Japan's Mystery of Majesty

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In its determination to stage manage the royal family's lives and mold their public image, the IHA even goes so far as to block certain lines of scholarly inquiry to prevent awkward reappraisals of imperial history. The agency manages 896 tombs across Japan, and it claims to know precisely which 112 tombs hold the remains of all 124 dead Emperors. Despite scientists' protests, the IHA has never allowed the tombs to be fully studied or excavated. "The sites are essential to understanding the history of Japan," says Noboru Toike, a professor of archaeology at Den-En Chofu University in Kanagawa. He is one of the heads of 15 scientific associations that petition the IHA each year for access to the tombs. Each year the IHA declines, saying the sites are the tombs of patriarchs of a still-living religion. Toike and others think there's another reason for the IHA's refusal: many of the tombs are misidentified. Koichi Mori, a retired professor of archaeology at Doshisha University in Kyoto, says, "In 1964 I submitted a list of tombs to them that I suspected were inaccurate. Nothing has changed since then." Yamashita, the IHA's ex-p.r. man, acknowledges that everyone in the agency knows that many of the tombs are mislabeled, but insists that excavation still isn't warranted: "Many of the tombs are not what they say they are. But what is the point? The archaeologists' job is to overturn the accepted, and this is the accepted history of Japan. If you let archaeologists in, it could cause confusion. Why is it so important to find out the truth?"

Indeed, the IHA encourages a mixing of history and myth, thus clouding any debate about what the monarchy's role should be. Says Doshisha University's Mori: "It's common knowledge that the first nine Emperors were fabricated." That may be so among academics, but not necessarily among the wider public. Conservatives routinely trot out the IHA's chronicle as fact—so endorsing the idea that Jimmu was the very first Emperor in an unbroken line that has lasted 2,666 years. "It is historical fact that Jimmu existed," insists conservative Diet member Shimomura. "There is no reason myth and history need to be separate—124 Emperors since Jimmu is not myth. It is history."

For Japan's still-powerful ultranationalists, who would like to reinstate a reverence for the Emperor, an unbroken lineage stretching back to Jimmu retains a mystical, even religious, importance. Many Japanese consider the imperial system a unique expression of the country's culture, history and unity. But for some conservatives the Emperor retains an even greater, talismanic importance as the ultimate embodiment of Japan's kokutai—the body politic. Akira Momochi, a professor of constitutional law at Nihon University, says, "The Emperor possesses a divine existence, a sacred existence." Norifumi Shimazu, head of theology at the staunchly conservative Association of Shinto Shrines, stresses the Emperor's purported central role in Japanese history: "Japan cannot exist as a country without the Emperor. The history of Japan begins with the Emperor. The Emperor is at the root of who we are as Japanese." Yuko Tojo, a right-wing activist who is the granddaughter of wartime Prime Minister and convicted Class-A war criminal Hideki Tojo, calls the Emperor Japan's "spiritual core." "Not only is he a symbol of the Japanese people," she says, "he is the head of many religious ceremonies." But since most of the rites the Emperor performs are hidden from the public, and the content of some of them is secret, most Japanese have no concept of this role.

Of course, most Japanese don't invest the Emperor with the spiritual and religious import that conservatives do. Yet there's no doubt that the royal family is wildly popular: in opinion polls, more than 70% offer it support. But so much of imperial life remains hidden that it's desperately hard for Japan to have an open debate about the monarchy's role in a modern democracy. Koichi Yokota, a professor of constitutional law at Ryutsu Keizai University, predicts that a demystified, scaled-down, more casual monarchy like those in, say, Spain or Denmark is all but inevitable in Japan—even if it takes several generations to come into being. "The more open the system becomes to the public, the less meaning there is for the monarchy's existence," he says. "That's why the conservatives are so threatened. They try to emphasize the uniqueness of the Japanese imperial system by bringing up male heredity and religion. In the long run, I think the system will become something the Japanese people wouldn't mind having—but that would be the extent of their feelings towards it."

Ironically, it's the imperial family itself that often frustrates the right wing's agenda. In July, for example, notes on conversations with Hirohito taken by Tomohiko Tomita, a former IHA Grand Steward who died three years ago, were leaked to a newspaper. These notes seemed to confirm a long-standing rumor that Hirohito had objected to 14 Class-A war criminals being enshrined in the late 1970s at Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan's war dead that has become a rallying point both for hard-core royalists and World War II apologists. Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito, meanwhile, has disappointed traditionalists by repeatedly revealing a liberal bent. He has spoken out against compulsory allegiance to the flag, vowed to uphold a constitution that casts him as a mere "symbol" of the people's power, and—to the horror of those who fetishize the purity of the imperial blood—once made reference to his family's Korean ancestry.

Crown Prince Naruhito could take an even more liberal line when he accedes to the throne. Like most royals, he is often maddeningly cryptic when he speaks. But he has dropped hints that he'd like to shake things up. At press conferences, he mentions the "need to review official duties" and "to find an appropriate image for the royal family in the 21st century," as well as his desire to "come into contact with the people of Japan." And while his criticism of the IHA in 2004 is widely seen as a failed attempt to loosen the agency's grip, others speculate that the episode may have taught Prince Naruhito a valuable lesson for the future: it's possible to bypass the IHA and appeal straight to the Japanese people, winning their sympathy directly. Once Naruhito assumes the throne after his father's death, he may be further emboldened to step in front of the Chrysanthemum Curtain that the IHA has so resolutely kept drawn. And then, at long last, Japan would be able to have an open discussion about the nature of its monarchy, and the place it should occupy in Asia's most mature democracy.

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