Japan's Imperial Family: Its Role and Meaning in Modern Japan

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Japan's Imperial Family: Its Role and Meaning in Modern Japan


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the tragic Paris car crash of 31 August 1997, thousands of Japanese knew more about her life than they did about the everyday happenings of their own royal family. Yet public opinion polls, like that of the Asahi Shimbun, still register a rating of 85 per cent of uyamai (esteem) and aijo (attachment) for and to the Emperor and Empress largely because of the Emperor's position in Japanese society. The fact that the polls never reflect the 'affection' felt by some members of the British public for individuals within the British royal family is a significant difference.

In modern Japan the Emperor is no longer considered to be a kami, a divine being, but within living memory the current Emperor was brought up in the belief and public perception that he was heir to his father's status of a arahitogami (a living god) and a direct descendant of Amaterasu-Omikami, Goddess of the Sun. Although, strange to tell, nowhere in the modern Japanese Emperor's political persona, as first defined in the Meiji Constitution of 1889, is there mention that the Emperor is a god. Yet after a childhood of belief under that hybrid constitution of Japanese tradition and modern western (for which read Prussian) ideas that had been hijacked by the nationalist-militarists as a new emperor cult, Emperor Akihito succeeded to the Takamikura (Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan) on 7 January 1989, the day his father died having been for decades the most internationally reviled Japanese monarch ever. Posthumously dubbed Emperor Showa, the dead sovereign was known to hundreds of thousands of POWs as Emperor Hirohito of World War II. Showa, with brutal irony in this World War II context means 'enlightened peace'; Emperor Akihito chose the name Heisei ('to achieve peace') as his new Imperial Era.

Emperor Akihito, the 125th Emperor of Japan, was born in Tokyo on 23 December 1933, the fifth child and first son of his parents. A younger brother and sister are still alive. He was educated at the Gakushuin (then the Imperial Household Ministry School), and from 1946-50 was under the personal guidance of his American Quaker tutor Elizabeth Gray Vining. In the year he became Kotaishi (Crown Prince) and came of age, 1952, he entered the reformed Gakushuin University's faculty of Political Science and Economics. Academically the Emperor has followed his father's footsteps in an enthusiasm for biological science and marine biology writing many papers on the subject.

One who knows him well describes Emperor Akihito as 'low-key, rather methodical, very polite, and doesn't use the old-fashioned court language. Talking to him, you feel as if you were speaking to an ordinary person. He is shy, but takes his duties very seriously'. Remembering how Emperor Akihito, as a small child, was taken from his parents and handed over to imperial chamberlains to be brought up in virtual isolation, the intellectual commentator Kunihiro Masao notes: 'There was a plot at the end of the war to kidnap him, take him to a remote location and continue the war in his name. You can imagine the effect this knowledge had on a small boy'. The most readily apparent effect was to make Emperor Akihito very appreciative of family life.

While still Crown Prince, Akihito, married Michiko Shoda (born Tokyo, 20 October 1934) daughter of the businessman Hidesaburo and Madam Fumiko Shoda, and they set up home in the Crown Prince's official residence of the Togu (Eastern Palace). The imperial couple have three children. Prince Naruhito (Hironomiya - Prince Hiro: born, 23 February 1960), married diplomat Masako Owada in 1993. Prince Fumihito (Ayanomiya - Prince Aya: born, 30 November 1965), married Kiku Kawashima in 1990. And Princess Sayako (Norinomiya - Princess Nori: born, 18 April 1969) who is unmarried. Official press handouts emphasise that the children were brought up 'in the bosom of a loving family'.

Enthroned in the great ceremony known as Sokui Rei Seiden no Gi in the Matsu no Ma (State room) of the Kyujo (Imperial Palace) in November 1990, Akihito thus entered the tennosei (Emperor System) with his life of protocol ruled by the 1500-member Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency) attached to the Prime Minister's Office. …

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