To the world outside, Japan's emperor is a paradox-a shy, be spectacled and harmless-looking old man, who still stirs bitter memories of jungle battles and prison camp horrors during the Second World War. To the Japanese themselves, he sym-
bolizes their very nationhood. And —although no longer officially regarded as a god, as he once was—he is so revered that virtually none of his subjects use the name Hirohito.
Instead, they refer to him as “His Majesty” or “the present emperor” or even “Ohoribata”— which means “the honorable personage across the moat.” But by any name, the 124th Imperial Son of Heaven comes from the world’s oldest dynastic line, which is reverently traced back 2,600 years to the sun goddess Amaterasu.
And now the so-called era of Showa—enlightened peace—which began with his accession to the throne 61 years ago, is in its twilight.
Revered: From the
day he became emperor,
Hirohito has been a walking contradiction—
a revered man who nevertheless remains a powerless figurehead. Indeed, that has been the anomalous position of Japanese emperors for 1,000 years, during which real power has been in the hands of military dictators or, since the end of the Second World War, of a democratically elected parliament. Only once during his reign have circumstances permitted Hirohito to make a significant political decision. It occurred on Aug. 14, 1945, when Hirohito decided to surrender to the United States after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a rare interview in 1975, he said, “The saddest thing in my reign was the Second World War.”
Round-shouldered, shortsighted and dedicated to scholarly pursuits, Hirohito was an unlikely figure for the warlord role in which Japan’s prewar military rulers were determined to cast him. His sole martial accomplishment was the ability to sit on a horse. He was more interested in marine biology—a passion that in later life would bring him renown in academic circles and the honor of having a rare Pacific prawn named Imperialis after him.
The happiest time in his life, Hirohito has said, was during a 1921 visit to Europe. It opened the sheltered crown prince’s eyes to new pleasures.
He played golf with Edward, the young Prince of Wales. And in the first foreign house in which he ever slept—Buckingham PalaceKing George V introduced him to bacon and eggs, the favorite imperial breakfast ever since. Hirohito still treasures a souvenir of that first visit abroad—a ticket for the Paris metro.
Within months of his return to Japan, his father became so ill with a mental disorder that Hirohito was made regent. And when his father died on Dec. 25, 1926, Hirohito became emperor at 25.
Considered a Shinto divinity by commoners, who were not permitted to look at his face, he ascended the throne under a constitution that gave real power to the military. In turn, the military invoked his name to justify their major undertakings. As the American historian Edwin Reischauer wrote in his 1977 book The Japanese'. “The Japanese leadership was able to combine an extreme reverence for the emperor with a com-
Surrender: The new
plete willingness to force decisions on him.”
emperor was less than five years in the Imperial Palace when Japan invaded China, taking the first step on the road to the Second World War. Historians still differ over his role in that war, but the weight of evidence indicates that he was not one of its instigators, staying strictly within the bounds of his constitutional authority. Still, when the war was lost, it was left to the emperor to admit defeat. The most difficult day of his life, he has said, was Aug. 14, 1945, when —with the Supreme War Council deadlocked—he took it upon himself “to endure the unendurable” and surrender to the Americans. The re-
sponse of some of his more fanatical subjects was extreme and traditional: on the concourse in front of the Imperial Palace several army officers committed seppuku, ritual disembowelment, rather than suffer the disgrace of surrender. But in a letter to his son, Crown Prince Akihito, then 11, the emperor explained: “Our military men placed too much significance on spirit. I made efforts to swallow tears and to protect the species of the Japanese nation.”
On Sept. 27, 1945, as the Americans were setting up their occupation administration, Hirohito rode by car to the Dai-Ichi Insurance building, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur—as head of the occupation forces, the only foreigner ever to rule Japanhad his headquarters. Inside, the formally dressed Hirohito appeared before a tieless MacArthur. The emperor’s hands shook so badly that the U.S. general gave him the first and only cigarette of his life. Nervous yet dignified, Hirohito accepted sole responsibility for the war. And MacArthur—as he wrote later—realized that Hirohito lived up to his inherited position: “In that instant I knew I faced the First Gentleman of Japan in his own right.” In fact, MacArthur ignored unofficial American demands that he put the emperor on trial as a war criminal, arguing that Japan’s reconstruction could best be achieved with the country’s myth-
shrouded central institution intact.
Deity: Under the U.S.-imposed constitution of 1947, the ambiguities of the emperor’s position were eliminated, and theory finally came to fit reality. He lost his status as a deity,
being defined as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” but with no formal political or religious role. But even in Japan there was opposition to preserving a monarchical system that had permitted such disaster. And on the emperor’s 50th anniversary on the throne in 1976, most major newspapers carried criticisms of the celebrations. One reader wrote to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper:
“Nearly one-third of his reign has seen war after war and several million fellow citizens killed. The wounds in the heart of the bereaved families are yet to be healed even 30 years after the end of the war.”
Symbol: Indeed, some Japanese still hold the emperor responsible for the war. Said Kazue Suzuki, a 35year-old reporter for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper: “He could not have stopped the war, but the emperor was responsible for it because of his position. So he should have resigned after the war was over.” But the nation as
a whole still seems to want an emperor. An opinion poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun showed that 82 per cent of respondents wanted the emperor to remain as a symbol without political power.
Hirohito’s successor will be 53-year-old Akihito, the eldest of his seven children with the Empress Nagako. Akihito symbolizes many of the changes that Japan has undergone since the war. For one thing, he demystified the imperial family by becoming the first crown prince to marry a commoner, the glamorous Michiko Shoda. 2 The ceremony, in 1959, £ touched off a so-called jaj “Michie Boom” that re^ sembled Britain’s later I infatuation with Diana, 1 the Princess of Wales. Akihito and his wife then insisted that their three children live with them, breaking with the tradition that used to require imperial children to be raised by courtiers. Hirohito himself was taken from his parents at the age of three months to be brought up by a naval vice-admiral under a strict military regimen.
Akihito shares his father’s passion for the study of marine biology—although he studied politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. And Akihito’s own eldest son, Hiro, 27, also
has arcane and politically neutral academic interests: at Oxford University, he wrote a thesis on inland water transportation during the Middle Ages.
Goddess: Interest in the Japanese royal family is likely to intensify with the colorful enthronement ceremonies that will take place for Akihito. The dapper urbanite will exchange his three-piece suit for a rough gown during the mystic rite of Daijo-sai—which means “great food offering”—and will commune with the sun goddess Amaterasu, the spirit of the race. During this communion, the “centuries will be eliminated in his sight,” as one writer put it. With ancient and mystic rites such as these, Akihito will become the 125th Imperial Son of Heaven and, embodying the paradox of his people, begin to reign—though not to rule—over the world’s most technologically advanced nation.
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