Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Memories of Japan: The Emperor, Tennō Heika

Today is Tuesday, December 24, 2013.

Yesterday was a national holiday in Japan: The Emperor's Birthday.  It was a special one, too. The Emperor of Japan was 80 years old.   Traditionally, on the Emperor's Birthday, December 23, the Imperial Palace, normally closed to the public, is opened up and thousands of people throng into the palace grounds, where they wait under a balcony for the Emperor and his family to appear.  I don't remember the former Emperor ever addressing the crowd, but Emperor Akihito does.  After his speech, the crowd waves little Hinomaru flags and the Imperial family wave to the crowd.  Millions of Japanese watch these proceedings on TV.  (By the way, the only other time you can get into the palace grounds is on January 2 each year, as a part of the New Year festivities.)  This year was no exception, and it was estimated that around 2,300 people braved the bitter cold to wave to the Imperial Family.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave to the
crowd on his 79th birthday, December 23, 2012.

Here are some pictures of this year's celebrations:

Crown Prince Naruhito, Emperor Akihito, Crown Princess Masako
and Empress Michiko stand on the balcony to receive well-wishes from the crowd.
Left to right, the Crown Princess and Crown Prince, the Emperor and Empress,
Prince Akishino (Fumihito) and his wife Princess Akishino (Kiko) and their daughter
Princess Aiko.
The Empror, 80, waves to the crowd.

The crowd waves back and shouts, "Banzai"

The Japanese people congratulate the Emperor on his 80th birthday.
I never thought to go to the palace when I lived in Tokyo, although I could have done so easily.  The area in which I lived, called Hakusan, was only maybe two miles from the Imperial Palace, tops. When I worked in the Akasaka district, I rode a bicycle to work and back every day and I rode around the outer rim of the Imperial Palace grounds.  There is a "police box" every so often on the perimeter of the palace grounds, and I could tell that the police knew who I was. I would wave at them as I passed, and I always saw a fellow pick up the phone to alert the next station that I was on my way.  I passed about three stations on my way around the palace, and waved at the guys at each one.  

Imperial Standard of the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan
His Royal Majesty Emperor Akihito is never called by his name in Japan, as he is in the West.  Instead, he is known – as all Emperors before him have been known – as Tennō Heika, (His Majesty, the Emperor), sometimes shortened to Heika (His Majesty).  In writing, he is referred to as Kinjō Tennō (The Reigning Emperor).

Emperor Akihito is considered to be the 125th emperor of his line, and a direct lineal descendant of The Sun Goddess.  He is currently the only remaining monarch whose title is that of Emperor.  The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world.  According to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the most ancient historical records, the Empire of Japan was established in the year now known as 660 B.C. by the very first Japanese monarch, Emperor Jimmu.  

The Emperor with Empress Michiko in kimono.  She likes
to wear white, but she can never wear a white kimono
because in Japan they dress dead bodies in white kimono.
Like the monarchs of England, who are the official head of the Church of England, the Emperor of Japan is the head of the Shintō religion, the official state religion of Japan. Politically speaking, the position of Emperor has fluctuated from being an actual ruler to being a figurehead.  After the first Shōgun came to power in 1192 until the power of the shōgunates was broken in 1867, the role of Emperor was largely ceremonial.  With the Meiji Restoration in 1889, the Emperor once again became a de facto ruler – until 1947, when the Empire of Japan was dissolved under American Occupation.   I have to say, however, that although the pre-war Meiji Constitution named the Emperor as the ruler of Japan, the situation was a little more complicated than that.  

Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji, whose personal name was Mutsuhito, did in fact take over the ruling power of the Empire.  His rule lasted from February 3, 1867 to his death on July 30, 1912. In Emperor Meiji's time at the helm, Japan changed from a feudal state to a capitalist imperial world power, and Japan experienced its own industrial revolution.  Unfortunately, things went downhill for the Imperial Family from there. 

Emperor Taishō in full Western regalia.
Meiji's son, Yoshihito, succeeded his father as Emperor of Japan, but this man had been sickly as a child, and had a series of neurological problems that prevented him from completing his formal schooling.  He dutifully married and had children, but Yoshihito, who was known as Emperor Taishō after his death, had a very short reign, from July 30,  1912 to his death on December 25, 1926.  During his time as Emperor, he was totally uninterested in anything to do with running the country, and given his lack of mental powers, he was unfit for such a position, in any event.  His condition deteriorated so much in his latter years that his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, was made Regent on November 25, 1921.  It was Hirohito who performed all the Emperor's public ceremonial functions. 

Emperor Hirohito photographed
in 1988.  Source: Asahi Shimbun
Emperor Hirohito, now known as Emperor Shōwa, had a nice, long reign, from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989.  During his reign, the army and navy came to have a lot of power, and there were over sixty different incidents of political violence.  Although he was more inclined to make peace than war, Hirohito gradually came to agree with the leader of the army, General Tōjō, and although Hirohito was more prone to take an active part in the rule of his country than his father, he left the war machinations to his military leaders, who did not always tell him the truth, particularly when the tide of war began to turn against Japan.  General Tōjō became Prime Minister of Japan during most of the war years, so in a sense, he was like a modern shōgun, a general with political power who ruled in the Emperor's stead.  Tōjō's government took control of the Japanese press, who were ordered to report each lost engagement of the war as a glowing victory.  However, it gradually became apparent to the Emporor, as well as his people, that the situation was grim. 

When Hirohito made his famous radio broadcast announcing Japan's surrender, it was the very first time that the common people ever had the chance to hear their Emperor speak.  The speech was given in such formal court language that only highly educated people could understand it.  Although the American Occupation formally disbanded the Empire of Japan, as well as the Imperial Family (called simply Kazoku, "family") in 1944, Imperial families still retain their titles, socially.

Debate over the extent of Hirohito's culpability as a war criminal was taboo while he was alive, but it began to rage soon after his death.  There is documented evidence to show that the Emperor Hirohito did attend military meetings, but there is also some evidence to show that the Emperor was not always privy to every detail.  It may have been to the American Occupation Forces' benefit after the war to perpetrate the view the Emperor and the Japanese people had been lied to by the military leaders to make them seem more "evil."

Yasukuni Shrine is regarded as the most important Shintō shrine in the country. (Remember that Shintō is the official state religion.)  The shrine was established by Emperor Meiji and dedicated to all those who have lost their lives in the service of the Empire of Japan.  It shouldn't have been a surprise, therefore, that certain people who served during World War II had been enshrined at Yasukuni.  However, when Emperor Hirohito discovered that those who had been termed "war criminals" were enshrined there, he boycotted the shrine in 1978, even though he was the head of the Shintō religion.  To this day, his son, the current Emperor and head of the Shintō religion, also refuses to attend the shrine. This was regarded as a powerful statement by the Emperor.  (The prime ministers generally worship at the Shrine, with the notable exception of eight Christian prime ministers in a country where the population is only about 1% Christian.)

Emperor Akihito
The present monarch, Emperor Akihito, who will be known as Emperor Heisei after death, has been on the throne since his father's death on January 7, 1989.  He was 55 years old when he ascended to the throne.  Unlike other Emperors of Japan, Akihito married a commoner named Michiko. They had two sons and a daughter, all of whom have married commoners.  Their daughter, Sayako, also known as Princess Nori, was born in 1969.  Sayako was requried to give up her royal title of Princess when she married, but her brothers were allowed to remain in the royal family.  Sayako and her husband Yoshiki Kuroda have no children. Crown Prince Naruhito, also known as Prince Hiro, was born in 1960, and Prince Fumihito, now known as Prince Akishino, was born in 1965.  The Crown Prince and Crown Princess have only one daughter from their marriage, so the country was all set to make some changes in their order of ascension to the throne a few years ago, but Prince Akishino and his wife had a son, Prince Hisahito, born on September 6, 2006, and plans for change of succession rules have been tabled.  This child will likely inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne if succession rules are not changed.  (The Crown Prince is unlikely to have another child, much less a son, given that the Crown Princess is now 50 years old.) 

The Emperor reads a proclamation from the
Chrysanthemum Throne.  His duties are ceremonial
and he admits that he does what he is told to do!
When I was in Japan, Hirohito was on the throne, and years were counted in terms of the Emperor's reign.  The years of Hirohito's reign were called Shōwa 1, Shōwa 2, etc.  The posthumous name of Shōwa was announced when Hirohito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne. His reign name means "abundant benevolence." 

I learned that I had been born in the year Shōwa 27.  The year 1926 was known both as Taishō 15 and Shōwa 1.  (Taishō means "great justice.")  Shōwa 27 was our 1952.  The Shōwa years went up to Shōwa 63, 1988.  Since Emperor Shōwa died in early January, the year Shōwa 64 is not used, and 1989 is known as Heisei 1.  Emperor Shōwa died of cancer, and I have always wondered whether the announcement of his death was delayed a few days in order to allow the Japanese people to celebrate the New Year holidays, the most important holiday season in Japan. 

Emperor Akihito receives newly-appointed US Embassador
to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, on November 19, 2013.
The current Emperor will be known as Emperor Heisei when he dies.  His era name means "Achieving Peace."  Crown Prince Naruhito's posthumous name will not be announced to the public until he ascends to the throne after his father's death.  The year 2013 is known in Japan as Heisei 25, meaning that he has, at the end of this year, held the throne for 25 years.

Emperor Akihito is a soft-spoken, dapper little man with a friendly smile and wave, and he seems to have the welfare of the Japanese people at heart.  He always dresses in double-breasted suits, and his silver hair is always impeccably styled.  When he was Crown Prince, one of his ceremonial duties was to write a haiku verse for the new year.  One year that I was there, I read that his haiku was about a basketball game, rather than about an event in nature, as is traditional, and I remember thinking that was very refreshing.  

The Emperor is writing something in calligraphy,
using a brush. Anything written by an emperor is
highly prized in Japan.
Akihito and his wife have visited all 47 prefectures of Japan, as well as many other countries.  He is seldom seen without his wife, Empress Michiko, by his side.  In an interview to mark his 80th birthday on Monday, the Emperor said, "Being an emperor can be a lonely state.  But... it has given me comfort and joy to have by my side the empress, who has always respected my position and stood by me.  And I feel fortunate that I have been able to endeavor to carry out my role as emperor with the empress by my side."

The Emperor likes to shake hands with Western dignitaries, so it must have come as a shock when President Obama bowed to him. From the pictures, though, I can see he took the faux pas in stride.  

The Emperor has a true concern for his people.  He and his wife visited victims of the Unzen volcano in 1991 as well as the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2004 Niigata earthquake.  In April 2011, the Emperor and Emperess visited evacuation centers to talk to survivors of the mega-earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima.  They have made several visits to the area since that time.  The Imperial palace is not formally subject to the rolling power blackouts imposed on Tokyo, but to show solidarity with the disaster victims, they have reduced electricity consumption at the palace and they eat simple meals by candlelight.  They have also opened up Imperial properties outside of Tokyo for the use of disaster evacuees.  The Emperor now conducts business in the Imperial Residence, rather than the Palace, to save electricity.  (The air conditioning in the huge palace can then be turned off.)  When events in the palace cannot be done anywhere else, they are scheduled in the early morning to avoid air conditioning use at peak times.  Power use is checked every 30 minutes by the Imperial Household Agency to maintain the Emperor's strict requirements for reducing energy.

Last month, Emperor Akihito surprised the Japanese people when palace officials announced plans for his funeral.  He will be cremated, not buried, and his funeral will be a relatively modest one, compared with all the pomp of his father's funeral.  His wife's remains will be put in the same smaller mausoleum at the time of her death.  The fact that they have planned ahead was well-received in a nation where, very soon, two out of every three people will be elderly.  The Emperor's plans break a 400-year-old burial custom for emperors in Japan.  (Most common people are cremated, but that will be the subject of another blog entry.) 

The Emperor likes to wave at people from the window
of his car.
On March 16, 2011, the Emperor took the unprecedented step of addressing the people of Japan on TV, telling them that he was deeply worried about the nuclear crisis and asking them to act with compassion for one another. You can watch this speech here.  This past November, the Emperor requested that rice harvested in the town of Fukushima be delivered to the palace, saying that the rice must have been grown "with great effort."  Instead of eschewing produce from an area contaminated with radiation, the Emperor elected to show his solidarity with the people of that area. What a trooper!  :-)

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