Imperial Betrayal - Japan Discovers 'Royal-Bashing.'

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Imperial Betrayal - Japan Discovers 'Royal-Bashing.'


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


ON New Year's Day 1946, in a speech broadcast to the Japanese nation, the late Emperor Hirohito, direct descendant of Amaterasu-o-mikami, Goddess of the Sun, formally renounced his status as a god. Aged forty-five, he had ruled Japan, albeit as 'a puppet figure', since 1926. Few Japanese had ever gazed on his face (it was lese-majeste to do so) and even fewer had ever heard of such of his siblings as Prince Takamatsu and Prince Mikasa. In 1987 the French Ambassador to Japan, Bernard Dorin, described how the Imperial Household Agency Chamberlain (who directs the protocol of the court) instructed him to keep his eyes downcast in Hirohito's presence as 'one does not look at the sun'.

Fifty years on the Japanese have not been encouraged by the court officials of the IHA to be curious about the Imperial Family. Indeed most Japanese would be pushed to name the present Emperor Akihito's brother Prince Hitachi and his four remaining married sisters. And many Japanese would be embarrassed if you asked them anyway.

For a while during the years of the US Occupation of Japan, when American military representatives photographed and even demanded autographs of the Emperor, protocol had slipped and there was even talk of a Scandinavian-type 'open monarchy'. The IHA quickly reintroduced age-old palace formality and the screen descended again on the Japanese imperial court. It was in part a defence mechanism in the post-war era when the IHA lost nearly all of its influence outside the imperial palace.

Recently the marriage of Crown Prince Naruhito and the blue-stocking career diplomat Masako Owada, caused much interest in the Japanese press. Even though there was a nine-month embargo on all reporting about the engaged couple. But, curiously the subsequent publicity surrounding the marriage ceremony has engendered an hitherto unknown sport in Japan, namely 'royal-bashing'.

In past decades to have criticised the emperor in public would have led to death. Now Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are being assailed by the press. A whole range of weekly magazines from Sunday Mainichi to Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Shincho have been accusing the Imperial Family of spite, trivia, wanton waste and self-importance. The magazines have also brought into the national arena another hitherto unknown trend in Japan; the public 'taking of sides' for or against the Imperial Family which could lead to the type of furore that surrounded the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson in Britain in the 1930s or indeed the Royal Family in today's British press.

Hirohito had been trained in court and constitutional matters by Prince Kimmochi Saionji, thus, whatever his personal opinions he followed the unanimous advice of his official advisers and was their mouthpiece. During Hirohito's reign the IHA established a protocol for briefings and meetings with the press. The emperor was briefed on foreign affairs twice a week, but played no part in the promotion of his country's wares. He was quite bemused by the British royal family's involvement with trade (the use of the Royal yacht Britannia for instance to host conferences and trade fairs) and their co-operation with the press.

Up to modern times the Japanese press corps have been kept on a very short and tight reign by the IHA. Only a small group of correspondents were allowed access to the imperial palace and then only in their own 'club house'. Their function was to reproduce without derogatory comment of any kind the press releases produced by the IHA 'newsroom'. Of course, there was and is no horde of paparazzi following Japan's Imperial Family, as they are kept at bay by the police. Even access to the Akasaka Palace (where Hirohito's relatives lived), home of the Crown Prince, was severely restricted.

One court correspondent, Toshiya Matsuzaki, reported that as Hirohito grew older the formality of his court intensified. No court correspondents were referred to by name by the emperor, or addressed informally, even though some of them were rewarded with the honour of the Order of the Rising Sun (second class) on retirement. …

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