Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kenneth J. Ruoff, "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995"

I really enjoyed this book.  A great read.  Starting with a bit of background information on Japan's imperial line (which probably started around the fifth century AD), Ruoff gives a good accounting of the changes that were made to the Imperial system after WWII.

The important pivot point in the Japanese monarchy's post-war history was the promulgation of the post-war Constitution.  Articles 1, 4, and 7 of the Japanese constitution severely curtailed the powers of the Emperor. Most important was the definition of the Emperor as a "shocho," or "symbol" of the state.  What exactly did this mean?  On one hand, according to General MacArthur's directives, the Emperor was still supposed to be head of state.  However, this intent was not necessarily conveyed in the constitution, and led to some controversy about what the Emperor's role was exactly.  (I have copied the text of the english-language Japanese constitution pertaining to the Emperor)


Article 1:

The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.

Article 2:

The Imperial Throne shall be dynastic and succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet.

Article 3:

The advice and approval of the Emperor in matters of state, and the Cabinet shall be responsible therefor.

Article 4:

The Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government. 2) The Emperor may delegate the performance of his acts in matters of state as may be provided for by law.

Article 5:

When, in accordance with the Imperial House Law, a Regency is established, the Regent shall perform his acts in matters of state in the Emperor's name. In this case, paragraph one of the preceding Article will be applicable.

Article 6:

The Emperor shall appoint the Prime Minister as designated by the Diet. The Emperor shall appoint the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court as designated by the Cabinet.

Article 7:

The Emperor shall, with the advice and approval of the Cabinet, perform the following acts in matters of state on behalf of the people: (1) Promulgation of amendments of the constitution, laws, cabinet orders and treaties. (2) Convocation of the Diet. (3) Dissolution of the House of Representatives. (4) Proclamation of general election of members of the Diet. (5) Attestation of the appointment and dismissal of Ministers of State and other officials as provided for by law, and of full powers and credentials of Ambassadors and Ministers. (6) Attestation of general and special amnesty, commutation of punishment, reprieve, and restoration of rights. (7) Awarding of honors. (8) Attestation of instruments of ratification and other diplomatic documents as provided for by law. (9) Receiving foreign ambassadors and ministers. (10) Performance of ceremonial functions.

Article 8:

No property can be given to, or received by, the Imperial House, nor can any gifts be made therefrom, without the authorization of the Diet.


For the most part, the Emperor was able to engage in ceremonial acts (such as giving rewards for acts that supported Japan's culture and economy), as well as visit heads of state.  His real purpose was to represent the tradition and history of the Japanese people.  However, at times, this understanding was broken.  Emperor Hirohito, for example, still requested briefings from the Prime Minister and his cabinet, which were always interpreted as being too related to the governance of Japan by the Communists and Socialists.  (A funny note - perhaps hoping to be like his samurai ancestors, Prime Minister Sato Eisuke was especially deferential to the Emperor.  He even tried to give him some kimono silk for the Empress, a gift which is expressly forbidden by Article 8.  On this point, it is worth mentioning that Shigeru Yoshida and Tanaka Kakuei were equally deferential.) 

Over the years, a few controversies have arisen about ostensibly public acts that smack of old, Imperialist traditions.  One of them was the issue of Foundation Day (post-war: Kenkoku kinen no hi; pre-war: kigensetsu), a holiday held before WWII on February 11th to celebrate the mythical origins of the Japanese monarchy, supposedly founded on February 11th, 660 B.C. (This date is pretty much total hogwash, and was made up by the Meiji government)  After several towns containing old Imperial tombs began to hold revival celebrations of kigensetsu in the 1950's, a huge national movement started to pick up steam.  A lobbying group was made, and efforts were made to hold a central rally for the cause in Tokyo.  There was disagreement by some over when a "new" Foundation Day ought to be held (some suggested the end of World War II, the date of the promulgation of the Constitution, etc. etc.)  However, in the end, enough pressure was placed on the Diet that Prime Minister Sato pledged himself to the idea in 1965.  A bill was passed in 1967, and kenkoku kinen no hi was celebrated that year for the first time, on February 11.  Ultimately, 47% of those polled still preferred February 11, so it was kept the same. 

Even so, the government did not sponsor a national celebration.  Not until Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro did a Prime Minister even attend a private foundation-day celebration, and when he did, in 1984, strenuous efforts were made to disassociate the event from Emperor worship.

Another issue that riled up anti-Imperialist forces in Japan's post-war history was the issue of reign names.  Traditionally, Japanese emperors picked names to symbolize their reign.  In times old, Japanese emperors could choose any number of reign names to symbolize different periods of their rule as they saw fit, but after the Meiji era, a single reign name was given to each Emperor.  All years were dated from the start of the reign.  So, you'd have Heisei 24 (the reign name of current Emperor Akihito) for 2012.  Much like the Foundation day issue, a national movement was created to get a majority of townships to adopt the reign-name as their official dating system.  The Diet was pressured to approve the change, and the bill was passed in 1979.  However, only government officials are required to date documents in this format.

The other interesting issue in this book was the Japanese monarchy's outlook on apologies for WWII-era atrocities.  This is an important issue, considering what happened yesterday (August 14th, 2012).  President Lee Myung-bak requested that, if the Japanese emperor visits South Korea, he give a more heartfelt apology for Japanese atrocities during WWII.  What does he mean by this, a more 'heartfelt' Imperial apology?

Emperor Hirohito, despite being pretty darn responsible for the carnage of the war, never really gave an apology that expressed much regret.  I think most of the problem in this regard stems from the fact that Hirohito had to be careful about coming across as responsible for the war.  This was an impression that the Imperial Household Agency (the agency responsible for the Imperial family's affairs) had meticulously attempted to avoid.  Hirohito had issued a vague apology to President Ford in 1975, when he said that World War II was "the most unfortunate war which I deeply deplore," and to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in 1984.

However, Emperor Akihito, reflecting his post-war roots, issued a far more heartfelt apology to the Koreans in 1990, looking directly at South Korean President Roh Tae Woo and stating, "While looking back upon the history of long, fruitful exchanges between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, I recall what was stated by the late Emperor Showa: "It is indeed regrettable that there was an unfortunate past between us for a period in this century and I believe that it should not be repeated again."  I think of the sufferings your people underwent during this unfortunate period which was brought about by my country, and cannot but feel the deepest regret."  Similarly, in a 1992 speech about the Japan-China relationship, Akihito stated, "In the long history of the relationship between our tow countries, there was an unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great sufferings on the people of China.  I deeply deplore this."

These apologies, of course, came after many apologies from various Japanese Prime Ministers, starting, I believe, with Tanaka Kakuei in the 1970's.  While apologies from the PM's were most certainly acceptable, there was actually some debate as to whether the Emperor had the power to issue such apologies.  Would such a statement, bearing on Japan's wartime responsibility, constitute a public act?  Funnily enough, in an attempt to remove such a responsibility from the Emperor, highly conservative organizations that were supportive of the Emperor system  (the association of Shinto Shrines, for example) actually argued for a strict interpretation of the "public acts" clause and suggested that the Emperor NOT be able to issue such apologies.

This issue leads to a finer point that I believe Ruoff identified nicely.  Among supporters of the throne, there is by no means a consensus that Japan ought to return to the pre-war Meiji Emperor system, under which Hirohito wielded a great deal of power.  In fact, the organizations most supportive of the Emperor often call for restrictions on the Emperor's power, so as to prevent the Japanese Imperial institution from being saddled by troublesome burdens, such as the issue of war responsibility.

On the other hand, there is another branch of conservative scholars which hails the current Emperor system as a return to the old model of Imperial rule.  For most of Japan's history, the sitting Emperor was likewise often a 'symbol' or 'figurehead,' managed and controlled by an ex-Emperor or Shogun.  Similarly, most of the business of government today is done by the Diet of Japan, while the Emperor stands to the side.

Finally, another interesting chapter at the end of the book outlined how Emperor Akihito, when compared to his father, was an "Emperor of the Masses."  Now, from what I've gathered, Akihito is still regarded as a fairly stiff and 'old' figure - his speech during the 3/11 crisis was derided by some as being too stiff or formulaic.  Ruoff makes the point, however, that Akihito is far more of a crowd-pleaser than his father.  Hirohito had been raised as a god-king in an extremely insular environment, and always had trouble in public appearances with common folk.  Emperor Akihito, however, was brought up in a classroom with other children, and was taught by an American tutor.  Although it was clear that he understood his own importance (Ruoff relates one story in which, during a lesson, the American tutor at Akihito's school asked each child to write down what they would like to become someday.  Akihito simply wrote, "I shall be Emperor."), he was still brought up in a far more egalitarian environment.  Koizumi Shinzo, one of his teachers, also had him read aloud - in English - an entire biography of Britain's King George V, who was known for his reputation among the people.  The exercise was intended to provide Akihito with a role model of sorts, and no doubt had an influence on his thinking.

In the 1970's, Akihito's star rose quite a bit among the people.  His marriage to Empress Michiko was sensational, as she was the first commoner to enter the Imperial family in god knows how long.  Although Michiko hailed from a wealthy family, she was still not related to Japan's old aristocracy.  Her roots, combined with the fact that the marriage was a "love match," inspired a whole generation of young men and women.  One young women even remarked, in a magazine, "I still have hope because the Crown Prince's younger brother (Prine Masahito) remains available."  This sort of statement was absolutely unprecedented in Japan's history.

All in all, an excellent summary of the post-war status of the Japanese Imperial family.  Ruoff includes tons of interesting anecdotes and details, and gives a thorough description of Emperor Hirohito and Akihito's reigns.    His accounts of the articles written by conservative commentators in the post-war era also could only have been assembled through meticulous research.  My only complaint is that the section on the Emperor's post-war legal status was a little confusing.  I wish he had given a section that clearly stated Articles 1-8 of the Japanese constitution.  It would have been a little easier to understand the rest of the content.



  1. Great post! I find it interesting how ice cold Hirohito remained after he was basically let off the hook for warcrime trials. Your post makes it seem like Ruoff thinks Hirohito was responsible for actions taken by Japam during ww2. Or does he think the emperor was used as a puppet during the war? Or a bit of both?

    Your post also makes me think Japan should have another royal wedding to boost relationships (and hopefully birth rates).

  2. Hey Stephen! Thanks! I still have the text with me, and here is the passage stating Ruoff's opinion on the matter: "If 'war responsibility' means participating in the policymaking process that led to the commencement and prosecution of an "aggressive" war (for many Japanese, the key issue was the responsibility for defeat, not complicity in an aggressive war), then there is growing evidence that Emperor Hirohito played a considerable role in this area. Thanks to Herbert Bix's recent biography of Hirohito, much of this evidence is now available...even if one believes the official account that exculpates Hirohito from political responsibility by insisting that he was used by the militarists, there is the question of his moral responsibility for letting himself be used in such a positive manner as a symbol of Japan's righteous wars. Whatever misgivings Hirohito may have expressed to his close advisors and governmental ministers...between 1931 and the surrender...he never once publicly indicated anything but support for the war. Finally, the issue of Hirohito's war responsibility would be less significant had there not been the remarkable campaign after the surrender to remake him into a man of peace..."

    My general impression was that he did feel Hirohito was responsible in a big way. The final point he mentioned - the efforts by the Imperial Household Agency to shape Hirohito's post-war image - is the most damning evidence presented. There were even points where the Agency threatened to cut off access to the grounds to certain reporters if they didn't portray Hirohito as a pacifist. These stories, according to Ruoff, were the first 'mass' sources to suggest that Hirohito opposed the war all along. If I recall correctly, I think Ruoff mentioned that one of the journalists even wrote a book on the subject, defending Hirohito's pacifist ways.

    And yes, haha, they need something like the Obama baby boom over there...oh wait, damn it all...