A case for modernization


POSTED: Thursday, July 30, 2009

I have lived in Japan for seven of the last 25 years, and I remain a student and admirer of the country that has the most developed democracy in Asia and the second-largest economy in the world. In history books written 50 years from now, the rise of Asia will be a dominant theme, and Japan will play a central role in the story.

But in the discussions that surrounded the recent visit to Hawaii of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, a few important facts were overlooked and ignored.

To start with, monarchies are an endangered species. When Emperor Akihito's father was born in 1901 there were about 100 monarchies worldwide, and 90 percent of the world's population was ruled by royals whose “;divine right”; was conferred by birth. Today there are only 30 royal families, and less than 10 percent of humankind has a royal head of state. The vast majority of the remaining monarchies — including Japan's — have their powers strictly controlled by constitutions, courts, and democratic principles.

Yet some important things have not changed in Japan's imperial institution. Herbert Bix, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Emperor Hirohito, has shown that Akihito's father played a prominent role during the Pacific War. Bix calls him “;a man of strong will and real authority”; who “;gave the final go-ahead to attack Pearl Harbor”; and who bore “;enormous responsibility”; for the consequences of his actions. Yet Emperor Hirohito never assumed responsibility for what happened to the Japanese, Asian and American people whose lives were destroyed or harmed by his rule, and his son has done little better to recognize the historical failings of the throne that he inherited.

Discomforting facts about the imperial institution are seldom the subject of meaningful conversation inside Japan. Violators of this taboo may even incur the wrath of ultra-rightist thugs who regard the imperial family as sacrosanct (the emperor remains a principal priest of the Shinto religion). In fact, while Emperor Hirohito was alive, not a single Japanese reporter asked him about his responsibility for the war in Asia, one of the most important stories of the 20th century. The Japanese press can be timid, and bureaucratic controls on the imperial family are strong, but on this issue the collective non-performance of the Japanese media can also be attributed to an atmosphere of fear created by the most ardent supporters of the imperial institution.

;  Japan's Imperial House Law also forbids women to ascend to the throne, even though women did so eight times in the past (though not since the 1760s). As of 1975, only 32 percent of Japanese adults said it would be OK for a woman to become emperor, but by 2004 the percentage exceeded 80. The increase in popular support for this reform has been driven by strengthening sensibilities about gender equality and by rising anxieties about finding a male heir during the 40 years that preceded the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006. In the four decades before that, nine girls and no boys were born into the imperial family, yet reactionaries in government and the Imperial Household Agency (a bureaucracy of 1,100) refused to countenance reform of a law that compromises the constitutional promise of equality.

This gender problem is also personal. Following commoner Masako Owada's marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, the new Crown Princess — a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard who speaks six languages — experienced immense pressure to deliver a son who would keep the imperial Y chromosome alive. The pressure to fulfill her duty as the imperial womb and conform to other anachronistic expectations — much of it from within the imperial institution — caused Princess Masako to become mired in clinical depression. Her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, was the first commoner to marry into the royal family, and she, too, has suffered symptoms of severe psychological stress.

Despite these problems, some Japanese remain in a state of denial about the need to change an archaic institution and create a more relevant role for the imperial family. That's unfortunate, because modernization could bring several benefits. Not only would allowing for female succession reduce the terrible stress some members of the imperial family feel, it would bring Japanese reality further into line with the country's constitutional commitment to equality.

A more thorough secularization of the throne might ease it away from the far right's aggressive embrace. And more forthrightness about the experiences of the first family could foster public discussion and improve public policy about the problems of infertility and mental illness that plague many of the citizens that the royals serve.


David T. Johnson, a sociology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a member of UH's Center for Japanese Studies, has published numerous articles and chapters about Japan, plus a book about crime and punishment in Japan.