Imperial expectations


POSTED: Monday, July 13, 2009

When the current emperor in Japan, Akihito (Heisei), replaced his father, Hirohito (Showa), on the throne 20 years ago it appeared that the change of reign would serve as a vehicle through which Japan would at last be able to shed its lingering association with the dark memories of its pre-World War II colonial expansion on the Asian continent and the war years themselves.

Whereas it was impossible for his father, as the reigning monarch during World War II, to escape this association, Akihito was just 11 years old in 1945, and could hardly be blamed for instigating the war. Unlike his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he was never associated with the Japanese military or photographed in military uniform. He was, instead, almost invariably seen in a conservative Western-style suit or tuxedo and, at least from the standpoint of Japanese court traditions, presented a rather progressive image. He broke precedent by a marrying a commoner whom he met on a tennis court. The household added and raised two sons and a daughter to its membership while in the public eye, yet successfully avoided the sort of public scandals that plague the British royal family. Akihito himself was tutored in English and his sons were sent overseas for their tertiary education. In the process, the imperial family came to symbolize more than anything else, a kind of model middle-class family. And Japan itself was in 1989, at the height of its postwar prosperity, known more for its highly efficient factories, its suit-and-neck-tie-clad salary men, and its peace constitution.

The intervening years, however, have failed to fulfill these initial expectations of Japan shedding its past under the new emperor and, in certain ways, one could even say that matters have moved in the opposite direction, clouding Japan's image overseas with wartime associations.

Such a shift has had less to do with anything that the imperial household has done than with changes in the external environment. For Japan, outside pressure for Japan to play a larger security role both regionally and globally, the rise of potential and real regional security threats and a seemingly unstoppable drift of Japanese culture and society from “;traditional”; values over the last two decades have emboldened right-wing nationalists who have become quite vocal in trumpeting positions that appear to glorify Japan's militaristic past.




        Editor's Notes: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrive in Hawaii tomorrow for a two-day visit. They are scheduled for a visit to Kapiolani Park, a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a Waikiki banquet marking the 50th anniversary of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship, and a reception at the Big Island's Parker Ranch.



While these stances are clearly far from that of mainstream Japanese opinion, they are colorful and receive plenty of press coverage. Outside of Japan economic prosperity and a de facto loosening of political controls in China, and true political democratization in South Korea, has opened up spaces for civil society to operate and has made these governments much more sensitive to public opinion than they had been in the past.

One result of this has been a greater awareness and activism on the part of the general population toward the unresolved grievances from the prewar and war years, as epitomized by the rise of the so-called comfort women issue over the course of the 1990s.

In this context, the current emperor has in fact engaged in what might be termed “;historical memory diplomacy”; through visits to South Korea, China, Saipan and other war-related sites and has issued apologetic statements of various kinds along the way. His planned visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl during this week's Hawaii trip is very much in this vein. Critics invariably argue that these actions, which are clearly constrained by the realities of Japanese domestic politics, are “;too little, too subtle and too late.”; This may be so but they are nevertheless moves in the right direction.


Lonny E. Carlile is an associate professor at the Center for Japanese Studies, School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa. He wrote this commentary for the Star-Bulletin.