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.