Constitution to permit Princess Aiko to rule in her own right. The government is already looking into that possibility. A parliamentary committee is expected to report next year on the succession law and its Chairman has said that the group is probably going to recommend a female Empress. Another member of the panel believes there is sufficient support in the parliament to act on the proposal and amend the Constitution.

Unfortunately, like most things concerning the Imperial Family, it’s not that easy. For one thing, gender equality is deeply troubling to the influential rightists who really control the country. The conservative Shukan Bunshun, a leading weekly news magazine, quoted imperial household watchers as saying a gender-blind accession law would pose a risk to the continuation of the monarchy. It quoted one unnamed source as saying: “When an empress has to marry, the choice of a husband becomes too delicate a problem. As a male, his influence on the imperial line can be too powerful and thus pose a challenge to the hereditary importance of the lineage.” Id. In other words, a woman can’t be trusted to be strong, independent or rational.

Medieval and misogynistic perceptions about women aside, there are also some very serious — and very real — practical problems:

For example, women in the imperial family currently cease to be royals upon marriage, thus keeping the family small. But if the law is changed to give imperial daughters equal status, there would be rapid growth in the number of imperial houses, each entitled to official residences and stipends. The tax burden would balloon. The problem that causes the most concern is the distant but inevitable need to find a suitable consort for an Empress Aiko. The difficulties are likely to surpass even those faced by European royals. For one thing, Japan has no titled aristocracy to provide a pool of candidates. Also, a husband would have to be strictly apolitical and uncontroversial to fit the imperial role. A foreign royal might be the ideal choice, but Japan is as yet unlikely to accept the idea of a mixed-blood monarch. [Yet, without] a royal son, the only options would be to re-ennoble old branches of the family to make them eligible to succeed or for the family to adopt a distant cousin. Such solutions are thought to be unacceptable to the public and so controversial that ultraconservatives who might favor them do not air them.
(Colin Joyce, No Male Heir Is Apparent, So Japan Shifting, Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2004.)

Ultimately, none of these factors are as troubling for the IHA as the possibility that discussions regarding the future of the monarchy will lead people to question why it should exist in the first place. Constitutional changes to permit a female empress may thus trigger dangerous public debate about the need for a monarchy, particularly this monarchy which has few duties and even less power. And if one is to change the Constitution, why not do so to completely eradicate the Imperial Family? That line of reasoning may be the very thing that the IHA fears most.

The IHA’s fear is not completely irrational. “According to a 2003 book, ‘Iyashi no Nationalism (Healing Nationalism),’ young people who think of themselves as ‘conservative’ have little interest in the Imperial family. They believe in Japan asserting itself more boldly, but don’t see the Emperor as having much to do with it.”

Given the large financial cost of maintaining the IHA, the IHA may also be concerned about losing its job and the reason for its very existence.Given Japan’s long financial slump, 16 billion yen is 16 billion that could be spent on other areas. Even if the Imperial Family receives only a minute fraction of that amount, it’s still a lot of money in the eyes of those who see no serious benefit in having a monarchy.

If the royals’ duties were substantial or if they brought in considerable tourist revenues like the British royals, then perhaps their existence would not seem to be so fragile. As it stands, however, they seem to have no significant purpose or role, particularly in “modern” Japan. In fact, after the war, there had been numerous calls for the abolition of the monarchy.

Thus, the “breed or die” panic emanating from the IHA has its roots in a very real threat, the deliberate end of the monarchy as a whole. Seen in that light, the IHA’s approach towards Princess Masako and the succession are quite logical. Twisted and callous, but inherently logical. After all, the IHA believes it has been entrusted with the protection of a 2,500 year monarchy, a duty which it does not take lightly, no matter how many victims it leaves in its wake.

What the future holds for the Crown Princess and her family is anybody’s guess. Given Masako’s incredible popularity with the people, perhaps conservatives will risk changing the monarchy. Then again, reform and systemic change are not a big part of Japanese politics, especially when the Imperial Family is involved. For Masako’s sake, I hope I’m proven wrong.


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.” 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.,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.,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. 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. See

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.”

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.

The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part II: House of the Setting Sun [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 28 September 2004

When people first start learning about the IHA, one of their initial questions is usually, “How did it become so powerful?” The simplistic answer is: Japan’s defeat in WWII. When people start to ask about the Crown Princess Masako’s current plight, the simplistic answer is that Japan’s rules of succession require a male heir. It’s only when people start to ask about why the IHA is so opposed to gender-blind rules of succession that the answers become extremely complicated. I don’t pretend to know the definitive answer but I firmly believe the explanation lies in several, interconnected issues: the historical role of the emperor; the emperor’s status under Shintoism; Emperor Hirohito’s actions during the WWII; the political system set up by the victorious Allies; the nature of Japan’s current political system; and converging impact of all these factors upon the IHA’s ideology.

The vastness of each of these topics means that even an abbreviated explanation would be too long, not to mention quite confusing. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be adding a subsequent Part to this series on the Chrysanthemum Throne so that Part II can focus solely on the historical role of the Emperor, Japan’s political traditions, and the changes effected by Japan’s defeat in WWII. At times, it may seem as though the issue of the IHA and the succession crisis has been lost by the wayside. The ultimate purpose of this Part, however, is to show why the Japanese political system has turned servant into master, and why I think the IHA’s control over the Imperial Family and Princess Masako is a legacy of Japan’s history, tradition and culture.

The Historical Role of the Emperor up to WWII

The Japanese call their country Nippon, which translates to “Origin of the Sun” or “Land or the Rising Sun.” The Japanese flag, a simple red disk in the center, reflects this theme, one deeply rooted in mythology, religion and politics. So does the name sometimes given to the Imperial Family: House of the Rising Sun. The reason lies in Japanese mythology, which holds that the goddess of the sun and the ruler of the heaven — known as Amaterasu Omikami – was the actual ancestor of the current Imperial Family. The first known written documentation of that claim was made by Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s legendary first emperor, in the 7th century. Before then, Japan had lacked a writing system and stories were transmitted orally. It was only after the Chinese writing system was introduced around that there was documentary evidence to tell the tale of monarchy’s “divine” roots. Thus, the Japanese emperors claimed descent from the birth of time when, theoretically, Amaterasu created the world and all known living things.

The belief in a divine emperor is interwoven with the belief in Shinto, a polytheistic religion with roots stretching back to 500 B.C. The religion venerates almost all forms of nature, whether they are rocks, mountains, rivers, trees, water, or a person’s ancestors. In other words, it is based on animism or natural phenomena.  Almost all ancient religions – be they Incan, Aztec or Egyptian – considered the Sun to be the greatest of all natural phenomena and the Japanese were no exception. Thus, the Sun Goddess was the principle deity of Shinto and her living descendent on earth – the emperor – a man to be revered and obeyed like no other. It seems that, at this time and up to the early 20th century, the emperor was considered merely as the Goddess’ descendent and not as an actual living God in his own right.

While the semi-religious aura gave the emperor great symbolic authority, the medieval ages marked the loss of real power for both the emperor and his Shinto religion. Shinto was supplanted by Buddhism, an influence imported in from China, while the emperor was controlled by various aristocratic clans who used the emperor as a way of maintaining their power, usually by marrying into the imperial family. Over time, these powerful families were, in turn, replaced as the real – but unofficial – locus of power by various shoguns (or military governors).

In all cases, however, the emperor’s role was a largely ceremonial one where he possessed extreme prestige and symbolic political authority but nothing particularly concrete. (See, G. Cameron Hurst III, The Structure of the Heian Court: Some Thoughts on The Nature of ‘Familial Authority’ in Heian Japan, pp.55-59, in Medieval Japan: Essays in Institutional History, (eds. Hall and Mass, Stanford University Press, 1974).) As one historian explains it, “in political struggles, the supreme goal was to control or dominate the imperial position rather than usurp it as in so many other societies. It was, in a sense, a human chess game where the object was to capture the king – but the king could not be removed from the board.” (Id. at 59.) Somehow, I don’t think much has changed over the past thousand years but we will get to that later.

The shoguns’ centuries-old domination over political power abruptly ended in 1868 when Emperor Meiji overthrew the faltering Tokugawa Shogunate and returned to power in what is now called the Meiji Restoration. One of the triggers leading to this unofficial revolution was renewed contact with the West, something which the Shogunate had managed to avoid for almost 200 years. This Western influence proved to be significant in many other ways as well. Emperor Meiji initiated instituted wide sweeping political, civil and social reforms whichtransformed Japan into a significant world power. The first of thesereforms was to abolish the feudal system which had given his ancestors such grief. Then, in 1890, he established a Western-style constitutional monarchy with a quasi-parliamentary body, the Imperial Diet.

Unfortunately, real democracy – just like a powerful Emperor — was just an illusion. The man who drafted most of the documents underlying the Meiji political system was Ito Hirobumi, one of the most powerful oligarchs and a passionate admirer of Bismarck, the expansionistic, authoritarian Prussian chancellor who unified the German state. According to one analysis, Bismarck’s model “was a government in which neither the parliament nor the king actually exercises real authority over the Imperial bureaucracy.” Ito was particularly receptive to the fact that “Bismarck’s Wilhelmine constitution restricted political rights to the benefit of the state, plus in its Article II it subordinated individuals’ freedom to their responsibilities to the emperor and, in addition, it upheld imperial absolutism.” (M.R. Mulford, “A Brief Study of the Two Constitutions of Japan”, hereinafter referred to as “Mulford”, available at

In accordance with that approach, Ito drafted a new Constitution which declared that the Emperor was simultaneously the sovereign, the source of the State’s legitimacy and supreme commander of the military. It also declared, however, that the Constitution was bestowed by the emperor on the people. The importance of this is not that it gave power to the emperor; rather, it was that the Emperor and, by association therefore, his advisors were essentially beyond the law. Id. Ito’s political artfulness did not stop there:

The government also had one further item at its disposal … [which] significantly curtailed the power of the emperor. All issuances from the emperor had to have the countersignature of the minister responsible for the area affected. Thus, even though the emperor seemed to have been given immense amounts of power, the administration of the government was in the hands of the cabinet, supreme command of the armed forces, the privy council and imperial household ministry. All of these organs were controlled by the oligarches and this small group of supremely powerful men came to be known as the Genro (not to be confused with the genro-in, which was the name given to the Senate established in the early stages of the restoration). The effect of this was to confirm the oligarchy in power. A quote from Ito at this time is most revealing. He stated, “…joint rule by the king and the people must, in Japan, be set aside.” The effect was that after the restoration had imbued the emperor with power once again, this action re-relegated him to figurehead status.


Ito continued to give lip service to liberal ideals when it came to the parliamentary system. He and his fellow oligarchs ensured that the Imperial Diet was a mockery of the representative system by permitting only the wealthiest 1% of the population eligible to vote in elections. In addition, the upper house, or House of Peers, was arranged so that members were comprised of the old aristocratic clans or supporters of the oligarchs, both of which who could be counted upon to block any liberal policies. Id. See also,

Thus, one of the ironies of the Meiji “Restoration” is that the emperor was never actually restored and traditional political elites were never actually removed. In fact, the latter were alive and flourishing in the shadows. They controlled the bureaucracy, compromised the main membership source of military leadership, were at the heart of the Emperor’s Privy Council, and filled various other government bodies as well. In this way, their official role in the upper house of the Diet was only the tip of the iceberg; their unofficial, shadow roles let them run the country in perfect accordance with Bismarck’s ideal of a government where only the imperial bureaucracy ruled. Since the Emperor did not actually dictate policies, even if they were political, the unofficial power of the conservative elite would prove to be significant in events as they later unfolded.

Equally significant to that future drama was the role of Shinto which reasserted its head during this time. Liberal though he may have been in some respects, Emperor Meiji’s “controlled revolution” did not extend to Shinto or the old religious ways. In fact, he made every effort to revive the ancient myths and Shinto beliefs. For example, the ancient department of Shinto rites was reestablished, giving Shinto much of its structure and identity as a religion. The Emperor, and the oligarchs advising him, went so far as to create “State Shinto,” a national religion that was a counterpart of the State itself and aggressively promoted by the State. The glorification of Shinto was — necessarily and philosophically – an inherent glorification of the emperor; the power of one fed off the power of the other in the most symbiotic relationship of all. For a man whose historical function had long been all symbol with little substance, the Shinto religion simultaneously provided a legitimization, a source of power independent from power-hungry groups, and a PR boost.

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite turn out as the Emperor had hoped. The largest problem in the Meiji system was the absence of any checks or balances on the military. A bastion of the old aristocratic clans, the military was responsible solely to the Emperor if, and only if, he should step in. The absence of any real systemic controls was bad enough but it was multiplied a thousand fold when combined with the military’s expansionist agenda and with State Shinto.

As a result, the ancient mythology became more than just a means used by the emperor to glorify his power and the state; it also became a powerful instrument in the hands of early 19th century militarists, who used it to glorify their policy of aggression. For centuries, Japan had reveled in its alleged racial purity, as compared to such Asian neighbors as Korea; it also had been fiercely xenophobic. The ruling elite took advantage of these feelings and hijacked State Shinto with its emphasis on Amaterasu and divine purity to fuel nationalistic aspirations against foreign “enemies.”

Although Emperor Meiji frowned on attempts to discourage foreigners when they brought financial investment or the expertise necessary to transform Japan into an international power, he had few objections when it involved expansion at the expense of Japan’s neighbors. What followed were military confrontations against China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05), victories that shocked the West, as well as territorial gains in Korea and Manchuria.

It wasn’t enough for the conservative elites who bided their time until 1928, when the young Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne. Hirohito is sometimes called the Showa Emperor because of the name – Showa – which he chose for his reign. It is unclear if Hirohito was considered, like his ancestors before him, to be just a living descendant of Amaterasu or if he was elevated into an actual God in his own right by the Imperial Army and/or the political elite. The latter claim has been made but, if true, it would be a radical departure from ancient Shinto tenets which holds that the emperor was a divine, sacred being as a result of his descent, not necessarily an actual, living God.

The point may appear to be mere semantics but, if true, it just added to Hirohito’s importance and increased his usefulness to those around him. After all, if you want to mobilize a nation in support of your militaristic plans, what’s more useful than controlling an actual, living God who: symbolizes ethnic purity and nationalism; whose worship demands complete and total submission by his people; and veneration is only properly shown through geographic expansion? It doesn’t hurt that State Shinto conveniently prohibited all criticism of the Emperor or his policies. It’s even more convenient if that prohibition extends, indirectly, to the elites around him since, clearly, a God is infallible in his choice of advisors…. We all know how the story ends from there.

Or do we really? Was Hirohito (and the monarchy) really the puppet of militaristic zealots? Was the Emperor just a quiet, nerdish figurehead who stood helplessly on the sidelines as powerful cliques drove Japan to war in his name? Was this emperor really the same as all the figurehead emperors who preceded him and who were uninvolved in the running of the government? According to a new book, the answers to all these questions is ‘no.’ In 2000, historian Herbert Bix’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, broke away from almost 50 years worth of traditionally accepted historical interpretation to present a very different picture of this one emperor and the power he exercised. (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins 2000.) Relying on newly released documents, exhaustive research, and contacts within Japan, Bix’s controversial book argues that Emperor Hirohito was hardly a submissive slave to the military and political oligarchy around him. To the contrary, Bix argues that he was deeply and actively involved in every phase of the war. Furthermore, after the war, Hirohito’s skillful but “gross misrepresentation” of his role was intentionally designed

to lead to the conclusion that he had always been a British-style constitutional monarch and a pacifist. Hirohito omitted mention of how he and his aides had helped the military to become an enormously powerful political force pushing for arms expansion. He ignored the many times he and his entourage had made use of the Meiji system… to stifle a more democratic, less militarized political process… He was silent too about how he had encouraged the belligerency of his people by serving as an active ideological focus of a new emperor-centered nationalism that had grown up around him.

Id., at p.4.

Notwithstanding the above, Bix doesn’t believe one should go to the other extreme and assume that Hirohito was a master conspirator. As he explained in an interview, “it is commonplace to think of emperors as helpless figureheads manipulated by people behind the scenes. But throughout Japan’s history, there have been times when power and authority have converged on the person of the emperor. The Meiji emperor was one such figure. Hirohito was another.”

The truth or falsity of Bix’s conclusions regarding Hirohito is beyond the purview of this discussion but one thing seems indisputable: Japan has a longstanding political tradition and history of sidelining the emperor, while others control power from behind the throne. Emperors Meiji and Hirohito may or may not have been exceptions to this rule but the point remains the same nonetheless: Japan’s political system and culture has made it the historic norm for unofficial or seemingly subordinate groups to control the monarchy, not the exception as it would be the West. In that sense, the IHA is merely the latest in a long line of political cadres that has controlled the Imperial House.

The Monarchy at the end of WWII

Japan’s defeat in WWII cemented, institutionalized and actually increased the monarchy’s traditional impotence. After Japan’s surrender to the Allies, there were some thoughts of completely eradicating the monarchy but MacArthur entered into a secret alliance with Hirohito where he and the throne were saved in exchange for the loss of all power, the Emperor’s explicit renunciation of his divinity, and more. According to Bix, MacArthur agreed to whitewash the Hirohito’s wartime role because he feared that Japan would disintegrate if the unifying symbol of the Emperor were put on trial as a war criminal. MacArthur also felt that he needed Hirohito to legitimize the Allies’ occupational reforms, ensure Japan’s peaceful rehabilitation and ward off Communism. (Bix, at 547, 567-68, 581-618.)

The new Constitution of 1947 departed dramatically from the Meiji Constitution of 1889. The very first Article makes it clear that the Emperor was no sacred God but rather a human who is merely “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” (See, translated version of the 1947 Constitution, available at Under the old Constitution, the emperor’s authority as sovereign was broad and undefined; under the new Constitution, his functions are spelled out in detail, are deliberately narrow and specific, and almost entirely ceremonial. The emperor is limited to such trivialities as opening parliament, bestowing decorations on deserving citizens, and receiving foreign ambassadors. (Article 7). Even then, he first has to get approval from the Cabinet. (Id.)

Just to make sure that there is no doubt whatsoever about the emperor’s new role, Article 4 explicitly states that the emperor has no “powers related to government.” The Constitution goes on thereafter to give every conceivable power to the Diet. And, in case anyone was suffering from reading comprehension and missed the point of the intervening 37 sections, Article 41 makes it clear one more time for good measure — the Diet is the “highest organ of state power” and is not accountable to the monarch but to the people who elected its members. The explicitness of these provisions and the drastic changes they effected were intentionally designed to preclude the possibility of military or bureaucratic cliques exercising broad and irresponsible powers in the emperor’s name. In other words, to ensure that the events leading up to WWII didn’t happen again.

These provisions make the emperor’s role very different from that of any other constitutional monarch, even those who also seem to be figureheads. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, for example, has the power to make certain decisions; political officials must consult her before taking certain actions; and she has the right to advise or warn the Prime Minister.  While some of her powers are more theoretical than actual, the fact remains that she does have those rights and is not a purely ceremonial figure.

The emperor, in contrast, has absolutely no power, theoretical or otherwise. He is not entitled to any privileges, is not permitted to give any advice, and may not make any political declarations, not even symbolic ones. He is not even supposed to be consulted on politics and he certainly doesn’t have the right to give his symbolic assent to bills before they may become law. All he is politically permitted to do is receive foreign ambassadors, diplomats and heads of state, host ceremonial events and give awards.

Clearly, the vestiges of even symbolic power had been stripped away. The fact that these changes harshly punished Emperor Hirohito, as an individual, was just an added bonus. Although they were not as harsh as the justice which would have been meted out at a war crimes trial, they served as a form of retribution in their own way. The sanctions didn’t stop there. As shown in Part I of this article, the Emperor lost all private income and the IHA essentially became a watchdog over every vestige of his daily activity.

But old habits die hard. In this case, those “habits” would be institutional perspectives, ideologies and systemic cultures. For all the changes generated by the Constitution, Japan still bears a great political resemblance to how it was before the war: a country run by an entrenched elite and a powerful bureaucracy which share a traditional and conservative ideology, although no longer a militaristic one, while the emperor is a token figurehead.  We’ll explore that issue and how it relates to the IHA next week. See you then…


For Part I, please go here.

For Part III, please go here.

For Part IV, please go here.

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.