Few people — let alone a foreigner — get to speak to the son of a living god. So on April 25 this year, I was very nervously standing in front of the emperor and empress in the Imperial palace, hoping I wouldn’t fluff any of my carefully rehearsed keigo honorifics. The imperial couple was about to travel to Ireland and Norway and as an Irish journalist I had been granted the privilege of asking two questions.
I wanted to ask the emperor for his opinion of the compulsory singing of the national anthem at school ceremonies. As I rose to speak, an Imperial Household Agency (IHA) official signaled to the phalanx of TV cameras at the back of the room and they stopped filming and left. “They are worried that as a foreigner you might ask something that might embarrass his majesty,” said the Japanese journalist next to me.
Was this precaution necessary? Everything, from my query, submitted weeks in advance, to his majesty’s written reply had been carefully scripted and vetted by IHA bureaucrats. But my colleague’s point was important. The presence of somebody from outside the system threatens to disrupt the carefully rehearsed dance between the Imperial Palace and the press that covers it. The problem was the IHA had no leverage over people like me: a local journalist could be kicked out of the press club or fired for asking an unscripted question in front of the cameras.
The IHA’s control over their charges is legendary and, sometimes comical.
Photographer Toshiaki Nakayama was banned from the imperial household after snapping Prince Akishino’s new bride brushing hair out of his eyes before a formal portrait. The IHA naturally denies they are controlling the press. Spokesman Moriyama Yasuo claims the presence of cameras in press conferences makes their majesties “nervous” and claims there was no question of the cameras leaving the room just because I was a foreigner.
“There is a set time for camera coverage of their majesties’ replies and this time simply ran out,” he says, which raises the question: why was I left until last?
This rigid control and the strange institutional taboos that surround Japan’s first family helps explain why the emperor is the elephant in the room of Japanese politics. It is almost impossible in the mainstream media to openly debate the institution’s past, its current role or most importantly its future.
So while a government-appointed panel of experts recently recommended, after months of closed-session discussion, to save the Chrysanthemum Throne from extinction by allowing a female emperor, they avoided the fundamental question: should the institution continue at all?
Questions like that are of course unthinkable to traditionalists whose views of the emperor verge on the mystical. Yuko Tojo, the granddaughter of wartime leader Hideki Tojo, for example, believes that “Japan” would cease to exist without the imperial family. “The emperor is a special existence,” she says. “He is not like normal people. The idea that he is a symbol of Japan as we have
been taught in the postwar period is insulting. He is the essence of Japan.”
But for millions of Japanese, those views are hopelessly out of date. “I think the Imperial Family is an almost empty symbol,” says Kyoto University academic Akira Asada. “It is a symbol of tradition, continuity and stability but one that is devoid of content and almost fabricated. It is a residual, trivial thing. ”Some are even harsher. “What are royal families anywhere good for these days,” asks veteran Japan commentator Chalmers Johnson.
There is no question that the institution is popular. An Asahi Shimbun survey in April 1997, for example, found 82 percent wanted the monarchy to continue with just 8 percent in favor of abolishing it. In a 1992 NHK poll, however, 32.7 percent said they were “indifferent” toward the first family, a figure that is likely to have increased in the last 13 years.
To foreign observers one of the most unsettling aspects of the succession crisis is the treatment of Princess Masako. Where is the media and parliamentary debate about her plight — an accomplished professional who has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown under the relentless pressure to have another child?
“This was a career diplomat who wanted to continue her diplomatic work in an imperial way,” says Asada.
“And she was reduced to a means of biological reproduction. Which I think is awful. She symbolized a new Japanese woman, with a career and position who can speak English fluently and do business abroad. And actually this woman
has to be confided in a gilded cage.”
But how much does this gilded cage cost? Thanks to a 2001 freedom of information law it has been possible to put together a fairly clear picture. According to former Mainichi IH correspondent Mori Yohei, taxpayers funded the imperial family to the tune of about US$260 million in FY 2004, approximately the budget of a small city like Sagamihara.
That makes Japan’s monarchy much more expensive than the British royal family, which costs taxpayers about 88 million pounds sterling (about US$ 152 million a year), according to the Centre for Citizenship.Org.
But while the British royals are personally wealthy, the Japanese imperials had most of their wealth confiscated after World War II. The Showa Emperor left ¥2 billion in stocks and cash when he died and Mori estimates that his son has just ¥5 million a year to spend on himself. The Japanese imperials, in other words, are like well paid bureaucrats without many of the frills that most European royals take for granted.
According to documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, the Heisei Emperor and his entourage costs every person in Japan about ¥214 a year, or about ¥1,000 per family. Put it like that, and it doesn’t sound that much. But Mori says the cost is likely to rise if the current succession laws are changed. “If they allow an empress, the size of the imperial household will naturally rise increasing the burden on the taxpayer…potentially the number of new members is limitless,” he says.
He believes that those women who used to leave the Imperial Household at marriage will now stay on board and be joined by fresh blood from outside the family; another reason why he thinks the time has come for abolition. “Fundamentally, I don’t think we need them. Historical and culturally, they no longer have a purpose.”
How then does Japan benefit from the imperial presence? Supporters tend to cite the emperor’s diplomatic role as an ambassador for Japan abroad, although his father’s controversial role in the Pacific War means the institution is forever tainted in Asia.
Like their British counterparts, supporters also stress “tradition” and the emperor system as a “source of stability," a key reason why Japan was able to make the postwar transition to peace and economic prosperity, says conservative cultural critic Kazuo Yawata. “The people were able to rally around the imperial family. That is why it is so widely supported.”
Kunio Suzuki, the central figure of the new-right and a former chairman of Issuikai, an ultranationalist organization dedicated to overthrowing Japan’s postwar system, considers the emperor Japan’s “spiritual core,” binding the country together in times of crisis. He believes the status quo is better than the alternative, such as republicanism. “If the emperor became a private citizen, there would be a lot of moves to create political parties, and cultural or religious organizations alongside him. The emperor could run for public office and become a much stronger presence than in the current system, in which he has no political power.”
Ken Ruoff, author of The People’s Emperor, is one of many who believe these arguments are out of date. “Historically the imperial family was the center of national unity. Does Japan need this central force now? It has no linguistic divide, no cultural divide; it doesn’t have any political divide that would split the country, such as a civil war. Do they need this symbol of national unity? No.”
Pulitzer-award wining author Herbert Bix believes massive reform is needed to bring the family into sync with modern Japan. “Consider how marital patterns and lifestyles have changed since General MacArthur, for his own short-term political reasons, had the monarchy written into the Constitution of Japan. Today marriage occurs late, divorces are frequent, women have fewer children, and they work after marriage. Conversely, men increasingly take part in child rearing and contribute to housework.
“In this twenty-first century society, with its diverse male and female lifestyles, the imperial family can no longer function as a model, let alone a symbol of national unity… The imperial institution is totally out of sync with the times.”
Reform, abolish or, worst of all, it seems, stay the same. Ruoff wonders what good would come out of abolition.
“They could turn the palace into a public park, they could run the subway under the park. Symbolically it would be important: why should this family get this handout? It would take away this national symbol for the annoying far right, but they would just come up with something else to worship. ”But he points to something often lost in the fog that surrounds Japan’s most conservative institution: the emperor could not survive without public support. “He is essentially required to be the people’s emperor. If the people do not want the throne, it will be abolished.
This royal family has got to maintain its popularity and they do that by reaching out to people as much as they can.”
A Japanese version of this article appeared in Newsweek Japan on Dec. 7, 2005.