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Akihito’s televised address: Only his second ever, it made reference to his health and advancing age, but did not mention the word abdication (© Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)


When Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor for 63 years, died on January 7, 1989, his youngest brother, the then 73-year old Prince Mikasa, may have been the only person alive who had seen and participated in the enthronement rites for a new monarch. Over the next two years, until December 1990, the new emperor, Akihito, or his representatives participated in no fewer than 30 separate events marking his ascension to the throne, each one an interpretation of a supposedly ancient ceremony, newly choreographed based on records of the most recent coronations kept in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

While Akihito’s formal enthronement (Sokuirei) in the Imperial Palace, in November 1990, received the most public attention, two other ceremonies stood out for their symbolic connection to the very earliest memories of the Japanese nation. On the evening that Hirohito died, taking with him the last direct leadership link to Japan’s disastrous Second World War, his then 56-year-old son stood stiffly in the throne room of the Imperial Palace to receive the ancient Imperial Regalia, along with the State and Privy Seals. The regalia, mentioned in Japan’s oldest chronicles, the early 8th-century Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) and Nihongi (“Chronicles of Japan”), are comprised of a sword, a jewel, and a mirror. The new emperor received the first two of these, the mirror being kept in the imperial shrine in Ise.

Almost a year later, and ten days after his formal enthronement on November 22, 1990, the emperor participated in the more mysterious and controversial Daijo-sai, the Great Thanksgiving Festival. In a newly constructed enclosure in the Imperial Palace he first offered specially grown and harvested rice to his ancestors and the gods of the imperial family. Then, draped in pure white robes, he retired entirely alone to a sacred couch inside a primitive thatched roof shrine where, according to tradition, he communed throughout the night with the spirit of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.

The Japanese imperial clan traces its lineage back to the 7th century, making it the world’s oldest dynasty, if not monarchy. Pruned dramatically after the Second World War by the American occupying forces headed by General Douglas MacArthur, the institution remains at the spiritual core of Japan. Yet despite continued controversy over 1940s-era war guilt and the occasional divinity question, the decades of peaceful postwar history has dulled any serious opposition to their continued existence. There is no republican movement in Japan, nor calls to reduce the expenditures of the imperial family. With only three emperors in the last century, the clan quietly continues along, avoiding scandal and entering the spotlight only in the most controlled of environments. As patrons and scholars in their own right they have been model constitutional monarchs, with the extended family dutifully performing their functions, much like the vast majority of their subjects.

In a recent 10-minute televison address, Emperor Akihito, now in the 28th year of his reign, dropped a broad hint that he was considering abdication in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, because of his age (82) and his poor health (he has undergone heart surgery and  recovered from prostate cancer). Yet his announcement, carefully telegraphed beforehand, has raised no questions or doubts about the future of the imperial system. As anachronistic as it is, it is also an indelible part of contemporary Japan, the imperial family rescued from centuries of virtual imprisonment and elevated by the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to be the symbol of a modernising nation that had overthrown 700 years of feudal rule. It is this straddling of past and present, of manufactured tradition and political impotence, of unique roles and dutiful service, that explains the perseverance of the imperial family and its near-universal acceptance by the Japanese people.

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