Magazine article History Today

Between God and Man

Magazine article History Today

Between God and Man

Article excerpt

* Akihito's visit to Britain at the end of this month is his first as emperor of Japan, and only the second ever by an incumbent of the Chrysanthemum Throne. He can anticipate a welcome warmer by several degrees than that accorded his father, Hirohito, in 1971. Hirohito's reticence about the war, his evasiveness about his own responsibility for it, ensured a hostile British press and silent crowds at every turn. Akihito, though, was a child of twelve when the Pacific War ended in 1945, and the war question, if it arises at all, is unlikely to dominate.

Akihito was, from the start, groomed to be a new monarch for a new, democratic age. As a teenager, in the late 1940s, he was tutored by an American Quaker, Elizabeth Gray Vining, employed to `open windows [for him] to a wider world'. In 1959, he shocked conservatives and delighted the public by marrying an attractive, Catholic-educated commoner, Michiko. A `Michiko boom' ensued, and with it a resurgence of popularity for at least Akihito's branch of the imperial family. On acceding to the throne in 1989, Akihito surprised few with a declaration of personal commitment to the ideal of constitutional monarchy. Addressing the nation on television just three days after his father's death on January 10th, 1989, and in language more informal than the patrician Hirohito would ever have used, he spoke of his intention `to work with all of you to abide by the constitution'.

Outside Japan, too, in Asia and the United States, Emperor Akihito appears to have won respect and even affection by his `peace diplomacy'. In 1990, when the Korean president visited Japan, Akihito became the first Japanese to make a public apology for the suffering Japan inflicted upon Korea following annexation in 1910. In 1992, when he visited China, he spoke of his `profound regret' at the `many and great sufferings' caused by Japan to China. In 1994, he visited Iwojima, witness to the bloodiest battle between US and Japanese troops in the Pacific War, where he prayed for the souls of both Americans and Japanese.

Today, the `symbolic emperor system', established by the US-crafted constitution of 1947, appears stable and in safe hands. A 1997 poll commissioned by the Asahi broadsheet recorded support levels of 85 per cent. 8 per cent of respondents demanded the abolition of the imperial institution, but only 4 per cent wanted the emperor's authority enhanced beyond the provisions of the 1947 constitution.

That constitution removed Hirohito from the political and military realms and, seemingly, denied him his divinity. It established him and his successors in law as `symbols of the state', as monarchs `deriving [their] position from the will of the people with whom sovereignty resides'. Hirohito's personal support for the Constitution was never in doubt, and he slipped comfortably into his new, limited role, attesting the appointment of prime ministers, summoning the Diet, distributing honours, and recognising the diplomatic credentials of foreign envoys.

Even before the US Occupation ended in 1952, however, Japan's constitutional! monarchy was subject to subtle yet persistent challenge, which continues today. The challenge has come from two quarters: the conservative ruling elite and the national Association of Shinto Shrines. The former has sought to use the emperor for its neo-nationalistic ends, the better to appease big business and wealthy rural supporters. The Shrine Association, for its part, seeks a restoration of state recognition and support for Shinto shrines. The Sun Goddess' great shrine at Ise: Yasukuni, the Tokyo shrine for the war dead; and thousands of smaller shrines across Japan had been mainstays of the imperial cult. The 1947 constitution ended the identification of emperor, and state, with religion, however, and since then shrines have been dependent on private support, with the survival of many under threat.

Several notable victories have been recorded by these opponents of limited monarchy. …

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