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JapanFocus
Japan's Emperor: Man and Institution
With a long and turbulent history, only since 1948 has the Emperor made public appearances
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-27 15:21 (KST)   
Well-wishers wave Japanese flags in honor of the Emperor's birthday.
©2005 D.Weber
Japanese Emperor Akihito celebrated his 72nd birthday Dec. 23. The emperor's birthday is a national holiday in Japan. On this day, the emperor greets assembled visitors in an area of the Hirohito (posthumously named Showa) on his birthday. In 1950, Emperor Hirohito began making public appearances every birthday.

Emperor Akihito, son of the controversial Hirohito, has "ruled" since 1989. Unlike previous emperors, he was sent to school with commoners. He shocked Japan and his mother by marrying a woman who was not an aristocrat, and later in defiance of tradition, chose to raise his children at home rather than send them to be cared for by others.

Nijubashi Bridge - normally off limits most of the year
©2005 D.Weber
"Japanese people must strive to properly understand their country's history when they deal with the rest of the world," Akihito said in his public address to the gathered assembly. With relationships between Korea and China deteriorating, these words touch on a sore spot of controversy, a controversy in which the institution of "Emperor" was used to spearhead military conquest in the early 20th century.

History, or rather the presentation of history, is a key issue in the relationship between Japan and the rest of Asia. Many feel that Japan has not seriously owned up to its past misdeeds while at the same time adding salt to the wound by putting forth history textbooks that gloss over some of these past horrendous actions. It doesn't help matters either with politicians such as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making official visits to Yasakuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine which contains the spirits of Japanese war dead including noted war criminals.

Visitors walk past the seldom seen Fushimi Yugura guardtower
©2005 D.Weber
A Brief History of the Emperors of Japan

The cult of the emperor, which was the fountainhead of Japanese nationalistic fervor during the early half of the 20th century, is actually of recent origin, despite the long history of the Imperial institution.

Prior to the mid-19th century, emperors were secluded from the public to the point of being virtual prisoners. The shogun government restricted their movements and kept them confined in Kyoto, away from the people. The few foreigner visitors to Japan during its isolation period often referred to the shogun as the emperor and they had little reason to think otherwise. When the American statesmen Townsend Harris came to Japan to discuss a treaty, he too thought at first the shogun was the Emperor of Japan.

Visitors enter the assembly area outside of the Imperial Palace
©2005 D.Weber
According to Japanese mythology, the emperor is descended from Jimmu, a semi-divine being whose grandmother was Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess. Jimmu reigned in 600 B.C. However, there is little evidence to support this. Most scholars believe the Imperial system developed from the Yamato culture in central Japan around the 3rd century A.D. with heavy Chinese influences.

The emperor was seen as the divine manifested in the flesh; a representative of the gods on earth. To oppose the emperor was to oppose Japan itself. This made it quite risky for any usurpers not of Imperial blood to try and take the throne.

The Soga family in the 7th century were powerful ministers who basically governed the country. However, they pushed too far and it was believed they conspired to take over the Imperial throne itself. This belief gave their enemies just cause in destroying them utterly.

The fate of the Soga made an impression on ambitious men and taught them a valuable lesson -- that in order to effectively rule Japan, one must do it from behind the throne in the emperor's name. In addition, the office of the emperor could be used as a weapon against political enemies. The most dreaded crime a lord could commit was treason against the emperor. Since the emperor was in effect Japan, a clever minister could create enemies of the state by claiming his rivals defied the emperor.

Section of the Imperial Palace from where the Emperor greets visitors
©2005 D.Weber
By the 9th century, actual ruling power rested in the hands of the Fujiwara clan while the emperor was regulated to administering to court ceremony. The Fujiwara family rose to power in the aftermath of the destruction of the Soga clan. The Fujiwara ministers often manipulated the succession to the Imperial throne for their own gain, yet always they would claim their actions were in the name of the emperor. One of the most famous and powerful of the Fujiwara clan was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He married his daughter to the reigning emperor, which produced his own grandson as heir.

The Man who would be Emperor
Rebel Taira-no-Masakado sought the divine Throne

A Monument to Taira-no-Masakado in Tokyo
D.Weber
Still even with the gods and powerful ministers on the Emperor's side this did not stop certain aspiring usurpers. In the mid-10th Century, the Imperial Court faced its gravest threat from a distant cousin several times removed known as Taira-no-Masakado. Masakado rebelled against the court and went so far as to name himself Emperor issuing decrees and appointing governing officials in the Eastern provinces. He was eventually killed in battle but supposedly his spirit is still a force to reckon with.

According to legend his head not being content to remain on display in Kyoto, flew off on its own accord. A priest in Nagoya shot the flying head down which came to land in the eastern part of Tokyo. His head was buried and a small shrine was erected. This tiny shrine still stands in the shadows of huge office buildings. Supposedly those who have tried to remove the shrine in the past have met with unfortunate fates.
/ D.Weber

Emperors tried to keep some control of state by creating the office of the Cloistered Emperor, in which was an abdicated emperor in the robes of a Buddhist monk. It was often the custom for emperors to abdicate young -- sometimes they were pressured to do so. Ironically, though, an ex-emperor often had more freedom and power than a "ruling" emperor.

Although an emperor theoretically did not have power, succession issues were still a great matter of concern. In the mid-1100s the cloistered emperor made his son abdicate the Imperial Throne in favor of his younger half-brother. When the cloistered emperor died, the ex-emperor made advances to regain the throne. He was able to draw on a lot of support from samurai families. This sparked off the Heiji Rebellion which, while only lasting a day, had major ramifications. The ex-emperor's attempt failed and many of his military supporters were executed. The balance of power shifted amongst the ruling samurai families of the day which eventually led to the Gempei War (1180-1185).

The Emperor with his family speaks to the gathered assembly of elder Japanese and foreigners.
©2005 D.Weber
Following the end of Gempei War, the first Shogun government was set up in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). The first shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, was concerned that his eastern warriors would become weak with the luxury of Kyoto and the Imperial Court so he set his capital far from Kyoto. Though power had long been out of Imperial hands, this move made the illusion all the more apparent. Technically, the shogun did everything in the emperor's name, but it was definitely not with the emperor's voluntary say-so.

An attempt was made in 1221 by the reigning Emperor Go-Toba to overthrow the Shogunate government, which itself was now, ironically, controlled by ministers, the Hojo Regents. It failed miserably and the emperor was forced to abdicate and suffer exile.

A helpful Boy Scout collects flags for visitors
©2005 D.Weber
In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo also attempted to restore Imperial power. After a few initial setbacks, Go-Daigo was eventually able to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-establish the Imperial Court as the governing body of Japan. The Go-Daigo Restoration only lasted a few short years. Samurai, dissatisfied with the rewards for their aid and fed up with haughty tones of court nobles, grumbled incessantly. One powerful ally, Ashikaga Takauji, turned against him and set up his own shogunate dynasty.

Go-Daigo fled to the mountain retreat Yoshino and set up a rival imperial court known as the "Southern Court." For the next half century, Japan had two Imperial courts: one in Kyoto controlled by the Ashikaga Shogunate and the other in Yoshino which was without much authority. Supporters of the two courts fought off and on continuously until close to the end of the 14th century when the last emperor of the Southern Court abandoned Yoshino and submitted to the Imperial Court in Kyoto.

Though the Ashikaga Shogunate deteriorated towards the end of the following century, little attempt was made to restore the Imperial system. Instead Japan plunged into an age of unremitting warfare known as the Sengoku Period (Warring States), in which various warlords schemed and fought to increase their personal territories. The greatest warlords dreamed of uniting Japan under their banner and working in the emperor's names as the previous shoguns and Fujiwara ministers had done before.

Visitors exiting the Imperial Palace grounds
©2005 D.Weber
Oda Nobunaga was able to realize this dream when he marched into Kyoto in the 1560s. He supported both the powerless emperor and the defunct shogun and worked to enhance their prestige with great building projects. The Ashikaga Shogun, however, rankled by being in the power of a warlord schemed against Oda. Oda eventually turned him out and no shogun was appointed until 1603.

Despite removing the shogun, Oda did not restore the Imperial system of governance. Instead, he ruled pretty much as the shogun's had before him, but he lavished the emperor and his courts with gifts. After his death, one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruled in the similar manner.

In 1600, two years after Hideyoshi died, a great battle was fought at Sekigahara. Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals and was named shogun three years later. His shogunate dynasty lasted until the 1867 when the last shogun stepped down from power.

At long last the emperor was free to govern the country without interference, or so it would seem. Very little had changed, really, since the days of the Fujiwara ministry. Still, it was those around him that implemented policy -- in the emperor's name, of course.

The fanatical devotion to the emperor that led to the atrocities of WWII, banzai death charges, and kamikaze attacks developed partially in the wake of Imperial restoration. Under the new constitution, the emperor was placed above and beyond the law. But it wasn't until Emperor Hirohito took the throne in the 1920s that imperialist propagandists began to make serious efforts to promote the cult of the emperor, particularly in the school system and military training institutions.

Russian girls celebrating the Emperor's birthday
©2005 D.Weber
One of the myths floated about at the time touted the amazing fact of the long unbroken line of Imperial succession that stretched back to the time of the gods. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, given the long history of manipulation by ministers and shoguns with the Imperial succession. The exiled court of Yoshino was the senior line of the Imperial office and it was never re-established.

Like the Fujiwara ministers from ages past, the position of the emperor was tightly controlled and utilized by others -- in this case the military. The official civil government at that time was little more than a sham. There is still debate today as to whether Hirohito was just a puppet like so many emperors have been in the past in the decision-making process that led to war in Asia and the Pacific, or if he was a key mover in these affairs, or at least an active participant in them.

Hirohito escaped the noose that many felt he deserved after the war and under the terms of the American Occupation he was forced to renounce his divinity. When he publicly announced the surrender of Japan, it was the first time that the public heard him speak.

Two small children take a break after seeing the Emperor
©2005 D.Weber
The "Cult of the Emperor" Today

Today, interest in the emperor has decreased significantly with younger Japanese generations to the point of nearly vague indifference. The majority of those attending the emperor's birthday these days are mainly older Japanese and a number of curious foreigners. The notorious black van right wingers make an appearance as well, shouting slogans in the parking lot that very few people pay attention to.

While those who still hold a keen interest in the affairs of the Imperial family wrestle with the notion of a female emperor ascending the throne in the future, others wonder if the Imperial system should continue at all.

Related Articles
Does Japan Need Its Imperial Family?
A Rare Peek Into Tokyo's Imperial Palace


©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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