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.